inKonversation: Hemant Kumar – WordMaverick of September 2012
Hemant Kumar has been a journalist for three long decades before picking up the pen to write his debut novel, the moving and riveting Prey by the Ganges. The book has been lapping up critical reviews ever since its publication and paints rural India in the most picturesque form possible for words.I loved the book among other things, most for the detailed imaginary the words take the reader through, nearly creating a running reel in the mind throughout the book. I get inKonversation with the WordMaverick of September 2012 and get to know the man full of stories. Read on:
Reporting real stories to writing fictional stories, how did the transition happen?
Having seen life on such a large canvas, I have an expansive visual horizon and it has given me depth, understanding and temperance. But most of all, it’s made me humble. I see it as the enrichment process.
Education sets you up for working but it hardly prepares you for life. That happens at work, and I was fortunate to be a journalist for nearly three roller-coaster decades. I have witnessed from up close, the developments that have shaped this country’s character in the last thirty years, and have matured in the process. I have watched developments from so close that I have powder burns on my face. The essence of those experiences has diffused through my psyche and into the deepest recesses of my consciousness, stirring it up and charging it with an ethereal sort of energy.
It was only natural that I should write. I am so full of stories they are now seeping out of me.
No time to waste.
When was the first time your ever wrote/ discovered a writing streak?
I think I was always a kind of writer. Throughout my professional life, I wrote news and features. Fiction began less than six years ago.
I said this to someone else recently, and I must quote: “I have been in love with my profession, first as a wire service reporter, and then as a television reporter. I’ve wandered through life’s storyfields, equally awed by her stunning beauty and paralysing sting. My yarn is still weaving, shall I say. In my storyworld, the lines have blurred between fact and fiction. In my opinion, a writer’s greatest battle is within himself. If he can win inside, he is a winner everywhere.”
Most debut writers have an interesting, often struggler’s tale about their manuscripts and publishers. What’s yours?
You know, I wrote the book twice—once about six years ago, and then again, three years ago. I’ve written about it in the preface, too.
For a host of reasons, no one reads debut writers, neither agents, not publishers. And if you are an Indian, writing in English, forget about it, altogether. Readers are wary of Indian writing in English. I don’t blame them.
So, when a manuscript lands at an agent’s or publisher’s desk, and it’s raining manuscripts these days, his instinctive reaction is of exasperation. You will never know if a manuscript is good or bad, unless you have read it. But websites and writing ‘gurus’ tell you that your cover letter, synopsis and first couple of chapters get you the contract. They are like the advertisement, that must win you buyers in 30 seconds flat. Why? Because agents and publishers are impatient and swamped with work.
Such ‘wisdom’ has spawned a breed of writers that work only on these parts of their manuscripts. Delve deeper and there is nothing there at all.
The manuscript slush pile is the smoking landfill of the literary world—trainee urchins freshly out of school or condemned sub-editors wade through it, reeking of bad ideas, worse treatment and rotten language. How can you blame them for ignoring or trashing your manuscript?
I struggled for almost a year before I could get a few publishers to read and then like my manuscript. I was accepted by a few, but I went with Wisdom Tree.
That’s a part of my story. There is more that I can’t, maybe should not, say in public. Some day, perhaps.
Like I said, in the review, the best thing about the book are the well imagined detailed scenes that are equally well put into words giving a nearly visual experience to the reader. Is that a ‘Hemant Kumar style’ we can expect from your future works too?
It’s a powerful story, extremely well-written. Its characters are high-calibre and its plot has a close-to-the-bone, brutal suddenness. But its violence is not gratuitous. It’s deeply engaging, real life, plausible and above all, graceful.
Its most mentionable characteristic is its picture-like detailing. If I can’t see a scene clearly in my mind, I can’t write about it. The same goes for a character, or a situation. Yes, my writing has a visual quality, and I like it, too. I am conscious of the need to keep the story moving and not break its momentum to describe a scene. I use the description to deepen the experience, sharpen the impact and elevate the moment.
In that sense, yes, my stories will have a strong visual element.
But without a powerful story, intricate plot, well-sculpted characters and reader engagement, the ‘bell-and-whistles’ are empty effects at best, distracting and irritating.
A story has to have pull, weight, power.
After a gory fiction based in history as well as in rural India, what are the genres you want to write in?
I am not yet done with drama, adventure, crime and human character in all its hues and shades.
I love the idea of powerful people, weak conscience, compelling reasons. Life is about these things. My next novel is founded on this thought.
You have said that Prey by the Ganges was in your mind since ever, what’s next on the literary front?
My father was a freedom fighter who went to jail during the freedom struggle, and my mother is a gifted singer and painter. She sang on the radio for decades. I was raised on real life stories of struggle, strife, success, courage, deception, character, sacrifice and retribution.
But as a child, I was mostly on my own, living, experiencing, observing, absorbing, imbibing.
I am so curious, I will turn every stone—who knows what lies beneath which one!
Yes, Prey By The Ganges has played inside my head for decades in some way or another.
Next is another literary thriller, again set in Bihar, but on a much wider canvas.
Your words of wisdom for newbie writers.
I am hardly anyone to give any advice, but I can share some fellow-writer notes.
Again, let me quote from an interview I gave to a friend and blogger: “A lot of people will say this formula works today and that genre is hot these days, and it might even be true. But true fine writing is ageless, timeless. Look at our classical masters of fiction– Munshi Premchand, Sarojini Naidu, Vijay Tendulkar, R. Krishnamurthy (Kalki), and of course, Tagore.
They wrote timeless works. They listened to their hearts, and composed with purity.
On a more practical note, it is critical to work on your language. Refine it to pencil-tip sharpness and read as much as you can. Reading deepens knowledge. There is no short cut to this. Shallow writing is easy to spot and it is extremely disappointing.
Writing is about tremendous discipline. If you want to write, write. It’s as simple as that, and as tough as that.