When Setting and Story Are One

4501624187_321418d2ff_bBy Guest Contributor Anjali Mitter Duva.

In Rajasthan, a desert state in the northwest of India, many five-year old children have never seen rain. In the winter of 2001, as I prepared for a trip to the fortress city of Jaisalmer—a return to a favorite childhood destination to which I was eager to introduce my husband—I read this striking fact in a guidebook. Most memorable was the imagery that followed: in the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were often painted with black and blue cloud designs so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid.

A few weeks later, I sat among jewel-toned cushions of silk and cotton on an outdoor settee, and marveled at the fact that the walls were covered in tapestries encrusted with silver thread and mirror-work. We were in a courtyard within a turret of the medieval fortress in the city of Jaisalmer, yet the décor was much like that of an indoor space. There was so little threat of rain that it didn’t make much difference whether one was in or out. I was charmed by this, and at the same time my visit to Jaisalmer called forth childhood memories of travel there, sensations that were already a part of me.

There was something so timeless about the setting, the fortress steeped in legends of battles, sieges, and war elephants, my own memories of riding a camel into the desert. It was all begging for a story. I returned to snowy New England with the base layer of a novel already laid—in essence, the first stage of research already accomplished—although I didn’t know it yet.

Back home in Massachusetts, I needed a reminder of the warm sandstone temples, the color-saturated fabrics, the spices. I tried out India’s classical kathak dance. The moment I set foot into the studio, I was smitten. Jingling ankle bells, syncopated rhythms of the tabla (drums), precise footwork, lightning fast turns punctuated by perfect stillness. Soon I learned of the history of the dance, a storytelling art form over a thousand years old. Beginning among itinerant minstrels, it moved into Hindu temples where it became a devotional dance. The kathak one sees today, having traveled through the Muslim courts as a courtesan dance and then driven underground by the British before appearing on the international stage, traces part of its roots to Rajasthan.

I could easily picture a dancer in a temple in Rajasthan, among the carved sandstone pillars and walls. As a twelve-year old, I had watched a girl perhaps a bit younger than me performing a folk dance at an outdoor restaurant while my parents and I sipped mango lassis. She came to mind now, as the story of kathak and the setting of Jaisalmer started to converge in my imagination. Story and setting were inseparable. A little girl, born into a family of temple dancers. A mother fearing what the future under Muslim rule would bring. A father intent on preserving his tradition. A son turning his back to dance in favor of the glory of battle.

I read up on the history of Rajasthan, of Jaisalmer, and of kathak. I read passages of the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, whose stories are so often featured in kathak. I spent hours in Internet research for the details: what birds fly across the Thar desert sky? What food items did caravans bring along the Spice Route? What grains were cultivated, and how was the land irrigated? In what order do a horse’s hoofs touch the ground as it canters, trots and gallops, and do their sounds match the dance patterns in the way I hoped for a certain scene to come alive? And all the while I attended kathak classes.

The layers and types of research added up: the sounds, smells, and sights of Jaisalmer embedded in my memories; my kinetic experience on the dance floor every week; Rajasthani legends and Hindu mythology. Faint Promise of Rain was already there, it had just been waiting for me to put the pieces together and write them down.

Anjali Mitter Duva will talk more about setting and her novel, Faint Promise of Rain, at Craft on Draft on October 6th at Trident Booksellers & Café. You can also read more about the author and her novel in this interview with Dead Darlings.

 

Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer who grew up in France and has family roots in Calcutta, India. After completing graduate studies at MIT and launching a career in urban planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Her first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, came out with She Writes Press in October 2014. She is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. Anjali lives near Boston with her husband and two daughters, and is at work on her second novel, set in 19th century Lucknow.

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