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September 15, 2006

Stretching Horizons

Text by Nisha Paul

She speaks fluent Italian and has spent most of her life in Europe. Sipping white wine whilst tucking into a healthy salad at Pizza Express in London, Reshma Ruia spills the beans about her first book, Something Black in the Lentil Soup, which is the literal translation of the Hindi phrase, ‘dal mein kuch kaala hai’

Her humour lies in her irreverent portrayal of the collision of three cultures: British, Indian and British-Indian. And despite the emotional predicament of the self-deluding central protagonist, the cultural reversal and the frame of reference in which it occurs is refreshing. She switches topics easily and is able to amuse the reader with a plethora of entertaining characters, reminiscent of the ’70s. The plot of Something Black in the Lentil Soup, revolves around the changing fortunes of a virginal middle aged Indian male, Kavi Naidu. He is a wannabe poet who is catapulted from the humdrum routine of Delhi to the heady distractions of London as a keen contender for the prestigious Commonwealth Literary Prize. His rival is the debonair Seth, whose sophisticated style is a perfect foil for Naidu’s clumsy eager naivete. Readily shrugging off his vows of chastity, Naidu succumbs to the charms of Naina Mistry, the sultry wife of the Indian high commissioner, who with her ‘jamun lips and plunging neckline’ introduces him to London’s literary high-fliers whilst playing a game of sexual hide-and-seek with him. NISHA PAUL in conversation with the debutante author:

“I am always aware of boundaries, geographical, cultural or emotional….”
My main premise as a writer whether it’s prose or poetry, is the discovery of the differences in these boundaries. What happens when these borders are challenged, redefined or clash, whether it’s between men and women or cultures. This is my first book and writers have a thin layer of sensitivity. I am vulnerable too. But I was lucky to receive complimentary reviews and I have to take the criticism positively and go on improving and honing my skills.

“I would like to see Something Black in the Lentil Soup made into a film….”
As it has all the appealing ingredients for a crossover theme and it’s highly visual with vivid characters portraying extreme types. And especially nowadays as there is a growing world audience for the genre of such films. My favourite character is the central protagonist, Kavi Naidu who with all his shortcomings, is a loveable and fallible person. Humans inspire and fascinate me because they are so flawed and work hard at camouflaging it.

“I am a hybrid creature, a portable person and carry my roots in my suitcase….”
You can call me a displaced entity as I have had to reincarnate myself several times since my childhood. I was born in a small sleepy village called Motihari on the Nepal and Bihar border. My father was in the IAS, so the early part of my childhood was spent in Bihar and then in Delhi as he was with the government. Then he moved to the UN as a diplomat and we went to Rome when I was nine years old. The most formative years of my childhood were spent there till I came to London to study at the London School of Economics. And after my graduation I went back to Rome to work for the UN as a development economist.

“Marriage happened by chance as I met my husband accidentally….”
At a party in Mumbai, where I wasn’t supposed to be and being the resourceful person that he is, he did his research. Soon after a whirlwind courtship, he proposed to me and we got married and moved to Paris. We now live in Manchester with our two children. My children don’t speak any Italian and sometimes burst out laughing when occasionally I lapse into those mannerisms.

“Most writers will agree that books are like a mosaic sculpture….”
They do mirror different aspects of life and the truth is usually embroidered but certain ideas are taken from observations of real people. In my book, the character of Naina Mistry is taken from a lady I used to know very well And also when Kavi Naidu visits Lord Winneburg’s mansion, it’s from my own personal experience as I have actually attended a dinner party there and wanted to project the surreal humour that was so apparent.

“The British Asian persona today is different….”
I find it’s a primitive throwback to what it used to be in the ’70s, which is the period in which I deliberately based the book. In those days, the whole emphasis was on blending in and formulating a British identity whereas now it’s more about going back to your old Indian roots. I want to stretch my horizons as a writer and don’t want to be known as someone who specialises in Indian themes only. Just like western writers can get under the skin of a Japanese geisha or a Jamaican tourist, I want to take that leap of imagination into the future because human emotions are universal. I am working on two books – a collection of poetry which deals with the changing faces of life and how our emotions affect us, and the other is a contemporary love story set in Rome and India and deals with a clash of cultural identities.

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