Varun Thomas Mathew is a lawyer by profession and runs a technology law, public policy and human rights practice. He has recently come out with his debut book “The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay”, published by Hachette India Publishers. As the author blurb introduces him- “He was born just before India began to liberalize her economy, in the Bangalore of yesterday, before all the traffic and concrete had choked the city, when gardens and rainbow bars existed side by side in a climate undisturbed by hate and air-conditioning”. This new author on the block dons many hats- he has started and sold an e-commerce company, and studied the euro crisis on a grant from the German government. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with the author to know more about him and his latest book.
[RVListenButton] This is your debut novel. How does it feel?
Immense relief. This novel was a collection of experiences, emotions, and imaginings all coalesced and pressurised in my head for what felt like aeons. So to finally see it in the world outside is such a relief.
I’m also hopeful. This book is dedicated to the Indian electorate… and I hope that in some small way, it can make (at least a few) people re-think how and why they vote.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I had a fairly typical, urban middle class upbringing in a Bangalore that was still young and sedate. Fair amount of religion (my affinity for fantasy probably began there), fair amount of sport (I was in a school that produced many Indian cricketers), and a fair amount of reading the old classics (my mother was a Professor of English) – that was my childhood in a nutshell.
I think one of the lasting effects of growing up in Bangalore in 1990s and early 2000s is that if you head back to the city now, you’re filled with a deep sense of loss. There’s hardly anything that’s remained constant – from the way of life, the music, the architecture, the open spaces and the lakes – everything has been butchered in the most callous of ways. That sense of loss and regret over the land you were born on is something that is deeply infused in the writing of this book.
Has writing always been a part of your life? Or did you chance upon it later on and then instantly fell in love with it?
Carefree writing, yes, has always been a part of my life. Odd poems, weird essays that annoyed my teachers, plays written solely to make my college mates laugh. And after I became a lawyer, it feels like I’m always writing – petitions, contracts, drafts. But never fiction, until 2015.
I started writing the Black Dwarves primarily because I wanted to capture the happenings of our present day in some way, and fiction seemed the best way to do it. Unlike traditional history or other forms of non-fiction that are often judged and slotted into camps before they’re even read, fiction doesn’t carry that baggage, and that makes it easier to get through to people.
Once I started writing Black Dwarves, I absolutely loved it. Creating this world into which I could escape each night was a marvellous thing – it helped with the pressures of work, loneliness, the guilt that goes with these times we live in.
Apart from dystopian fiction, there are elements of political underpinnings and environmental activism in this novel. In which genre would you classify your book?
The primary intention behind writing this book was to create a record of these present times. Something to trace the footprints we’re leaving on our way towards perdition. Fiction was just the most fun way of doing it.
So I’d say Black Dwarves is a work of speculative history. It’s rooted in the present and past of our country, and portrays an alternative future that could very well come to pass on the basis of our status quo. Also, there are strong elements of magical realism in the book, and of course – the political backdrop of our times forms the spine of the narrative.
I don’t see this novel as a dystopian novel at all. My method, while creating the future India in the book, was to imagine a country in which our constitutional ideals were finally achieved. The result – the techno-futurism of the Bombadrome – could be described as dystopia or utopia depending on who you are. But this is a book about our present.
Above all, the book also focuses on the loss of a city’s character to the dystopian future, technological automation and extreme weather events. You have chosen Mumbai as a backdrop in the novel? Why Mumbai?
There are two timelines in the book – the present day of the narrator (which is the future for us, set in the 2040s), and the past of the narrator (which is the near present for us, set in the 2000s). One of the biggest differences I wanted to portray between these two timelines – i.e. our present and the approaching future – was the loss of a certain magic that has always inhabited India. In fact, the very first line of the novel starts off by saying – “There was once something very strange about our country…” and the first chapter then goes on to elaborate how that strangeness was lost.
And nowhere else in India is that magic as strong as it is in Mumbai. I’ve described that magic in detail in the book, so I’ll leave it to the readers to discover it.
When you were writing the book, were you reading any other novels set in Mumbai?
None, though I’ve read and loved many of the ‘Bombay novels’. From the time I started writing Black Dwarves and until it was published, I consciously stayed away from any literature on Mumbai – and in fact, I didn’t visit Mumbai even once during that time, i.e. for over 3 years. I think that helped tremendously, because a sense of longing for a city that I loved eventually found its way to the voice of my narrator – who is someone mourning the death of the old Mumbai, a city that he loved.
Besides other things, the book also focuses on the climate change and talks about rising global sea levels. You have dedicated the book to “the Indian electorate, in hope”. How much hopes have you pinned on the Indian electorate, particularly in relation to environmental issues?
I know the blurb of the novel talks about the environmental changes that have completely transformed the landscape of India, but the focus on climate change in the book is actually quite minimal. Instead, I tried to use environmental changes as a device to portray the consequences of great sins that we commit as a people. So while traditional sins like polluting a river or levelling a forest are, of course, alluded to as the direct causes of environmental issues, I also looked at other sins – like riots and rapes and the enslaving of communities, each of which I connected with specific environmental disasters that followed the commission of these sins.
And if you study Indian history with that objective, you’ll find that the sub-continent does not disappoint. Quite a few of the atrocities we’ve committed in various parts of the country have often been followed by natural disasters – like great droughts and famines or earthquakes. It was almost as if the earth itself was rebelling against the sins being committed on her surface; as if this sub-continent of ours has a conscience.
What message do you want readers to take from your book?
Two messages, if I could. The first is that our electoral decisions have permanent and indelible consequences, and that casting a vote for someone unfit to lead us should be seen as a grave sin. And second, that there is a beauty and strangeness about our country that is fast dying out, and if we don’t act fast to preserve this, it will be gone forever.
Which book are you reading presently?
Automating Inequality, by Virginia Eubanks. It’s a marvellous account of how technology is being used to perpetuate an unequal world.
Do you have a reading schedule? We and our readers are always curious to know about what and how writers read. How much time do you normally take to finish a book?
I read non-fiction quite regularly, mostly something to do with my profession, or on history or politics. Fiction reading is generally reserved for when I’m mentally exhausted or feeling particularly removed from the world, which happens really often. And at these times, I finish a book in a few days. But no fixed schedule, though I think that is important.
To conclude, are there any other literary projects that you’re presently working on?
I have been working on the outline of a new novel, one that’s set in New Delhi, the city I currently live in and am slowly falling in love with. And I’m hoping to be done with a draft late next year.