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October 05, 2018

Author Kalpana Swaminathan On the Joys Of Living With Her Character Lalli The Detective

Text by Huzan Tata. Photographs by Joshua Navalkar

What’s it like for authors to grow with protagonists that they write about over multiple books? Acclaimed writer Kalpana Swaminathan talks about her favourite leading lady, Lalli the detective, from her series of crime mysteries

How did the character Lalli first come to be — when you were first writing her, did you already know she would appear in later books?
I ‘met’ Lalli on a bus, in 1994, on my way to work. I noticed something which puzzled me, and suddenly there was this voice in my head that thought it curious too. I had to get on with my day, but she — the voice — got on with the mystery. On the way back home, she had the solution. I liked her. All I knew about her then was her name, but she was intelligent and non-intrusive. I had no idea she would go beyond that first mystery, but she raced through a dozen at breakneck speed, and we made a book of it. Cryptic Death and Other Stories was a collection of short stories. A short story demands a pointillist craft, so initially I was quite content to deal with Lalli as a chance encounter. And twenty years later, I returned to that craft with Murder In Seven Acts to find out if she could still surprise me.

Coming back to characters after a break — do you sometimes hit a roadblock?
When I began the short story The Page 3 Murders that featured Lalli 10 years after Cryptic Death, I knew that gap just was an illusion. The characters had lived on silently till they were ready to speak. Characters are like children. They are birthed fully-developed, fit for survival. They must be given the freedom to come and go as they like. They cannot be bullied to perform. Roadblocks only appear when there’s a definite goal. Fiction finds its own road, in its own time. Non-fiction calls for maps, compasses, that sort of baggage, but fiction is like the wind in my hair, the open road, the stars when I can read them.

Do you have a process to keep these characters ‘alive’? How often did you have to refer to your first book while developing the characters further?
Ouch, no to the first question. Characters write themselves anywhere, and at any time. Lalli first appeared on the back of an old envelope — I still have it somewhere. Inspector Shukla popped up after a traffic cop stopped me, and we got chatting. Your second question reminds me of Conan Doyle’s famous gaffe about Dr Watson’s old injury. Dr Watson’s leg throbs occasionally from the bullet that hit him during the Battle of Maiwand, but on other occasions he recalls how it grazed his subclavian artery — which lurks behind the collar. ‘Mr. Holmes would have said, “It should be evident to the meanest intelligence that good Dr Watson was shot twice”’.

How do your recurring characters compare with those you will never revisit?
Recurring characters grow. They reveal new personality traits, likes, passions, despairs and disappointments. They interest me, which is why they recur. They are never integral to the plot, but deeply integral to the narrative. Characters I may not revisit carry the story forward by event or attitude, and end with that. I like my recurring characters, even the villains. I don’t have to like the others.

When you write characters that ‘grow’ with each book, do you grow with them too?
Hopefully, I grow with each book, but not with characters. They have lives and growth curves of their own. Thankfully, they don’t age at the same pace as me. I wrote Murder In Seven Acts to celebrate 20 years with Lalli. Each story in that explores an aspect of our shared life, its challenges and pleasures. Read the book, to discover what living with Lalli is like.

What is the greatest challenge and joy of writing characters that readers fall in love with and want to see more of?
The greatest challenge is to let them do as they want, even when it quarrels with what I want to do. In Greenlight, Lalli did a few things that I wouldn’t have let her do if I’d had my way. A forthcoming book has her using music to solve a mystery, much against my will. And Shukla becomes a poet. I never know what they’ll do next — and that’s the greatest joy of writing them.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?
I read everything, good, bad, and indifferent. My bookshelf is just as random. At present, the case book of Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, nestles between Who We Are and How We Got Here, the dazzling story of population genetics, and a new translation of Lakshmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre.

What’s next for Lalli? Do characters that you frequently write become a part of your subconscious?
I’ll answer your second question first. Yes, Lalli’s coterie is part of my subconscious. When the going gets tough, Sita maddens me, Shukla makes me laugh, Savio restores my sanity and Lalli offers me a simple pleasure that refreshes the soul. Sure, I like these guys. I hope you do too! What’s next? I’m hoping to hear more about Lalli’s own life — but all in good time. Meanwhile, with music, art and fine dining, may we also offer murder?

Author Speak
“We’ve made a kind of life together.”

Lalli was nothing like the woman I was prepared to encounter. Oh, she was old, alright. Sixty, I think, and nondescript is the word that applies (I was an ageist 30-something when I wrote that, all unknowing that 60 arrives in a blink).

In her first book, Lalli whizzed through 12 adventures in that atmosphere of vagueness. Cryptic Death should have been titled Cryptic Sleuth. And then, she turned her back on me for nearly a decade.

In that interval, I wrote a crime novel, Bougainvillea House, which pleased everyone and irritated Lalli into breaking her long silence.

At last, I had a good clear look at Lalli. I now knew what she looked like, and how she dressed. As her extracurricular life unravelled, so did her career graph. She had gone, quite without warning, from being ‘something clerkish in the police’ to Last Resort Lalli. Unsolved Homicide files, with ‘L. R.’ scrawled on them, arrived every week.

Over my second cup of coffee I remarked how difficult it must be to get any detecting done in a place like this.

‘Do you think it would be easier anywhere else?’ Lalli smiled.

So I accepted Lalli’s invitation to a villa by the sea for a foodie weekend, and wrote The Page 3 Murders.

Since then, we’ve made a kind of life together.

…it is Lalli I write for.

-Kalpana Swaminathan

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