Why Lakshmi Puri’s debut novel is ‘part life, part invention’

Swallowing the Sun is a multigenerational saga and also India’s coming-of-age story

69-Lakshmi-Murdeshwar-Puri Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri | Sanjay Ahlawat

It was 1999. Aishwarya Rai had stepped into the world of acting. Akshaye Khanna was very much in his prime. Kevin Spacey had just won his second Academy Award. As a young diplomat, Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri was in Hungary, the year the country opened a new chapter to enter NATO. Hope was everywhere, as the world stepped into another millennium.

Somerset Maugham... was asked whether Of Human Bondage was autobiographical, and he said, ‘It is part life and part invention.’ I did want Swallowing the Sun to be both. ―Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri

That was when Puri began writing a story that she had lived with―one that she had grown up listening to. But it took a lifetime to complete. “I started writing when I was ambassador in Budapest, from 1999 to 2002,” she says.

It is the dying days of December 2023 in Delhi. Puri is at her home, having taken a leap into fiction from the matter-of-fact world of diplomacy. “After about 43 years in what I call the pantomime of diplomacy, I really wanted to indulge in an act of creation,” she says.

Puri is at her desk, with an assortment of books in the background. All around her are gods―Guru Nanak on the desk, Shiva on the shelf and Krishna on the wall. “I wrote only 100 pages. After that, I got busy with work, and also had a block. I don’t know what happened. Over the years, I still kept reminding myself―that’s an unfinished project.”

It was only after 18 years―half of it in Geneva, and half in New York―that Puri resumed writing. Covid had the world on pause. “I worked 10 hours a day those days,” she smiles. “There was a kind of vacuum. That is what was needed. I think my external world was too busy.”

The result, Swallowing the Sun, is an ambitious novel. Especially for a first-time writer. Her canvas is vast, as is her cast of characters. The novel, which stretches across the tumultuous decades of the freedom struggle, follows the journey of Malati (rebellious, outspoken and feisty) and her sister Kamala (tamer, but cut from the same cloth)―from a village in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, where they were born, to a boarding school in Indore, and to Bombay and Banaras. The independence movement, which they become part of, forms the backdrop that shape their worlds, ideas and lives.

“As someone said to me, this is not only their romance, but their romance with the idea of India,” she says. “I romance the idea of remaking India and India’s advance to greatness. My characters are not Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, or Sarojini Naidu or Annie Besant. [My characters] are the unsung heroes and heroines.”

The book is as much a story about India as it is a love story. It combines the earthiness of the Maharashtrian landscape―with the sweetness of mangoes―with the political ferment of a time when India was filled with ideas. The book is as much a multigenerational family story, as it is a ‘coming of age’ story. And it is populated with not just feisty women as Malati and Kamala, but also determined men as Baba, the patriarch who fights to educate his daughters, and Guru Kopikar, the hero who is loyal, determined and in love with Malati. There is also Malak, the wealthy brother-in-law and Mohan Kaka, the uncle who was a revolutionary.

At the heart of the story are the lives of Puri’s parents―Malati Desai and B.G Murdeshwar. They were in their 40s when Puri was born. They were both passionate and committed to the idea of India. Years later, Puri has chosen to chart out their journey―fictionally. Their presence is palpable in the book, as in her home. Her father’s books, hardbound and their spines embossed with gold, the birth chart her mother made for Puri on her wall and, in a corner, the sitar she encouraged her to play.

“It was a story waiting to be told, but not in an autobiographical way,” says Puri. “I am always reminded of Somerset Maugham, who was asked whether Of Human Bondage was autobiographical, and he said, ‘It is part life and part invention.’ I did want Swallowing the Sun to be both.”

Sprinkled across the book are abhangs (devotional poetry) that she grew up listening to. Abhangs were part of the fabric of her life, which is why she stitched them into the book in English, without losing their Indian heart.

“Initially, one or two editors who read my script said, ‘Oh, but this doesn’t happen. It is not normal that people talk in poetry or insert poetry into their speech.’ I said, ‘You should have seen my parents,’” she says, laughing. “There was so much talk about books and literature and poetry. My father used to recite poetry every evening to us. I have tried to sing it like he did. So, that is in the weft and waft of the novel….”

The sweep of Swallowing the Sun captures the growing freedom and ambitions of women. The love letters that Guru writes to Malati are very much carved out of what her father wrote to her mother.

“I have something like 148 love letters,” says Puri. “Written to my mother, when she had to be separated from him. During that period, I find that there are very few letters of hers. ‘You don’t express your love,’ my father complains all the time. I was fascinated by the medium of letters. It’s a medium of not only communication, but also expressing love, maintaining love, and evolving love.”

Swallowing the Sun

By Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri

Published by Aleph Book Company

Price Rs899; pages 424