Nandini Sengupta is a Pondicherry-based writer and journalist. Nandini lives in Pondicherry’s quaint French quarter with her little daughter Kiki.
My journey as a story-teller began when I was 9 years old. I was an unstoppable chatterbox and my teacher, Mrs Raman, decided that the best way to get me to stay quiet in class was to ask me to tell stories. I was already a voracious and, if I may say so, fairly precocious reader. My mother, a confirmed bookworm herself, would always tell me I could read anything I wanted. Even books meant for grownups. “There are no good or bad books,” she used to say. “Only well-written and badly written ones.” At that time, I was painstakingly going through a well-thumbed copy of Tales from Shakespeare by Charles & Mary Lamb. I loved all the stories but the one that stayed with me longest was A Merchant of Venice. I liked Portia’s sheer spunk and the way she tricked Shylock and saved Antonio’s life. In comparison, the male characters felt wimpy –as if they were there to blend into the background. Except Shylock of course, whom I grew to love, much later.
I remember standing in front of the black board and trying to tell the story in a manner that would make it interesting enough for the class to quieten down and listen. I stumbled a couple of times, saw the bored look on a few faces, but carried on. By the time, Bassanio was choosing the lead casket, everyone was hooked. Then Portia came in with her twist in the tale… there were surprised smiles and even a few claps. When I finished I got a thundering applause. My reputation as a raconteur was born.
The next couple of outings weren’t quite so successful. Too many people died in King Lear and my classmates didn’t care too much for Macbeth either. Then came The Taming of the Shrew and I was back in business. By then I realized that I loved telling stories as much as my friends liked to listen to them. I was no good at singing or dancing, painting or sports. But I could spin a yarn as well as anyone else. When I grew up, I realized that writing was the only thing I could do with some degree of competence and confidence. I stumbled into journalism but stuck around because it allowed me to do what I liked best – talk to people and write. In a sense my career as a journalist prepared me to become a writer.
My first published work as an author was a non-fiction title called Babies from the Heart (published by RandomHouse India). It was a handy guide for adoptive parents based on extensive interviews with parents of adopted kids. As an adoptive mother as well as a journalist, this was, in a sense, a safe zone for me. I interviewed people, joined the dots, tracked the trends and banged them out on my laptop. It took me a year to complete the manuscript. The book did well as a niche title and I got offers to write more parenting books but I wasn’t interested. By then, my reading list had changed completely. I had moved from literary fiction to historical fiction, and then on to narrative history and finally academic history.
It all started with a random weekend trip. The year was 2007. My late husband Sumitro and I were planning a quick getaway and we zeroed in on Aurangabad. It was August, the western ghats were lush green and the sky still rain-swept blue grey. We booked ourselves into the Taj (now re-christened Vivanta) and next morning, armed with a tourist booklet and a bottle of water, headed off to the Ajanta Caves.
The climb was daunting – even though my wobbly knees were in much better shape back then – but what I saw in those caves changed my life. The frescoes were exquisite – so elegant, so perfect in their proportions. But that wasn’t the point. I looked into those faces and saw people like me who lived 1600 years ago. I saw the exotic costumes, the beautiful jewellery and elaborate hairstyles and wondered – what was life like back then? Who were these people who were staring back at me through the mists of time? Did they love, lose, laugh and cry the way we do now? Did they make war and love, find peace and purpose, look for answers and reasons? The monarchs and monks, merchants and maidens, warriors and wanderers, poets and paupers who walked this land, what kind of people were they? What food did they eat? What clothes did they wear? What lives did they lead? Suddenly I was consumed with an overwhelming curiosity. It was like stumbling upon the first clue in a treasure hunt. I had a million questions swirling in my head in that moment of epiphany.
I looked for the answers in history books starting with an expert account of the Ajanta frescoes by Walter Spink. Intrigued by my first brush with history I then moved on to Vincent Smith, AL Basham, Abraham Eraly, RC Majumder, Radha Kumud Mukherjee, Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay, Upinder Singh, Romilla Thapar, Michel Danino, Anant Sadashiv Altekar, Charles Allen, Sanjeev Sanyal… The list kept growing and growing and for the next 7 years I read history for fun. Suddenly the subject that I had ceremoniously avoided in college drew me in, the tales more gripping than anything I had ever read, the dots joining themselves in my head, the questions slowly getting answered one by one.
By the time I came to the fag end of my research, the story of Deva (Chandragupta Vikramaditya) was already writing itself in my head. I took another two years to complete the book and it debuted as my first novel – The King Within – in 2017. Two years on, the sequel has just hit bookstores and online platforms. Called The Poisoned Heart, it traces the story of Skandagupta, Deva’s heroic and tragic grandson. The third book in the Gupta Empire Trilogy is currently being written.
My journey as a storyteller has just begun. The more I read, the more I find glittering gems buried deep in our history. Like Scheharazade, I am mining this nation’s glorious past to dig out the thousand stories it holds in its bosom. If my books encourage you dear reader to find out more about the story in history, I would consider my job well done. Happy reading.