Mahesh Rao: from London bookseller to award-winning author

Mahesh Rao gives a talk about his career and books on the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Mahesh Rao gives a talk about his career to date and his books on the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Mahesh Rao: from London bookseller to award-winning author

02 June 2016

By Naomi Canton

When One Point Two Billion and The Smoke is Rising were released in India, Indians “rightly viewed them with suspicion” admits award-winning Nairobi-born British author of Indian heritage Mahesh Rao.

One Point Two Billion (2015) is a collection of 13 short stories set in 13 different states in India and is Rao’s second book. His debut novel The Smoke Is Rising (2014) won The Tata Literature Live! First Book Award in the Fiction category and was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 and in the Indian Fiction category of the Crossword Books Awards 2014.

Rao, who was born in Nairobi to Indian parents who hail from Karnataka, moved to the UK aged 17 where he studied politics, economics and law at the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. He then worked as refugee lawyer in London before taking up a job at Daunts Books in Belsize Park as a bookseller. At the age of 34 he moved to Mysore in India to take up writing full-time.

“There are two types of East African Indians. There are the third and fourth generation Indians who have lived in Nairobi ever since their grandparents settled there, or people like my parents who moved there as expats to work,” Rao explained. “I was the first generation of my family to be born in Nairobi so when my parents retired in Bangalore, I also decided to move back to India.”

He now spends nine months of the year in Mysore and three months in the UK.

So why should Indians view his writing with suspicion?

“There is a tradition of foreigners pitching up in India and writing their ‘gap year’ novel,” Rao explained at the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in conversation with Sameer Rahim, arts and books editor at Prospect magazine.

Author Mahesh Rao, left, is in conversation with arts and books editor at Prospect Rameer Rahim

Author Mahesh Rao, left, is pictured in conversation with arts and books editor at Prospect Sameer Rahim

There is also the NRI [non-resident Indian] memoir genre –  often critical of India in which NRIs complain about Indian time-keeping, the toilets and so on and say nothing works, Rao said.

“So I think someone like me who comes to India and writes a book about India is rightly viewed with suspicion. With what authority are you writing? But I wrote my novel when I felt confident I wasn’t writing a disguised NRI memoir. I think when people can see that it’s ok,” he said.

He said he had been to India every year or two since as far back as he could remember but that it was important to guard against being complacent and thinking that just because of that, “you know stuff about India.”

“You have to be constantly aware of how little you know,” he said. “The first year or two I spent a lot of time soaking things up and eavesdropping, which has helped me a lot in my career just in understanding what’s going on around me,” Rao, who speaks two Indian languages, said.

Through a combination of circumstances, Rao ended up living in Mysore where famed Indian writer R.K. Narayan primarily lived and wrote. Did the author influence him?

“I loved the small town feel of his books. They are small but they contain within them such universal truths. I first came across his books as a teenager in Nairobi. He was one of the few writers who wasn’t a heavy duty classic but not trashy either and he was brown and that made a profound impression on me. I began to wonder if Malgudi [the fictional South Indian town most of his stories were set in] existed today, what would it look like and that inspired Smoke is Rising.

“Mysore is a yoga mecca,” he continued.

“I think Madonna and Sting washed up there once, so it’s very odd as you have conversations with foreigners who say ‘everything here is so pure. There is poverty but there is a certain dignity to this kind of poverty’ – what you might have expected to hear in the 60s when the Beatles were wandering around Rishikesh,” he added.

Rao explained that One Point Two Billion, his collection of short stories published by Daunt Books Publishing, came about by accident.

“I was waiting for my novel to be published and the idea of starting a new novel was dreadful and then a friend suggested I write short stories so I did and I began to find them really addictive.”

He said a novel can feel at times “like a long and loveless difficult marriage” when you don’t know why you are carrying on and what the end result will be.

“The short stories just felt like a series of these incredible intense flings one month to the other. If it wasn’t working you could drop it at any time. So I wonder will I ever get back to writing a novel?” he asked smiling.

He said writing short stories was a very different process. “You are constantly editing as you work in a way I had not with the novel. It’s very liberating to know in 3-4 weeks you are done and you can move on,” he added.

One short story in One Point Two Billion is about a man who falls in love with his daughter-in-law sparked by an anecdote Rao heard about a young woman being peered at through the window in the bathroom of the joint family household by her father-in-law.

“This kind of thing must happen a lot in India where the joint family still does exist and you have older men living near younger women and kindness and friendship can easily be mistaken for something more,” Rao said.

