This debut author brings Kerala’s ancient serpent groves into spotlight

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Updated: Oct 01, 2020 2:47 PM

With the festive season starting in October, mythological fiction and mystery novels are increasingly gaining popularity with Indian readers.

Sudeepa Nair, in her debut novel, ‘The Serpents of Kanakapuram’ introduces readers to the importance of sustaining protected ecosystems for Nature and in particular, serpents.

With the festive season starting in October, mythological fiction and mystery novels are increasingly gaining popularity with Indian readers. For writers, mythological fiction inspires them to retell stories with their own creative interpretation. To interlink the world of mythological fiction and Nature is rare. Sudeepa Nair, in her debut novel, ‘The Serpents of Kanakapuram’ introduces readers to the importance of sustaining protected ecosystems for Nature and in particular, serpents. The ancient snake groves of Kerala, also known as ‘sarpakavus’, hold an aura of mystery spanning the landscape they inhabit.

Given the cultural and traditional importance of ‘Sarpa Kavus’ in Kerala, a mystery novel on the same is bound to arouse a reader’s curiosity. This book has been published by Notion Press.

In Sudeepa Nair’s view, “The book is as much about ecology, Nature, and our relationship with it, as it is a mystery novel. For interested readers, the book would also raise some questions or thoughts to ponder about ecology, our natural environment, and our symbiotic relationship with co-inhabitants.”

Indeed, one may be tempted to ask as to why the emphasis is on serpents.

“Culturally, serpents and snakes have held a strange fascination for us. There is a universal fear or disgust towards these creatures yet, you tend to stare at least for a moment when you see one on the screen or in real life,” Sudeepa Nair explains.

In this conversation with The Financial Express Online’s Swapna Raghu Sanand, the author shares candid insights on her unplanned journey as a writer and why her work of fiction is Nature-centric rather than mythology-centric.

[READ: By choosing to tell Mohini’s story, I opted to go past the known narratives: Anuja Chandramouli]

In her own words, “My parents, especially my dad, had a practical approach to the presence of wildlife around us. Mostly it was a policy of ‘live and let live’. However, our folks back in Kerala took these sightings seriously. Our annual vacations to our village often involved a tour of temples in the vicinity, to appease the Snake Gods. I was always more interested in the stories and the myths, as any child would be. I think those stories stayed with me, even as I developed a scientific outlook.”

Q1. What drove you to write ‘The Serpents of Kanakapuram’? Tell us more about what fascinated you most about the theme related to serpents.

My love for Nature helped me choose a theme for the mystery to be set in. Our animistic beliefs, not restricted to Kerala or India alone, but across global ethnic communities, point to the symbiotic relationship we shared with Nature. Whether it is the story of the creation of Kerala by Parasurama or the traditions related to the ancient Serpent Groves, the intention is always to respect and protect Nature.

Q2. When you wrote this book, what unique insights do you think that your narrative will provide to the reader?

With this book, I hoped that readers would be more attuned to how ancient beliefs might still be relevant but not for the rituals followed. If we question the intentions, rather than blindly follow the practices, we might find a way forward to co-exist peacefully with our natural environment. Just like Parasurama suggested to build Serpent Groves and provide a protected ecosystem for the serpents, allowing the settlers and the original inhabitants to co-exist.

Q3. Readers will be curious to know – Why serpents?

Can you share your personal cultural affiliations or even experiences to help readers understand?

As a child, I lived in a place that had its fair share of the reptilian population. I wouldn’t say that it was infested with snakes, but the proportion was far higher than any urban city-dweller would imagine. Suffice to say, that my parents never missed Kerala though we were in Mumbai.

Years later, I realized that we were actually living in the conflict zone between man and animal. As the concrete jungle grew around us, the colony where we stayed was one of the few places where these reptiles could live safely.

So, sighting a snake or a serpent was never a surprise for us on any day.

Q4. What has your writing journey been so far?

I have always loved writing but never aimed to be a writer. Writing was one of the co-curricular activities that I enjoyed at school. I had a notion that I was good at it since I won prizes and praise from my teachers, but I didn’t think about it as a vocation. I was a voracious reader as a schoolgirl.

Unfortunately, reading took a backseat when I joined a professional course. I would reread the books that I had with me, mostly classics by RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Jane Austen or P G Wodehouse, but I did not expand my reading repertoire until recently.

I dabbled in the occasional poem or article as an undergraduate. I even edited and published the technical magazine with two of my colleagues at my engineering college and enjoyed the process. But my eyes were set on a professional career, and I went on full steam ahead.

