We are in conversation with Kandathil Sebastian, author of acclaimed novel Dolmens in the blue mountain, where he shares with us some interesting things about his life and his book which is known to some very few people and much more. Read on to find out some more behind the author of this beautiful book.
- Let’s talk
Team WordBite (TWB):Tell us something about you which very few people know of.
Kandathil Sebastian (KS): Others know about our personal spaces which we had keptopen for everyone to see. Most people with a writer’s mind enjoy their solitude and prefer communicating to the outside world through their books.Most things about my life are not known to many people as I am also a very private person. In the world out there, everyone is fighting one’s own battle and none of us have time to findout about these battles of others. Something which even my friends do not know about me is perhaps the battles which I fought in my life as a child to overcome a life of poverty and marginalization.I was born in 1966 in an un-electrified hamlet, under the leaking roof of a thatched hut onto a leaf-made mat without any expert help, as the vayattatti (traditional birth attendant) arrived late on that day due to heavy rain. Unlike my two other siblings who died immediately after birth, I survived to tell my story to this world.My experience of childhood of poverty, though relatively lesser in harshness compared to the type of poverty which I have seen in countries like Bangladesh, taught me many great lessons. Most important among them is that poverty is not a generalized story, rather it is a complex and multidimensional story and each one of us who lived a life of poverty has our own unique story of survival and struggle.
TWB:Who is your favorite author and why?
KS: My favorite author is Alex Haley who wrote ‘Roots: The saga of an American Family’. I read it first when I was in college and then a couple of times later on. The protagonist of this novel Kunta Kinte, was kidnapped from Gambia in 1767 and transported to Maryland to be sold as a slave. Each time I read it I cried and the resulting melancholic feelings remained in my mind for several days. Even though it was written in the African-American context, it gave me new insights aboutmy past and taught me a lot about human nature. A lot of research had gone into writing his book and it taught me that all communities of the world have long histories and we need many more writers like him to tell those lost histories through the medium of fiction. I am aware of allegations of plagiarism against him; still I like him for writing such a classic. It even motivated me to write my debut novelbased on the migration of the Syrian Christian community in India. Though they were not physically kidnapped, members of this communityhave been forced to become economic refugees in faraway lands while they kept on nurturing nostalgic feelings about their homeland. When I was writing about the journey of the protagonist of my novel in a crowded train, what was prompting from inside was not just my own journey in a train, leaving my hometown in search of greener pastures but also the journey of Kinta Kunte in a ship through the Atlantic ocean.
TWB:What are your other interests apart from reading and writing?
KS: I like to travel a lot especially to exotic places where I have never been before. I enjoyed weird things like travelling from Delhi to Kerala by bus. I used to climb many of the peaks in the Himalayas in my university days. Now I would like to take my family in my travels and therefore the choice of destinations these days are family friendly places.
TWB: Why should one read your book? Anything that you want to tell a potential reader that the blurb of “Dolmens in the Mountains” doesn’t tell him?
KS: The blurb of my book says it is about a particular community in a particular state. But I should say that human conditions and struggles all over the world are similar. Fight of tribal communities in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa state of India to save their culture, existence and faith is similar to the fight of Muthuvans and Hill Pulayas who also try to save these from corporate greed as delineated in my novel. Though the novel is dealing with many complex issues of our times, I have taken care to make it palatable to all types of readers. I can only suggest people not to judge the book by its slightly incomprehensible title, but by the content and the ideas it tries to communicate. It definitely tells a lot about the roads we have already travelled and to destinies where we are heading towards.
TWB: Everyone wants to tell a story, but rarely do people start writing. Can you tell us how difficult it is to write the first book?
KS: I will say one’s first book is the easiest. As you rightly said, everyone wants to tell a story and one’s first book is most likely one’s own story. It may not be difficult to write the first book as you might be dyeing to tell your story to the whole world. You already know your plot, characters and the climax. You don’t have to try hard, it comes naturally. If anyone finds it difficult to write his or her first book, never write at all or just keep waiting until the story escape naturally from one’s soul and body. To quote Charles Bukowski: “Unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don’t do it. Unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don’t do it. When it is truly time, and if you have been chosen, it will do it by itself and it will keep on doing it until you die or it dies in you. There is no other way and there never was.” To many authors, the challengebegins with the second novel, especially if your first novel was extremely successful. There are many celebrated novelists like Arundhati Roy who wrote only one novel. After your magnificent debut, you need to grow up as a novelist who could tell more interesting stories which could also be considered as a work of great literature by the critics and readers. Writing a book based on facts is much more easy than writing a fiction.
TWB:Any issue regarding Indian publishing or readership which you strongly feel about and why?
KS: Books, especially novels can be used as frameworks for examining socio-political issues of writers’ time. I have a feeling that we do not have enough writers who adequately respond to the burning issues of Indian society such as violence against women, oppression of marginalized communities, perils of consumerism especially when greedy corporates flood the market with all sorts of contaminated products which damage health and wellbeing,and most importantly about excessive exploitation of nature which threatens the survival of our planet. In history we have several writers who used literature as tools for social critique and they passionately called for justice, and social transformation.Russian author Leo Tolstoy championed education reforms in his country; in America, Mark Twain questioned racial abuse which was rampant at his time. Do we have such writers today? Indian readers today are happy with stories of confused IITians and re-repeated re-writing of mythologies. Success of Chetan Bhagat and Ashwin Sanghi threw many authors into the world of literature in India who wanted to tell many more stories of that subgenre. Perhaps publishers also wanted to go for such books which gavethem assured markets and profit. I wish readers and publishers would wake up to the socio-political realities of India sooner than later.
