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The choice of a Tamil Brahmin lead character for his debut novel was elementary, says Ryan Lobo.

Ryan Lobo should be the poster child for the Hunger Games. His appetite is never quite satiated. He has shot photographs and documentaries that have been featured on Oprah and Nat Geo and early on, dropped a cell biology course to start an advertising agency. The latter was quickly left behind to pursue serious storytelling — from blood rites in Papua New Guinea to child boxers in Thailand.

A chronicling of the ‘forgiveness journey’ of a Liberian warlord-turned-evangelist even won him an award at the Sundance Film Festival a few years ago. His next frontier — fiction — came as least expected. And so did its protagonist, a desi-inspired Don Quixote.
The debutante author talks about his latest, Mr Iyer Goes to War.

What made you go from serious photography on Delhi’s firefighters and Thailand’s child boxers to fictional satire?
I sometimes feel that photography is not enough to effectively tell a story the way you might want people to understand and experience it. An image could be interpreted in so many ways, and its comprehension can change with time or with who might look at it.

Did fiction play an important role in your earlier work?
I think fiction plays a great role in our creative endeavors, including my photography.The protagonist, Lalgudi Iyer, was inspired by the character of Don Quixote, an idealist who believed in the values of an older time, knight errantry and gallantry, despite living in a declining Spain. He lived his ideals regardless of outcome, charging the monsters of his time, both imaginary and real, and though crushed repeatedly, rises from the ashes.

What moved me was the relentless and enduring nature of Iyer’s being, never allowing himself to be destroyed, never compromising and never giving up. He refuses to be a dying old man and instead, aspires to be a hero. The fiction of Don Quixote provided me that. This book was inspired at the Kumbh Mela. Were there other adventures on the Ganges? I was part of a large crew shooting a documentary on the Ganges and in the midst of all that chaos, I was moved when I heard so many people talk of their epic journeys from all over the subcontinent, to be able to bathe at the confluence.

I recall seeing a very old couple hobble down to the water and help each other bathe. They told me that they knew it was to be their last trip to the Kumbh, and that their families had been doing this for hundreds of years. I found that striking, that this had survived for so long, this deep faith.

What inspired the connection of Bhima from the Mahabharata? Bhima is a mythological character known for his strength and integrity. The frail old Iyer believes himself to be a reincarnation of the Bhima, maybe in some ways becoming the zeitgeist we have in India today.
I chose the book’s main character to be a Tamil Brahmin, as it was important for me to find someone who lived in both the modern world, and who was still profoundly in touch with his mythology and original culture. I recall watching a man conduct a funeral ritual once, and an archaeologist friend told me that he had found evidence of the same ritual from the Bronze Age.

Mr Iyer Goes To War, Bloomsbury, Rs 399. Details: bloomsbury.com/in

—Sonali Shenoy

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