Thiruvananthapuram takes the honours as the main character of Binoo K.John’s debut novel The Last Song of Savio De Souza(Buy Online). It lurks just below the surface of the plot, painting each situation with the compelling relevance only places can impart, especially to those who have been in those places for real.
Masquerading as Puram in the novel, Thiruvananthapuram seeps into the lives of each character, becoming part of their struggle to escape the confines of a sweltering city, bound by its own conservative stereotypes and intrinsic duplicity, while the winds of global change challenges its age-old insularity.
Set in Kerala against the larger canvas of the 2004 tsunami, the story charts the coming of age of a stage singer and talented basketball player, Savio, son of a convent bus driver, who is a pawn in a larger picture that harps on the race between a church and mosque set in coastal Puram. The idea is to gain the spiritual mandate of the ailing and the insane, to whom religious identity becomes redundant in the face of colossal suffering, and the idea that remains is the path sans organised religion to divine intervention and healing. The novelist delves into the intricacies that govern the politics of religion in contemporary Kerala, its roots that unfailingly embraces every facet of public life, and its exploitation of the lower strata of the society to achieve the relevancy of numbers.
Binoo K.John writes with astonishing pace and clever detailing while he ambitiously tries to capture various perspectives and characters into a comprehensive narrative. At a point, a murder in the novel takes on the hue of magic realism and you begin to think what might come next and surprise you in content and style. Amidst all that rollicking pitch, it is very apparent that he was never short of material to flesh out the narrative, and at places, he somehow comes across as fighting the potent challenge of all that inner material seeking to be expressed in the book. While some seemingly irrelevant sub-plots might give the impression of digression, the author leaves no doubt that he is a talent to be watched, and what might transpire in future will only build on the potential and strength exhibited by this debut novel.
Binoo K.John, 53, lives in New Delhi, has been a journalist with Mail Today, India Today and has earlier written non-fiction namely ‘Curry Coast: Travels in Malabar 500 Years after Vasco da Gama’, ‘Under a Cloud: Life in Cherrapunji’ and ‘Entry from Backside Only’. He is the chief organiser of the annual Kovalam Literary Festival.
In breaking news today, the annual Kovalam Literary Festival will make its debut stopover in the national capital on Sept 29, 2011 with a daylong session at the India International Centre (IIC), held prior to the main festival in Thiruvananthapuram on Oct 1-2.
The following is a transcript of a casual conversation in person and email with Binoo K.John when he was in Thiruvananthapuram recently:
1. How would you describe your tryst with this city, from the perspective of personal memory and opinion? What do you hate about it and what draws you back to it, enough to write a novel about it?
The fictional city of Puram in my novel is a recreation of Trivandrum. For me, the location of a novel, both physical and metaphorical, is important. It’s a small town caught in its own paradoxes and always trying to break out. It’s the town of my birth and growing up. It has magical qualities to it which I have exploited in Last Song.
2. How different was working on fiction considering your earlier books have been non fictional, mostly travel writing? How different are these two worlds for you?
Yes, the switch from non-fiction to fiction is never easy. In fact it is almost impossible. I must be one of a very few in India who have written both non-fiction and fiction. Also to write fiction you need the confidence which I got from writing non-fiction. Entry from Backside, my quasi-academic study of the growth of Indian English became a best seller which gave me the much needed confidence-boost to venture into the whirlpool of fiction. I want to write a biography some day.
3. You have mentioned elsewhere that everything was easy once you found your voice in the beginning – what were the criteria that you had set yourself in order to recognize this moment of truth?
There can only be one criteria for a novelist: The telling of a story. Finding the voice is the first step.
4. As a journalist did you have a personal experience of the tsunami? The trauma still remains in the coastal areas of Kerala, and the funds that poured in are yet to find their way to the very needy – do you think it is just another fad to take advantage of as a writer, with its guaranteed melancholy and larger-than-life canvas?
Yes, I did a special reportage on one year of the tsunami and traveled the coast of Tamil Nadu for this. It was in fact the best reportage of tsunami in Indian papers but it went unnoticed because the weekly in which it appeared wasn’t popular. Overwhelming disasters should always attract a novelist’s attention . I am a fan of Simon Winchester whose books on natural disasters, especially Krakatoa, inspired me .
5. The book as you envisaged it, and the book that hit the stands, what is the difference between the two? Did it all change as you went along or it had all been set in stone from the beginning – plot, characters, and centre of the novel?
Characters evolve as they are written. that is why it is often said that the creation is always more intelligent than the creator. But all the nodal points of the novel, the set-up, the denouement, the climax were all worked out early. This is my third attempt at fiction after two earlier aborted attempts of what I call my “Water trilogy”. My first one was set near a waterfall, the source of all rivers, the second by the side of a river and this, the third and only published
one end in the sea in a cataclysmic climax.
6.Invariably, any book belonging to the ilk of literary fiction, and set in Kerala, will be compared to the very huge “God of Small Things”. How much of it did play in your mind as you set course and where does your book digress from the path already taken?
GOST opened up Kerala in a way it has never been done before. It prised apart various conundrums of the state. It is a great work no doubt. It, of course, inspired me.
7. Do you have any advice/insights for those aspiring authors out there?