“If someone asks me what I would choose to be if I were to live my life again, I would say a writer,” said Usha Ananda Krishna, smiling as she sipped her coffee. Yet she was not always one. A graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, she worked in Delhi, Bangalore and Calcutta as an architect and designer before taking to writing fiction in 1995 when her first novel, A Turbulent Passage was published. “Writing is much like designing a building,” she said, drawing a parallel between her two interests. “You have a plan, a plot, for both, and a narrative. The details in a building are the layers in a story that you add to bring it and the characters alive. The physical spaces in a building become the emotional spaces your characters occupy.”
To draw parallels between these two fields comes naturally to Usha for whom architecture and books are lateral interests. She is always and intensely aware of architecture and the environment, even as she writes. And she loves reading - books have been a constant in her life for as long as she can remember.
A Turbulent Passage was followed in 2009 by Fallout. While the first one was slightly autobiographical – as first books tend to be - the second, set in Bengaluru and Delhi, has an unreliable narrator, with a secret and a denouement that makes it like a mystery story. Her third novel, The Escapists of J. Mullick Road, which is just out, is set in the communist Calcutta during the 1980s. “Although Calcutta – the city and the times – informs the book, it explores themes that are universal,” says Usha. “Aspiration, ambition, success, failure, moral conflicts, and hubris.”
The Escapists begins with a morning in the late 1980s when Pinaki Bose, a middle-class clerk, looks down from the window of his flat on Calcutta's J Mullick Road and glimpses a street hustler and Communist party goon, Kalol Mondal, bathing on the street. This ordinary scene becomes a moment of reckoning for Pinaki. Humiliated, reduced to ‘a nothing’, he examines the pointlessness of his existence. In days to come this and the events that follow – Kalol Mondal menacing him and his family – pushes him to think of leaving the neighbourhood. Not just that but build his own house. In Calcutta this is an unusual and audacious decision because the building industry is controlled by the local mafia and you had to be very tough or politically connected or very rich to fight them. Or just naïve – as Pinaki was. You also had to be very determined. “He saw this house as a place as proof that he was somebody, not a nothing,” said Usha. “It started as an idea of escape and became a symbol of self-worth.”
Pinaki makes another leap of imagination. More strange circumstances lead him to ask the savagely brilliant architect, Biren Roy, to design his house. Biren is a cynical, arrogant sophisticate, and although Pinaki doesn’t know this, frustrated and unsuccessful. Partly because of the person he was and partly because of the times. “That was a hard period for architects,” recollects Usha. “There was no economic activity to begin with, money was tight so building activity was minimal. And people had closed minds so there were no avenues for people like Biren, a rabid modernist.”
Pinaki couldn’t have made a more wrong choice. Biren wasn’t interested in his little project. But Biren became interested in Pinaki’s young daughter Dona, who in her innocence, becomes a driver for the plot, the reason why Biren would entertain Pinaki’s plea to design his house. She was the cause too for the moral conflict in Biren and Pinaki, and ultimately in the moral fall of her father.
The novel looks at three different and distinct classes - wealthy, westernised, old-family to which Biren belongs, middle-class and unsophisticated, which Pinaki is, and the marginalised-bordering-on-criminal class, which is Kalol milieu. They are linked by the common desire to escape their present reality. And so, escapists. Pinaki’s grand dream is for a house for himself, Biren has a utopian vision for the city and Kalol dreams of climbing up the social ladder.
When asked if she has any thoughts to share with young writers, she smiled. “Your writing must explore what lies beyond the obvious. It should be a prism which shows the many fascinating facets of life. And don’t write because you want to write, write because you have something original to say. Write because,” she thought for a moment, “It’s what you want to do more than anything in the world. Because it is who you are.”...