He's made lush world-building the very core of his storytelling. Manu Bhattathiri's second novel – The Oracle of Karuthupuzha (Aleph Book Company, Rs. 699), which came out during the intense second covid wave in India this year – did what great fiction never fails to. It transported its readers to a very different place, even in the midst of observing the most stringent of isolations in lockdown.
For a writer who crafts whole worlds and their people so meticulously in his head, would his immediate surroundings matter much when working? Why and how does he engage with it? Bhattathiri, also the co-founder of an ad-agency, lives in Bengaluru. In this interview, he talks in detail about his intimate and intense relationship with the desk in his bedroom, the space from where he's written a short story collection and two novels. Edited excerpts.
Describe your current workspace to us.
It’s in a corner of the bedroom. The background—the walls and the wood—is a bright yellow, which really works for me, because in the morning when I sit down to write the place glows, almost like a jewel. The light from the window is very stimulating. There’s a messy pinup board behind the desktop computer. This holds everything, from a Sanskrit Shloka and its English translation, to pictures of my daughter as a baby, family members, dogs past and present, and even the prescriptions for them from the vet. On top left is a cartoon of me done by a colleague many years ago, and it often helps me laugh at myself. While writing I switch on my Macbook as well as the desktop. I write mostly on the Mac and use the desktop to refer to the internet, or to suddenly scribble something disconnected to what I’m writing just then.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
I would’ve liked to say I modify this place with each book I write. Unfortunately, my workstation is the antique corner of our home. It is quite unchanging. If a pen is out of place here, or if a book is kept the wrong side up, it greatly disturbs me. So we simply allow dust, lizard poop and time to settle on the yellow desk. Every time my wife Rasmi enters the room, she has a sneezing fit. She asks the maid to clean up the space. But I watch cautiously to see that every element is placed exactly where it was before.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
I might have described my corner as my Bodhi tree, if only that wouldn’t sound like I have too high an opinion of what I do here. But this sure is my inspiration as well as my comfort zone. I write in the mornings, and most of the times when I sit with my cup of strong black coffee the place responds: it begins to glow yellow all around me and I have often felt like I am inside my own private star. Which is why I am very possessive about this corner. Rasmi does sit here once in a while, but that is only to read what I have written. This apart, I can say that the only other person on this planet who has been allowed on my chair is Palani, the huge, sweaty but ever-smiling computer repairman who comes over every time my desktop crashes.
But this is not to say it’s always flowery and fertile here. This is also the seat where I sit with my head in my palms at times, when the words refuse to flow. Sometimes when an external sound or an internal disturbance rudely snaps a thread of thought, I throw a tantrum sitting here. Not given to much physical activity, I do not pick up the pen stand and smash it on the opposite wall or anything, but I implode. Sometimes this very same workstation is a curse, and it spoils my mood for the rest of the day!
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
After a gap of almost twenty years (when I was submerged in my advertising work), I wrote my first short story on this desk. It was called ‘The Cold’, and it was first published in The Caravan magazine. It was the opening story of my first collection, Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories (HarperCollins, 2016). I later wrote two novels, The Town That Laughed (Aleph Book Company, 2018) and The Oracle of Karuthupuzha (Aleph Book Company, 2021). I hadn’t planned the ending of The Oracle while working on its plot. I had left it open, deciding to let it come as it came while writing. My eureka moment was the morning I wrote that ending. Believe me, I had no idea of time, no surroundings, no hunger or thirst until I had finished. I felt my grandmother Savithri’s presence once or twice (I can be rather superstitious and whimsical at times) while I was writing. Nothing I wrote thus far had given me such intense pleasure or satisfaction.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
I get stimulated by beaches and lulled by mountains. These are my favourite spots. I can imagine myself sitting by the sea and thinking about writing, but I doubt I shall actually write. In a mountain resort I am likely to be extremely soothed. I might fall asleep, but I still wouldn’t be able to write. I suppose these places might be ideal to think up material to write, to gain insights and craft new ideas, but they wouldn’t let me write my stories.
Once a dear family friend (we call him Menon Uncle) put the idea of a treehouse into my head. He is a great architect, and he suggested it for the house we are building in Kerala. I think a treehouse on the countryside would be an ideal place for me, with its world of green all around, and nothing to listen to but the birds. I would still want the inner walls to be a bright yellow. I would still need a Macbook and my old desktop. A pinup board in front with pictures of children and dogs, and veterinary prescriptions. That would make it no different from where I am now. Better not trade.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.