Shreekumar Varma (2003-04)

Shreekumar Varma

His books for children include PAZHASSI RAJA: THE ROYAL REBEL, (Macmillan,1997), DEVIL'S GARDEN (Puffin, 2006) and THE MAGIC STORE OF NU-CHAM-VU (Puffin, 2009, shortlisted for Crossword Prize). He is the author of the novels, LAMENT OF MOHINI (Penguin, 2001) and MARIA'S ROOM (Harper Collins 2010). His forthcoming novels include THE AXE OF PARASHURAMA, GAYATRI CLUB and INDIAN SCOTCH. He has written seven full-length plays, one short play and two mini plays: THE DARK LORD (second prize, British Council Playscripts Prize), BOW OF RAMA (first prize, The Hindu- The Madras Players Playscripts Award), PLATFORM (inaugural play of The Madras Players Golden Jubilee year), MIDNIGHT HOTEL (raised more than 40,00,000 rupees for the Christian Medical College, Vellore), NATHU'S DREAM (children's musical), FIVE (political thriller) and CAST PARTY (murder mystery), GANGA AT RISHIKESH and INTERVENTION and DEMEANINGS.

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His poems, articles, reviews, short stories and interviews have appeared in several periodicals including The Hindu, Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Seminar Magazine, Aesthetica Quarterly, A Hudson View and Pulse-Berlin Magazine, as well as academic journals.  His stories, articles and poems have appeared in many Indian and international anthologies. He has translated poetry and fiction for the OUP Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writings in Translation (Oxford University Press).

He wrote the script for a series of internationally produced films on the Buddha to be shown in visitors' centres at heritage locations like the Ajanta caves. He has also written poetry for two dance performances. He has been a columnist for publications like The New Indian Express, The Economic Times Madras Plus, The Hindu MetroPlus and the Deccan Herald. He is also a literary reviewer for The Hindu and the Sunday Herald.

He was an adjunct professor in Creative English at the Chennai Mathematical Institute for 13 years. He taught English Literature and Journalism at the Madras Christian College. He has lectured and presented papers at several colleges and institutes and at the Madras University.

He was a charter member and president of the Rotary Club of Madras Southwest and editor of the club magazine for eight years. He was awarded the Charles Wallace [India] Trust fellowship, and was Writer-in-Residence at Stirling University, UK, in 2004.

He was on the jury of the inaugural The Hindu Best Fiction Award as well as short story and poetry competitions organised by Deccan Herald, Karadi Tales, IIT Chennai's Saarang and The Prakriti Foundation. He is married to Geeta, and has  two sons, Vinayak and Karthik. He is the grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bai, Regent Maharani of the erstwhile Travancore State, and great grandson of the artist Raja Ravi Varma. He is the son of the present matriarch of the Travancore Royal Family. He lives in Chennai, India.

Time at Stirling

The three months in Stirling coloured my writing life substantially. The day I arrived, ducks and swans strolled busily across the frozen artificial lake. When I left in June, they were still there, floating regally on clear water. The contrast between the huddling cold on the first day of March and the bright clear skies and striking greens of May typifies the variety of my experience. Even though I mostly remained a writing recluse.

People were the mainstay, whether it was Angela Smith, the kind and wise Head of English Studies who explained and showed me around, or the warm and creative Corinne Fowler who took me to the Stirling Writer’s Group (where I read from my novel) and the cave that inspired Stevenson’s Treasure Island. John Drakakis in whose house we spent an enchanting evening watching a family of foxes, the always helpful Jacqui Harrop from Admin, many others from the English Dept., the cheerful ladies who came to clean up every Friday---it was a treasure chest of human contact. The delightful ceilidh, the musical night in a little town hall, the monthly trips to London, the wonderfully enlightening Conference where I had an exclusive session, the train ride to Mallaig---all unbelievable now!

Those late nights when I was the only one in the Dept., writing deeply without distraction, and then freezing back to my apartment. Two books were born: The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu, which was shortlisted for the Crossword Prize, and Indian Scotch, which is still in progress! Indian Scotch has survived in the face of other projects including four plays and a novel, and I plan to return to Stirling to complete it.

The Charles Wallace Foundation is an amazing concept that has enriched so many as it did me. And Stirling, I feel, is the icing on the cake.

Extract from Maria's Room

From the last chapter:

Chapter Nineteen

All Good Things

I remember.

A sky that lunged at vessels caught in the lap of the sea. The sea is a fickle mistress. The sky pursues. A small shack where discreet couples share their guilt and claw each other in search of love. I remember. A haven in the midst of distressing passages.

I enter the shack with her.

