A couple of months ago, a Facebook ‘friend’ in an ugly argument, insisted that people in India did not care about the atrocities taking place in the North East and in fact they were totally ignorant about the very existence of those states. Which I found quite difficult to digest. What he said might be true or not (the media too propagates that impression) so I was pretty excited about Ri- Homeland of Uncertainty since it explores the insurgency in the North East. The book does not disappoint and do grab it to read if you haven’t seen the movie the book is based on. Or in fact, even if you’ve seen the movie.
So, here’s an interview with the author, Paulami DuttaGupta, where we discuss the book, writing and more:
Wrimo India (WI): Heartiest congratulations on the National Award, Paulami. It must be very exciting to be a part of an award winning movie. Your book, Ri – Homeland of Uncertainty, has been adapted from the screenplay you wrote for that movie. Usually, it is books that are adapted for films. This is a step away from the norm. What motivated you to do that? How did you go about the process of adaptation?
Paulami DuttaGupta (PDG): The only reason that I adapted the book was to reach out to more people with the story. It is difficult to carry a regional film everywhere, because the screenings are limited and there is a geographical handicap. With a book in English, more people would know about the theme, that there were lives affected by insurgency beyond Kashmir!
The process of adaptation was easy, as I had to do multiple drafts for the film, the story was almost imprinted in my mind. Writing a story is always easier than writing a script. While doing a script the visual angle always has to be kept in mind, also the budget, execution etc. In a book we have more liberty, sky is the limit! But I did struggle with describing the action scenes. Visually it looks so real, but writing about police and guns and terrorists is a little difficult. One sentence wrong and the entire things becomes dramatic and filmy.
WI: The movie/book has a very interesting name and tagline. Could you elaborate on their meaning?
PDG: Ri is a Khasi word that means ‘my land’ or ‘my country’ and the tagline ‘homeland of uncertainty’ just seemed to fit in. It’s an uncertain phase for all the characters in the book, and all of them have their individual notions about homeland.
WI: What has been your literary journey from your very first piece of writing to the writing of the screenplay of Ri?
PDG: It has been an interesting one. Even though it sounds a little clichéd, this has been a great career shift. There was a spate of rejection slips and then Ri happened all of a sudden. I wasn’t sure I’d write a film but had started working on another script (which never got made). Ri came up one winter afternoon and the concept was so close to my heart that there was no room for second thoughts. My journey has been slow but rewarding. My first film has given me much more than a debutant could expect. It has been a learning phase and I think I have bettered my skills with my second film in making.
WI: Manbha and Emika are characters that remain with the reader long after the book has been read. What was your thought process while formulating and developing these characters?
PDG: Manbha and Emika are just names. They are embodiment of people we see in terror affected areas. There was no channelized thought. They just kept falling in place. With Manbha I wanted to explore the other side of these ‘social outcasts’, what drives someone to pick up arms, what makes them so motivated etc. With Emika I wanted to explore all those lives directly harmed by terror. We follow news of families of victims and the promised compensation packages. Then the news dies out and they are lost in the crowd. What goes on in their minds? Do they become revengeful or empathetic etc.
WI: Do you agree that to a certain extent fiction is autobiographical? In writing Ri, did any personal experience of yours connected to terrorism make it into the story? Or in any other work of fiction written by you?
PDG: Certainly. Fiction that has touches of personal experience is more realistic and fresh. I was in Shillong when it was going through the treacherous phase. So in a way personal experiences have played a role in the story. Through Manbha’s insecurity I have shared my experiences with the educational system and the differential treatment of ‘mainland’ India.
WI: What, according to you, is a good story?
PDG: That stays with the reader long after the book is finished. Or maybe I don’t know. Maybe there is no set formula of ‘good story’. The readers have varied interests so it is difficult to say.
WI: Your bio shows a very interesting and varied career in media. What stands out for me is your stint with All India Radio Shillong because I’ve done a couple of talks for AIR in Bombay, many years ago. Could you relate for us an interesting anecdote from the time you worked there?
PDG: Almost in all my shows something or the other would go wrong. Either there was someone missing or someone would say something that was not per AIR guidelines. More than us I am sure the editor would have interesting stories to tell. I remember one particular incident when I had to record a program on environmental awareness with teams from local colleges. I had to almost run after the participants and even then it was only when I gave them the answers to the quiz question that they came down to the studio. But being on the radio is always fun and for talkative people it’s like a paid holiday.
WI: Parts of this novel are based in Shillong. I’ve heard it’s a beautiful place and we also get a feel of that from the novel. I’ve never been there though one of my classmates in my fashion designing course was from Shillong. Tell us something about your place of birth that will make us want to just drop everything right away and rush there.
PDG: Shillong, ah! Here you have given me my favorite topic! It is a place where the Sun kisses you, and not burn you. The roads are live with so much energy in the peak hours that you will almost want to get lost in the vibrant crowd. And yet there are sleepy by lanes and old Assam type structures that have hundreds of stories to tell. You have lakes and parks and waterfalls and then you have the brilliant hospitality of hotels and cozy places where you could sit and have a coffee or a drink. The city has very strong taste buds. Shillong, it knows its football well, in fact with national level teams competing, knows it very well. And maybe someday you would just walk the roads and hear music in the wind. Don’t think you are imagining. The city loves its music and rock concerts. As live as Shillong is, it can also appear sleepy if you want a retreat. You can tuck yourself in a blanket and look at the little lights in the faraway hills and pretend technology hasn’t changed anything.
WI: Wow! Yes, it would be a strange person who’d not want to go to Shillong right away, then. Well, Ri is your third novel, with Pinjar being your first and Unplanned Destiny, the second. What are some of the epiphanies about the art and craft of writing you might have gained which you could share with our readers, some of who are also writers?
PDG: I have this point of handwriting the chapter outlines and making lots of notes before I start my writing. Besides that there is nothing much to say. Each story is on a different genre, or at least a different issue or cause so there is not set craft or routine.
Thank you, Paulami. We look forward to your future books.
Trapped in the limbo between ideology and conscience, Manbha finds him himself part of a terror outfit. An unexpected opportunity, anger, squalor and disillusionment – followed by and armed combat and injury lead to the soul- searching that form the substance of this moving tale.
She has written for ‘The Times of India’ in the ‘Guwahati-Shillong plus Edition’ and also ‘The Shillong Times’. Television had always attracted her and was connected to the Bangla TV industry for about 6 years. She was associated with ETV- Bangla, Akash Bangla and Sony Aath in this period.
Having left her day job in 2012, Paulami took up full time writing. Her first novel, “Pinjar” released in early 2012.
Her second novel “Unplanned Destinty” released in 2014. She is also the screenplay writer of the national award winning Khasi film – “Ri Homeland of Uncertainty”.“Ri” has been adapted into a novel and was released on September 14,2014
She is currently working on her next project as movie script writer.
Apart from writing full length novels, she has written several short stories and articles. She has also contributed to the “Minds@work Anthology” and the “Family Matters International Anthology” in 2013.
Recently she has contributed to the “Learning and Creativity Anthology” , “Her Story Anthology”, and “Celebrating India – Love across Borders Anthology”.
When she is not writing or watching movies, Paulami is either reading biographies or classic pieces of literature. Cricket, food, cinema, books and music are an integral part of her life.
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