Ten years ago, when I was living in Delhi, I had the idea to write two books. Both of them were shaped by the heat of a Delhi summer. The first was about a chubby Hindu god; the second, about a cool mountain river. The river idea slipped into my mind while I was reading a translation of India's most ancient and sacred Sanskrit text, the Rig-Veda. In my notebook, I wrote down 'Indus', 'Aryans' and 'Alexander'. Those three words led to journeys through Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tibet, and archival investigations into the history of the Indus valley, once the celebrated territory of the Rig-Veda, now the backbone of Pakistan. This was how I came to write my first book, Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River.
The other idea I had that summer also emerged from a reading of a Sanskrit text: the Mahabharata, India's devastating, adventurous epic about a warring family. I noticed something very simple and seemingly-overlooked. While popular versions of the Mahabharata included the framing narrative about how the author, Vyasa, called on the elephant god, Ganesh, to be his scribe, scholarly versions of the epic always excised this section. I began to wonder why. These thoughts led to my novel, Leela's Book.
Delhi fomented such reflections. The city was founded on Indraprastha, home to one of the epic's warring clans; the piece of high ground where the Pandava brothers built their palace was walking distance from my home in Nizamuddin West. Archaeologists say that the site, now known as Purana Qila (Old Fort), has been continuously inhabited from prehistoric times. Situated next to the Yamuna River, on a slight elevation above the plain, it was always the natural site for a fortification, and when Muslim leaders conquered the city, thousands of years later, this was often the place they chose for their capital too.
The Mughal emperor Humayan died at Indraprastha, tumbling down the steps of his octagonal library as he was looking at the stars. The last time people lived there was 1947, when Muslims took refuge behind its massive gates (big enough for an elephant to pass through), waiting for a train to take them to Pakistan.
The Mahabharata does not just pertain to Delhi and its inhabitants, however. Since the time that it was composed by anonymous poets, it has been continuously memorised, performed, retold and recited. There are ancient, scripted versions from as far north as Kashmir, and as far south as Tamil Nadu. Despite its massive girth, it has travelled beyond the natural limits of India too. My earliest memory of the Mahabharata is of watching it on television as a girl in England, in the abridged (but still gigantic) version by the theatre director Peter Brook.
Once I began to read the Mahabharata in Delhi, I was struck by its emphasis on the inglorious nature of war. The year I moved to India, the army fought a brief war with Pakistan; during the reign of the BJP government, aggressive rhetoric about India's Muslims created a sense of unease in the country. For Gandhi, it was at times like these that the Mahabharata spoke most strongly to Indians. 'I have maintained in the teeth of orthodox Hindu opposition' he wrote in 1939, 'that it is a book written to establish the futility of war and violence.' He saw the bloodshed of Partition as a recasting of the epic's terrible war, and compared Muslim refugees to the Pandava brothers in their exile.
Unlike the Ramayana, which right-wing Hindus have deployed in support of their sectarian views, the Mahabharata seems able to resist any such crude political agenda.
I began to collect translations of the epic. At the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi I photocopied reams of text in the translations by Kisari Mohan Ganguli and M.N. Dutt. On a visit home to London I bought all three volumes of the unfinished Chicago translation. On a journey to Calcutta I visited the publisher P. Lal, and brought a stack of his brightly-coloured, cloth-bound 'transcreations' of the epic back with me to Nizamuddin. I thought a lot about the recording of texts in ancient times, about cultural inheritance and tradition, about the re-telling of well-loved stories.
Above all, I began to think about Ganesh himself, and how he might have responded to the task of writing down this massive book. Did he even like Vyasa's story? Did he find the assignment daunting, or exciting, or thankless? The shelves of my flat filled up with the Mahabharata in its variant translations; but none of those volumes would yield up any answer.
Instead, a story about Ganesh, creation and subterfuge began to take shape in my mind. Every afternoon, when I arrived home from the literary magazine where I worked as an editor, I sat down at the desk under my window, and wrote out the section of the book called 'Ganesh's Narration'. The heat of that summer was crucial; it kept me there, under the ceiling fan, with just my imagination to distract me.
Since Delhi was built around Indraprastha, the city and its mythologies became central to my story; as did the idea of womanhood in this culture where the Mahabharata's proud women, fierce goddesses and ancient matriarchies compete with other, more generally pervasive notions of feminine submission and piety. By the autumn of that year I knew two things: that I would have to leave Delhi for the Indus valley, and that in the meantime I would wind around Ganesh's narration a modern-day story of the characters he had invented in a spirit of mischief and retribution.
Now that both books are written, I can see how much they fed into each other during the years I was travelling and researching. The very last journey I made for Empires of the Indus was to the source of the Indus in Tibet, a week-long walk north of Mount Kailash. I remember standing in the snow after the journey was over, looking at the stark outline of the sacred mountain, and thinking how strange it was to know the Mahabharata better than the English epics Beowulf or Paradise Lost, and southern Pakistan better than northern England. My stranger's gaze was useful, but it also gave me a sense of dislocation. Then I remembered the signifcance of the mountain I was looking at: it was here that Ganesh wrote down the Mahabharata. It was time to return home and finish my novel.