“Murder Is Just One Of The Things We Do”: Surgeon Duo Kalpish Ratna On Crime Fiction, And More

Posted on January 23, 2015 in Books, Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

This post is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the HT Crime Writers Festival:

By Kanika Katyal:

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“The first thing about medical history in India is that you have to excavate it. Practically an archaeological job”, said writer Kalpana Swaminathan at ‘ABC of Murder’ – her talk at the Crime Writers Festival on 18th January, 2015. Kalapana has won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2009 for Venus Crossing and is famous for her woman detective character Lalli, who’s silver-haired and stylish and a rarity in the world of crime dominated by men.

A team of two, Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed are both surgeons who write under the name Kalpish Ratna. Famous for their book The Quarantine Papers, they are all set to bring out their latest Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague, which takes a Holmesian look at the forgotten truths of the Bombay Plague of 1896. “A doctor doesn’t look too much into the history of medicine past the history of his/her patient, but the two of us have been impelled and driven by the injustices that we see in the way medicine is practiced and perceived in the country. When we started digging, we found thrillers waiting for us, thrillers waiting to be written.”

The writers narrate the lack of personal accounts and names in the official hospital records. All that they saw were statistics. When they chose to look beyond the official version, and include personal human stories into their book, they were charged with the typical label of furnishing a ‘revisionist’ history, because “(as far as the medical history of the plague is concerned) the narrative (given to us) has always been a western narrative, that of a tourist, which he embroidered further and which is taken as truth, whereas our stories are dimmed by time.” ‘So, revisionist according to whom? Subaltern according to whose point of view?’ they ask.

“Our country is unique in the sense that archaeology and everyday life go hand in hand,” explains Ishrat Syed. “We don’t need to create stories. Stories are there” adds Kalpana.

With our fedoras on, and with their surgical skills to match, YKA gets the writer duo to spill – on their new book, crime fiction, writing as a team and much more.

1. On Art and Science being seen as diametrically opposite to each other:

K: No, we don’t believe that. We believe that science has its true place in humanity and therefore, there’s no difference. Every science should be regarded as an art, whether you look at the science of Chemistry or Physics.

I: When curricular are made for students, we classify certain things as art and certain things as science. Actually, there is art in science and science in art. If you take art out of science or if you take science out of art, there is nothing. So, they are just one thing, just aspects of one entity.

K: Look at music. Look at paintings, there’s mathematics. Look at the sculptures and the geometry. What are those things?

I: And the common threads are the rules of nature which govern everything.

K: Just look at the leaves behind you and you have the answer.

2. On being called Crime Fiction Writers

I: Murder is just one of the things we do.

K: You just write, you know. “Kya niklega, kya maaloom ismein se (you don’t know what comes out of it)”

I: For crime to be truly crime, it has to be a noun and verb.

3. On what makes murder the most popular mystery in crime fiction

K: Well, because it’s the most awful thing that can happen.

I: And when we are reading it, we are secretly happy that it’s happening to someone else. We are safe. (laughs) Thank God it’s happening to that man!

4. On writing as a team

K: Well, we always hope that we will write one decent sentence.

I: And then you keep attempting to write sentences…

K: Until there is a book!

I: …and then lines become paragraphs and paragraphs become chapters, and chapters, if you’re lucky, become books. Sometimes you do a chapter and it stays a chapter for a long period of time. Then suddenly something happens, which shakes you out of wherever you are and that chapter which you had written starts making sense.

5. On creating a woman detective, Lalli, and if gender impacts writing

K: Well, first of all, I don’t think gender impacts anything. Or we can also say that gender impacts everything. But in writing you have to forget that. Your gender should not come between you and the page and that’s very important. Because whether you’re a woman or a man, your writing should transcend you otherwise it makes no sense.

Secondly, if you choose a character, Lalli could just as well have been a man. But she just turned out to be a woman. We don’t really choose how a character happens. Just as you write at that moment and if we are people you seem to like, they come down on the page and they stay with you.

