Journalist Sena Desai Gopal was born in Yadahalli, a small village in Karnataka. Her family has lived there for eighteen generations. Gopal grew up on stories of its residents and its politics.
But Yadahalli is doomed to be completely submerged as a result of the Upper Krishna dam project. Gopal’s debut novel “The 86th Village” is a rich crime noir, in which the writer draws inspiration from her connections with her ancestral home and its predicted fate.
In this interview with India Currents, Gopal — a science, medicine, food and travel reporter whose work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Modern Farmer, and the Times of India among others — shares a glimpse of her novel, which was published April 12 by Agora Books.
IC: What inspired you to write this book?
SDG: A few years ago I decided to report on the Upper Krishna Project, a mismanaged dam in India that will drown 176 villages, one of which is my ancestral village, Yadahalli. My parents still live in Yadahalli, in a house more than 250 years old. Eighteen generations have farmed the land around the village but all that will submerge when the dam is completed. I wanted to do an expose but realized, quickly, that I couldn’t be objective. So, I took my research and turned it into fiction. That became “The 86th Village.”
IC: You have researched and published articles about the Upper Krishna Project. How helpful was that information in writing the book?
SDG: Very helpful. I took my research and turned it into fiction. “The 86th Village” is set in a village like Yadahalli. However, the characters and story are fictitious and bear no resemblance to people I know in real life.
IC: Since you write non-fiction pieces regularly, did you face any challenges in writing fiction?
SDG: Not really. Fiction is considered creative and non-fiction is thought of as logical, factual. But, non-fiction can also be creative and fiction can be factual. It was not very hard to take facts and use them creatively in a novel. It was actually quite liberating – when I started writing the novel, I had so much license and space to use facts as a background to tell my story.
IC: Talk to us about developing your characters in a book. Are any of them based in real life?
SDG: None are based on people I know. However, all my characters are deeply flawed, just like most people are. I wanted characters with deep insecurities and weaknesses, because that is the reality of life. Most of my characters make mistakes, they hurt people close to them. They know they are doing wrong and, yet, they continue with their behaviors because they are human. I deliberately created this huge grey area my characters inhabited.
IC: Are there any specific childhood memories that helped shape the writing of this book?
SDG: That is a resounding “yes!” I recall, distinctly, my grandfather telling me that our village would drown in the Upper Krishna Project, a dam that would submerge our village. I was, perhaps, six or seven at the time and remember feeling distressed. After that, I began seeing my home and life as impermanent. It shaped my views on life and it comes out in my book. “The 86th Village,” among other things, reflects the fleetingness and impermanence of life. It addresses this absurd idea that we think we can control what happens to us.
IC: Tell us about your love for writing. How did you get started?
SDG: I always loved to write but, honestly, I didn’t do it much because, growing up in India, writing was mostly what you did to relax, indulge yourself. It wasn’t a serious profession and I never saw it as one. I went through my undergraduate and master’s degrees in science, but my heart wasn’t in it. All along, I was also interested in human rights’ issues.
My two loves – writing and human rights – led me to write for InfoChange, an alternative news channel in India that showcased issues of marginalized communities that were never featured in mainstream media. Writing for InfoChange made me realize how poor my reporting and writing skills were and I went on to a master’s degree in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. I began as a science and medical reporter and went on to travel and food writing. Finally, my writing morphed into fiction, which gave me a place to be creative without inhibition.
IC: Do you have a creative process or ritual before you start writing?
SDG: On days when I am flailing, looking for inspiration, I take a break, do things around the house – cooking, organizing my already-organized closet, kitchen, garage. And, when I feel I am ready to write, I read some of my favorite authors for inspiration: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Abraham Verghese.
IC: Are you planning on writing a sequel to this book?
SDG: I might, and perhaps a prequel as well. The 86th Village, as it is now, bears almost no resemblance to the first draft. About 50 percent of the first draft was removed with careful consideration by Priya (my agent) and me. It just did not work, but there is enough material there for a sequel and a prequel.