Another features a spoilt rich girl from Delhi. Rao admitted this story came to him the quickest and most naturally. “This seems to be my voice,” he said, “which is worrying!”

Another short story in the book is inspired by a YouTube video taken on a smartphone of a camp for adivasis (tribal villagers) displaced from their homes due to the Naxalite insurgency, which he said was happening in various states in India that “doesn’t fit into big India shining story.”

In this camp the adivasis carry on with their rivalries, old loves, hates and squabbles. Meanwhile they are also continuing their daily life. That inspired one of his stories, he said. “Imagine carrying your old love, old hate, desires for revenge and so on in this different milieu,” he told the audience.

Another story is about the akharas (traditional martial arts training schools) which exist across India. “They attract boys from poor families – the draw is that you can make a lot of money from it, if you are good. It’s a kind of pressure cooker environment like you might find in a residential ballet school – they live there, work there and train there. They are intensely competitive, there is little outside influence and there is a religious aspect to it as well.”

When asked by a member of the audience whether he had visited an akhara, he said he had not.

“I do as little research as possible. Sometimes I think research is procrastination from writing and you have to just get on with the writing. You can get too obsessed with getting it right but sometimes there isn’t really a right, especially in a country like India.”

His novel The Smoke is Rising (2014), on the other hand, is about Asia’s largest theme park – HeritageLand – coming to Mysore, putting the city, once the capital of a princely kingdom, back on the map.

“I was just desperate to get the story out as I had left it so long. It just came gushing out of me.

The Smoke is Rising traces the stories of three women through the course of a year as the theme park comes to town. “It’s very difficult being a woman in India so I wanted to look at that from three different angles and explore their lives,” he said.

One is a working class woman who works as a maid, one is lower-middle class, and one is older and privileged.

“It took me about a year to write. The narrative being debated a lot in India right now is who is India home to and what kind of India do we want? This conversation has been going on for a while but ever since Narendra Modi took over as prime minister it doesn’t seem to go away. It’s become like the USA where everything is viewed through a prism of either Republicans or Democrats. In that context this fictional heritage theme park in my novel that draws on ancient epics and tries to create an idea of a certain kind of India is apposite, but sometimes it feels like it’s not that far from reality,” he said.

The novel shows the conflict in Mysore between modernity and tradition.

Rahim then described Modi as a fusion of economic growth and modernity together with yoga, asceticism and ancientness in a “kind of weird amalgam.”

“There is something appealing about a man who has risen through the ranks and on a personal level is clean,” Rao said. “Especially in country like India where corruption is epidemic –  there is never a financial scandal about him, you can see the appeal of him in a political class that is tainted across the board – also a man who has come from humble origins – he used to be a tea seller – who was not bolstered by the Nehru dynasty.”

Mahesh Rao reads from his book at the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation

Mahesh Rao reads from one of his books at the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Why did he move to Mysore?

“I did not want to move to a big city.

“It’s a quiet place, not the bright lights city that you hear about when you hear the India shining story – nothing happens after 9pm. It feels like more a small town so it was a good place to write and I think as a writer you have to find a good time to write and it just happened to be mine. I like small cities in India,” Rao said.

“The publishing industry is based in Delhi so stories about Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata get a lot of traction because that is what agents and publishers know. That’s why I am always keen to hear stories from smaller places in India. It becomes a bit of a bubble otherwise.

“What’s incredible about India is that the stories find you,” Rao said. “You don’t have to go and look for them. You might go out for a pint of milk and you will encounter five short stories on the way there and five on the way back. It’s partly due to the density, you are at such close quarter to other people and like most writers I am a constant eavesdropper,” he added. “Partly there is so much potential for conflict all the time I think, there is a low lying aggression in India and for a writer that’s really important to feel those frictions,” he contiued.

He said he had not been back to Nairobi for more than 20 years so it would be a tall order to write about the Indian community in Kenya.

“But I am very interested in writing about Indians in London actually having lived most of my life there,” he said. “I never wanted to write about London when I was here bit but now I’ve been in India for six years I am interested in doing it. There is a pull when you are away from somewhere. I’m treating tonight as a bit of research,” he chuckled.


The evening ended with a thillana dance performed by Shoba Haridas, disciple of Usha Raghavan, Director at Kalasagara UK

Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer Peter Popham will speak about his critically acclaimed book The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s struggle for freedom  at Asia House on 21 July.  For more information click here.