“I remember when I first came to Singapore in 1995 on a scholarship, my parents told me to eat the food in this country,” Akshita Nanda comments offhand, as we wait for our dinner to arrive at Kogane-Yama. “Food is how you really get to know a country and its culture, and the act of eating itself bonds.”
Akshita is perhaps best known as an arts writer for The Straits Times. But when we caught up with her last week, her presence was not as Akshita the journalist, but Akshita, the friend, and soon to be first time novelist.
Born in Pune, India, Akshita has long held a dream of penning her own novel ever since she first picked up a book at the age of 5. Akshita reminisces: “In his novel The Last Continent, Terry Pratchett writes about the aboriginal myth of the creator. In that story, the creator draws a picture of a tree, and takes away details until only a stick figure it left. That’s when you can hear the leaves rustling in the wind, and that is what writing is about, and there are times fiction tell a truth that facts cannot.”
Now in her 30s, Akshita’s debut novel Nimita’s Place is finally set to be published by Epigram Books around the middle of the year. The work first came to public attention when a manuscript she submitted for the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize made it to the shortlist, losing out to Sebastian Sim’s The Riot Act. But even considering how much she writes on a daily basis, the act of penning a novel hasn’t always been easy for Akshita. She says: “I identify as both Indian and Singaporean, and in my novel, there’s a lot of issues discussing an outsider’s view looking in on Singapore. An editor once questioned whether it was really possible someone was in Singapore for 3 years and still not be integrated. I sat him down and replied that I could give him a whole list of phone numbers he could call and ask, firsthand.”
Akshita first started the process of writing Nimita’s Place at the tail end of 2014. Spurred on by former ST editor Clarissa Oon, who provided encouragement and mentorship to her, Akshita then took on no pay leave to complete the manuscript, and completed a first draft at the end of 2015. Says Akshita, pulling out the 150,000 word bound manuscript she’s been carrying in her backpack: “I went through about eight drafts before submitting it to Epigram, including a major change midway through 2015 after Lee Kuan Yew passed, because it changed my perspective of how to write the book. His passing made me realise how, like the British in India, we didn’t necessarily want him to rule over us, but in his absence, we were left in a state of disarray, and had to make a new order for ourselves.”
Nimita’s Place follows parallel stories of two women named Nimita. In 1944, India is on the brink of partition, and Nimita Khosla is facing her own domestic problems, as her parents dismiss her wishes to study engineering at university, and prepares her instead for married life. 70 years and two generations later, microbiologist Nimita Sachdev flees an arranged marriage and comes to Singapore. But in her new home, she faces unexpected anger and xenophobia all around her as a new citizen trying to integrate.
Says Akshita: “I originally titled it ‘Your Place or Mine’, because it’s a cheeky title, and because it’s about identity and immigration. In India, there’s still an underlying assumption that when women get married, you’re supposed to make your husband’s home your own and assume a new identity. I tied that into issues of immigration, contrasting Partition in 1947 with Singapore today. Back then, 8 million people crossed borders because they were suddenly afraid to share the same streets and jobs with new strangers, and that fear only happens when there are few resources.”
On the research process, Akshita says: “It was actually harder to do research on the present day timeline than the 1940s one, since there’ve already been countless scholars who’ve done their PhDs and made that information digestible. For me, I looked at economic reports, blogposts and Facebook statuses. But ultimately, I didn’t use any of it. Most research is for you to assure yourself ‘Ok, I now know enough to start writing’, and then you realise your readers don’t need details, they need a compelling character.”
Akshita continues: “One of the reasons why I chose to structure it across two different times is because it’s very easy to look at historical perspectives in hindsight, but when you’re in the middle of the present day, it’s difficult to take a step back and see the big picture and how it’s all really shaping up.”
For Akshita, names are incredibly important, and with two characters named Nimita, there was certainly a significance to her choice. In Hindi, Nimita is a name that means ‘fixed’ or ‘pre-ordained’, giving rise to the fixed, unchangeable destiny of 1940s Nimita’s life, Akshita explains. “Although derived from the same root, present day Nimita’s name is actually pronounced differently. This gives her flexibility to be who she wants to be. I wrote the novel thinking about how my grandmother’s dreams are things I can achieve now. Even now though, women are still considered walking wombs, and hopefully things will change and my future daughters will be able to achieve even more.”
Akshita ponders for a moment and then adds: “There are some things that still haven’t changed. After completing the draft, I even met a girl while jogging and she left India to work here and escape an arranged marriage. She could well have been the living embodiment of Nimita from 2014!”
As to whether she’ll be taking a break from writing, Akshita reveals she already has a second novel under her belt, titled Beauty Queens of Bishan. Akshita concludes: “I do want to keep writing, but I also have a full time job working for the newspaper. I’m trying to live three lives at the same time – social, journalist and novelist, but I’m very passionate about writing, so I’ll keep at it.”
Listening to Akshita’s story, we’ll be sure to get our copy of Nimita’s Place hot off the press once it finally gets its release, and bury ourselves in this all too familiar, poignant world this writer has lovingly crafted over the last few years.