Sena Desai Gopal is a journalist specializing in science and medicine, food, and travel. She is the author of The 86thVillage, her debut novel. She was born and raised in India and now lives in Boston with her husband and two children. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Modern Farmer, and The Times of India, among others. Sena is from a small village in southern India, doomed to submerge in the backwaters of one of India’s biggest dam projects: The Upper Krishna Project. Her family has lived in the village for 18 generations, and she grew up on stories of its residents and a fair dose of dam politics.
I’ve known Sena for many years now, first through the friendship between her husband and my brother, then running into her at writing conferences and developing our own friendship. I’ve long admired the connection she has maintained with her ancestral village in India while living here in the US, and the way in which she has managed to instill in her American-born children a deep love and respect for that place, taking them for long stays there throughout their childhood.
ANJALI MITTER DUVA: Between the title, The 86th Village, and the first couple of paragraphs, it is clear from the start that the setting of your book is both the inspiration for the story and a character in it. “Perched on the Deccan plateau’s southwestern edge, Nilgi was far enough from the ocean’s moderating influence that its seasons were distinct. Summers here were hot and dry, winters cold and dry, and it rained incessantly for four months from June to September. The last monsoon rains had passed when Reshma came, painting the countryside in brushstrokes dipped in shades of green. Hills cast their viridescent shadow over deep-green banana groves, patches of uncleared forest and fruit orchards bursting with guava, pomegranate, and sweet lime. Stretching from the base of the hills were gently undulating fields of maize, jowar and groundnuts through which early winter sunflowers poked their impish heads.” Tell us what drove you to write this book, your first novel, about this village.
SENA DESAI GOPAL: My inspiration was my own village, Yadahalli, in Northern Karnataka, India, that is doomed to drown in a dam project along with 175 other villages. The project has been hanging like a sword over this region since the 1950s when it was sanctioned; to this day the government has not yet completed it. Much of this area has lived in limbo, uncertain about when it will drown. Development came to a standstill because of impending submergence, and I grew up watching the physical deterioration of the area as people and the government were reluctant to invest in these doomed villages. I thought a story in this setting would be haunting and beautiful. The village I have created, Nilgi, is based on Yadahalli but the story of The 86th Village is fictional.
ANJALI: In writing classes one is often taught of the various plot premises, and one of them is “a stranger comes to town.” On the very first page of your book, a beggar girl shows up. “And there she stood, a four-foot-high figure, no more than nine, skinny and slight, clothed in a dress of indistinguishable color falling off thin shoulders. Two arms and two legs protruded from the oversized dress, twig-like and all angles. Long, black, waist-length matted locks of hair framed a small, oval face. The features were covered in grime, barely distinguishable except for the eyes, large and almond-shaped, the pupils black. And it was the eyes that captivated and disturbed the watching crowd. They were not the eyes of a child, sheltered and loved, fed on sweets, and rocked at night. These eyes had known much pain. Not the pain a child feels when it falls or is scolded, but the pain fate should inflict, if it must, on an adult.” What is Reshma’s role in the story, and how did she as a character help you in the writing of it?
SENA: Reshma is the force that drives the story forward. I didn’t do it consciously or deliberately. It just seemed like the obvious thing to do—introduce a character at the start who would later have a huge impact on the story as the plot unfolds. I made Reshma a helpless, disturbed orphan hoping readers would feel protective of her. I wanted my readers to be shocked and sad when Reshma’s story is finally revealed.
ANJALI: Typically, landlords get a bad rap in stories. Tell us a bit about Raj, the landlord in the village of Nilgi, and what you drew on to develop him as a character. “And then, one day Raj had stopped racing down the slope. Adulthood had crept upon him, unnoticed. Life stopped being simple. Suddenly, things were no longer black and white. There was a huge gray area trolled by doubts, suspicions, and misgivings. The gray area had grown as Raj had put more and more years behind him, as he navigated through marriage, fatherhood, manhood, and landlord-hood. He had done things he was not proud of but could not regret. Questions with no answers bubbled in his mind, spilling over. At some point, he had stopped wondering what was real and what was not. He began focusing his energy on just one thing—helping the people who would be displaced by the dam.”
SENA: When developing Raj as a character, I drew on my own experiences—I come from a family of landlords who were and still are popular with the public even if the landlord system was abolished in India in the 1950s. Raj has all the characteristics of the landlords I have known—he is benevolent, socially responsible and kind. But he is, like all of us, capable of transgressions that ultimately affect his family and Nilgi. And, no, I haven’t modeled him after anyone I know though I have incorporated in Raj characteristics of several people I know.
ANJALI: Your background is in journalism. When you decided to write about your village in the form of a novel, did you set aside your journalist hat? How did writing this novel differ for you, personally, from reporting on the facts of the village’s fate?
SENA: The 86th Village started as a journalism project. I wanted to do an expose on the corruptness of the dam project that would drown my village and 175 more. I have a strong science background and a degree in science journalism and am able to translate scientific data into a form the lay reader can understand. However, as I began researching, I realized I could not write this piece as a journalist—I could never be objective; I was a victim of the dam. I decided to take all the information I had and use it as a backdrop to tell a story. And, to be honest, it worked better than writing it as non-fiction because people were able to understand the effects of the mismanaged dam through my characters. So, no, I didn’t set aside my journalism hat.
ANJALI: The book has been categorized as a mystery, a thriller, and “crime fiction.” As authors, we often do not have a choice in how the publishing industry labels our work. How do you feel about these categories? Were they what you originally had in mind?
SENA: No, I never expected my book to be labeled as crime, mystery, or political thriller. I was writing it as climate fiction and my agent, Priya Doraswamy, was pitching it as such until it found a home with Polis/Agora, a publishing house that specializes in crime fiction. Priya presented it to Polis/Agora as a mystery because we agreed The 86th Village was also that. The book deserves that label, but it is also much more—it is climate fiction, romance fiction, contemporary fiction. People interested in a story like The 86th Village will find it no matter how it is billed.
Sena Desai Gopal is a journalist specializing in science and medicine, food, and travel. She is the author of The 86th Village, her debut novel. She was born and raised in India and now lives in Boston with her husband and two children. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Modern Farmer, and The Times of India, among others. Sena is from a small village in southern India, doomed to submerge in the backwaters of one of India’s biggest dam projects – The Upper Krishna Project. Her family has lived in the village for 18 generations and she grew up on stories of its residents and a fair dose of dam politics. Find her at www.senagopal.com, on Twitter at @senadesaigopal, Instagram at @sena.desai.gopal and Facebook at sena.gopal.
Anjali Mitter Duva is an Indian American writer raised in France, and the author of Faint Promise of Rain which was shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. She has been a Finalist for a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. Anjali co-founded and runs the Arlington Author Salon, a quarterly literary series with a twist, is a Fiction Co-Editor at Solstice, and an instructor at Grub Street Writers. She is also a co-founder of Chhandika, a non-profit organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. Anjali was educated at Brown University and MIT.