Research is only as good as the fiction you spin it into

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*** As it appeared in Mumbai Mirror ***

Fiction writers are always advised to write what they know about. But what if you are tackling unfamiliar terrain? Ravi Subramanian has a few answers.

Two years ago, on a rainy July afternoon, I stepped out of my hotel in Thiruvananthapuram and asked the cab driver to take me to the iconic Sree Pamanabha Swamy Temple. I was in the city to get first-hand information about the temple, the world’s richest religious institution, with wealth in excess of $20 billion stashed away in its sealed vaults. Stories about the temple and its riches had intrigued me enough for me to make up my mind that my next thriller was to be in the backdrop of the mysterious temple.

“Where from, saar? Mumbai?” the overenthusiastic cab driver asked me. And without waiting for me to answer, he said, “Not many people come to visit the temple during the rains.”

I did not respond to any of his questions. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence ensued after which I asked him, “Who killed the autorickshaw driver?” The driver slammed the brakes, turned on impulse and looked at me. “Police?” he asked me, suspiciously.

I shook my head. “No.” I said. “Writer. I write stories.”

Maybe there was a sense of honesty in the way I said it, or maybe he realised that I posed no danger to him. Either way, he relaxed visibly and started driving. An autorickshaw driver’s body had been found in Padma Teertha Kulam, the holy pond of the temple some time ago, and people suspected it had something to do with the temple wealth and issues surrounding it. Once the cab driver was comfortable, he sang like a canary. While most of what he spoke about the murder of the autorickshaw driver was based on hearsay, the fact remains that speculation is also a form of storytelling. It is nothing but an idle mind’s creativity. I was keen on figuring out the way the poor man’s body was discovered. The cab driver also gave me interesting insights into the discovery of the enormous amount of wealth, which made the obscure temple metamorphose into an overnight sensation. Most of what the cab driver told me on that fateful day has become a part of my thriller, In The Name Of God, lending it a realistic touch.

Asking around is not always the best way for carrying out onsite research, especially if one is working on a sensitive subject. The same day, while digging for more information on the temple and the wealth therein, I landed at a curio shop just outside the Padmanabha Swamy Temple entrance. Even though I was under the impression that I was asking around tactfully, in no time, I started attracting undue attention. Fearing repercussions, I beat a hasty retreat.

In the Name Of God, has been my most difficult book, as far as research is concerned. Not only was it a tough canvas to paint on, this was the first time I had stepped outside the comfort zone of banking thrillers and attempted a mainstream contemporary thriller. My stories have often tracked real life. The thrillers that I write owe their verisimilitude to the research that goes into identifying stories, finding out how they happened, digging out behind-thescenes occurrences that no amount of internet research will provide you with. For instance, how many of you know about the conflicts between the diamond and bullion traders operating from the new and flashy BKC Diamond bourse and the ones in the old and crowded Zaveri Bazaar? No amount of internet research would have thrown up just how messy the conflict had gotten. One-on-one conversations with a few diamond merchant acquaintances threw up stories; stories interesting enough to become a sub plot in In The Name Of God.

Court case papers are a goldmine of information which cannot be ignored. Padmanabha Swamy temple has been in the news off and on, on account of the case pending in the Supreme court regarding the fate of the immense wealth in its hidden vaults and the issue of the state taking over the control of the temple from the royals. Gopal Subramaniam, the honorable Supreme Court advocate, was an Amicus Curiae in the case and he had submitted a 600-page report to the court. That report, which was available online, made for intriguing reading and of course gave me enough to set my creative cells tingling with excitement.

Discussions with friends too can open new vistas. It was at a literature festival, that I ran into Devdutt Pattanaik, a close friend and fellow author. When we briefly discussed the plot of my book, he recommended that I read a book by Manu Pillai — Ivory Throne, Chronicles of the House of Travancore. Reading that book gave me deep insights into the Royal Family of Travancore. It helped me fictionalise events to make sure that no aspersions are cast on the real-life incumbents. If you don’t know ‘what is’, how will you make sure while writing the story that what you write is different from ‘what is’ and yet seems realistic.

Research not only tells you what to include, but also what not to. The research phase was the most stressful phase in my journey with In The Name Of God. But now, when I look back at it, and when I read feedback from readers which says that the book reads as if they are walking through the streets of Thiruvananthapuram and through the temple precinct; when they say that the conversations between the king and the CBI investigator seem brilliantly realistic, every bit of the effort seems worthwhile. That said, in the world of fiction, research is only as good as what you spin it into.

Ravi Subramanian’s In The Name of God was released last month.

The article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror dated July 16th

mumbai mirror July 16th 2017

The article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror dated July 16th


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