6. On the purpose behind their new book Room 000.

I: The main purpose is to bring the human factor of an epidemic to the page. People think of a disease, of people dying in the millions, “Oh! The horror of it.”

You start looking at something else. Our purpose was that individual human stories, of the patients, of the families, of the doctors, of the people who suffered, of the people who wrote the history, of the people who tried to limit the disease, whether they were goras or kalas. So, they (goras) had an agenda of how to save the disease. Our people had only one agenda, how to stay alive when there is no cure available. So, the humanity and the tragedies of individual Indians which get lost in the narrative history. That’s what we wanted.

K: This book was actually written for very young people. When I say that I don’t mean that written for young adults or a children’s book. But it is meant for people who are growing up in this country. People in their twenties, in the late teens, because they should know how to look at things happening around them and what had happened to us at a time when we failed to do that, when mistakes should not be repeated. Also, the stories of these people are stories of you and me. They are stories of young people like you.

I: And it’s a strange coincidence of what happened when this book was being edited, and it was already in the process of publication. The world woke up to the fact that right in the middle of Africa there was an Ebola epidemic.

For Kalpana and I, something had hit us on our heads. The thing that we had written about a hundred years ago, it wasn’t the same disease, but the same nonsense is still happening now in today’s age!

So, we are a hundred years ahead. When Bombay had the plague in 1986, people did not believe in the germ theory of disease. They did not believe that a bacterium could cause a disease. There were no antibiotics. Today we have antibiotics, we have the germ theory of disease, we are so well equipped as medical people to take care of disease. And look at what is happening, right at our doorstep! So what have we learnt? It is as though the past 120 years did not happen! So, if we can read these stories which are all true and find a solution for what is happening today and learn from these things that we should have already learnt; if this becomes a primer to handle epidemic disease today, I think Kalpana and I would have succeeded.

One thought though persists. Crime fiction usually makes for a best seller, because it’s seen as presenting to the audience the ‘whole package’. The writer’s response restore the profundity back in the air: “A writer is not supposed to write something which makes money. You don’t write to make money. You only write to make money if you’re writing a book. Writers don’t write books. Writers just write” Kalpish Ratna, signing off.


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Kalpish Ratna

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What does your writing space look like?

K: Look around, this is my work space. Wherever I stand is my work space.
I: Very meticulous and very rigidly controlled.

The view from your window…

K: The exciting part of the view from my window is a bird’s nest.
I: Is of a wisteria bush that I’ve planted, right now it is winter but in four months time, it will be full of purple flowers.

That what keeps you from writing/work…

K: Nothing keeps me from writing, when I want to write, I write.
I: Actually nothing keeps me from writing. My work is surgery so even when I’m working, somewhere in my brain I’m always writing.

What aspiring authors must not do…

K: Aspiring writers must aspire.
I: Is to stop aspiring.

Tea Or Coffee?

K: Coffee.
I: Coffee always.

Early Bird or Creature of the Night?

K: Early Bird.
I: Both. Depending on what kind of surgical emergencies I’m faced with.

Road trip or flying?

K: Both.
I: Both.

Okay to sip wine while writing?

K: Not while writing.
I: I think I will take a real glass of wine after I have finished my work for the day.

What do you do when you hit the mythical Writer’s Block?

K: (It’s) Mythical.
I: I read myth.

And where does one find that mystical Muse?

K: Inside oneself.
I: I usually find it in my daughters or failing that I find it in myself.

If not a writer, you’d be?

K: I don’t know, really.
I: I already am a surgeon.

A character of your own creation you have fallen for?

K: The next character I’m going to invent.
I: Oh, that’s very easy ! It’s Yashoda in Quarantine Papers, I love her.

A character from a movie or book you wish you could be…

K: Almost everyone – one, one day, the other one, the next.
I: I wish I could be Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and take revenge on everyone.

A book’s ending you wish you could change (not yours) and how…

K: None. I love the endings of all the books I love.
I: See the books that I like, I feel all have the ending that I like.

Critical acclaim or crazy screaming fans in a mosh pit?

K: Oh I’d love the crazy screaming fans! I’ve never had them.
I: Why not both? [/alert]