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An interview with writer and novelist,
Krupa Ge

By Shreya Ramnath 

5 April 2024

Krupa Ge is a writer from Madras. She is the author of a novel, What We Know About Her (Context, 2021) and a narrative non-fiction book, Rivers Remember (Context, 2019). Her reportage and cultural writings have appeared in Indian and international publications over the last 16 years.

Her debut novel What We Know About Her was longlisted for The JCB Prize for Literature and shortlisted for the Women Writer’s Prize. Krupa received a Laadli Award for her column on women in cinema, 'Ms. Representation' in The New Indian Express for the year 2017. She was awarded the Jayanthi Residency in 2017, the Toto-Sangam Residency Fellowship in 2016 and was shortlisted for a Toto Prize in Creative Writing.

In this interview, she talks about the Madras of 1930-40s which is where her novel is partly set, the research and personal experiences that led her to write about Chengalpattu and Benaras, role of Carnatic music in the mobility of her characters, writing about a place without evoking its physical characteristics, what a certain city allows or limits, her interest in reading translations, and of course, a list of books that made her cherish the idea of cities in literature.

1. Cities in Fiction seeks to explore how a work of fiction set in a particular location informs our imagination of the world. Your book What We Know About Her straddles three worlds: Chennai, Chengalpattu and Benaras. It simultaneously straddles the past – the culturally exciting time of the 1940s – and the politically charged, divisive present. How did you contextualize these places and times, and with what resources?

Studying MA Sociology at the University of Madras was the fundamental education that led to me writing this book; thanks to Professor A Karuppiah who introduced social movements of TN to us. Which is what led me to be interested in the 1930s and 40s here. I went down that rabbit hole for years afterward reading about how different sections of society and their interests clashed. Chennai which was Madras was the epicentre of all that action. 

To recreate Chingleput of the 1940s I relied on oral history from my own family. I grew up listening to my parents' stories about life in the mofussil town. Coincidentally, my husband Swaroop’s grandmother too lived there briefly and I drew from her experience as well.

Archival material from census data, The Hindu’s articles, S Muthaiah’s Madras Rediscovered, AR Venkatachalapthy’s In Those Days There Was No Coffee, K Srilata’s The Other Half of The Coconut, Douglas M Knight’s Balasaraswati (biography) all made for immersive reads about the place and the era.

2. You’ve mentioned in interviews that Chennai and Chengalpattu have been home; why Benaras? And how did you go about creating a sense of place in a way that moved beyond the stereotypical ideas of the city as holy, dirty, tourist-ridden, and driven by the industry of death?

I’d visited Kolkata as a teen. Besides this I hadn’t really travelled outside south India anywhere else. Until as an adult I made my first real trip to Varanasi with my mother, my aunt and uncle in 2009. We went there to mourn my grandmother’s passing as well as to celebrate her life. I also got a day to walk around and shop and explore the city on my own as they went to Triveni Sangam. Everything was new to me, and yet everything was so old. That feeling stayed with me for long afterward. It is this feeling that I wanted to capture in the novel. This feeling of landing up somewhere ancient, far removed from every familiar thing with wide eyed wonder. I travelled quite a bit after that first trip. But it was always special. And it had to be honoured thus I suppose.

3. I understand from the book that the conceptualisation of the city is in fact key to the story itself, that each city’s unique history and cultural landscape is integral to how the plot unfolds, to the life trajectory of each character. Author Tanuj Solanki, in his interview with us, said he did not think of the city as a character – it is only “rendered through markers and characteristics”. What, to you, is the role the city plays in your writing?
 

Oh to me in this novel, the city set the flavour, the mood, the moment. It also influenced characters’ personalities, how they reacted to situations. Lalitha was a certain way in Chingleput but a different way in Madras.

 

Cities have their own characters as well, Madras rises early for instance, as all port cities tend to. Madras is hot. It doesn’t have a winter. That Chingleput is a mofussil area, that death is everywhere in Benares’ ghats, all this was important to the book.

4. Foregrounding the lives of multiple strong, rebellious, defiant women across generations, your novel illuminates the oppressive workings of caste, class, and gender in the familial and public spheres. A universal-enough theme, yet the work could not have been place-agnostic. Madras as a seat of Carnatic music as we know it today, and Benaras as the release from the cycle of birth and death… did you see your novel as much as a chronicling of the role of these cities in the cultural trajectory of the peoples your characters represent?

