Anita Rau Badami has spent a lot of time thinking about heroes. "I find it touchingly heroic to just see people living from the day they're born until the day they die, so full of hope." Her latest book, The Hero's Walk, celebrates that heroism, finding it -- at various times -- in almost all of the major characters. With this rich and well-developed book, the 39-year-old author is already well on her way to being a major voice on the Canadian literary scene.
Just two novels into her career as an author, all of those in contact with her work speak about Rau Badami in glowing terms. The Globe and Mail called her first book, Tamarind Mem, "A tremendous achievement," and The Ottawa Citizen waxed poetic, saying that the book was, "as jewel-bright and weightless as a silk sari shaken out of its folds," and other equally heady things. Clearly, Rau Badami's first book established her as a writer worth watching.
Reading Rau Badami's work brings all of this praise into focus. Her eye is fresh and sharp. Her rendering of her characters reflects not only this sharpness of vision, but also the humor this writer sees in the world all around her, "I remember everything that other people would prefer to forget," laughs Rau Badami. The result is writing that is deep with her understanding of the human condition and rich with the humor that is part of the way that Rau Badami experiences her own world.
You suspect all of this about Anita Rau Badami when you read her work. But, on meeting her, you know it instantly to be true. Her conversation is peppered with gentle bursts of hearty laughter: there is a great deal she finds funny. She smiles almost constantly: a smile that always reaches her eyes.
Born in India, in 1961, Rau Badami says that she belongs, "to the southern part of India, but I hardly ever lived there. I spent most of my life in the north and east of India." Her voice has been exotically flavored by her Eastern background. Her English is, of course, flawless: English was one of her cradle languages.
She came to Canada in 1991. "I just followed that husband of mine. [Laughs] He moved to Canada to do a course in environmental science." She now lives in Vancouver with "that husband," and her 13-year-old son.
Linda Richards: Are there lots of shades of people you know in The Hero's Walk?
Anita Rau Badami: No. Just little details. I remember everything that other people would prefer to forget. [Laughs] So those are the shades that go into my books.
Is it a little bit autobiographical?
Not at all. Everything is made up.
I understand you left India in 1991?
How did you end up in Canada?
I just followed that husband of mine. [Laughs] He moved to Canada to do a course in environmental science.
Where are you from originally?
It's hard to say, because I traveled all over India. I belong to the southern part of India, but I hardly ever lived there. I spent most of my life in the north and east of India.
The Hero's Walk takes place mostly in the southern part of India?
Yes. It takes place in this imaginary town in the southern part of India.
I was going to ask you if that was an entirely fictional place because what real place could be so funny? I love all the streets.
The nameless streets! [Laughs] But that's true. They're very fond of naming and un-naming and renaming things. And in the process, everybody is so confused. [Laughs] You just don't have a clue where you are.
The only people who know their way around are people who have lived there all their lives.
Yeah, but even they... you know, a young person comes from another city and says: Do you know where such and such a street is? And the answer might be: Never heard of it. Because they know it as some other street. And the taxi drivers don't have a clue either and so they go 'round and 'round because they don't know.
Do you ever go back?
Once every two to three years. I have family there. Mostly aunts and uncles and my grandmother.
What was your cradle language?
Oh: I keep on getting asked this. And I had three cradle languages. I grew up hearing, speaking and thinking in English, Kannada and Hindi. Kannada, because that's my mother tongue, even though she used to use it to scream at us. [Laughs] But we all spoke in English. Because my father used to speak a different dialect of Kannada so it was really chaotic. I grew up hearing all of these languages. So it's hard to point to any one and say: This is my first language.
What was your first written language?
Again, English and Hindi. More or less simultaneously. Even though Hindi isn't my language at all. It just happened that I grew up in the North and everyone around me was speaking Hindi so you just pick the language that's surrounding you. It was my second language at school though. I grew up with four languages, actually.
One of the things that intrigued me about the book was the little traveler going back to the "old" country. And she's just seven and she keeps saying, "No way!" about all of these new changes in her life. But stories are quite often about old world coming to new world, but she's heading in the other direction and it's a tremendous shock to her.
It is. I've often thought about how my own son feels when he goes back there: he goes back there as a foreigner. He enjoys himself thoroughly, because he's always protected in some way. He's got tons of family who are going to spoil him silly, but he always wants to come back. For him, this is home. So I keep thinking he's got us to act as a bridge for him. What happens if the child has to go completely without any of that bridging system: without any of those things in place.
You're right: without the parental units, it would be a completely frightening prospect. Like going to space!
It is. Nothing is familiar. Nothing. And for this child [in The Hero's Walk] even the big people she's staying with, she's never seen them.
From your perspective, if you boil The Hero's Walk down, what's it about?
