Interview with Sriram Ananth, author of Across the Sabarmati

Tell me about yourself.

First, the boring description: I’m a writer and activist currently living in Toronto. I’ve been active around a variety of peace and justice issues in India, Canada, and the US. My recently published book, Across the Sabarmati, is an autobiographical novel about my work as a human rights activist during the 2002 Gujarat riots. I’m also currently completing a PhD in Geography, specializing in the study of social movements and solidarity-based struggles. In my day job as a trauma therapist, I often try to bring in anti-oppression frameworks into my counselling and therapy.

Now, for the slightly more interesting description: I’m a red-wine-drinking, good-food-loving, shadow-boxing rogue who’s deeply in love with my soul mate and also somewhat insecure about my love-handles. We have a dream of living in a community of friends over the long-term. And no, we’re not starting a cult (both of us look terrible in long, flowing robes and aluminum foil hats). I have finally decided to do away with my anthropocentric ways and accept that our two cats will always be among my best friends. I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none, but I think that I’d be a pretty handy guy to have around if society ever collapses. For instance, I learnt 10 open chords so I could play the guitar and sing at parties…I think that would be pretty useful when there’s no TV.

What inspired you to write?

I have always wanted to express my politics and “life philosophies” to others. Additionally, my bloated ego not only wants those expressions to be seen by others but also to change the world for the better. Writing satisfies my innate desire for expression, while carrying with it the infinite potential to satisfy said ego when my writing is read by others and hopefully changing lives for the better. It is possibly the only activity I have come across (at least, very importantly, the only one that I enjoy) that does all three. Hence, writing, as opposed to composing music in the hope of becoming a brooding progressive artiste who does shows in order to preserve the rainforest, or robbing banks in order to distribute the money to the poor while ensuring my picture is splashed all over the newspapers (both activities I considered, and wisely decided against, pursuing).
There is another, very beautiful thing to writing and getting published (mainstream, indie, self, whatever), which is that no matter what a conventional failure your book might be, you can go to bed knowing that it always has the potential of doing something beautiful…changing a life here, inspiring a life there, lighting a little spark of joy or righteous anger, hell, maybe even becoming a raging cult success after the author is dead (literally and in the Roland Barthes way)

What is something interesting about you not many people know?

After completing my undergrad degree, on a whim I took a year off to work as a human rights worker during a brief period of insane political violence in northern India. This made me realize that I was completely clueless about the world around me. It essentially acted as one of those insane, life-changing moments, the kind that basically define your life from then on out. I’m still clueless, but at least now I know it.

That experience also happened to be the inspiration for my first book as I mentioned above

What genre do you like to write in?

As of now it has remained on either autobiographical/multicultural fiction (first book) or memoir (the second, upcoming book). But I have a long-term project, a multi-book series, planned around speculative fiction, which has me really excited. It is still years away, but the process of “letting my mind run wild” has begun with notes, brief passages, ideas etc. and it’s quite a trip. I’m having loads of fun with it, so I think I’m going to stick with it.

Have you ever encountered writer’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?

I have multiple projects going on at the same time, a PhD thesis, a periodic blog, promoting my first book, editing the MS of my second book, not to mention my involvement in various types of activism, and my day-job as a therapist. I know it’s a cardinal sin for many people to have multiple writing projects going on simultaneously, but I tend to work in bursts of inspiration that are normally bookended by brief spells of attention-deficit-fueled disinterest in the project that I just worked on, so I just tune off and work on some other project. The diversity of the writing projects (creative writing, academic, blogging, book-promotion, editing etc.) ensures that even if I get writers block for one particular project, I just move on to another one, get another little burst of inspiration to get some work done on that end, before moving back.

Summarise your novel.

The synopsis goes something like this: March 2002. The north Indian state of Gujarat has just seen the worst episode of bloodletting in independent India at the hands of Hindu fascist groups. Jayram Krishnan has a led a privileged life as an upper-caste Hindu in the south Indian city of Bangalore. He impulsively travels up north to Gujarat, to volunteer in a human rights movement that has sprung up to combat the violence. He goes to Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, and discovers the Sabarmati – a river running through the city, ghettoizing it; acting as more than just a physical divide. Carnage on one side; sterile affluence on the other. It soon runs through Jayram too, and he discovers more about himself than he might be able to endure. He starts leading a dual life on either side of the river, and across the Sabarmati he slowly starts to find answers that he’s still discovering questions for.

Tell me about your characters.

Well, the novel is a fictionalized autobiography of that experience and written in the first person. So, the main protagonist is essentially me. A tad narcissistic I know, but it was the only way to give as honest an account as possible.

Tell me about your publishing journey.

Always climbing the learning curve, and learning to enjoy it.

I think the hardest part was dealing with setbacks and finding peace as a struggling writer, which needs some “non-writing” aspects of your life to be in place. I’ll try and explain. For instance, initially I was terrible with negative feedback and rejection. My insecurities always got the better of me. Now I think I’m a lot better, not because I’ve become a more well-adjusted person per se, but because I actually want to become a better writer and know that truly good, constructive criticism/rejection, no matter how negative, is invaluable in that process. I also have a much thicker skin now, so am able to handle negative feedback and rejection in a healthier way. Partly this is because while trying to slowly establish myself as a writer, I’ve realized the need to nurture and develop other facets of my life including my activism, work as a therapist, doctoral research, financial stability (such as having some moderate savings, paying off a mortgage etc), and, above all, my loved ones, especially my soul mate, whom I have been ridiculously blessed to have in my life. All this helps in being able to say “Yeah, I have a long way to go as a writer, but I’m happy and smiling as I make that journey, so give me your worst.”

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