Today We speak to Indu Sundaresan.

Indu SundaresanShe was born and brought up in India. Her father was a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force and she moved around a lot, growing up. She came to the U.S. for graduate school at the University of Delaware and has two degrees; an M.S. in operations research and an M.A. in economics. She is the author of six books so far. The Twentieth Wife (2002); The Feast of Roses (2003); The Splendor of Silence(2006); In the Convent of Little Flowers (2008); Shadow Princess (2010) and The Mountain Of Light (2013).

Q) Tell us something about yourself.

I was born in New Delhi.  And, I went to many, many Kendriya Vidyalayas for school—my father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, and we moved around a lot!

Q) You are the Author of the ‘Taj Trilogy’ where you transported us to such a different era. What kind of research did you do for those books?

Interestingly enough, I found all the research—books, travelogues, memoirs, collections of letters—in the two local library systems where I live, in the Seattle area.  One is the fantastic South Asia and India collection at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo and Allen libraries.  The other is the public library system, the King County Library System.  The best part about libraries in the US, whether academic or public, is that they have a free borrow/exchange program all over the country.  If I wanted a book from Harvard’s libraries, for example, all the way across the country, all I had to do was put in a request for it.  I actually did that for a book I wanted to read.  They sent it to my local library and allowed me to check it out for a whole month, take it home, make notes, read it.

If you’re serious about history, maybe about just about anything, and read for your research, the opportunities here are simply amazing, and accessible to just about anyone.

Q) Out of your heroines Mehrunnisa and Jahanara and the other characters from your Taj Trilogy, who do you feel is most like you and you can relate to?

I don’t write about myself in my books!  It’s true though, that every author or writer has to don the skin of their protagonists, to think like them, to feel like them, to examine all of their motivations.  This I did.  I became Mehrunnisa or Jahanara, to a certain extent, during the writing of the novels of the trilogy, but I did not make them me!  They are who they are.

However, given all of the restrictions in the world that Mehrunnisa and Jahanara lived in—confined in an imperial zenana, living behind a veil—they still had ambitions, and the ability to realize those ambitions much as contemporary women do today.

Q) Tell us a little about your latest book ‘The Mountain of Light’. Why do you think the readers will like it?

The Mountain of Light is the story of India’s famed Kohinoor diamond, which is today set in the Queen Mother’s crown, and can be seen among the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.  The novel traces the last fifty years of  the diamond’s existence in India—its last Indian owners, rulers of the mammoth Punjab Empire, the Maharajahs Ranjit and Dalip Singh, and how it was secreted away from India in 1850 to England, to adorn the arm of Queen Victoria.

That time period, just before the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, and India becoming a British colony in 1858, is a critical one in India’s history.  But, the novel’s more than just history.  It’s the story of the people who owned the Kohinoor, what the loss of the diamond meant to them, and how the Punjab Empire was dissolved after Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s death and annexed to British lands in India.

Dalip Singh, heir to the empire, follows his Kohinoor to England when he’s sixteen years old.  There, he’s feted and petted for a long while, treated with a great deal of kindness, but as you’ll see in the book, one thing happens that makes him realize then, and during the rest of his lifetime, that nothing makes up for the loss of his lands, his empire, and his diamond.

Q) How did you come up with the title of the book?

As with most of my other novels, coming up with the title was a process, a somewhat long one.  I had other working titles, and my literary agent, editor, publisher and I examined each one, used it for a while and then discarded it.  In the end, my publisher at Atria Books/Simon & Schuster suggested this title, The Mountain of Light, as she was reading the Author’s Note in the beginning of the book where I talk of the origins of the Kohinoor.

The Koh-i-noor, in Persian, means a ‘mountain of light.’  It’s an intriguing title, translated into English, and fit the book better than all the other working titles we had, so after I’d written the book, when it was almost complete (but not yet copyedited) we chose this title.

Q) What kind of research did you do for this book?

For the novels of my Taj trilogy, I had access to 17th Century Mughal documents translated into English—either the Emperors’ memoirs (the Baburnama; the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri etc) or their official biographies (the Padshahnama).

For The Mountain of Light, most of my research came from British sources.  The novel covers a time frame from about 1817 to 1854, recent enough that a lot of officials from the English East India Company were writing about their experiences in India.  A Governor-General, Lord Auckland, came to visit Ranjit Singh’s court.  He had two sisters, Emily and Fanny Eden, who wrote letters home about that visit, saw the Kohinoor diamond, and talked of the Maharajah’s generosity while they were in the Punjab.

There are plenty of sources just like the above mentioned.  Light is written from varied viewpoints, Indian and British, and I took the stories I found in the sources, and thought of how each character would respond to the actual events…and fictionalized it in the telling of The Mountain of Light.

