I came across Uma’s first published work in 1998. And this was in Alor Setar. At the time, I had completed university and was about to join a law firm. Still, I was more than happy to meet someone who had followed her dream and become a published author. More than the lovely story Uma told in that first book, I remember being fascinated by this idea of being a published author. What was it like? How do you tell a story? Is it possible, even, for someone from a small town to succeed as a writer? So many questions…
Except for a brief meeting when my first novel The Banana Leaf Men was published, I didn’t know that more than 20 years would pass before Uma and I would meet again. Last year, at a meeting of the rather robust Paperback Bookclub in Kuala Lumpur, I was delighted to see Uma once again. Even more wonderful was to find out that she had a new book being published, under her penname, V J Singam. Here’s Uma’s story.
Aneeta: Uma, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Uma: Thanks, Aneeta. It’s a pleasure to be working with you.
Aneeta: Let’s start with something about you. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you live now and what do you do for a living?
Uma: I was born in Kuala Lumpur and have lived here for most of my life, except for a ten-year stint in Alor Setar Kedah from the eighties till the nineties. My children were born there. I presently live in the Petaling Jaya area and I’m a writer, as well as a licensed mental health counsellor.
Aneeta: Before we talk about your newly published book, can you please share something about your writing history? I am particularly interested in the research that you carried out before you started to write.
Uma: Well, what got me started was my interest in ancient civilisations, especially the Harappan civilisation. In school, I was an avid reader of anything that dealt with Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythologies. There was not that much information about Harappa at the time, because it was a relatively unknown subject. When I first got the idea for my book, I began to do a lot of research, most of it in libraries. Incidentally, at the time the internet was not well-developed and therefore not everything was available at the touch of a key. Then in 1999 I even travelled to Pakistan to visit the archaeological sites of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro to get more material for my research. It turned out to be one of the most interesting trips I’ve ever had.
Aneeta: Why was this research necessary? Couldn’t you have written your book without going so far away? Meaning, how did going to these places help you when telling your story?
Uma: In fiction writing, the imagination works by visualising our settings and characters in our mind’s eye as our story unfolds. It’s not like writing non-fiction, which involves factual descriptions and explanations.
In my books, I try to bring my settings to life by giving minute descriptions of the buildings, the way of life of these ancient peoples, their food, their farming practices as described by the archaeologists and scholars who studied them. This is how it works sometimes in science fiction and most of the time in historical fiction. Writers create (or recreate) the universe in which their story is to unfold.
For me, this meant looking at the pots, pans, implements, toys and buildings from the Harappan civilisation that the archaeologists dug up to get an idea of what things were like, as well as reading the work of scholars who studied the Vedic culture from ancient poems, psalms and other writings. The universe which served as the setting for my story had to be as authentic as possible, therefore it meant careful and extended research. I travelled to Pakistan for the same reason: to make sure I had the geography, the culture and the ambience for my setting just right.
Aneeta: Let’s talk about this newly published novel, Disorientation (The Seer’s Return – Book 1). What is it about?
Uma: It’s about a psychiatrist who gets a young patient on the autism spectrum with telepathic powers, and whose entrance into his life sets him on a time-travel journey through dreams. In these dreams, he goes back to his past life in the city of Harappa where he once lived as a mystic and a physician, and the patient his disciple. On the surface, it’s a novel about reincarnation and karma, but on a deeper level, it’s about modern psychology and the psyche. Or the other way around, depending on whether you are a metaphysical type or a psychological type. But enough said, you will have to read the book and see.
Aneeta: Naturally, all of us know you as Uma. How is the author of this book VJ Singam?
Uma: Let me just say that the initials VJ are based on my middle name and it’s a convenient way to keep my academic career separate from my writing.
Aneeta: Why did you choose to make the main character a psychiatrist?
Uma: The novel called for it. There are some questions in the novel about mental illness, psychological healing and even ‘spirituality’ which are explored from the perspective of cognitive science. Thus, it suited my story for the main protagonist to be a hard-nosed psychiatrist. It was the only way I could have Dr. Visvanathan doubt his own sanity because of his unusual experiences; he had to doubt what was happening to him while yet retaining his hold on reality. His character had to firmly hang on to his education and beliefs in order for the story to work.
Aneeta: As you know, this website is for storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling?
Uma: I can’t give any more important advice to other writers, except to hold yourselves to a higher standard than anyone else. If you are writing a novel that needs research, then diligently do the research. If your novel is more about offering an aesthetic experience to readers, then make sure your writing style and grammar are sufficiently polished. A reader’s reading experience depends on so many factors, and it is our job to make sure we understand what those factors are and make sure our book offers it to the reader.
Aneeta: Uma, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Uma: I think I’ve said it all. To everyone out there, do take the time to read the novel. I promise you a mind-boggling journey you will not forget. Until the next instalment in Dr. Visva’s story comes out. Goodbye, all!
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