If I had set out to do that, it would have intimidated me I think. Though, it was from the cities that I drew the characters. That they were from these places gave them those attributes, fates. But once I decided on the place, and the characters, I wanted to fill the page with that sense of awe and freshness these places evoked for me personally.

 

5. One thing that is particularly noteworthy is the role of Carnatic music in this work: as a vehicle of mobility for women otherwise confined to the private realm; as a tool of emancipation for the character Lalitha stuck in an abusive marriage; as a seemingly static cultural system that has, in fact, been reimagined and reconstructed over the years. Why was it important that Lalitha was an iconic – if non-conformist – musician? Was it central to her movement between the less metropolitan Chengalpattu and more urban Madras?

To me, Lalitha is the book. The idea of this woman is the idea of this book. I couldn’t tell you if you asked me how I thought her up, she came from the unconscious. But she is the novel. And she came fully formed in my mind in this manner. I think she may be the coming together of many women of that era in my mind. Some known to me personally, some public figures and some of it is me having fun (the parts about her fashion sense and Gold Spot drinking). But yes, the music, her genius it was all pivotal to her movement to Patnam where she would find a bigger guru/friend in the influential Hamsammal who would remake her career.
 

6. We know that Carnatic music’s construction and modernisation occurred in tandem with the emergence of the colonial city and the movement of population to urban centres. Musicians migrated from the homes and courts of their patrons to colonial centres like Madras city to seek networks of protection and support, and here, the new elite – upper caste, mostly Brahmin, often English language-educated professionals like lawyers, bureaucrats, and doctors – became the new patrons and consumers. Thus, music cannot be divorced from the colonial city you write about, where performance was emblematic of a particular Indianness. That is why I see your descriptions of Lalitha the artist as pivotal to an understanding of the new “patnam” or city, and of the new emerging nation! Were Lalitha’s small – and then bigger – acts of rebellion that constituted a transgression of ideal femininity meant to say something about the affordances these new urban platforms and spaces could give women?

 

Wonderful observation. When in Chingleput Lalitha lies that she’s going to the temple just to take an innocent stroll up a hill. In the city, she chooses to not even disclose where she’s going. She wills some privacy into her life. Most importantly, the city is not where that house is, which seems to have swallowed so many women’s happiness. Lalitha’s longing for a smaller home, one with more women and less men like that of her sister’s home in Patnam, something unthinkable in smaller towns, shows the possibilities of a city life and what they must have done for women.

7. I am particularly fascinated by the small section in which Lalitha decries the microphone as cramping her style. The microphone itself is a product of the urban concert stage, meant to amplify the voice in a new, bigger, less intimate setting. Urban spaces, then, are what spurred the technological mediation of music we take for granted today. This vignette gave the reader a glimpse into the colonial city without detailing the major transformations taking place. Can you give us another example of how you depicted the cities you write about without invoking its physical attributes?  Surveillance, mobility, safety, reproductive rights are other themes you touch upon that affect women’s quotidian lives in urban spaces.
 

The microphone debate is of course based on so many real life artistes’ articulation of their problem with the ‘new’ sound back in the day. Mridangam artiste Palghat Mani Iyer for instance, even organised micless concerts, where Dr N Ramani played the flute accompanied by him without a microphone.

 

In Yamuna’s section of the book, the girls going all around looking for a morning after pill, and the reaction it elicits I think is a perfect example of how small the city can feel despite all the freedoms it once promised women.

 

8. Chennai is clearly pivotal to your writing endeavours; your non-fiction book Rivers Remember is also about the city. How different was it to write and flesh out fictional characters against the backdrop of a city you know, love, and have reported about in detail?

It was the absolute best. I had myself a wonderful time doing this. It was liberating creating like that. That is what I like doing. This is what makes me happy.

9. We know rivers spawn civilisations, cultures and, germane to our enterprise, cities. Rivers also seem to play a crucial role in your imagination. The protagonist is named Yamuna; she is, as the blurb suggests, “adrift”, caught among the currents of the past and the present; the Ganga is the life of Benaras. What significance does this motif carry in your writing?

Of course because of the extensive research I did on Chennai’s rivers for my first book, Yamuna made for a compelling name in the second (it was also because of the raga Yamunakalyani). I hadn’t named her for a very long time. She just narrated without a name. Because I was simultaneously writing these two books, they ended up influencing each other. My editor the amazing Ajitha must be credited for that ‘adrift’ reference in the blurb, though!
 