It's about heroism at many different levels. I find it touchingly heroic to just see people living from the day they're born until the day they die, so full of hope. You just wake up every morning and expect the next day to go well. And I find that touching. I wanted to work with that idea: that notion of heroism. And I think that's basically what the book is about.
The first book, Tamarind Mem, was well received and well reviewed. And all of the reviews I've seen thus far for The Hero's Walk have been glowing: That one was really good, but this one's even better!
I know! That feels great.
Do you feel that that's justified? Have you matured as a writer?
I think so. But, you know, every book I write I'm already on to the next one. So it's not fair to ask me because each one of my books is beloved [to me] for a different reason. But once it's done, it's done. I don't even try to analyze it or look at it or think about it. It's out of my hands.
What are you working on now?
I am working on something else, but I don't like talking about it because, for some reason, the minute the words come out of my mouth it becomes dust. It starts sounding foolish. So until it hits paper, I don't like talking about it. Until it hits paper and has been there for some time.
Are you looking at a timeframe for that book?
It shouldn't take me longer than two and a half to three years, because it's a book that I've been thinking about. I don't work on only one book. I'm usually thinking about more than one. It's been sitting in my head for a fair amount of time, so it's already there. It's all formed and ready. I have all the characters: I've got everything. Not just in my head. I've got tons of notebooks. It's just a question of, now putting it all together and arranging it and putting in all the details. The fine stuff, you know? As I said, it shouldn't take me longer than two and a half to three years.
That's about how long it's been since Tamarind Mem.
Do you write short stories as well?
I have a fair number of short stories, yeah. I think about 10 have been published. But, I don't know: this novel writing business is addictive. I have a problem writing short stories anymore. All of my short stories want to be longer ones. They want to be novels.
At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Ever since I can remember I've loved writing. I've loved books all my life. I actually had my first piece published when I was about 17. I needed money because my father wouldn't loan me any more. There were these book fairs that came to this place right next to my university and I needed money to buy books. He wouldn't give me any more because I'd run through several loans and I was deep in debt to my dad. So he said: Find a way to earn the money if you want to spend it. The only way I could think of was to write an article. Somebody told me that this magazine paid you the royal sum of a 100 rupees: That was so much money for me. It was five books, or six or something.
Do you remember the name of the magazine?
I think it was called Femina, but I could be mixing it up.
Did you do much in the way of journalism?
I used to write regularly for newspapers for many years as a freelancer. I didn't like working for anybody because if I didn't like an editor I could just go to some other newspaper. [Laughs]
You make it sound very simple. Is there a good market for writers in India?
I think I got lucky. There are three or four large national newspapers with huge circulations. And I don't know if it's easy to get in but I'd keep writing and writing and writing and writing and I didn't care about the rejections, because my dad used to say: You're just wasting the cost of some stamps and an envelope. You shouldn't be having an ego, because then you can't be a writer.
You knew it was something you wanted to do.
Yeah. It gave me such a thrill, you know? That first published thing. And I loved it. I really did love playing with language and cooking up stories and things and it certainly didn't pay to be a story writer -- a fiction writer -- but newspapers used to pay quite well. And I used to write fiction for children alongside because that was pure storytelling and I loved it. They hardly paid you anything, so that the fun and the journalism was the thing that supported the fun.
When did you feel like you wanted to do a book?
Only after I came [to Canada], actually. I used to think I'd write a book for children. But when I came here I joined this creative writing course and they wouldn't let me write for stories for children. They said: This is literary fiction. I said: OK. I'll write literary fiction then.
I remember that the portfolio story that I handed in was the most appalling piece of rubbish I've ever written in my life. It was my first story for adults. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. But I'm always grateful to the prof who took me in on the basis of that story. [Laughs]
Was Tamarind Mem your Master's project?
So writing The Hero's Walk must have been a very different experience for you.
Completely. Because I didn't have that same supportive group of friends. The workshop setting. I've found since that if I hand it to too many people to look at, I get too many opinions. So I just couldn't be bothered. I've discovered that it is true that my instinct is the best judge.
And you learned that working on this book?
Yes. Because I was all alone. My editor was the only other person who saw it. She was the only other person I allowed to see it, other than one friend who saw a very early draft of the book.
And your husband?
No. My husband never sees it. He's lousy at fiction. [Laughs] He keeps picking out things like: Oh! You can't have a name like this in a Southern town. Things like that. So he's my fact checker.
Do you work on a computer?
I start with notebooks. I've got stacks and stacks of notebooks. I love the feel of pen on paper. So it's this little ritual thing: it has to start on paper. Once I've got that feeling -- and they'll be 100 versions of page one of the book in a notebook -- and once I've got the page one that I'm going to use then I transfer that to the computer. Page one or chapter one or whatever it is. Then I continue working on the computer until I'm stuck again, then I go back to the notebooks.
That's where the three years come in.
Yes. [Laughs] It would have taken longer if I hadn't learned typing. | August 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.