Source : The Hindu
The author discusses her new book ‘A Few Good Friends’ that traces friendships and relationships across decades
Swati Kaushal’s new book, ‘A Few Good Friends’ (Hachette; ₹399) takes us into Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, on a windy, rainy day when freshers arrive at their hostel, keen to embrace two years of freedom and a challenging academic path ahead.
The first thought that came to mind is, ‘oh no! Not another campus story’; contemporary Indian fiction has had enough of them! But Swati, whose earlier writings include the ‘Piece of Cake’ and food-and-crime thriller ‘Lethal Spice’ moves away from campus to the lives of these alumni, now in their 40s, tackling personal and professional issues. A reunion of the batch in Goa brings them together after 23 years, rekindling nostalgic moments, scars from the past, and allowing room for introspection.
The US-based author and her husband Vivek Kaushal are alumni of IIM-Kolkata and the book harks back to their campus days. “I have wonderful memories. We were a small batch, 123 of us, and only 13 of us were women. So you can imagine how close we were,” says Swati. The IIM-Kolkata vibe is a unique one, she insists. “The campus is gorgeous, filled with lakes and the philosophy was a ‘live and let live’ one. The atmosphere was one of collaboration and friendship rather than competition.”
IIMs are high-pressure academic zones but Swati fondly remembers how the campus treated them like responsible adults. “No wardens, no separation of girls and boys hostels, no compulsory attendance, no one telling us what to do. It was liberating and exhilarating, and helped us all explore who we really were. Perhaps that’s why you will find so many alumni pursuing their talents in creative fields, and so many happily ever after couples (Vivek and I included),” she explains.
Swati had been wanting to write a story about college friendships for many years but didn’t see the point of just another campus story. Then, someone sent her a graph about life (which showed how muddled the path was compared to what one set out to do) and that triggered this book.
The women here — Aadi, Ambi, Miru and Kajo — are as different as chalk and cheese. Aadi is coping with a listless marriage, Ambi is making strides in her corporate career and dealing with health issues, Miru is a single parent and an independent artist wading through financial crunch, and Kajo, comfortably placed in her career, shudders at the thought of revealing her gay identity.
The issues faced by these women and the men of IIM are real-life ones, but Swati didn’t appropriate personal stories of her friends for the book. “I would never want to invade their privacy,” she asserts. However, she and her friends collectively examined their lives. “We all have our past loves and fantasies about meeting them again; we have faced health problems, we grapple with parenting, work-life balance and maintaining our friendship across time and distance,” she adds.
Commitments Vs. dreams
Among the women, Aadi fascinated Swati the most. “She’s caught in that zone between family obligation, traditional value systems and her own needs and desires. In a way she is Minal Sharma from ‘Piece of Cake’ all grown up. That is a situation so many women of my generation, who thought we would ‘change the world’ find ourselves in, having chosen to prioritise family over career. So for Aadi I wanted to explore how that felt, feeling trapped by family obligations, and what is at stake when faced with a choice to start over.”
On the other hand, Swati feels Ambi symbolises the modern Indian woman, “I wish I were more like her.” Miru is the repository of Swati’s artistic angst, “She is the rebel flower child that lives inside me. She is as gutsy and independent as Ambi, but the reality of her life is a grim one and I wanted to see whether it was possible to reconcile with that reality and find happiness.”
Kajo’s character was tricky. Swati wanted to explore a gay character’s problems in a sensitive and realistic light, “I had to put myself in the shoes of a lesbian character. I had envisioned her as single, and at a later stage decided to give her a lesbian lover. With her personality too, I found it hard to strike the right balance of being courageous, easygoing and family oriented.”
‘A Few Good Friends’ is a shift from Swati’s thriller ‘Lethal Spice’. Swati feels the wider canvas of ‘A Few Good Friends’ allowed her to explore relationships across time. Talking of relationships, she feels she might explore sibling relationships and rivalry in a sweeping family saga, “I love the idea of large families with all their hidden skeletons.”
Swati moved away from a corporate career to write and is grateful for finding her calling: “The corporate sector provides a lot of energy and connectedness, which I use in my writing. I love the creative energy and the freedom. Writing has no limits… you can go wherever the muse takes you. I love it; when I’m in the ‘zone’, I cannot imagine not writing.”
(‘A Few Good Friends’ hits bookstores across the country on December 11)