As a child, Shubhangi Swarup, who has set off a whisper in the contemporary fiction space with her debut novel “Latitudes of Longing”, was fascinated by the history of landscapes. Her mother, a poet herself, would often tell her that the mountains and seas are more connected than they seem, and to stand in the snow desert of Ladakh — in the presence of marine fossils — could spur anyone’s imagination. But despite all the scientific evidence, she felt disbelief.
“To me that was the starting point. The current conventions of telling stories are so artificially plotted that very little exists outside its cause-and-effect world. Far from seeking the extraordinary within the ordinary, they thrive on a pornographic sense of drama. Yet, there are greater patterns and inter-connections at play in nature, and in life, than the human mind can grasp. And that is what convinced me to write,” Swarup told IANS, relating her seven-year-long journey of going through so many drafts that she lost count once she hit double digits.
But with each new draft, she was able to add another layer.
“As a reader, I love re-reading one of my favourite books, and discovering new insights, layers and overlooked details. And that is the experience I wanted to share in my novel. It is only once you look beyond the story, can you discover the architecture and patterns emerging,” she explained.
Swarup had not been to the many places her novel is based in till she decided to write about them. “They were all outside my comfort zone,” she recalled. This meant working doubly hard and taking nothing for granted.
And so she did — volunteering as a teacher in the Ladakhi government schools near the LOC, reporting as a journalist in Myanmar and the Andamans. “In Kathmandu, conducting workshops with the dance bar waitresses wasn’t enough, and I had to find ways of fitting into the dance bar scene. I posed as a pimp once and got offered a job as a dancer instead,” she shared.
In retrospect, she noted that the research was wide, stretching from documenting the experience of solitary confinement in Burmese prisons to orchestrating earthquakes that could tilt entire mountain ranges.
“I felt like a fool on most occasions, and wondered how I landed up in situations where I had to pose as a pimp or spend a day with an opium farmer, learning how to extract it from the poppies and stuff it into pipes, or asking a soldier if he felt lonely on the Siachen glacier,” said Swarup.
She visited local libraries and bookshops, relied heavily on locally published works, folktales and traditional stories associated with the regions. She received a generous grant as the Charles Pick Creative Writing Fellow for South Asia (University of East Anglia), which made these travels possible.
Swarup wrote her first few chapters sitting all alone in “a supposedly haunted guesthouse” in the Andaman Islands. A monsoon storm, she recalled, had made it impossible for her to venture out. The electricity was gone too. She felt tremors as the region was tectonically active at that time. She was scared and it was only after a phone conversation with her father that the lone writer, in a haunted guesthouse, in an almost isolated island, set her pen to paper. “…if only to distract myself,” she recalled.
“My irrational fears and inner demons seeped into the story, often entertaining me instead of creating fear. If there is one thing the novel has taught me, it is to listen. Listen unconditionally, even to the silences, the unspoken, the gecko and the ghost.
“As I approached the final few days of my writing, I had an almost fatal accident up in the mountains, where I had gone to complete the work. This final experience brought the novel’s philosophy directly into my life — I am grateful to just be alive. What happens next is secondary,” quipped Swarup.
For seven years, the would be writer-extraordinaire travelled across the subcontinent, adding layers to her story, because fiction, or at least “Latitudes of Longing”, Swarup contended, is “a thin layer over a bedrock of reality”.
“As for the actual time taken, I believe it to be an artist’s responsibility to do justice to the story. This may take months, years or decades… time is irrelevant,” she maintained.
Swarup observed that the human imagination has been “trapped in rooms of our own creation” as we are “living in an increasingly polarised and isolating world”.
“If the reader views life from just one window, then I, as a novelist, want to tear down all the windows and walls, and bring down the roof. I want to pull the entire structure down till the reader is standing under an immense sky and looking at the infinity we call a horizon. For in that infinity, human history is only a tiny slice in the earth’s history, and the evolution of life doesn’t begin with our ancestors leaving Africa, but the birth of the first unicellular organism. (Only) once we have grounded ourselves in this way, can we appreciate the vastness of our own lives,” she quipped.
But despite her tedious, albeit self-satisfying journey of researching and writing, publishing a debut novel was not easy. Her London-based agent wrote to almost every leading publisher, but just two showed interest.
It takes an avant garde editor, who is willing to experiment with a fresh voice and is ready to take the risks involved in publishing a debut novelist, particularly when it is against the current trend. Swarup found her’s in Udayan Mitra, Publisher – Literary at HarperCollins India, who put his weight behind her novel.
“I can think of very few books I’ve read that are as powerful. Shubhangi Swarup is an extraordinary talent and we’re thrilled to be publishing her,” he said, describing the novelist as “the most exciting new literary voice from the subcontinent”.
Swarup, on the other hand, views her literary journey as an extension of the way she approached her writing. She is running an initiative called “Author in the Living Room”, visiting people’s homes, book clubs and other intimate spaces for book readings and discussions, particularly places beyond the lit fest map.
“The novel,” she said, “is a starting point for conversations around the ideas it puts forth.”
“When readers finish reading ‘Latitudes of Longing’ and keep it aside to resume their life, I hope it is with a greater appreciation of the moment, aware of the infinite possibilities surrounding them at all times, and the deep connections that hold us all together.”
And “Latitudes of Longing” itself ends with two very old people, whose love for each other leads them to value the present for all it is worth. Billed as “the literary debut of the year”, it is available at all major bookstores and online.