Interview – Laxmi Hariharan


As part of our Meet the Author special, we have Laxmi Hariharan, author of The Many Lives of Ruby Iyer, here for an interview where we try and uncover some of the many things that inspired her to create her dystopian world.

1. Dystopian books showcase some of the most powerful heroes and heroines in YA literature today. What novel based hero or heroine did you have when you
were growing up?

It was always Batman for me. The story of an orphan boy who
pledged to revenge his parents and ultimately became the saviour of his city
really spoke to me. The courage of conviction Bruce had to follow his path and become
the Batman – it inspired me and gave me courage during my most rebellious
teenage years. There is this particular scene in the origins story of Batman,
where Alfred is worried that the young Master Wayne is spending too much time
on his own with his books and at the gym. And Bruce replies, “I am in a
hurry to grow up.” That line has stayed with me… I think I am still trying
to grow up though.
2. Your book, The Many Lives of Ruby Iyer, is set in the heart of Bombay, a city wild with culture and modernisation. How important are culture and society in your writing?

More than my conscious mind is aware of. I am surprised how
much I draw upon the culture and society of my home country when I write. But
obviously I am a product of the challenges and opportunities that society
provided me so it impacts my writing in so many different ways. We humans are
defined by our reaction to society. Do we want to be part of it? Do we reject
it? Do we find an uneasy balance with it? The choices we make in our growing
years define who we become. And while these choices are often personal, a lot
of it is influenced by our culture, values and traditions. And then you know
very early those who are going to rebel against the normal as defined by
society and those who will work within the system to carve out a place for
themselves. No choice is right or wrong … But they change the course of your
individual destiny.
3. With all the current human rights violations and conflict
in the world, how do you come to focus on just one element of this in your
dystopian novel?

Its something I did very unconsciously. Growing up in Bombay
as a rebellious teenage girl was not easy. I was weighed down by what Indian
culture expects from me as a girl. Then, within that the traditions of the
particular South Indian Tamil Brahmin caste my family hail from. Yet, I grew up
in the urban, merciless, cosmopolitan society of Bombay, and fiercely
independent about having a career and making my way in this largely patriarchal
society. So everyday I would leave the relative safety of home, knowing that my
commute was not going to be easy. Because that’s just how public transport is
in the city. Its not life threatening but you know as a girl you are going to
most likely get called out by men as you pass them, that on a crowded train
station you are most likely going to be felt up by a man… Every time, it
happened to me, I would get really angry and yet, I would deal with it and get
on, because if I protested or took action, the repercussions would not be
savoury for me.

So when eighteen months ago a young photojournalist was
raped in the centre of Bombay in broad daylight, I felt myself getting really
furious. It was as if nothing had changed in all these years. In fact things
had become worse. I had this vision of a young girl who would not back down
anymore. Who would take the law into her own hands. Who would stand up for
herself regardless of the consequences. Who would follow her heart … and thus
Ruby Iyer was born. And the trigger to her birth is of course her being
molested on a train platform and then being pushed into the path of the train
itself. And yet she survives and goes onto save the city, which is falling
apart around her.
4. Are there any other human rights issues that you would
like to write about in a dystopian novel?

You know, I don’t do it consciously. But because my current
setting is Bombay (which I take as a microcosm of India) I know I end up
tackling quite a few issues like the massive rich-poor economic divide for
example. I think women and children – the girl child is very important for me
and I do come back to themes concerning them a lot.

5. How important are dystopian books in today’s society for
young people?

So maybe this is me, but I believe that we are headed
towards a dystopian society. One, where the virtual world will intersect much
more closely with the real world and where soon we will not be able to tell the
two apart. I think this will bring with anarchy, the kind we can’t even
imagine, which some of the dystopian books hint at – Where there is no more
society as we know it, and even the laws of nature are struggling to stay alive.
And yet the young will survive—they have to —for they inherit this from their
parents. Dystopian books tap into this reality we all sense but don’t
acknowledge. At the same time within every teenager is this world of dystopia
isn’t there? Teens are such dark people; they inhabit a strange ever-changing
universe of their own. And dystopia speaks to that unknown within them.

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