Speed was my distraction. Outside, an infinitely slow clock ticked out event after event. My mother languished in the grip of ennui and sorrow. My father was bewildered by a chimerical wisp called success. School life stretched out aridly before me. People talked of corruption, dishonesty, sloth and putrefaction, unable to do anything about it.

I looked longingly at treacherous trucks roaring along the highway, local trains clattering on promiscuously intertwining tracks. I hoarded magazines with bright photos of snaky circuits and chequered flags at the ready, grinning winners shaking out froth-lines of champagne.

Speed is a noble ambition. If life is an impasse on the road to death, speed is a detour. Speed is need! I nurtured the seed of speed in my mind and it swelled and trembled, unable to sprout. When the death of Ruma, and later my mother, brought my life to a complete halt, the seed broke its seams and flowered anyhow.

Throttle was the result of the dying out of everything else.

The door is difficult to lock. She watches me with bright anticipation. ‘Darling Raju!’ She hugs me. I move strands of hair from her face and tuck them behind her ear. I bend and kiss her on the lips. Her hands press against the small of my back. She has no thought for anything else, but I’m still thinking of what the boy said. Hours are rationed out here. Do your thing and go, that’s the motto of the wayside inn. We’ve made love many times, but I’ve never felt so degraded.

When my back begins to ache, I straighten up and she protests: ‘Mmm!’

‘I’m hungry,’ I tell her.

‘So am I!’ She raises her hand to my shoulder and yanks me back.

But I pull away and unlock the door, pressing it with one hand to ease out the bolt. When I look back, she is pouting. ‘Just a sec,’ I tell her and let myself out. The boy is sitting on the sand, reading a crumpled film magazine. I feel an unreasonable rage born of my vulnerability and his control of the situation. I go up and tap him on his shoulder, looming over him. ‘Go get two plates of batata vada and two teas. Here’s the money for three hours. I’ll kill you if you disturb me before that.’ He is caught between defiance and alarm. ‘Jaldi!’

The boy moves away reluctantly. I wait till he has gone past the shack. The pages of his magazine riffle in the breeze. A crow flies down and settles near it, jerkily turning its head this way and that like an avid reader. Outside the shack, away from the door, is a small enamel plate with something that looks like a chunky square of greenish soap. ‘Lorna, come here.’ Her head pops out. ‘What’s this?’ She is still pouting. ‘That! It’s only rat poison.’ I bend to pick it up. ‘Don’t, ya,’ she cries, ‘it’s poison!’

I turn back to her. ‘What will it do, kill the rat?’ 
‘And if I eat it?’ 
‘I’ll clobber you only!’ 
‘No, seriously, what if a human eats it?’ 
‘He’ll die if he has enough.’ 
‘And this is enough?’ 
She rolls her eyes. ‘Hello, what a subject to talk now! Rat poison!’ 
She pulls me back inside.

We are in bed. She has undressed me, kissing me from shoulder to knee, but she herself is fully clothed. I feel comfortable, as if her body completes a circuit with mine. There is hardly any breeze from the discreetly located window. Her eyes are shut as I unbutton her blouse and skirt.

I study her diligently till she opens her eyes and laughs. ‘What?’

‘Nothing. Just admiring a fine work of art.’ She pulls me back.

But she is in a languorous mood. She stretches out and wants me to do everything. My fingers travel, discovering damp warmth in the underside of her breasts, moving down and tickling the flat plain of her belly. She brings her upper body close and kisses me almost painfully.

‘Come on!’ she cries, barely forming the words, and at the same time there is a knock on the door as the boy announces our batata vada.


Living in the head isn’t the easiest way to live.

Perhaps what my mother needed was some sane advice and a window that opened out to normalcy. But I indulged her fears and whims. I played mason to her architect and soon there it was—our morbid world of unreachable fantasy.

She went deeper into darkness, courting imaginary illnesses, conscious of losing her memory and cautioning me against marriage because there was a ‘family tendency’ to be indifferent and ruthless to the people you loved. Somehow the image that surfaced during her monologues wasn’t that of my father but a gently smiling old man from the suburbs taken ‘home’ by his own sons, an image that tore me up.

‘If you love someone, don’t marry her!’ It was a slogan that stayed with me until I met Ruma.

I didn’t tell my mother about Ruma until it was too late to mend matters. My father knew. My friend Shekar Gupta, unused to such nuances, found it funny that I of all people could spring my marriage like a surprise, expecting ultimate acceptance.

Then that night the engine revved and so did a terrible clawing inside my head. I felt her arms around me as I gathered speed and I must have wondered how long such happiness could last.

There is always a beginning to the end!

The engine revved. A truck was rushing up from the opposite direction. It was only an impulse that moved my arms, hands painful on the handlebars. A gentle sailing momentum, that was all it took, intensely attracted by the speed of the truck and the prospect of deserved blissful oblivion.

Happiness is dead.