(An Interview with Jaishree Misra for India Currents. In mid-February 2008, Jaishree Misra’s latest novel, Rani, was banned by the Uttar Pradesh government, sparking widespread debate about artistic freedom, creative license, and the literary genre of historical fiction )
Jaishree Misra does not flaunt her literary gene, yet it keeps peeping out in her prolific writing. Not many know that Misra is the grand-niece of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, the Jnanpith Award-winning Malayalam writer, but she likes to believe that her great uncle, has passed the baton to her. Misra, who has published five successful books in eight years, has been characterized by publishers as a mass market writer. Still, her hold on language is commendable and her style endearing.Misra lives in London with husband and daughter and works for the British Board of Film Certification. She divides her time between her writing, her family, and her work. In February 2008, Misra inaugurated the International Book Fair in Kochi, India. Over 100 publishers participated in the fair, including Random House and Oxford University Press.
I talked with Misra about her career, her writing philosophy, and the politics of “writing India” from the diaspora.
Like many writers in the U.S. and the U.K, your life as a writer evolved primarily after you left India. What does it mean to be a writer living in diaspora?
I guess living away from India has made it easier for me to write about India and life in India. Although my stories do traverse territories, I have been able to step out of the frame. But not living in India does make me feel cut off from the group of writers in India, almost like I am not a part of it.
Your first novel was mostly autobiographical, the second a comedy of manners, and your fourth was non-fiction. What did you work on in your fifth book?
Yes, my first novel, Ancient Promises, was almost autobiographical; it mirrored a period of life which I have now left behind. It launched me into writing and molded me into what I am now. Afterwards, my third novel, is a story of love and separation from the point of view of the male protagonist.
I always look for challenges and wanted to try different genres of writing, so I chose historical fiction for my fifth book, Rani. I zeroed in on the warrior queen of India, Rani Lakshmi Bai, as my protagonist after a lot of deliberation. I did extensive research on the Rani both at the British Library in London and the National Archives in New Delhi and found totally contradictory images at both places. The story that evolved in the book is mostly fiction woven in by a few threads of fact.
Having used artistic license to portray a historical figure, do you fear a controversy?
Despite having self-censored much more than I’d have liked to, and despite having written such a sympathetic portrayal of Lakshmi Bai, I’m still a little worried about possible controversy. The Rani is such a national icon in India. It’s a shame when writers and artistes must work in a climate of fear. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe in unqualified freedom of expression (remember I work for a “censorship” organization in Britain) but I honestly don’t believe a writer should worry unduly about offending this or that group of people. Writing that seeks to offend no one at all will not fail to be bland and boring.
Why do you write? Do you identify first and foremost as a “writer”?
I have no grand messages to deliver. I guess I write for my own pleasure and hope that what I write is pleasurable to the readers, too. As for identification, I guess I don’t identify as a writer but rather more with my job, at least right now. In India, I am more of a writer perhaps.
What are your future projects? Do you dream of awards?
Not at all, I am more of a mass-market writer than a classic one. I don’t think I will ever win any award, but of course the honor of an award is always overwhelming (if I ever get one, that is!).
I have been working on another new genre of writing; this time it is a “whodunit.” But I think it is evolving more as a novel about female friendships rather than a thriller. I have promised a friend to look into some children’s fiction, too. Another dream project I have is of writing a film script. Apart from this, I intend to set up a residential unit for young people with learning disabilities in India, as and when money and time allow.