Janhavi Acharekar: “Mumbai needs to rediscover its history”
Janhavi Acharekar’s recently-released first novel Wanderers, All is an ambitious romp through the history of Goa and Maharashtra. The book follows the family tree of Murlidhar Khedekar, who moved to Bombay from a village in the Konkan in the early 20th-century to join Marathi theatre. He’d been reared on theatre in his village, which was introduced to drama by his father Gajanan, a goldsmith who’d spent his early years in Bombay watching nataks. When he fails to become an actor, Murlidhar joins the city police. Running parallel to Murlidhar’s narrative is the story of a 35-year-old woman, set in the present, on a road trip through Goa, where her family has its roots. Acharekar, 41, a freelance writer living in Mumbai, has written short stories and travel guide of Mumbai and Goa. In an email interview, she told us how her family’s history inspired her to write a novel. Edited excerpts:
What was the starting point of the book?
The book had lived in my head as an idea for a while but it was really the short story ‘Freedom at Midnight’ from my collection Window Seat: Rush-hour Stories From the City that started me off. The main protagonist in this story appears as one of the secondary characters in Wanderers, All as does another character from the story ‘Birthday Party’ in the same collection.
Could you describe the process of research?
My grandfather had penned down the family history and that inspired my novel. Although I was relatively familiar with the era that I was writing about, I knew very little about the history of Marathi theatre and even less about the history of the police in Bombay. I depended almost entirely on libraries and a few helpful individuals. In Mumbai, I frequented the Maharashtra State Archives, the Asiatic Library, the National Centre for the Performing Arts library. The Goa University Library was kind enough to give me access to rare books in the Pissurlencar collection. The city and police historian Deepak Rao is a storehouse of knowledge and he was generous in answering my questions. I was also in touch with two descendants of British police officers, one of whom had lived in the era that I’ve written about.
The novel traces the cultural evolution of the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so I referred to films, music, art and photography from the period. The internet has been a boon.
As far as the process of research is concerned, I wasn’t very structured. I would go back and forth between the writing and the research. I enjoyed the research so much that I had to force myself to stop, eventually.
Did you make any discoveries about your own family?
I did. There were some gaps in my grandfather’s memoir or sketchy references that I was able to fill or corroborate with research, such as the origins of my ancestors as well as my great-grandfather’s work in the police force, which was exciting.
What’s your view on contemporary Marathi theatre?
There’s a lot of young talent in theatre, whether in Marathi or in other languages. It is surviving mainly on corporate sponsorship and sheer enthusiasm. We need a coherent system that supports not just theatre but the arts, in general. The government’s attitude to preserving culture is blinkered at the moment – compulsory screening of Marathi films, spending crores on statues or inclusion of Maharashtrian cuisine at every restaurant will not promote the state’s culture. Grants, improved education and a liberal attitude that fosters ideas and dialogue, will. Linguistic and cultural chauvinism will not lure people into discovering the state’s rich cultural heritage or furthering its cause, for that matter.
In recent years, there has been a revived interest in Marathi theatre from the 1970s with the staging of plays like Ghashiram Kotwal. The play Sex, Morality and Censorship (in Hindi) staged a few years ago was an excellent presentation of the controversy around Vijay Tendulkar’s (Marathi play) Sakharam Binder with tremendous insights into the spirit of the era. These are increasingly relevant today.
What’s your impression of Bombay in the early 20th-century?
Bombay was an exciting place to be in. As an important city in Britain’s favourite colony, it was very international with multiple influences and was marked by the presence of people of different races, nationalities and communities. What’s interesting is that according to the census of 1891, only a quarter of the population here was born within city limits. The city, as we know it today, was conceived by the British and built by multiple communities and migrants.
This was also a time of cultural, political and social evolution. Marathi theatre was at its peak, followed closely by Parsi, Gujarati and Urdu theatre. The idea of Independence was taking shape. Inventions and industry were changing people’s lives with the arrival of electricity, photography, cars, etc. Property rates were soaring, textile mills were booming, the stock market was established. And the police were kept on their toes with religious riots and disturbances. In that sense, not much has changed. At the same time, there were intriguing contradictions. These were colonial times and yet it was possible for a British officer to have an Indian as his superior in the police force. I think Mumbai needs to rediscover its history. People need to know their shared identity and journey to be able to live in harmony, without ghettoisation or the need for appropriation.
What’s your writing process like?
As far as writing fiction is concerned, I enjoy the unpredictability of the process and don’t structure my work before I begin writing. I usually start with a vague idea and it develops as I go along. At times, I jot down impressions and observations of places and people and these find their way into my work. With Wanderers, All, there were two narratives with different timelines and the book started to fall into place when I was more than halfway through.
My weekdays are like anyone else’s working days and unless I’m travelling or in a meeting, I’m at my desk. I structure my week into ‘fiction days’ and ‘other writing days’, depending on deadlines for the latter. Mornings are usually a warm up – I work best in the afternoon and evening. But then, my schedule also changes with the genre of my work. While writing my book of short stories, I had a full-time job so I had no choice but to write on weekends or on my way to work and back. For my travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa, I was on the road and had to maintain meticulous notes in a diary that I guarded with my life. For Wanderers, All, I spent time in libraries, went on heritage walks through the city and also to writers’ residencies in India and abroad.
Wanderers, All by Janhavi Acharekar, HarperCollins, Rs499.