Annapurna Potluri’s debut novel, The Grammarian, set in early 20th century India, follows French linguist, Alexandre Lautens, as he travels to the country’s English-dominated south to complete a first-of-its-kind grammar of Telugu, known as the “Italian of the East.”
How does your background in linguistics influence your writing of the protagonist, Dr. Alexandre Lautens? Why was it important that he was French and not English?
Alexandre just kind of came to me, almost fully formed. That he is a philologist is not incidental, not at all, but it is secondary to my sense of who he is as a man. That he chooses linguistics is symptomatic of his character: he is someone who feels a bit trapped; he is forever looking for new worlds to conquer, to take intellectual possession of things, to find a new way in.
It was important to me to capture some of the French colonial, early 1900s worldview in Alexandre. He is a child of that fin-de-siècle mood, that little touch of fatalism he carries with him always. That said, novels—to me—are about the excavation of the individual; Alexandre is neither a composite of different ideologies, nor is he some kind of representative Frenchman. Primarily he is just himself.
There is a great presence of the Telugu language in the book. How important was it to you to feature the language in your novel? And also, what are your own experiences with Telugu?
Telugu is my mother tongue. In my home, both Telugu and English are spoken. As a child I was fluent, but that has eroded away over time. Now, I am a sort of “fluent understander,” and I’m caught in an odd place in which I struggle with language production, but understand what is being said. I’ve since come to find that this is a very common phenomenon in the children of immigrants, especially those of my generation. Telugu is for me, and always will be, the language of familial intimacy; it is the language of my childhood. My relationship to it is very circumscribed. Telugu is reflexively connected in my heart to the actual voices and idiolects of my parents.
In the book, there is a distinct dichotomy drawn between the upper- caste Indian families and poor Indians, but there is a less apparent difference between the upper caste and Europeans. What was it like to explore the mindset and home of a wealthy, Anglophilic Indian family?
The colonial history of India is so long and so deep, that Anglophilia is profoundly Indian. It isn’t contrary to the ethos of upper-class Indian-ness, it augments it. The best and most beautiful thing the British ever did in India—the train system—is the artery system of India; Englishness literally runs through the country.
I learned during my research is that the Nehru family maintained a British household and an Indian one simultaneously: Nehru’s father was a good Oxbridge man; he was a bon vivant who enjoyed scotch and meat and cigarettes. His mother was a Brahmin girl who had her own quarters, including a fully vegetarian kitchen.
But the world of the poor in India is something that is nearly unfathomable for someone like me, who has had the good fortune to not experience it. To try to imagine that kind of existence makes me acutely aware of the limits of language; there are many realities—the violence of war, the violence of poverty—that are nearly inarticulable, but that I wished to explore here.
While an unrequited love affair is central to the conflict of the book, there are other, larger conflicts boiling, like that of the liberation of India from British rule. How did you go about your research of this time period?
It is such a rich, fascinating time in Indian history. It is also well tread ground, but I wanted to look at the swaraj movement through the eyes a young woman who was living it, through the eyes of someone to whom this was everything, because she has had to leave behind all the rest of her life. I think that the immersion of oneself into working for the greater good is often sought out by those who are broken hearted. It is a very common reaction to grief, to repurpose oneself. One tries to love mankind as a whole because people have hurt and disappointed him on an individual level. I wasn’t as interested in writing a book about Indian independence as I was in writing a book about a girl who is suffering and happens to find herself in history-altering circumstances.
There are dueling themes—restriction and freedom, tradition and progression—throughout the novel, and one of the novel’s strongest characters is the matriarch, Kanakadurga. Are strong, feminist leaning female characters like Kanakadurga and Anjali typical of that time period?
For all the many ways in which life wasn’t fair to Indian women in 1911, India was and still is a deeply matriarchal culture. Kanakadurga was actually inspired by the spirit of one of my great aunts who refuses to wear the customary widow’s white because, as she says, she simply looks too good in bright colors. For an 80 year-old woman in a very rural, old fashioned part of Andhra, this is no small matter. The story of Indian independence is full of women, many of them quietly doing work behind the scenes—some of them sold their jewelry to fund the movement, they fed and housed the foot soldiers. The poetess referenced in the book, Sarojini Naidu went on to be a governor and a president of the national congress.
Do you have plans for future novels?
I’m working on a new book right now. I had wanted my second project to have a more contemporary setting, but as it happens, I found out about a double murder in colonial India and began to write a book based on this story. I’m fascinated with true crime, with the funhouse mirror way in which it reflects back the society in which it takes place. This case was billed at the time as a “crime of the century,” and was the result of an adulterous affair. It is a much darker, more sinister story than The Grammarian. I’ve been reading lots of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson for inspiration. The new book is producing all kinds of wonderful new challenges.