Tall and statuesque, Raghu Karnad appears elated. He’s just won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2016 for his debut novel. This has thrown open a distinct avenue that involves authoring fiction and non-fiction novels. As he contemplates which direction his next novel would take, he chats up with RITZ about the world of writing and being eminent director, writer and playwright Girish Karnad’s son.
“World War II is the biggest military experience our country has ever had. Over 2.5 million people were involved. Those people had volunteered to serve in the army and had made the army a place where the middle class could become officers, something unheard of during the Raj,” states Raghu with the historic precision of someone closely connected to that adventurous era of the 1940s. “Yes, indeed that time period was adventurous and even romantic and dramatic. Then there was also that moral dilemma of fighting for the (British) Empire, when the rest of the country was battling against it.”
Listening to Raghu speak, you could perhaps think that the towering personality sitting opposite to you has a close connection with the armed forces. He does have a military connection. But not a close one. An ancient, distant and an indirect one. “My grandfather and two grand-uncles had gone off to fight for the Empire during World War II. One was an air force guy, the other a doctor and the third was a combat engineer.”
And these three gentlemen are the key characters of his first award-winning novel, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. Sipping a piping hot cappuccino, he says that despite being a journalist and a history student, he’d never really heard about this larger story of India in the Second World War. A family conversation about his grandfather and granduncles ignited the idea that the country’s role and the sacrifices of its sons and daughters in the World War needed to be told.
“In history textbooks we learn about the freedom movement and India in the 1940s, and then about the World War separately. But we never quite get to reflect on the overlap between India and the World War. And this is not distant history. It concerns the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents, the generation that lived through it when they were in their 20s and 30s and is on its way out right now.”
Writing a book is hard, and the first book is even harder. But Raghu felt that this story almost wrote itself out, and it just needed him to be aware and to listen. “It was like getting into a boat and the sails filling up on their own.”
“One of the most insane things I’ve ever done was when I travelled with friends to Palestine and pretended to be a part of a delegation and snuck into the room to listen to Yasser Arafat deliver an address!”
To uncover the intrigue and mystery of those times, he quit his job and delved deep into the subject, meeting war veterans and friends and acquaintances of the three men, including the father of the white revolution, Verghese Kurien. Quite adventurous one may think, to quit a cushy job and plunge into the world of books. But this isn’t quite as adventurous as sneaking into the heavily guarded compound of the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, the late Yasser Arafat in Ramallah and hearing him speak.
“Oh, that is one of the most insane things I’ve ever done,” he says, recalling his student days in Egypt when he travelled with friends to Palestine and pretended to be a part of a delegation and snuck into the room were Arafat was to address. “We sat there shivering. But now I think of it as a nice little adventure!”
Being the son of a veteran and a celebrity means being the bearer of a legacy. “But I feel grateful that dad (Girish Karnad) hasn’t made me an inheritor of his legacy. It’s easy to become a copy of your parent. But in a creative field that’s not a good proposition,” says Raghu, going on to lay out the multiple ways in which he and his father appear completely distinct in their works and outlooks.
“Being born in the 1940s and being born in the 1980s spells a huge difference in generations. Dad grew up in a traditional Konkani Kannada culture and gradually found his way towards English, while I grew up in the Anglicised culture of Bangalore of the 1990s. I don’t really read much of Kannada literature, unlike dad. Moreover, dad has never been a journalist, while my real career has been journalism, and he has his film career also to speak of. All of this sets us apart, though he is always there to guide.”
Even if he’d always had that writing streak in him, Raghu had initially harboured ambitions of becoming a lawyer, or working in the development and NGO sector. “In my family, it’s a nice arrangement. All the women in the family, like my mother, sister and grandmother are doctors. While the men are these useless creative types,” he says with a laugh.
“We never quite get to reflect on the overlap between India and the World War. And this is not distant history. It concerns the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents, the generation that lived through it when they were in their 20s and 30s and is on its way out right now”
A voracious reader, Raghu’s current favourite book is The Seasons of Trouble by Rohini Mohan. “I shouldn’t recommend it. Rohini and I were nominated for awards together and she’s won all the awards! I also enjoyed reading Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living,” claims Raghu, who was recently in the US on a writing fellowship and managed to squeeze time out for a road trip through the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
As someone who enjoys following politics and spending his free time trying to comprehend the socio-cultural, political and economic dynamics of the country, Raghu is keen to write more books. “I discovered that there is an economic proposition attached to writing books. I want to tell more stories that matter and need to be heard and read.” Will his next book be a work of fiction or non-fiction? He retorts, “Fiction and non-fiction are sort of grey areas. Fiction always steals from non-fiction, while non-fiction almost always meanders towards fiction.”