Wednesday, 17 July 2013

500 Words from D. Devika Bai

500 Words From is a series of guest posts from writers, in which they talk about their latest books.

Here, Malaysian author D. Devika Bai talks about her novel, The Flight of the Swans, which is set in British India and colonial Malaya, and concerns the Bhonsle family. Cursed, and with blood on his hands, Captain Ramdas Rao Bhonsle is forced to flee Killa Fort, which has fallen to the British. A strange flight of swans signals this flight - one that will drive Ramdas and his family into deepest adversity. But  adversity spawns dreams: Ramdas dreams of ousting the British from India; his sons, the handsome and irascible Nilkanth and the plain and romantic Madhav both dream of Tara Bai, the most beautiful courtesan in the land; Ramdas’ granddaughter, Arundhati, who is blind, dreams of seeing. A lone white swan is inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of the Bhonsles’ fortunes as they flee across India to Malaya - a journey once taken by Devika's own ancestors. 

Devika's fellow Malaysian, Rani Manicka, who won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize  for her novel The Rice Mother  is amongst her  fans, and has praised  her as having  “a wonderful eye for detail.”

So, 500 words from D.Devika Bai:

The Flight of the Swans, my debut novel, came about as a transition from writing newspaper articles to novel-writing.

After eight years of contributing articles to the New Straits Times, I felt it was time to move on to writing something more challenging like a novel. Moreover, there’s no under-estimating the power of a tiny spark struck in you during your teen years. When my family physician, the late Dr. Lakshmanya, heard I had scored an A1 in English Language  - it was rare in 1963 Malaya for Cambridge University to award excellent grades for English -  he said at once: “You should become a novelist”. I was fifteen then. That spark he ignited burst into flame during middle-age and my debut novel was born.

First and foremost, The Flight of the Swans is a family saga about three generations of the Bhonsle family battered by war, famine, family conflict and social injustice. Why choose to write about a family? Because the family-oriented stories I read during my teen years influenced me greatly: The Grapes of Wrath  (John Steinbeck), The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck), Little Women (Luisa May Alcott) and Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). It gave me great pleasure writing about the love, loyalty and courage of the Bhonsles in The Flight of the Swans. Not only that, I had written about the great migration East, from British India to Malaya, in this instance, a topic rarely touched upon.

A good deal of research went into the novel and it was with a sense of pride that I wrote about my clansmen, the Marathas, who under the reign of King Shivaji Rao Bhonsle ruled almost the whole of India. And it was with the same pride, too, that I wrote about my adopted country Malaya (now Malaysia) where my great-grandfather migrated to work in the Federated Malay States Railway.

History buffs will love this book. It brings to life war-torn India as the British battle brave Maratha natives and sheds light on the lustful lives of the rich and not-so-famous. It also spotlights the journey to the East. This journey is based on that of my great-grandfather from India to Penang Island in Malaya. And with his arrival an invisible curtain parts to reveal the cultural melting-pot of 19th century Penang in all its glorious detail.

Romantics will moon over the forbidden love between an ordinary man and the most beautiful courtesan in the land. Feminists will thrill at the sheer guts of a Maratha queen, based on a true historical figure, and her female sepoys as they fight the British to the death. All right-thinking people will root for the courtesan-by-birth who defies norms and breaks the shackles of a forced life of sex and opulence. And who wouldn’t empathise with the agony of parents who bear a wayward son and a blind daughter?

In a nutshell, The Flight of the Swans illuminates loyalty to king and country, courage and family bonding and sacrifice in a rich blend of historical facts and delicious fiction.

The Flight of the Swans is published by Monsoon Books in both paperback and as an Ebook see 

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