Saturday October 27, 2018   |   Neelum Saran Gour

Bookaholicanonymous is extremely delighted to bring this very special interview to you. We interview Neelum Saran Gour, a prolific writer, who is an inspiration to us. We, at Bookaholicanonymous are in awe of her writing prowess. And to our surprise we discovered a down to earth person, who agreed to do this interview almost immediately. A big salute to you Ma’am…from us!

About Neelum Saran Gour: She is a well-known Indian English writer of fiction who represents a special category of fiction that arose in the early 1990s and depicted the world of North India’s small towns and their vibrant cultural histories. She is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories and one work of literary non-fiction. She has edited a pictorial volume on the history and culture of the city of Allahabad, where she lives and works, and has also translated one of her early novels into Hindi. In recent years she has come to be recognised as one of the leading practitioners of Indian English fiction coming out of the North Indian heartland.

The interview:

Tell us something about your first collection of stories 'Grey Pigeon and Other Stories'. You won the Writers’ Fellowship in Britain for it. How thrilling that is and it was your first book too. Tell us how you felt?
‘Grey Pigeon and Other Stories’ was a miracle in my life. It was a collection of 19 short stories. The title story appeared in the magazine ‘Debonair’ which, along with its girlie-centre-spread reputation, happened to have  a quality literary section overseen by Adil Jussawalla. I used to write short stories for magazines in the 1980s. The title story attracted the attention of the CEO of the newly arrived Penguin India and I received an offer. It was incredible for me. He asked if I had enough stories for a collection. I had – and wrote some. And it appeared as my first book in 1993. Even I was unprepared for the reception it got. It was widely reviewed and it put me on the map, winning me the Charles Wallace Writers’ Fellowship in Britain for 1993. But my fax (remember it was the pre-internet age) conveying my acceptance got delayed and another writer’s fax reached so I missed it that year. I was offered the fellowship the following year. ‘Grey Pigeon and Other Stories’ was life transforming for me.  

Your next book, a novel, was titled ‘Speaking of '62’. What is it based on?

My next book ‘Speaking of 62’ was a novel about the war between India and China seen through the gaze of six mischievous children living in their middle class home in Allahabad and taking a quirky view of everything. It remains one of my favourite books although it is presently out of print. I translated it into Hindi and it goes under the name ‘62 Ki Baatein’ and has been reprinted, by special arrangement with Penguin, by Prabhat Publishers. Rendered into Hindi it feels like a new and equally beloved book of mine.

Next was again a collection of stories called 'Winter Companions and Other Stories’? Do you like writing short stories or a novel? Was there a common thread behind the stories in this collection?

The English ‘Speaking of 62’ version got rave reviews, which spurred me to plunge into my next book ‘Winter Companions and Other Stories’. I was all along ably supported by my publishers Penguin India who had great faith in me. No, there was no common thread. I love writing short stories and they come naturally to me. Novels are more demanding. I try to alternate. A novel one year, followed by a short story collection next and that is how it has been.

In 2002 appeared ‘Virtual Realities’. That’s an interesting theme…written work becomes reality. Does it happen in reality? Or it’s the other way round?
Virtual Realities was about the inner and outer worlds of writers. It examined why we love telling stories, even those of us who are not practicing writers. The complicated politics of the writing world and also the way the imagination generates fields of reality. So that all our optional selves find expression in our stories. It was a book full of chatter but a serious undertow.

In 2005 two novels were published, ‘Sikandar Chowk Park’ that was prescribed for study in the M.A. course of  Charles University Prague. The story seems so real, it can happen to anyone any day. How did you come up with the story? Did someone or something inspire you?


Sikandar Chowk Park, which appeared in 2005, was written much before 9/11 and just after the hijacking of IC814 by the Taliban. That was a time when mutual suspicion between religious communities was on the rise, when terror was a new experience for the world. I felt deeply for ordinary people trapped in histories they couldn’t get away from, innocent people of all religious denominations, who lived ordinary but deeply engaged lives living up to their human challenges and destined to die in something unforeseen like a sudden bomb blast. There was such awful chance and destiny in their plight, and I was obsessed by the idea of being prisoners of our national histories and victims of forces for which we are not responsible, the price we have to pay for processes generated by other generations. It was again a favourite book of mine and it was very well received.

The second book released in 2005 was titled ‘Messres Dickens, Doyle and Wodehouse Pvt. Ltd.’ it is an interesting book. According to one review you had submerged yourself in the heady fictional worlds of Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse, and mixed and matched to produce an utterly charming mosaic. Tell us something about that.
‘Messres Dickens, Doyle and Wodehouse Pvt. Ltd.’ was a different sort of book altogether. It was a game with the English language that we had grown up reading, the language of Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G.Wodehouse and I make them sit down and write a detective novel together. I squeeze my own Indian self as an invisible presence in their midst, apparent only in my distortion of the word ‘messres’. Four writers writing a spoof together. That was the idea. Actually it was written even before 'Grey Pigeon and Other Stories' but the idea was way too outlandish for my publishers since it was written in British voices and was located in 19th century London. An Indian woman writer should stick to Indian subjects was what all publishers felt. If you ask me that was my best book. But I had to design, publish and promote it myself and it did find a couple of good distributors. That is my only self-published book. I adore the three authors who are the puppeteers of my novel and I love the way British humour behaves on the page and that is the game I was playing.