TWB: Why were you disenchanted with the sector you once worked for and decided to quit the job to take up writing and freelance consulting?
KS: I worked with non-governmental organizations in the social development sector of India for more than two decades. I need to learn more before I make any far-reaching comments on the sector where a lot of my colleagues are still doing very sincere work. At this moment it is suffice to say that NGO sector all over the world has suffered when ‘professionals’ were brought in the sector by replacing ‘volunteers’. What we seetoday is that ‘careers’ are built around social issuesand huge bureaucracies are instituted to run programs to alleviate social problems. I strongly believe that problems of our society cannot be addressed by experts and systems which have a vested interest in maintaining these problems for their own sustenance and survival. Nepal and Bangladesh are two countries which have perhaps the most number of NGOs in the world. If NGO sector is the antidote to all social evils of these countries, they would have solved all their problems by now. Now with the advent of a whole lot of Corporate Social Responsibility projects funded by big corporate houses, the purpose of creating voluntary sector or NGOs has been defeated. My disenchantment with NGOs in the development sector work started with the realization of these issues. However, my decision to write comes from my introspection of my possible role in society and my potential to contribute towards social change. I have no pretentions to say that I have written a great book which would lead to instant social change and transformation. It is just that my dreams and goals are anchored towards that end. There is a beautiful Malayalam word niyogam which can be roughly translated as ‘a mission that fate compels one to undertake’. When I realized my niyogam, I quit my full time job and I now aspire to do something useful to our society through my writing.
TWB: How do you feel about the response that the book has generated? Satisfied? Or could have been better?
KS: There are many readers who appreciated me through e-mails and phone calls. There are people who ridiculed me too. When you do something in the public domain, you should be prepared to accept both. Overall I am happy with the response. In terms of book sales, as a debut author who published his first book through a small publisher,I cannot expect as much gains as an author who went with a big publishing house which uses economies of scale and employs paraphernalia of critics who flood the media with favorable reviews etc. Many things in India work, if you have a Godfather. It could have perhaps helped, if I had a Godfather in literature. Perhaps the initial response would have been better if there were some more coverage in the media, even in the social media.Despite initial hiccups, the book is steadily being picked up by more and more readers and I am happy and hopeful of my next fiction projects.
TWB:Can your book be looked upon as a moral compass?
KS: That is a question which could be better answered by my readers. In my novel, I tried to highlight altruism, compassion, concern for the poor and the marginalized and the need for ethical living which could only sustain our society and planet. There are some eternal values like truth and non-violence which are essential for our existence. Without a shared moral compass we may not survive as humanity. Unless and until we come together as a global community and reach a consensus on certain ‘non-negotiables’, our very survival as a species is at stake. If some of the readers could discover a moral compass in my novel, I should be very happy about it.
TWB: Who was your inspiration in this writing journey?
KS: All those who went before me, including Alex Haley and Charles Bukowski are my inspirations. Alex Haley started his literary career after 20 years of service in the military and he had no major training in literary writing. Bukowski repeatedly asks writers not to write till writing happens to you naturally. All these years I have been constantly reminding myself not to write and when I reached a stage I can’t live without writing, I just submitted my resignation and started writing. However, I have not completely left the NGO sector and I still continue to be active in the sector as a consultant. Writing career as of now is not sufficient to feed me and my family and I definitely need an alternate career to survive.
TWB: Amidst all those positive replies and fan mails all throughout the days when your book was being appreciated, was there any bit of advice that you got from anyone, for your work, which you have emulated thereafter?
KS: I got many advices – some of which were contradictory too. It is upto us to choose and take the best of those advices. There were advices and suggestions ranging from the ‘need to take care of my grammar’ to the ‘need to take care ofnot hurting sentiments of communities’- all of which I have accepted and will definitely take care to follow them in my future writings.
TWB: Can you give us a little sneak peak of your upcoming books? What are you been working on?
KS: I planned a trilogy – the first one was Dolmens in the Blue Mountain. The next two are not sequels of this, but they narrate similar human conditions.My next novel ‘Wisdom of the White Mountain’ has a protagonist who travels a lot in life to become an achiever in the world of spirituality but walked back to renounce his renunciation to realize the real meaning of life. My third and final one in this trilogy is named as ‘Sacrifice in the Black Mountain’ and has a character whose life resembles to that of Jesus Christ, the son of Man.
TWB:When was the last time you did something for the first time? And what was it?
KS: Just now I am ‘giving an interview as an author’ to you. This is my first interview, though a couple of others have also asked for interviews, I am yet to receive their questions. Answering interviews like this is a pleasant experience as it gives me an opportunity to introspect and to open part of my private spaces to those who would like to know more about me.
- Rapid Fire
TWB: Your favorite Book(s)
KS: Among classics: ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley and ‘Don Flows Silently’ by Mikhail Sholokhov
Among new books: ‘Kite Runner’ by Khalid Hoseini and ‘Americana’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
TWB: Your favorite Author(s)
KS: As stated above.
TWB: Describe yourself in three words
KS: Caring, Complex, and Confused
TWB: Thank you Sir for this interview, we wish you a great life ahead. J
KS: Thank you so much for interviewing me. It is indeed a pleasure.