Diplomat Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri Debuts with a Most Compelling Novel

An arresting narrative that builds around the Independence struggle, the feisty young Malati, the love of her father for his two daughters, the romance between father and mother, the troubles in Indian society, the rigours of the caste system. It is all in there, imaginatively and passionately told. Some imagined, some built around her memories of her days gone by. Author Lakshmi Puri debuts as a novelist, having lived her life as an accomplished diplomat holding prestigious positions in global reckoning. Here, we provide a glimpse into a conversation between her and David Davidar, her publisher, at the launch of her book, Swallowing the Sun, in New Delhi at ITC Maurya.

(The book was released both in Delhi and in Mumbai. This brief account is a capture of the event in Delhi. Unfortunately, the audio recording did not live up to its promise. So, there are bits that could not be picked up adequately, where the editors stepped in. For any omissions, anywhere, in the text on these pages, we stand corrected – Editor)

Many of you here today would’ve already read ‘Swallowing the Sun’. So, we need no introduction to it. For the rest, I hope today’s session will pique your interest and make you pick up the novel. It is a big novel in every sense of the phrase. Big in Achievement, big in ambition, big in terms of its canvas and size. Fearless in its rendering of big ideas and the big events of history. Equally, it is tender and intimate in the way it deals with the everyday concerns, its characters, their loves and losses. It’s a novel that is super on many fronts; well, it has achieved bestseller status within a month of its publication, a rare distinction. There’s a strong autobiographical element to “swallowing the sun”. You credit your parents as inspiring the novel. Talk us through this.

Thank you, David for believing in the book, believing in me and taking this project forward, bringing it to life.

This has been a labour of love and it has been in the making for many years, but I really got down to it in the last few years. That is the covid years and then we’ll come to that of course in a minute. But talking about my parents and how biographical this is, I have always been intrigued by Mark Twain’s saying that truth is stranger than fiction, mostly because fiction is obliged to be tied down to possibilities and truth is not. And my parents’ life indeed has indeed been extraordinary in terms of transcending possibilities and I could as well have done a bio, but I wanted to reach out not only to the head, which biographies do, but to the heart, speak to the heart and also I poured in poetry so that it speaks to the soul and to bring forth the pain, the struggle, the love and much else of that very unique generation, very brave generation that I was privileged to have an insight into through my parents’ storytelling.

I always felt that there was this story needing to be told, which no one had told before. It is one of those inspirations but of course the characters, the look-like characters in my book, of Guru and others, and I have taken them through different corridors of experience, of different destinations to different destinations of achievement. And thereafter, they have led me, rather than my leading them into wayward different ways, including the characters who have come around me out of nowhere and created themselves. It has been really inspired by the lived reality of my parents, but equally it has been for me an act of creation, a leap of imagination.

Another distinctive thread that runs and provides the background to the characters is the sense of place, the life around Maharashtra and Bombay. Tell us about your Maharashtrian heritage and why heritage is so important to you?

Well, I was counting the other day how many years I have lived outside India. I was born and brought up in Delhi and my parents used to always say we’re now living in the North. So, there was that feeling of not exactly, some element of not being in there, so they created a Maharashtrian world around us as we were growing up and I was exposed to, Marathi plays, we used to see to go and live in Bombay, there was a kind of exposure morning and evening for seven days. That was the greatest holiday we could ever have. And then course my father used to read poetry to us every evening from his favourite poetry book. And I brought this today and I hope the camera can highlight this for me. It has been dedicated to me.

It was during the freedom struggle, he used to write for magazines like those of the young Khushwant and fiery other poets, and then he had his favourite poet’s collection. So that is the atmosphere, then even our prayers were in Marathi and Sanskrit and that was the kind of the milieu that we grew up in and that never went out of me. So, half my life I seem to have spent outside India but this bit about Maharashtra couldn’t be taken out of me. So that’s that time and flavour is what I think many readers have appreciated and my dear friend Namita who has been my mentor in the journey of this book, pointed the South as a singular feature of this novel and many readers have appreciated it, enjoyed that Marathi flavour.

The title of the book, which leads you perhaps naturally, share with us why this Maharashtra has meant so much to you?

Well I don’t want to be pretentious, but I have always been a spiritual speaker and fascinated by the mystic saints particularly, but one who was introduced to me by my mother because as a feminist she wanted to role model her as a woman saint who became a saint when she was a teenager. And she wrote these accounts and I was completely taken up by their sheer poetry and the mystical power of that poetry and which I have picked up to be lead motifs and the epigraphs of my novel.

Dominant themes in the novel are the independence struggle and the strong independent women at a time who were feeling suffocated, let us say, independence struggle first, and then how much your family and talk about how they influence the characters in your novel?

My grandfather was very much involved in the Independence movement and much of the actions and engagement of the characters and my protagonist, Guru. And in the book, there is very much the thread that has been taken from the actual involvement and a very passionate involvement of my father’s family and my mother in the freedom struggle. But I also wanted in this novel to celebrate the unsung heroes, the Indians who participated in the struggle and they were not Gandhi or Nehru, but without them the freedom struggle would not have led to the independence. That is something that I wanted to show how little actions also matter, how they add up and how they snowball into a mass movement, into a narrative change, mindset change. But it happened and it happened because all of these people were working at it. And that is what I also wanted to bring out. Many young people have asked me, why have you gone back to the freedom struggle? It’s 75 years ago and I’ve tried to tell them that you must not forget. And also, you must realise your own potential and your own contribution to nation building today because everything you do counts too.

