Things can get a bit chess-game like in this writer’s study. Novel A gets cut by Novel B which in turn might get overtaken at any time by Play C or even Children’s Book D…
Welcome to the world of Shreekumar Varma, Writer-Multitasker extraordinaire. His website lists four items under ‘Work in Progress’ (“I actually deleted two others yesterday”) and his output in the last decade includes two published novels, two plays staged by the Madras Players, three children’s books, and contributions to a whole bunch of short story anthologies. And that doesn’t count the columns and articles he’s done for pretty much all the local newspapers or his forays into poetry.
Or, of course, the projects that have fallen behind in the chess game of completion and publication.
“It’s all very exciting,” he says, adding drolly, “But really, what I’m best at is not doing anything at all. I just seem prolific because a lot of things have come out around the same time.”
Nice try but no dice, Mr. Varma. The publishing game may not have always been kind to him (“The problem is that publishers always seem to want me to produce something else first when I approach them with an idea… and they specify exactly what they want too!”), but Shree’s mantra has been ‘Just keep writing.’ And just keep sending works off to various competitions.
“I have a compulsive urge to send entries to contests – I don’t know why,” he laughs. “I started small, with a couple of short stories, but by the time my play The Dark Lord (1986) came second at a British Council competition and Bow of Rama (1993) won the Hindu-Madras Players Playscripts contest, I was safely into contest mode.”
His recently-published second novel, Maria’s Room was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and his recently-staged play Midnight Hotel was longlisted for the Metroplus Playwright Award, leading the author to ruefully refer to himself as the ‘Longlist expert’.
But Shree has a whole lot more than a proclivity to land himself in longlists going for him. The veteran journalist began his career with Indian Express in Mumbai and hung out with the likes of Amjad Khan (who spouted shayari to him), Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand (who invited him to join a political party he was starting) while writing for a film paper, Cinema Today, owned a small press and even started his own magazine at one point. He’s also taught journalism and English Literature at his alma mater Madras Christian College, and for the last 11 years, Creative English at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.
“I do enjoy teaching, and I find that science students often come up with more out-of-the-box thinking than lit students do,” he says, thoughtfully. “I love encouraging people in whom I sense talent for writing – I literally pester them to write, actually!”
Other loves include magic (“I used to do illusions all the time as a kid”) and the spooky and fantastical (“Those are recurring themes in my work, though I never had the courage to put in an actual ghost until Midnight Hotel”), music, especially classical (“I love Shree Raga, it brings tears to my eyes – and I’m not just being self-obsessed!”) and the big one, movies (“Movies have always been a major inspiration… before I die, I want to make a movie.”)
In typical Shree style, he tells me how he’s actually converted a couple of his works into scripts for filmmakers, but nothing panned out (so, naturally, he just went and wrote a couple of novels in the interim.) He jokes light-heartedly about Three Monkeys, the ‘unfortunate’ novel that always ends up being put on hold (checkmated?) while others take over (Maria’s Room, for example), his non-fiction book on Chennai requested by a publisher that he never gets around to writing (“It hangs like a terrible shadow over me,” he says mock-theatrically. “With my last breath I’ll say, ‘That Chennai book…’”) and his up-coming novel on Chennai, The Gayatri Club that Chennaiites will see a lot of familiar characters in (“The eccentric ones won’t be mentioned by name,” he says with a wink).
But he turns serious as we talk about his fascinating lineage – as the grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bai, Maharani of Travancore State, and great grandson of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma.
“I’m really proud to belong to that family – I believe my cousins and I have all inherited a certain artistic sensibility, and also an entire mythology of stories, some of which went into my first novel, Lament of Mohini,” he says, “But sometimes it’s difficult when that heritage is applauded more than my accomplishments.”
Well then, here’s to Shreekumar Varma, writer, Longlist expert, teacher and bonafide Chennaiite (“Chennai’s my home, Kerala’s my soul”). May your chess game of novels, plays, short stories and poetry continue uninterrupted, and may movies be added to the list very soon.
– Shreekumar is a vocal supporter of the Right to Read campaign, and at his request, two of his works, children’s book Devil’s Garden and novel Maria’s Room are now available in audio format.
– In 2004, he was the recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship and spent three months in Scotland. That is the inspiration for one of his many works in progress, the novel Indian Scotch.