Born at Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram District of Kerala to the late teacher couple A. Ramakrishna Panicker and D. Babykkutty Amma, R Nandakumar is a Telecommunication Engineer by profession who worked for Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd.
He is a playwright in Malayalam with eighteen staged and three published plays to his credit. The play Jvala Kalapam (Revolution of Flames) was bestowed with International Book Fair Award of State Children’s Literature Institute of Government of Kerala in the year 2011. He has also penned scripts for three Malayalam films and has been a facilitator of renowned rural library movement in Kerala since long back.
R Nandakumar is a mother tongue activist and founder member of a vanguard organization for the development and dissemination of Malayalam language named “Aikya Malayala Prasthanam”. He continues to write for the survival of mother tongues and languages.
TBE: Tell us about your book that isn’t in the blurb. What brought about the idea for ‘The Icon’ and why did you want to write it?
R Nandakumar: There are many layers for the novel ‘The Icon’. It is a romantic fiction with a historical backdrop. It is an investigative who-dun-it story. The book links the present age and the past. Also, it glances over the great history of Tamilakom and Kerala. History always enthused me. South Indian History and Kerala History.
In the latter, particularly Travancore History. Travancore, its ancient name is Venad, has a historical legacy of more than a millennium. There are indeed certain shadow-places in the available history. How can we lighten those dark recesses without proper historical evidence? I am not a historian or an academic researcher. Still, I used to go after that. To find out the evidence. That energized me. If you ardently read history, you can assume the periods clearly in your mind as in a movie. History will tell stories. One such story sprouted my imagination and I wrote ‘The Icon’.
TBE: How was your publishing experience with Leadstart?
R Nandakumar: Leadstart has an efficient, professional system and a dedicated team. Each level of the process has been assigned to a separate professional. They are cordial, transparent, prompt, and fast. More often than not, the delay during certain stages was on my part. The professionals of Leadstart patiently waited and politely inspired me to evade away my sluggishness.
TBE: To start with, I liked ‘The Icon’—the book itself and Ananthan as a character. What was the inspiration behind his character development? How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?
R Nandakumar: Thank you. During the initial thoughts, the young protagonist, the present age character, Ananthan, didn’t develop. The second part, I mean, the historical fiction part, only developed first. I decided to write that. Still, uncertainty crawled in. That was period fiction. I was not that happy with only that. Then after several days, my thoughts anchored on the shore of the present age.
How shall I bring in the contemporary period? That was the challenge. One fine morning the idea of a book in the book or a novel in the novel blossomed. Then everything reached me. I decided. Let the internal stuff be from fictional folklore and depicted by a senior man. Let him be a historian also.
Then the new episodes must be conceived with the young generation.Where shall I place the young man? First, I thought of him to be a historian. It will be a repetition. I was confused. Then the idea to make him an archaeologist sprouted. The effect of that spontaneous decision was magical. An archaeologist will have the caliber, composure, and aptitude for research. Being a young man, he will have friends. Then a team of energetic youth rallied. I made Ananthan the grandson of the historian who wrote the novel inside the novel. The route was clear. I started writing.
TBE: Your novels contain a lot of historical folklore, so how do you go about researching your subject before you dive into the story? Did anything surprise you during your research for this book?
R Nandakumar: I couldn’t study history academically. I was an engineer by profession. I tried to follow history meticulously through reading. And I happened to travel immensely in connection with my job. Every new place I went, every new person I met, filled joy in me. Every place will have unknown history. That is cultural history and local/provincial history. Folklore is an ingenuous part of it. Those also matter. I can’t fix a subject first and then dive into the research on it. During my research certain intuitions rose and The Icon also thus happened.
TBE: Speaking of research and authenticity, I was struck by your descriptions of Pookkudi and Travancore. I wondered if you’d visited these places or lived there.
R Nandakumar: I live in Trivandrum, the old headquarters of Travancore. The ancient headquarters of Travancore was at Kalkulam, Thiruvithamcode etc.. Kalkkulam was later named as Padmanabhapuram. I visited Padmanabhapuram twice to see the beautiful palace there. But I have never been to Pookkudi.
TBE: Sticking to the story, let’s talk about Ranganatha Deekshithar and Kaveri. What was the inspiration behind these characters? How did you develop their personality and background?
R Nandakumar: By fixing the beginning of the story at an archaeological excavation ground, I thought it to be on a riverbank. How can I think about a river other than Kaveri? I know that Thirupurambiam is the place where the Pandya-Chola war happened in the ninth century.
I searched google earth, maps, etc.. and found Pookkudi very close to Thirupurambiam on the banks of Kaveri. That name was also enchanting. I fixed the place first. Then the heroine came dancing. First, I thought of a different name for her. Then I changed my mind. Her character was strong. She was a woman with determination. Her life is also like a river flow. Then I decided. She will be Kaveri only.
There are human beings who succeed in life and there are those who miserably fail also. Ranganathan is the villain in period fiction. He always craves success. He is also a very good musician. The most handsome person in the story. The meaning of Ranganathan is the master of stages.
Writing ‘The Icon’ was also like a river flow. A river begins as a seepage from a mountain and then moves on. It doesn’t know the valleys, rocky regions, woodlands along which it will flow. It doesn’t know where it has to meander. That flow is unpredictable.
TBE: How often did you consult original sources or write from what you already knew and imagined? And, was your goal to honor the myth or create a new myth? How much research, how much leeway did you allow your own imagination to fill in that kind of story?
R Nandakumar: Well, I told you. Certain intuitions will happen. Those will be inspirations and imaginations budded from what we read. Sometimes new myths will also arise. If you are writing history, you have to follow facts and evidence. Follow those only. But when you write fiction, you let loose your mind. Let it fly like a bird on the horizons of imagination. It will bring an apiary or honeycomb of stories, characters and words.
TBE: Which part of researching ‘The Icon’ was the most personally interesting to you? Were there any facts, symbols, or themes that you would have liked to include, but they just didn’t make into the story?
R Nandakumar: While writing was flowing like a river, I stopped in between. That was for doing research on music and dance. It was a new area for me. I never in my life have been to that. I wanted to know about the old ragas in music. Musicians I contacted didn’t know about them. They told me that all ragas are ancient. That didn’t satisfy me. From certain ancient books on music, I knew about the old ragas and makeovers that happened to those in the contemporary period. That was a fascinating journey of research.
TBE: Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
R Nandakumar: Yes. It is historical fiction, rather a fictional history, which deals with certain episodes of three centuries ago. Relations of British East India Company with local rulers of India during its initial phase are taken care of, with a focus on Travancore.