But one other thing I want to say David, is that in this there is also the aspect of how women participated in the freedom struggle and their engagement in different actions even as Malti, as a 13, 14-year-old girl, how she spots the preparations for the forthcoming conspiracy and all of that and how later she as a lawyer defends very ably, and in a history making way, she defends a revolutionary and even in Banaras how she interacts with revolutionaries there. So, it was also an attempt to show the revolutionary movement, the many strands of the freedom movement that we had and how young people were in many ways eclectic, how they could move from role to another.

Love stories, romantic characters, walk us through this aspect of the narrative?

Actually, what triggered my move shift from biography to fiction was partly the discovery of these 148 love letters that were exchanged. Mostly by my father, my mother was more matter of fact in her replies, and my father complained about them but whatever, just of the many that were in the three years when they were separated; she had gone to Banaras and Delhi, he finished his law because my grandfather had sort of excommunicated my father because he was wanting to marry my mother. So, these letters really then turned this whole novel into an epic love story. And I think some of you have said in the time of the freedom struggle and in the time of cultural exchange. So, these two elements are very much knitted into the love story. Their love and their romance with India, as much as with each other and also their love for poetry, literature and with English.

They used to talk to each other and I have often been asked if they could have spoken to each other in this grand language. And I have said, you had to listen to them and they did speak like this. So that was the kind of romance, the grand romance that some people said has not been written in some years. I tried to create through this and to explore the spiritual, the emotional aspects of the man woman relationship in so many ways. And the concept of how I just read a letter I have used of course some of the letters you didn’t allow me to use, so many words there, but there shall be another book on it separately.

One of the things against the system. And talk us through this impact.

So, this novel is very much about how young people at that time trying to reimagine themselves as someone else from what they were born into and reimagine the society around them. They had this opportunity of being western educated and being exposed to liberal ideas. And at the same time there was a civilizational reawakening happening. And in that context, this is very much a part of the socio-political reimagining that some of the key characters Baba and Malti and it also affects their lives as you’ll see, you’ve seen in the novel. So, it begins right at the beginning. I mean when Baba tries to argue with the sarpanch, that girls should be allowed to attend school with the boys, the sarpanch turns around and says, but that would lead to the blasphemy of a mismatch, because the girls there going and mixing with boys of all caste would result maybe in intermarriages, inter caste marriages and that is not accepted.

So, from that it goes on to many other discourses on caste and one of the points is of course that the two protagonists are of different castes and when they decide to get married, that becomes a barrier and then she has to sacrifice and he has to also sacrifice in some ways and that gives to a major disruption. Of course she reclaimed her space. But in between, this issue is there.

The caste system has been a talking point, how there is this divisions and how she’s frustrated and she even has tried to campaign against the system. But it seems to be so ingrained and then it becomes an important element in the political contestations of the time. So, all of those elements have been brought out and how young people discuss the role of caste divisions in our society as being a weakness and allowing the British to conquer us, as part of their divide and rule.

Well along with the fight against caste, there’s also a constant balancing the characters with their modern identity. There’s no such thing as perfect in India and what that might be and how you explore that thing traditional and blending it with modern?

I think I was discussing this with someone and there are two interpretations of how I have shown it in the novel, but let me say what my final conclusion was. That is that my characters, particularly the main characters, of course there are men who are feudal, who are patriarchs and who are still caught up in the walk of bad tradition. There is a good tradition and there’s bad tradition. And then there are men, who are the enlightened young people who blend the modern, who embrace the modern, whilst being self-aware and proud in their Indian skin and also of their civilizational identity. And so I think that’s a combination and trying to explore that area, it deserves even greater exploration, particularly in our times when we are talking no more about colonialism per se, but colonialism of the mind and how we can surpass that, how we can transcend that. And again, I think this is evolving. We keep on evolving as individuals, as countries, as civilization. How do we combine the traditional with the model?

I would like to ask you how the novel came about. You say that you the past years, it must journey lifetime. Tell us about the process of how you became.

So, I began writing it when I was ambassador in Budapest and I had written a hundred pages, but I think at that time the conception of three different generations, my mother’s, mine and my eldest daughter’s generation, I was trying to encapsulate that into one novel and that was daunting. I gave up after hundred pages and then I told myself I’m very busy with my profession. And then I came back to India and then Covid came and then my husband told me to pick up the pen again or rather pick up the iPhone again because I wrote mostly on my iphone; and then you came along in August, I was just looking at all the email exchanges and then in August I got a response from you, a positive response from you saying that this has so many incidents, this has so many characters, so much drama that it has the makings of a first class epic. So that meant the world to me. And then of course you made some suggestions, which I hope I have lived up to all those suggestions including the, and some of the other aspects of the original draft. We soon signed up the contract and here we are today, with this launch.

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