The year 2009 witnessed the release of the pictorial volume ‘Allahabad Where the Rivers Meet’. It was a runaway best-seller, earning you the position of Allahabad’s representative literary voice to a large readership of the Indian diaspora. Do you agree?

It was during a Just Books program on NDTV, centred around ‘Sikandar Chowk Park’ that I spoke about the many layers of culture intersecting in my city Allahabad and one of the editors of the art-house Marg Publications happened to view the program and I received an offer from Marg to guest-edit a volume on Allahabad. It held a series of essays and beautiful photographs about Allahabad and its history and culture and it sold wonderfully and became a collectors’ item. Sadly it is now out of print. That was 2009. I am not a historian but having located myself in Allahabad I have come to regard it as the country of my mind and the city is ensouled in my work. The Marg book placed the mantle of local lore-master on my shoulders, although I am not entirely a deserving candidate for this and there are many others who know much more about this city than I do.

The year 2011 saw the launch of ‘Song without End and Other Stories’, what was it about?

‘Song without End and Other Stories’ was a short story collection again, some new ones written over the years and some old ones taken from my earlier volumes.

In 2015 a work of non-fiction titled ‘Three Rivers and a Tree – The Story of Allahabad University’ followed, it is based on the celebrated literary history of the Allahabad University. You must be so proud of this work? How did you think about writing on this topic?

In 2015 there came three books back-to-back. ‘Three Rivers And A Tree’ was a literary history of Allahabad University, written at the request of my then Vice Chancellor in honour of Allahabad University’s 125th birth-anniversary. It was published by Rupa Publications and it astonished me by its reception. Allahabad University’s large population of illustrious alumni flocked to buy it. Crowded into the glittering launch that the publishers organized. And I was quite stupefied at the galaxy of bureaucrats, jurists, academics, politicians, men of letters who formed the audience. That book was hard to write but it turned out to be a joy.

This was followed, in the same year, by ‘Allahabad Aria’, that’s an interesting title. What is this book about?

Rupa asked me for another book on Allahabad and so I put together a little volume of short stories called ‘Allahabad Aria- Stories about Allahabad’. It came out along with the University book and was a bit overshadowed by the other one but it too was a book I am happy about.

Your novel is ‘Invisible Ink’ was published in late 2015. This tale is a modern, today’s story isn’t it?

The next book, a novel called Invisible Ink, published by Harper Collins, dealt with the theme of old friendships between Hindus and Muslims suffering tragic decline and the onset of suspicion and silence between them and what it takes to break this silence.

Regarding your latest novel… ‘Requiem in Raga Janki’…is this a fictitious or a non-fictitious novel?  How did you discover Janki Bai Ilahabadi? How important was it to tell her story? How has been the response?

Finally in 2018 came ‘Requiem In Raga Janki’, which Penguin Random House acquired after quoting a very generous advance at a publishers’ auction. It is a fictional biography of the famous Allahabad singer Janki Bai who was a star of the gramophone age. I chanced upon her life story while researching for the Marg book a decade back and I was very attracted to her as an artist and as a human being. Janki was an Allahabadi celebrity as great as Amitabh Bachhan in her time but she has been undeservedly forgotten. I wanted to revive interest in her. Also I grew up with a lot of Hindustani classical music in my house – my father was a musician and an intellectual – and the fantastic lore preserved in oral narratives in the music world fascinated me and I wanted to write them down for people to read before they were lost. The book has received excellent reviews and readers appear to have liked it. It has just been shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize for Fiction, to be announced in January 2019.

When do you take out time to write? I am amazed. Which is the most creative part of the day for you?

Honestly, I don’t know how I take out time to write. I have a crowded life full of the usual middle class duties as well as a job teaching English Literature at the Allahabad University. I have a family that needs a lot of running around, students who have to be catered to. I somehow find time, as and when I can snatch it. There is no fixed writing hour and I just don’t know the answer to your second question about the most creative hour of the day. When I am deep in a book I would say that my mind is occupied 24/7, even while cooking, cleaning, driving to work etc. When one loves something one finds time for it and I love writing.

What next? Are you already writing something?

Yes, I am writing a new book and it is about Gandhi – someone I revere.

Bookaholicanonymous thanks Neelum Saran Gour Ma’am for taking out time to answers the questions. We loved having you at Bookaholicanonymous. Nothing else to say other than…Keep inspiring us!

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