So, the novel’s vastly accurate—in events and people; my imagination came in thinking of how each person would react to what actually happened.

Q) Which of the Characters in your book are your favourites and why?

By the end of writing The Mountain of Light, Maharajah Dalip Singh became a favourite.  Perhaps because he’s so present in the book.

You see him as a baby in his mother, Maharani Jindan Kaur’s arms.  He’s eight years old when Henry Lawrence comes to the Punjab to be his guardian after the first Anglo-Sikh war, and Dalip thinks he’s very much lord of his lands then, but Henry (and the reader) knows that the slide downward toward annexation has already begun.  He’s ten or eleven years old when he signs the Treaty of Lahore, giving away the Punjab Empire to England—and he doesn’t realize what he’s doing; he’s too young to fully comprehend anything.

And finally, you’ll see him when he’s sixteen years old, in England, blossoming under the kindness Queen Victoria shows him.  His then English guardians, Lord and Lady Login, also treat him as their own son…in all but one thing.  What that is, I will not say—you must read the novel and find out how that affects Dalip.

Q) Every Author has a distinct writing style. How would you describe your style and how do you think you came to form it?

Here’s the truth.  Every story’s been told before—there are no new characters under the sun, no plotlines someone hasn’t heard before.  I’ve always been aware of this.

In telling the Taj trilogy, I retold portions of India’s history as we all know it.  But what was different then was how I told the story.  I used the viewpoint of hitherto unusual protagonists—the women of the Mughal Empire.

There’s a bit of style in that.  For the rest, what I look for in writing is a sort of music, a rhythm of words, and it’s what I like to put into my own work.  To me, words should be a sort of song.  I actually will read out portions or even the whole of my book as I’m writing—if it sounds good to my ear, then I keep it, if not, I delete it.

Q) How long have you been working on this book and what inspired you to write it?

Each of my novels, (and The Mountain of Light is my sixth work of fiction), given that they are as historically accurate as I can make them, involve a lot of research.  I begin reading two or three years before the book is finished—I read first to see if there’s a story, if I can actually write it, if it makes sense to me.

For The Mountain of Light, this decision on what to write about the Kohinoor took me months.  The Kohinoor first surfaces in Hindu Mythology about 2000 years ago; then it’s documented in the possession of Allaludin Khilji in the 14th Century; then Babur documents it in his Baburnama in 1526; and then what you will see in the novel—Shah Shuja of Afghanistan gives it to Mahrajah Ranjit Singh of the Punjab Empire in 1813.

So, given that the Kohinoor’s history is scattered all over most of Indian history’s timeline—I had to choose to tightly wrap the narrative of The Mountain of Light over the last fifty years of the diamond’s existence in India.

Once that decision was made, writing was actually easy—because I (and my research) were not all over the place!

Q) When did you start writing and when did you realize you want to become an Author?

I began writing after I’d finished graduate school at the University of Delaware, and had an MS in operations research and an MA in economics tucked away.  After that, I decided I wanted to write a novel.  I wrote two, thought they were no good, put them aside.  And then, I wrote my first published novel, the first of the Taj trilogy about Mehrunnisa/Empress Nur Jahan, The Twentieth Wife.

Q) Who are some of the Authors you like and how do you think their work inspired you?

Jane Austen’s still a favourite; I like Margaret Atwood, all of the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy—there are too many to list!  I like good writing—and what I think is good writing might not necessarily be someone else’s opinion.

Q) What do you think is the most difficult part about writing and publishing a novel?

I think it’s still tough to find good representation; it took me five years or so to find my literary agent for The Twentieth Wife.  It’s a process; it tests your patience and if you believe in your work, and persist, you’ll eventually get there.  And if there’s even the smallest doubt that what you’ve written isn’t very good—as I thought of my first two unpublished novels–it’s best to work on something else.  If you are hesitant about your own work, you can be sure someone else will be also.

Q) Tell us something about what you are working on or about some of your future projects.

I don’t talk of future projects usually.  I am working on a new book now, but it’s in such a nascent state.  Sometimes, I will only speak of a book after I’m done writing it, sometimes after I’ve revised it, sometimes just before publication—whatever feels right.

Q) From amongst all the novels ever published if you had to write any one, which one would it be and why?

None of them, I think.  I admire a great number of novels published by other authors, but I know I’m best able to only write my own books.  Does that make sense?  Every book is unique to its author—we bring our upbringing, our experiences, our education, and our influences into our own work.  It isn’t possible for anyone else to replicate this.  That’s the marvel, and wonder, of fiction.

Q) If you had to convince someone to read your book in 5 lines what would they be?

Two kings.  A queen.  The race for the domination of India.  One legendary diamond.  All in The Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan.

(Sixth line:  It sounds a bit like a movie sound bite, but it fits the novel beautifully!)


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