AUGUST 23, 2014
IT WAS 2010 and I was a newbie on Facebook. I received a friend request from someone named Arindam Roy. We had no virtual friends in common, so I clicked his About tab. When I saw he was a journalist from northern India, I accepted. Arindam messaged his thanks and I offered to send him my latest book. “That’s very sweet of you,” he typed. Was this Indian effusiveness or male condescension? Less than 50 words exchanged and already an opportunity for cross-cultural misunderstanding. I’m glad to say the American feminist in me held her fire.
Arindam gave me his snail-mail address in Allahabad, saying his adult son, Aniruddha, loved reading mysteries. After receiving the book, he got back in touch to ask me some questions. He was a gifted interviewer and loved delving into people’s lives. I expressed interest in his story as well. Arindam revealed that he was born and raised in Allahabad, had earned a master’s in English literature, and then disappointed his father by becoming a journalist instead of a professor. I told him about my childhood in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the Bronx and how my family fragmented when I was 11.
“So much pain to carry around,” he remarked. Not for the first time I was taken aback by his directness and the compassion in his tone.
Being writers, it was natural for us to see these exchanged confidences as possible source material for a story — but Arindam and I still disagree on which of us first suggested we collaborate on a novel.
I do remember him telling me how the Lotus, the national flower of India, sprouts underwater and grows upward through the muck to bloom on the surface. “In the East there is a different concept of good and evil,” he texted. “Here we see everyone as moving toward enlightenment, no matter who you are or what your position in society.”
“That differs radically from the premise of most thrillers written in the West,” I said. “These books plunge us into a total darkness. They are based on the premise that even the best people are drawn to darkness and evil people are banished forever from the light.” All the same, the mystery writer in me wondered: if the Lotus were the heroine of a story, who might her antagonist be? Perhaps the Lion, with its natural ferocity and greedy appetite?
“The Lion and the Lotus,” I said, and suddenly we had our two main characters.
“The Lotus is Shakti, the female principle,” Arindam typed.
Yellow lotus is gold, sun, fertility — the ripeness of mustard and many flowers. The Lion is its opposite — it strikes fear, devours, kills … but they are both yellow. They are polarities … two parallel lines that meet only in eternity to balance one another and give us the dialectics of creation.
I was hooked.
From that point on, the tiny chat window in Facebook became an overheated workspace, with plot points, bits of dialogue, and character descriptions flying back and forth as fast as we could type them. We began to hold story conferences via Skype.
As in any collaboration, there was a lot of give and take (read full-on tug of war) with two strong personalities digging in their heels. Every now and then voices were raised, in the form of capital letters typed in the IM window, as we learned how to compromise.
As a writer of fiction I’m addicted to conflict as the engine that moves a plot forward. Arindam was adamant about preserving the innocent childhood of one of our main characters, Shankar Chatterjee. My co-author resisted any efforts of mine to put Shankar and his parents at odds with each other, possibly over his association with a best friend from a lower caste. Arindam wanted the profound contrast between Shankar’s idyllic Bengali upbringing in Allahabad and the chapters set in New York, where his eventual wife, Marilyn, grows up in a dysfunctional family.
At other times, Arindam’s 30 years’ experience as a journalist made him reluctant to take the flights of fancy sometimes crucial to creating a fictitious world. When I proposed that Shankar join the Dalit Panthers while attending college, Arindam shot down this idea and backed up his position with a long message explaining that in India, only Dalits (Untouchables) would be actively involved in their own fight for equality. How different from the wide net cast by the civil rights movement in the United States.
Somehow our fictional characters survived not only intact but also with added dimensions that tended to reflect our own creative differences. For example, the love story between Shankar and Marilyn at the center of the book is a basically positive relationship that sometimes flounders due to miscommunication. Sound familiar?
Divvying up the work was the trickiest part. Arindam has an unfailing feel for tight story structure that comes from years spent writing to newsroom word limits. He also carries 5,000 years of South Asian history and culture in his head to draw on. I have an ear for dialogue, an eye for events that cause characters to grow, and a knack for scene writing. Once we learned how to stay out of each other’s way, the book took shape. At least enough for us to realize that it was time for me to travel to India so we could work out the subtleties in person.
Leaving my hotel in Allahabad, I took my first walk on an Indian “marg.” The chaotic mixture of cars, scooters, and bicycle rickshaws zipped past me, my only company a long-horned cow whose sacredness kept him safer than any pedestrian crazy enough to dodge across the street. The sweat poured down my back, adding a visceral touch, and my heart beat a little faster. But I also felt a shower of déjà vu. This could easily have been a scene from our book, written at my desk in Seattle. It felt familiar.
In the evening, my hosts came by to pick me up, and Arindam’s wife Ruma put me at ease, joking about her husband’s nonstop backseat driving on the way home to a delicious dinner.
The next day, I dropped in on the school we had used as the setting for chapter two. And there he was in his blue, starched uniform: the spitting image of Shankar, striding across the playfield, big as life, smiling at me.
Arindam and I met frequently, discussing how to develop our characters more deeply. We also found an unexpected theme running through the book. “Each of our characters faces a life threatening situation in his or her own way,” he said. “And now I see that, when we reach the end, it is mainly the women who have prevailed.”
I took a deep breath. Was he unhappy? Had I come all this way only to be asked to rewrite the climax we had so carefully planned?
“It’s okay with me,” Arindam added, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
It is always a challenge for writers to preserve the initial intent of their work. And when two “parents” are involved, chances are good that one will be over-protective and the other a more zealous advocate for change (that would be me). We had made our compromises — killed off some of our darlings and eluded our own egos in the service of something we trusted to have more value than our own parochial desires might have dictated. The resulting hybrid was not what either of us would have, or could have, written by ourselves.
Sitting in the hotel garden, over cups of spiced masala tea, with the birds chattering in the trees and the sounds of the Indian street outside, my co-author and now dear friend and I were sure we were right to have persevered. But whether we were finally successful we have to leave, of course, for readers to decide.
The novel will be released later this year by Vitasta Publishing in New Delhi, and in the US and Europe shortly thereafter. Arindam and I are still hard at work on our final task, egging each other on and coming up with temporary compromises, but we have yet to work it out: we are trying to agree on the title.