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Jaishree Misra: A relentless writer

  • Published at 07:38 pm October 29th, 2018
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She has produced eight novels in her decades-long career, including her bestseller, Ancient Promises

Fans of fiction will be delighted to see London-based Indian novelist Jaishree Misra talk about her writing at the 8th edition of Dhaka Lit Fest. Detesting “writing between two whistles of a pressure cooker”, Misra set out to build a full-time writing career from the very beginning of her literary journey. She has produced eight novels in her decades-long career, including her bestseller, Ancient Promises

Her debut novel, Ancient Promises, is a thinly-veiled autobiography. Narrated in the first person in flashback, it’s a moving story of one woman’s painful journey of self-discovery. Janu, the protagonist of her novel, goes through a rigorous rite of passage and finally divorces her uncaring and aloof husband Suresh, whom she agrees to marry only for her parents who handpicked the groom from a respected Maraar family from her native Kerala. Janu’s child with special needs from the first marriage and subsequent divorce, and then her marriage to her first love Arjun—are so heavily drawn from the author’s own life that her publishers first wanted to market the book as an autobiography. 

Misra, however, felt the novel format “has given her the creative freedom to sketch a portrait of the paradoxical nature of life in Kerala, with its deep-seated prejudices and conservatism as well as its beauty”. According to India Today, Misra was the first woman to have been represented by David Godwin since he became famous worldwide as Arundhaty Roy’s literary agent in London. Godwin found Ancient Promises a “terrifically moving novel”.

It was while writing Ancient Promises that Misra realised her full potential of writing fiction. Though it was challenging to bring forth so many personal accounts, she managed to find an inner rhythm that helped her write the book relentlessly. She said in an interview, “Ancient Promises ... was the quickest and easiest to write as it sprang so directly from my own experiences and therefore required no research”. 

The experience of writing her debut novel stayed with Misra in later years. In fact, its success and wide readership (the book is also on the BA Literature syllabus of Kerala University) set her to write book after book in the last one decade. In 2009, she signed a three-books-in-three-years deal with Avon, the commercial fiction imprint of Harper Collins UK. She completed the deal in 2011 by publishing her seventh book of fiction, A Scandalous Secret, an engrossing novel about difficult choices in life. 

Her ambitious historical novel, Rani—based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai and set in nineteenth century British India—was banned in Uttar Pradesh, India in 2008 by the then Mayawati-led government. In the book, Rani Laxmibai is shown to be involved in an affair with a British officer Robert Ellis, which the government of Uttar Pradesh found hurting the “nationalist sentiments”. Misra later sold film rights to a Bollywood company, and a film called Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is waiting to be released in early January next year, though, according to The Times of India, the producer claims that the film is not based on Misra’s historical fiction. 

Misra’s commitment to writing continuously is commendable. In 2017, she published her first nonfiction book, A House for Mr Misra, which details her experiences of trying to build a beach home in Kerala. Currently she is working on another nonfiction book about being Asian in Britain today. 

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