INTERVIEW WITH SHREEKUMAR VARMA - Award winning author of Lament of Mohini



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SHREEKUMAR VARMA was born in Trivandrum. After an M.Phil in English Literature from Madras Christian College, he took a diploma in Journalism. He worked in the Indian Express, Bombay, and has also been editor, publisher, printer, and lecturer in English and Journalism. He has published articles, interviews, short stories and poetry in several newspapers and magazines, and has written a children's book, The Royal Rebel. He has designed and broadcast radio programmes. He has also written two award-winning plays. Shreekumar is the grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, last ruling maharani of Travancore, and great-great-grandson of the artist Raja Ravi Varma. He is married to Geeta and has two sons, Vinayak and Karthik. He lives and writes compulsively in Chennai.

Lament of Mohini is story of five generations of an aristocratic Kerala family, its loves and hates, and its confrontation with a sobering present. As he maps out the complex and colourful history of the clan. Shreekumar Varma brings to life a cast of unforgettable characters; Kochu Kelu, the indolent patriarch, Sarada of the bustling goodwill and legendary culinary skills, Narayanan Namboodiri, who attempts to become part of the aristocratic family he has married into, MVR, the romantic poet whose epic turns from a celebration of the loves of gods to those of humans after one magical meeting with a beautiful woman in the dark rooms of a bathhouse and Gopi himself – self – deprecating, well intentioned and enormously lovable.

A grand saga written with great lyricism and rich humour, Lament of Mohini is a brilliant debut. The story of Lament Of Mohini had been in the Shreekumar’s mind for many decades, ever since he was a college student. It was written during the late nineties and first published in 2000. The unique matriarchal system of Kerala and the interaction between members of a royal family and a conservative priestly household attracted the interest of readers within and outside India.

This is an edited version of the interview with Shreekumar about his life and his book:

Q: You wrote about a royal family – has royalty played a great part in Kerala?

Shreekumar: Yes, it has. Until Independence, Kerala was ruled by the monarchy. After that, there were negotiations and Travancore joined the Indian Union. A large part of the present infrastructure of the state can be traced to those times. Even now, the royal family plays a muted but significant role, especially during festivals like the Lakshadeepam (the festival of a hundred thousand lamps), for instance. Surprisingly, in these democratic times, people still think highly of the family. Travelling in the Maharaja’s personal car, I have seen people lining the streets with folded hands. And, mind you, this in today’s Kerala, highly charged with Communism and people’s movements.

Q: Is your book autobiographical in any way bearing in mind your own family history?

Shreekumar: Yes and no. I have used a template of historical and sociological facts. I have used old, interesting stories narrated to me by my relatives. And I have added my own experiences and observations. I was born in Satelmond Palace, but we moved to Madras when I was only four, though we kept coming back during school holidays and religious events. My recollections of these visits provided the atmosphere that clothed some of those old stories.

Q: Has Kerala changed greatly since Independence?

Shreekumar: It has. Though there was always a strong youth movement, now there is a strong flavour of politics in everything. In fact, it must be one of the most politically conscious states in India today. Unfortunately, politics has seeped into every aspect of public and private life and sometimes stains it indelibly. Hartals and work stoppages and strong-arm persuasion and macho attitudes have perverted much of normal life. In fact, I was so struck by this that my next novel is going to be the most political of all my writing, save plays. And it is set in Thiruvananthapuram.

Q: Is your novel meant to depict any sadness in aristocracy?

Shreekumar: There is a sadness in the sense many people who’d once lived well found themselves at the end of their tether. Reforms and new property laws left some of them at a loss. Others got jobs or planned their finances. But there’s no sadness in a nostalgic sense. Most of the royal family members had unostentatious private lives, and this continues, I feel. The sadness in Lament Of Mohini is that of women. Whether it is the namboodiri women who lived cloistered, unfulfilled lives or others who had privileges but had to succumb to a largely non-performing matriarchal system, well, it was sad.

Q: Kerala is said to have 100% literacy rate, or nearing that level – this must be, in some part, down to its people – how are they able to achieve this whereas other states in India cannot?

Shreekumar: Literacy can, once again, be traced to a time before Independence. Education was recognised as a major requirement in life. (Of course, there were cruel social divisions then which prevented a chunk of the population from having access to education.) Women were also encouraged to study if you compare the state with others. Discussions outside teashops covering a range of topics from politics to airy intellectual stuff, the frustration among the youth during the seventies and eighties---such a high level of reading and thought, but unable to relate to a mundane jobless reality---can be traced back to this as well. Of course, 100% doesn’t mean fully literate in every case; often it meant simply the ability to write or sign one’s name. In the royal family, my mother was the first woman to attend college. Otherwise, tutors would be brought home, and they pretty much covered every possible subject.

Q: Is Kerala ‘God’s Own Country’?

Shreekumar: Yes, of course. Anyway, it’s my God’s country. The temple of our family deity, Shree Padmanabha, is in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital. Even when the Maharajas were ruling, they offered up the kingdom to Shree Padmanabha and ruled as his servants. Other than that, Kerala is blessed with lush nature and resources. Christianity and Islam were welcomed peacefully. Communism found its first ever elected government in Kerala. Rational reform and religious fervour are equally present. I suspect God was rather partial to this part of the world.


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  2. Thanks for enlightening us about Shreekumar and his book!


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