Q5. Tell us about the overall experience of writing and getting published.

After my child was born, I went on a break and started writing during my spare time. That was when I discovered blogging – hardly a handful of people I knew had blogs at that time. It gave me great joy to write about my kid, and I attributed it to my excitement as a young mother. After the break, I went back to my job, the blogging petered out, but I had tasted the joy of writing after a very long time.

I realized that fiction, unlike technical writing, gave me a lot more freedom to express myself. Though I continued writing on the job, composing articles, white papers, and marketing collaterals, I had this definite urge to try writing fiction.

A few years later, perhaps, it was a lack of challenges at my workplace, or I was overwhelmed or both, I surprised myself and my family by writing a full-length book. I would write after everyone was asleep, or over the weekends, and it took me nearly a year to complete the first draft. I did not know that it had to be edited. I was not aware that writers typically wrote several drafts before even starting the editing process. I had no clue what to do with the manuscript.

Unlike today, I wasn’t active on social media. I did not have a consistent blogging practice, nor had any followers. I researched the internet and figured out that I would need to send proposals to publishers.

Since I had no prior experience, I sought a literary agent who ripped my manuscript apart. My ego was definitely hurt, and I decided not to approach anyone after that, but I took some of the recommendations seriously and self-published it. This was about eight years ago.

The marketing was done via Facebook.

A handful of family members and friends read the book. Most of the physical copies passed hands within the friends and family network. I got positive feedback from several people. I even heard that kids or even grown-ups who had never ever read a book before picked up my book and finished it. That gave me a sense of satisfaction.

I never looked back at the manuscript, since I didn’t have the time or energy to invest. However, I realized the importance of having a readers’ community and started blogging. Most writers today begin with a blog and then move on to writing a book. I wrote a book first and then started blogging!

I had noted down a few book ideas over the last few years, and the one thing in common was Nature. One day, as I watched the Malayalam movie Odiyan, I reminisced about some of the stories and myths that I had heard as a child. The one about the Sarpakavu and my own experiences of sighting snakes in the neighbourhood became a recurring recollection.

And that’s how I began my second book.

Q6. Do you have any writing tips you have for first time authors based on your own experience so far?

From my own experience, I don’t think it is easy getting published at all. I believe that those manuscripts that get picked up by the traditional publishing houses are indeed top-notch.

There are so many writers today in India, writing in English, that I am not sure how publishers or literary agents manage to sift through the pile.

As far as writing tips go – I would focus on two – read as much as you love and write as much as you can.

Beyond this, a writer needs to be genuinely interested in people, not necessarily a social butterfly. Stories cannot be devoid of living, breathing, real people.

Allocate time for thinking and processing your thoughts. Not every sentence that you write needs to be a perfectly crafted specimen.

Q7. What was hard for you when writing this book and were there any specific areas of the book that were particularly challenging?

The hardest part for me was the revision and editing because I did it myself. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it, as well.

I completed the first draft in about five months and then spent another seven months revising and editing. It was an intense process but not having a full-time job helped me focus. It was sometimes frustrating, as I would have a gut feel that a particular paragraph or a section of the chapter was not right but couldn’t put the finger on it.

Q8. How did you map it out before you started writing?

Or did the structure of the book flow easily as you began writing?

I did not map it out before I started. I only had a small seed of an idea. I just kept plugging at it every day. When I started, I had a different protagonist and wrote in a third-person narrative. About ten thousand words into the book, I realized that the story was not flowing, so I changed the protagonist and the voice into first-person. Then it flowed better. By the time I reached the fifth chapter (about thirty thousand words), I knew where I was headed.

Q9. What do you expect readers to take away from their reading of ‘The Serpents of Kanakapuram’?

The key take-away would be entertainment.

I would like the readers to first and foremost enjoy the book as a mystery novel.

I hope they would experience the twists and turns along with the protagonist Meera.

Q10. Who has been your inspiration to write this book?

There are some writers that I have grown to look up to for their contribution to ecological fiction – Richard Powers whose Overstory is a masterpiece, Amitav Ghosh, especially, Gun Island (I have received some feedback that the cover of my book looks similar and I am unabashedly proud!), and Gerard Durrell for the way he describes wildlife and nature. These writers have been my inspiration.

However, my motivation to write came from my family – full of avid readers, especially my daughter, who is a voracious one and loves a good mystery!

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