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Monday, 2 November 2020

Manual For A Decent Life: a novel by Kavita A. Jindal

I am delighted to welcome Kavita A. Jindal onto the Blog today. Kavita is here to talk about her novel ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ winner of the Brighthorse Prize for Novel and now published by Linen Press. I know Kavita's writing from The Whole Kahini, you can read about their anthology 'May We Borrow Your Country' here. LitPig is also chuffed to learn Kavita is a fan of Walnut Whips (a big favourite in our household). My review follows at the end of the interview …


Kavita A. Jinda
l is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in anthologies and literary journals worldwide and been broadcast on BBC Radio and European radio stations. She is the author of the novel Manual For A Decent Life which won the Brighthorse Prize as a manuscript. She has published two poetry collections to critical acclaim: Patina and Raincheck Renewed. She also writes short stories and essays. She's worked as an editor for literary journals and she's the co-founder of 'The Whole Kahani' writers' collective. In common with The Literary Pig's owner, Kavita regularly consumes walnut whips. 

Manual For A Decent Life:

India, 1996. Waheeda, a principled and spirited young woman from Uttar Pradesh sets her sights on becoming a Member of Parliament. But her romance with the scion of a Delhi business dynasty threatens that dream. Manual for a Decent Life plays out against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in


Indian politics in a world where nothing is what it seems and danger lurks at every turn.

 This ambitious novel is both epic and intimate as Jindal moves seamlessly between domestic family scenes, the passion of an illicit love affair and the instability of political parties vying for power at any cost. The fast-paced, plot-driven drama unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of India in the 1990s. The writing is accomplished, the story is thrilling with a bombshell of an ending.

Q- Can you share how you came to write ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ and tell us more about its path to publication?

This has been a long-haul project, with a meandering and tortured path to completion. I started the book about ten years ago after I’d completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. I’d already written and published poetry and short stories but wanted to tell this particular story as it was based on my observations in North India from when I was a young adult and volunteered to help during elections. The narrative is completely fictitious as are the main characters, but the backdrop to their lives is real as is the social context. The novel is not set at the time that I myself observed elections, but a bit later, in the closing years of the twentieth century. This is because India was entering the digital era, alongside the rest of the globe, and things were changing dramatically. Political agendas were getting even more skewed than before. I hoped that some of the social issues, especially the treatment of women, would be different in the 21st century. I cannot say that there hasn’t been progress, but it is so little, and the crimes perpetrated against women are still not punished severely enough, that it’s dispiriting. 

A separate interest of mine is a general record of the times and the clash between rural and urban India. In the metropolises of India wealthy people can live in a kind of societal freedom to be had in Western cities and I wanted to write about that bubble, where women and men can attempt to carve out alternative destinies for themselves, than what is being dictated to them. However, one of the themes of the book is that no one can escape the tentacles or effects of politics or gossip.

I did a lot of research, following the trajectories of women politicians in all regions of India and from all religions, just so that I had a lot of information to draw on for the steps my fictitious protagonists would take. 

The reason the book took ten years from inception to publication is that I wrote a few chapters every year – that’s all I could manage. In my head I had the story, and I had all the complex characters who people the novel, and all the episodes that make up the book, so it was a question of finding blocks of time in my schedule to set it down on paper. Or rather, in a Word folder on the computer.

In an echo of what so many other authors have probably told you, the actual publication happened because at the very last minute of the Brighthorse prize deadline a friend sent me the link and said ‘You have a completed novel. Don’t you?’ The submission required a full manuscript. And yes, I did have one, having finally re-written and edited till I was pleased with it and I was sending it out instead of just talking about it. Some months later I heard, out of the blue, that I’d won the prize. Publication would happen soon. That was at the end of 2018, and the book was published by Brighthorse in early 2020, so there was a wait of another year. Because Brighthorse is a small indie outfit, they agreed that I could find another publisher for the UK edition once the US edition was released. This is where Linen Press came into the picture and is now launching the UK paperback of Manual For A Decent Life.  

Q- The title is unusual, how did you decide on this? I’d be interested to know if the title is something you have right from the onset of writing or does it evolve out of the narrative?

