I wanted to explore the process of immigration and what drives people to leave their homeland, the feeling of belonging, and the compromises we are willing to make to be accepted in foreign lands.
You have an almost fifty-year career as a psychiatrist, practicing in different countries around the world. What drew you to choose this career and how did it influence your writing?
My life has been charted by serendipity. Chance events and circumstances have shaped my career as well. Back in the fifties and sixties in India, there were only two popular options available to students. You either took math and became an engineer or you took biology and became a doctor. As I was terrible in math, I was forced to take biology and earned enough marks to enter the MD stream! Then I went to England for higher studies in Internal Medicine. A degree from the UK was highly valued then. However, getting a permanent job in Internal Medicine was difficult for doctors from overseas, especially from India. Psychiatry as a vocation was more easily available and I decided to pursue it. As luck would have it, I liked it and was drawn into it. Looking back, I am glad that I chose it.
I love talking to people as everyone has a story to tell. I enjoy interacting with them to learn how they think and act. I think I am a good listener. My wife often says that a total stranger on a plane would have shared their entire life story with me by the time the plane has landed!
I suppose my profession as a psychiatrist has helped me in the art of making a conversation. Creativity and its link with mental health has been much speculated about. Great people like Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Van Gogh, and Hemingway have suffered from mental illness.
Creative imagination is unique to human beings and is a source of our cultural achievement. It is an ability to write stories by exploring the unknown, to create something new, to perceive reality in novel ways, and to dare to put it to paper. Writing this novel was perhaps an attempt to express my views and beliefs on culture, history, human behaviour, and conflicts of migration and integration.
The Reunion is about six close friends from India who reunite in the United States after fifty years of leading very different lives. The book shows their transition through different careers and their lives in different places. What inspired you to write this book?
That is an excellent question. These characters evolved as I wrote. I did not have a specific idea or plot in mind at the outset. I did have some themes in mind like childhood experiences, parent-child relationships, and the role of personality and environmental influences and how they might influence human behaviour. I also wanted to explore the process of immigration and what drives people to leave their homeland, the feeling of belonging, and the compromises we are willing to make to be accepted in foreign lands. Some of these themes are woven into the lives of the six boys in the novel.
As for why I chose to write? The simple answer was to find out if I could! A self-fulfilling prophecy. And this particular story because it had to be about people who felt like me growing up in a multicultural community in India. Also, as it was during the Covid period of grief and isolation, it gave me a chance to escape into the lives of these characters. A different world to stay sane I suppose.
When did you begin work on the story? What did your writing process look like?
As I said, it was during the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 that I began to write. In terms of the process, I was aware that creative writing is different from writing the scientific papers that I was familiar with. It had to be approached from a different perspective. While one is structured with a set hypothesis and a methodology, the other is about telling a story. Our brains are uniquely wired to receive information presented as a narrative. I tried to build the characters in a way that would stay in the reader’s mind as companions. We remember the characters from great novels long after we have read them. Who can forget Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?
I had to put some distance between myself and the story to be able to look at things from the outside. And then I embed facts with experiences to give them context, meaning, and relevance. I wrote the first draft by hand. This is generational, I suppose, as I can think better as I write rather than type. I wrote in the mornings lying in bed as I feel most relaxed in this way.
My wife Suha is an avid reader and helped me along the process with her valuable comments and suggestions.
The book gives readers a lot of insight into cultural diversity and the human experience as well. The characters in The Reunion struggle with immigration, not fitting in, or have a hard time meeting their families’ expectations. What drew you to write about these themes?
Yes, I find the themes of culture, diversity, and immigration quite compelling, even intriguing. Readers get absorbed in this drama as they might identify themselves in it either as an immigrant or as a host. We also learn about the countries from which the characters emigrated and the countries they settled in. The drama of leaving one’s homeland because of war, repression, poverty, or simply to better one’s life. The culture shock, the negative and positive encounters, and the challenges of integration while trying to maintain one’s own identity are all familiar themes that make a novel engaging. We can all relate to such works of fiction. At the end of the day, it is about ourselves, how we feel, and how comfortable we are with the decisions and choices we have made in our own lives.
The Reunion is your first novel. How does it feel to have your book available to readers?
To give rise to the existence of a novel that was previously not there is a very special and gratifying feeling. This might be similar to creating a new painting or carving an artifact or coming up with a new concept. When I saw the book displayed in the Indigo bookstore in Toronto I could not believe my eyes. It was surreal. If my late father, a man with a ready wit, were here, he might have said, “ This proves that the age of miracles is not yet over!” Every writer seeks to produce a bestseller. Very few succeed. So, you have to deal with the risk of uncertainty and failure. It comes down to reconciling one’s hopes and expectations with a reality that might not be comforting. For me, it was an end in itself as I was writing for myself. Thankfully, my livelihood does not depend on it. My heart goes out to young writers who have chosen this as their vocation. Publishing is a risky enterprise. In this fiercely competitive world, one might need a second job to finance the luxury of writing. My book has done better than I ever expected. For this, I am grateful. To be featured in your newsletter is a privilege.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I am currently back to reading novels by other authors. I belong to a book club that compels me to read a book or novel chosen by someone else. Life is back to routine. As for what is next, I will leave it again to chance and serendipity! It has served me well thus far. Why rock the boat now?
Thank you for the honour of featuring me in your esteemed newsletter.