Source : The Hindu – LITERARYREVIEW
Neelum Saran Gour thinks her feisty musician heroine would have been judging a reality show today
A career of over three decades as a writer specialising on the North Indian heartland may have earned her the tag of an ‘Allahabad person’, but there is universality in Neelum Saran Gour’s writings. We caught up with her after she won The Hindu Fiction Prize 2018 for her novel Requiem in Raga Janki.
What does this award mean for you at this point in your career?
In the pre-Internet age, writers from B-cities did not get much visibility. My publishers have welcomed my books and I’ve had a faithful readership and some critical applause. But the kind of attention an award gets you changes the rules of the game.
As a university professor and prolific writer, how do you balance your inner and outer worlds?
I’m not your ‘writer in retreat’. I have a fairly middle-class life, job, family. But if you’re passionate, you do find the time. Literature offers doors through which you can keep vanishing from quotidian life. And when I’m really into a book, I’m thinking about it all the time. Your life in realtime and your life in art can be mutually supportive.
How similar are you and Jankibai Allahabadi?
The spiritual side of her journey, the grace, energy and help derived from engaging with your art is something we share.
Would she have been as proud an artist in today’s commercial world?
Oh yes! I can see her in my mind’s eye — judging reality shows, puncturing music directors. She was a purist, with an intolerance for imperfection. But she was also a popular artist who earned money and supporters, and would have been a very confident personality.
Would she have maintained her rigour even in our world of distractions?
Anything excellent needs a lot of application and sincere effort. What makes an artist is the continual striving to be better. Sometimes, distractions test and teach you.
Your personal affinity with music?
My father was a trained amateur musician. I grew up with ragas and stories floating around, and have a personal commitment to preserve these stories.
You’ve done a fair bit of legwork and research into Jankibai’s life, as a historian might…
I was just picking up the dim trail of a deeply inspiring life. But the wide gaps between the landmark events allowed for improvisation and intuition, much like in a raga.
The story of the self can be told in different ways, though the alphabet is the same.
In this current climate of history being politicised, can fictionalisation jeopardise truth?
Truth is a slippery concept. Besides the absolute truth, there are so many subjectivities. Even as I found Janki’s own accounts of herself to be heavily fictionalised, I felt she deserves a chance to have her story told.
Your thoughts on the renaming of Allahabad?
I see it as unnecessary, forcibly grafted. Allahabad has been a culturally active city where religion mattered and also did not. Communities there have co-existed for centuries. We have to move forward, not rake up past issues. I believe the function of art is to ease away the nastiness of history. The function of history is to enable better human values.
I think the book was able to distinguish between faith, religion, and personal belief…
I tried to send out a signal that the principles and practice of religion often diverge. Jankibai was disenchanted with the practitioners, but devoted to the principles.
Historians work in their bell jars. But writers like yourself can influence the collective imagination…
I think there has to be a partnership between the rigorous historian and the creative artist. But in the end, it’s the reader who must imaginatively piece together disparate accounts in their mind.