About a year ago, I was invited by Devika to attend the ‘Author’s Talk’ she was conducting to introduce her novel The Flight of The Swans. I was very glad I attended as I got to meet a most charming writer. I enjoyed listening to her story and identified with much of what she said of the Indian state of Maharashtra and was pleased when she agreed to this interview. I have great pleasure in introducing to you, D. Devika Bai …
Aneeta: Devika, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Devika: My pleasure, Aneeta. And thank you.
Aneeta: Now, Devika, I read this interesting comment made about you which says that you’re a great-granddaughter of one of the earliest Tanjore Maratha immigrants to British Malaya. Please explain a little about this fascinating nugget of information.
Devika: I’ll have to take you back a little into Indian history first in order for you to understand.
Tanjore Marathas originated from Maharashtra in south-west India. They came as conquerors to Tanjore (now Thanjavur) in South India when their great warrior-king, Shivaji Bhonsle, ousted the Moghuls and ruled a great swathe of India, from Delhi to Tanjore (during the 17th century).
The ancient city and district of Tanjore became a home away from home for the Marathas. Here they lived in and around the Rajwada (royal palace) under the rule of Bhonsle princes, preserving their language and culture amidst the Tamil majority. And, over time, they came to be known as Tanjore Marathas.
My ancestors, the Bhonsles (we share the same clan name with the royals), became ‘the landed gentry’, so to say, after their warring days were over. They sent their sons to English schools. So, when India came under British rule and the colonists needed English-speaking youths to work in the administrative offices in their Malayan colony, they started a recruitment drive. That was when my great-grandfather signed up (circa 1895) and came to work for the FMSR (Federated Malay States Railway) during its infancy.
Aneeta: Tell me, please, your journey into the writing world up to the point of having a manuscript ready for your first novel.
Devika: It started with getting my short, short story published in the New Straits Times during the early 1980s and earning the then princely sum of RM100 for my humble effort. Encouraged, I wrote more short stories. Some were published by Female Magazine in Singapore. Then, I tried my hand at writing an article for the New Straits Times. When they published it, I continued writing, mostly for the Heritage pages of the newspaper. After about eight years, it seemed only natural I tried penning something longer and more challenging than newspaper articles. So I decided to write a novel. All this while, I was working as a teacher and writing was only a hobby.
As soon as I decided I was going to write historical fiction, I started to research British India and British Malaya. I also had a wealth of knowledge about the Tanjore Marathas’ migration to Malaya from the oral history handed down through three generations of my family. All this combined to form the basis of my novel. The writing was slow-going at first as I was still holding my teaching job. But after I retired, the pace picked up and I had a finished manuscript two years later. In all, it took me eight years to research, write and find a publisher for my novel.
Aneeta: Please share with us your journey of getting your manuscript for The Flight of the Swans into print.
Devika: I first sent my manuscript to a local editor who was totally convinced my novel was for an international audience. The kind gentleman used his precious time to send the ms to a few big UK publishers. I, too, tried several UK and USA publishers. But after receiving about fifteen rejection slips, I decided to try nearer home. I contacted a couple of Malaysian and Singaporean publishers. Finally, Monsoon Books of Singapore accepted my ms for publication.
Aneeta: I do not wish to dwell on the negative but I have to ask you this: I know from experience how hard it can be to get support from some of the local publishers. Some can be downright nasty and discouraging. I can only guess that since your book was published by Monsoon Books in Singapore, you too must have faced such heartache as well. Did you and if so, how did you deal with it?
Devika: The reasons local publishers gave for rejecting my ms were:
1) They were not looking for historical fiction.
2) They wanted more local content in the novel (The Flight of the Swans is set in both India and Malaya).
3) They’d rather publish non-fiction than fiction as most Malaysians preferred to buy the former.
Like you said, it was heartache. But I decided I was not going to give up. Not after spending eight years on the book!
Aneeta: Please tell us a little about the story in The Flight of the Swans.
Devika: The Flight of the Swans is a family saga set in British India and Malaya. It tells the story of three generations of the Bhonsle family who face war, famine, family conflict and social injustice as they try to make their dreams come true. Woven into this tapestry is a lone white swan inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of the Bhonsles’ fortunes as they flee across India to Malaya.
I have used my great-grandfather as a model for the fictional Bhonsle’s migration to Malaya and consequent employment in the Federated Malay States Railway.
Aneeta: I understand that you’re currently working on another novel. Would you like to share a little about this new novel?
Devika: It’s also a historical novel, set in India and Southeast Asia. I’m writing about a subject seldom explored in fiction: the Indian Ocean slave-trade. It existed at the same time as the Atlantic slave-trade.
Aneeta: As you know, my website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling?
Devika: First, have an interesting story to tell. Then, tell it. Be prepared for the long haul. And don’t give up on finding a publisher.
Aneeta: Thank you, Devika.
Devika: Thank you.
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