The title has generated a lot of interest. I chose this title at the stage of the final edit of the manuscript. Before that, for several years, the book had another working title. When I started the novel that other title felt right and there was a chapter that alluded to it, but that chapter was cut when I re-structured the book a few years ago. I don’t recall how this title came to me, but I knew it fitted the theme of the book which questions ‘what is decency?’ The word holds different meanings for different people especially in hypocritical societies. Who is decent and who isn’t? Are the people who consider themselves better than others more decent, as they think they are?

In another sense, that of a self-help book, if you will, ‘Manual For A Decent Life’ also sets out pathways to achieving what each individual may consider a decent life for themselves, and for dealing with consequences. But this is really for the reader to fathom, and as I’ve discovered, several have ascribed their own meanings to the title.  

Q- I am in awe how you write across different forms. You have publication credits for novels, short stories and poetry, which is impressive. When an idea begins to stir do you instinctively know which form it will take or does this change at all during the process?

Oh, thank you, Tracy. I am just happy that I’m able to write. 

To answer your question though, I do know which form a particular piece will take. Poems come unbidden usually and I don’t change them into another form even if I spend a long time re-drafting and crafting into a piece I’m happy with. Short stories begin with a germ of an idea and as I’m writing them I begin to figure out where they are going and how long the piece is going to be. A short short story or a long one?

As for novels, well, I have two ideas on the back burner, hopefully one of them will move to the front burner soon, and I do know they have to be novels because there is so much I want to fit into those particular narratives – so much about “place” and so much about people’s emotions and motivations and the general craziness of our current world.

Q- All writers have their own process, what triggers a new piece and how do you take it through early drafting to publication?

I have a lot of ideas and observations noted down for future pieces of writing. I also clip stories out of the newspaper almost every day. When I’m drafting a piece of work I never think of publication. I really want to set down something that is unhampered by thoughts of ‘is this publishable?’ or ‘what will somebody think when they read this?’ I absolutely want to write how I want to write and say what I want to say. 

However, at the next stage, when I’m preparing to submit for publication, I cast an editor’s eye over the poem or story. I try to be a stranger reading it and I do make changes that I think will work better for publication. Then it’s a case of submitting, and getting on with other things, so that there are no expectations, and when I hear back that a piece is being published, I’m simply happy.

Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

I’m preparing a manuscript of collected short stories that I would like to see published in book form. 

Q – Most importantly where can we buy a copy of Manual For A Decent Life?

Lots of buying options:

1) From the Linen Press website.

2) Order in bookstores or online from Waterstones, Foyles and some other retailers. 

3) It’s also available at Amazon.

You can learn more about Kavita from:

www.kavitajindal.com 

Twitter: @writerkavita 

facebook.com/kavitajindalauthor

My review:

I confess to knowing nothing about life or politics in Indian in the late 1990s, but that made the whole reading experience of ‘Manual for a decent life’ by Kavita A. Jindal all the more intriguing and sweeter. Within pages I cared about Waheeda, her aspirations and dreams, and was quickly immersed in her world. Social constraints have Waheeda trapped in a marriage where her husband no longer wants her in his life, yet they have a daughter, precious to both of them, and cannot separate formally. Pushed into a new political role where she finds herself a candidate in the local elections, Waheeda finds her private life on display at all times and governed by the strict rules of her society and culture. Amidst this scrutiny she risks everything by falling for Monish, a younger Hindu man from a wealthy and influential family, and has to hide their passionate relationship with constant lies and secrecy. We see how complex and dangerous political canvassing is for a female candidate, yet Waheeda bravely embraces the challenge and uses her influence to improve the lives for school-age girls. The final outcome is tragic and heart-breaking as Waheeda’s family is once again ripped apart by violence. 

I enjoyed the rich details of Waheeda’s world in this novel and found it an absorbing story of two people who really should be together but because of social, family and religious rules have to deceive everyone around them for any chance of love. What surprised me was how both men and women are constrained by rigid social rules, neither can find true freedom to simply be themselves or follow their dreams. Lyrical prose and great characters kept me hooked to the end.


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