Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

The Landscape Unseen

by Lynne Kelly

I discovered India by accident. When I first got the idea to write the book that became Chained, I was thinking of it as a picture book about an elephant that escapes after years of captivity and rejoins her former herd in the wild. But like my character Nandita the elephant, the story was tethered in a space that was too small. There were more layers to the story than I could see at the time, but luckily there were others who recognized it. After taking the picture book manuscript to critique groups, a few people mentioned that the story seemed like it needed to be a novel; I’m still not sure how they saw it, but they knew before I did that the story needed to break out of that small space where I was trying to keep it confined.

The task seemed daunting. A novel? That’s a lot of words! But since I’d heard the same feedback from a few different people, I decided to go ahead and try it. I kept the same plot line about the captive elephant longing to break free and return home, but I expanded the narrative to include more backstory and characters. I had room to show the setting in more detail, too, which would be the most challenging part, since I was writing about a place I’d never seen except in pictures.

It was the elephant’s journey that led me to India. I wanted her home to be just out of reach—unreachable because of her captivity, yet close enough to feasibly return to after her triumphant escape. The setting might have been Africa, but because they don’t have the tradition of show elephants and circuses like Southeast Asia does, India was the best fit for this work.

But it needed to be right.

Because I had never been to India, I knew it would take a lot of research to write the story authentically. I had to get to know the setting just as well as I knew any the story’s characters. It was harder than getting to know a character, though, because India exists outside of my own imagination. There are people who call it home. I didn’t want to write anything about that home that would seem offensive or stupid or just plain wrong. For me, writing about India felt somewhat like the world-building a fantasy writer might do, since they have to show that setting in a way that brings it to life for a reader who knows nothing about that world. At the same time, I needed to show India accurately yet seamlessly, so that readers familiar with the country would recognize it without being distracted by a writer who seemed to be shouting, “Look at me, I’m writing about India! Look how much research I did!”

At first I didn’t know in what region of India the story would take place, but I knew it would have to be  where elephants lived in the wild. The manuscript went through a huge evolution during the three years I worked on it before querying agents, but that unreachable home from the original version remained. I ended up choosing the northern part of the country because I liked the idea of the terrain of the main character Hastin’s home being totally different from where he ended up working; he’s used to the desert, so the foliage and humidity of the forest are as foreign to him as they would be to any of us who’ve never been there. Brainstorming about the desert and the forest helped me come up with the differences Hastin noticed when going from one place to the other. Since Hastin’s new home was unusual to him, he could comment on his new surroundings and contrast them with home, so I used Hastin’s observations as a way to bring the rain forest to life for the reader. Like the elephant Nandita, Hastin is fairly close to home, but it’s a world away because of his captivity.

Much of what I learned about the country came from reading—I purchased or checked out countless books, both fiction and nonfiction, about India. Google became my best friend; I searched for articles online to find out more about the lives of my characters and captive elephants in India.

But the most important things couldn’t be picked up in books or from websites. It’s easy enough to learn about the terrain of a place by looking at maps and pictures, but what’s it really like? To find out more about the life and culture of India, I had to talk to people who had lived there. I think I asked questions of every Indian person I met or spoke to while I was researching the novel, and most helpful was the manuscript critique and final vetting of the novel from Uma Krishnaswami, author of Naming Maya and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I knew she was a talented writer, and I heard she was also a fabulous manuscript critiquer.  Plus, she lived all over India when she was growing up. All of that made Uma an ideal homeland reader for this particular manuscript. The research taught me a lot about India, but no one can show on paper what it’s like to actually be there. I could imagine the sights and smells of the Indian marketplace from the pictures I’d glued to the pages of my inspiration notebook, but the pictures didn’t show that the open market wouldn’t be a friendly place for a boy wandering around alone looking for a job. Added to the next revision were vendors who had no patience for a kid who clearly was not there to shop.

I found that India isn’t just India; traditions vary so much from region to region that it felt like I was researching many countries within one. It wasn’t so surprising to find variations in the cuisine, since we have similar regional variations in the United States too. I probably wouldn’t write about a character in Michigan cooking fajitas, but that’s the kind of thing I was doing in my manuscript. Unexpectedly, I learned that the names of people and the stories they tell are very different from one area of India to another. I ended up changing the names of a couple of minor characters after finding out that they sounded like they were from Bengal, for example. Not something most readers would notice, but those who did would be pulled out of the story for a moment, asking, “Wait a minute, where are we again?” or to observe, “Hmm, this writer doesn’t really know what she’s talking about.”

From the start I imagined Hastin as a Hindu character, and I knew that he’d certainly be saying some prayers while living so far from home. A search for Hindu prayers led me to some lovely ones that fit perfectly with the struggles Hastin was going through, but nothing I’d read would tell me, “Hey, these are pretty formal, so don’t have a kid lying in a stable next to an elephant praying this way.” Uma to the rescue again, to point out that what I was using would compare to the language of a high holy day at an Episcopal church, when what I needed was the language of a tent revival.

Because I thought of Hastin as a storyteller, I wrote a scene near the beginning of the book where he told a story to his sister, a familiar story they would have heard before from their parents. I read collections of Indian folk tales to find the perfect story for Hastin to tell. What I didn’t pick up from those was that he wouldn’t be familiar with the tale I wanted to use, since it’s one that’s told in the southern part of the country and he lived in the north. But I loved the story so much! And it fit into the book so nicely! I could make it work, right? Maybe Hastin’s mother used to live in the southern part of the country, and her kids learned the tale from her.

Really? People move all the way across the country to live in a hut in the desert? Oh, logic, sometimes I hate you.

So the folk tale was gone, as lovely as it was.

While searching for information about Hastin’s home in the desert, I came across some articles by an Indian reporter who often writes about the housing of the poor in India. We started corresponding via e-mail, and she helped me come up with what Hastin’s home would look like. Later, I worked with Patricia Lee Gauch at the Highlights conference at Chautauqua, and she asked me to include more exposition to bring the reader closer to the story. That night I looked at the pictures I’d found and did some freewriting about how Hastin felt about his house. To him it wasn’t a shack, or housing for a poor rural family; it was his home, the only home he’d ever known, and the kind of home all his neighbors had. The mud walls blended in with the landscape around him, and they held memories of his father, who built the house with his own hands. The freewriting led to a scene where I needed to show Hastin taking on more responsibility: I had him fix a hole in the thatched roof as he remembered helping his dad with the job.

Perhaps because the story started as a much shorter work and grew into the novel that it now is, I was able to approach the setting gradually, as a tourist guided by that little elephant showing me her home, rather than as an invader rushing in to take over the place and make it mine.

In his introduction to A Passage to India, E.M. Forster wrote that he hadn’t written a book about India, but a book that takes place in India. It helped to keep that in mind as I wrote; if I started feeling overwhelmed, I reminded myself that I wasn’t taking on the task of writing about the entire country, but about one boy’s experience there. It didn’t seem such a monumental a task then.

If it’s the right setting for the story, it is possible to write about the unseen landscape. Little by little it can become visible, revealing itself to the writer through research, trial and error, imagination, and friends who share stories of home.

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