10. “A Telugu existence into whose nooks and crannies Tamil had entered. Telugu was the language of love and hate inside the walls of our home. Tamil was the language of our world.” You introduce another crucial element here, that of hybridity – of language, culture, identity. Pre-1953 Madras is a different place when compared to today’s cosmopolitan but more decidedly Tamil Chennai. How did you navigate descriptions of the cultural milieux?

The city and the era itself allowed me to explore these multiple identities, in a way. This was why I picked that time and was particular that it reflected as many complex, messy parts that make up its character. It bothered me, the other-ing of non-Tamils using problematic terms like vandheri (as a Telugu-speaking intergenerational Chennaivasi myself). A few years after I wrote about this parochialism in the novel, a few youtubers and social media users went too far in their caricaturing of migrant workers from UP and Bihar. When politically motivated fake news was being circulated recently claiming Tamils were brutalising Bihari migrant workers in Coimbatore and Tiruppur, these kinds of videos (about cheap labour from vadakku - north) were used to legitimise fake news about Tamil attitudes towards poor workers from the North. While we make a case for sub-nationalism and linguistic pride we must all eschew puritanism that borders on xenophobia. That is possible if we look at our cities’ histories and how we got to where we are.

11. In a loyal and accurate rendition of modern Indian urban life, you demonstrate how caste and gender oppression comfortably coexists with political consciousness and a preoccupation with social justice even within the family unit. Were the references to political climate in the two different regions you write about ways to map them onto the larger national political landscape? How does the political and moral landscape of the two big cities Yamuna flits between inform the storyline, if at all?

Yamuna, her own life, then her love life, then her relationship with her family, especially mother, then her discovery about her family’s history, her grandaunt’s fate, none of it is happening in vacuum. They are each as much products of their time as they are of their own oppressive cultural norms. Just as I was not operating in vacuum. Things that were happening around me crept into the story slowly.

 

12. Are there particular books set in Chennai, Chengalpattu or Benaras that you have enjoyed?

The Illicit Happiness of Other People (by Manu Joseph), captures Chennai marvellously in English. (While I adore the fiction I can’t quite say the same about the author’s non-fiction, just to clarify). Many others in Tamil or in translation Ambai’s short fiction, Jayakanthan’s novels, Sujatha’s short stories, Tamil Prabha’s brilliant Pettai, come to mind.

Benares Seen From Within by Richard Lannoy was a beautiful reminder of the city and its streets.

13. Have you read about these cities in fiction in your mother tongue? If so, how different have these portrayals been? Do you believe the vernacular can capture the essence of a city in ways English cannot?

I cannot read Telugu. To make up for it, through the entire time I was writing this book, I heard T Brinda’s rendition of the kshetrayya poem Ososi (in which the hero goes to Kashi). It made for great inspiration (and ended up as the book’s epigraph). But I did grow up reading Tamil. And as I have mentioned earlier, I have read a few books set in Chennai. Language comes with its own culture and ethos, and those seep into the characters. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be able to read and write in my mother tongue. Some day I hope to learn it. These days though, I prefer books that have been translated into English, to novels written in English. I do believe that it is the most interesting literary space.

 

14. Are there other books that made you cherish the idea of reading about cities in literature? Tell us more about them.

Elena Ferrante’s Naples in the Neapolitan quartet, Domenico Starnone’s version in Via Gemito and Trick, Indian cities in Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, in Anita Nair’s,  Vikram Seth’s, An Equal Music, Tokyo in Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Mieko Kawakami, among others. Yogesh Maitreya’s memoir Water in a Broken Pot does a terrific job of describing the alienation a young man feels in a cityscape. When I read it , I was constantly reminded of Camus’ Outsider.

By Shreya Ramnath 
 

Shreya is a trained classical singer. She has performed at various prestigious cultural institutions across the country and is an empanelled artiste of All India Radio. She is currently a doctoral student of Social Anthropology at the Central European University,Vienna. Her research focuses on the production and consumption patterns of southern Indian classical music and its festivals, with a special focus on internet technologies and social media. Prior to her doctoral research, Shreya worked at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, where she conceptualized, taught, and coordinated, including a UNICEF-instituted course on Children and the Media. She has two master’s degrees in journalism and Sociology, and has contributed articles to several Indian publications – The Hindu, New Indian Express, Hindustan Times, and Economic and Political Weekly on issues at the intersection of the arts and society.

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