Lee Miller discusses his travels to India and his novel Kali Sunset
Bob Cudmore Show 104.7 FM (WVTL)
Amsterdam, New York
February 21, 2013
BC: We welcome an author who grew up in Amsterdam, NY, Lee Miller. Good morning, Lee.
LM: Good morning, Bob. Thanks for having me on today.
BC: Happy to have you here. Lee Miller’s book, Kali Sunset, is out now. You can get it on Amazon. I believe you can get both electronic and print versions. He will discuss the book a week from Thursday night, at a 7 o’clock program at the Amsterdam Free Library. Kali Sunset is set in India. Can you tell us about it?
LM: It is set in the region of Bengal in India, which is the area surrounding Calcutta. “Calcutta” is the British pronunciation of the city. They have shed the British pronunciation (the British left in 1947) to calling the city “Kolkata.” That is the region that the book is about and specifically it is about a matriarch of a family from Kolkata. It is historical fiction. I had previously worked on a real story for a family. I was commissioned to write a history of their matriarch. It was one of my friends from college. The family had spent 2-3 years trying to come up with a way to gather the matriarch’s stories and preserve her culture because she was getting older. They were trying to come up with some method to gather these stories and really were not successful. They were all so busy with their professional lives.
BC: Were these folks from India?
LM: The descendants gradually moved away from India in stages.
BC: They were of Indian origin?
LM: That is correct. The matriarch was still there in Kolkata, but the children were now in Delhi, London, and as far as the United States here in the Capital District. Her son lived in Clifton Park. The granddaughter said “I know that you really enjoy writing and you are very interested in this. Maybe this might be a project where we get an oral history of her life?”
BC: Isn’t that something! So you worked for this family?
BC: Was that the genesis of your interest in India?
LM: I had minor interest in it before, but engaging in this project really opened my eyes to my own ignorance, because it is such a counter-culture, almost an antithesis of our culture here. Everything is opposite in many ways. So I began this project and the matriarch became very ill, maybe six months into it after we had exchanged letters, and she passed on. So I ended up having to follow her guidelines for research as far as what are the important aspects of the culture that I need to know about to understand her story and to [effectively] interview each of the family members that were still alive. I pieced all of this together over the course of four years. It was such a learning experience for me. I had all of these revelations. Whoa! So this is why they eat this certain type of food, this is why they worship this god, what this means to their life. [The biography] all came together beautifully for the family, creating something extra-special for the next generation. My college friend now has a child of her own.
BC: Is that book or that work available?
LM: Yes. It is called Godhuli, but I think it is less enjoyable for the average reader, so that is why I put together the Kali Sunset book. The Kali Sunset book is historical fiction. It is a fictional story, but I made up a lot of the stories from the real life story—a lot of the details, a lot of the extra research.
BC: In the process, did you go to India?
LM: Yes. I went to India three times. The first time I interviewed half of the family members. The other half was not sure what I was up to. They were a little bit skeptical, yet once they gained some trust, they wanted to be part of the project. So I interviewed the second half of the family and it really came together. The Kali Sunset book is, in essence, a streamlining of a lot of the things that I have learned from the story, the major punches. The book itself breaks down into five sub-stories. The main story is very simple: it is an old woman that lives in an apartment in Kolkata, who knows that death is near. She is alone. Her family, everyone has moved off, and she is reflective. The main story follows a day in her life. There are five sub-stories. These sub-stories are her reflections during the day of the major events that had happened in her life.
BC: You say that India is such a vast place, and we are talking about one specific part of India. My son has been to India. His significant other, a woman named Tomar, a Jewish-American from Westchester, has somehow gravitated toward India and goes there. She loves going there. She has a lot of friends in India, and I believe she met them in college as you did. Both of them speak highly. India like any country is a complex place.
LM: Extremely complex. I think that may be, from our point of view in America, the most difficult aspect to grasp. For instance, there are seventeen different languages. Can you imagine? India’s geographic area can’t be larger than the United States, but can you imagine if we spoke seventeen different languages? Each region, the density of the population, the layers of religion… It is a very tolerant place. You hear a lot about Hindus and Islamists having all of these struggles, but you also see in all of the major cities you will see a Hindu temple and then down the street there is an Islamic mosque and a Christian church. That spirituality, that universal spirituality, maybe brings peacefulness to the people. Like Kolkata, with about 10 million people, the average Joe on the street is very kind and gentle. It is an odd feeling. It is so crowded, but people are gentle.
BC: My son would tell me that he landed in Mumbai and had dirty clothes. He stood there holding them and somebody comes and takes them. Then they come back at a stated time or somehow just know. He gives them a little money and he got his [clean] clothes back.
LM: Sure! There are all of these constant sub-stories happening every day, because the intensity of interaction of people is extreme. Often I think, maybe that is something we miss in our own culture where we are often more alone and isolated? This meeting of people and constant interaction is something special. When I went to visit the family, they took a break in the afternoon for British tea time and the neighbors just show up. There is nothing scheduled. They will just come into the living room, knock on the door, stop by, talk…
BC: Living in the moment, I gather, from one of your pieces. In fact, I read several of your online blogs and you were chided by somebody for falling into the trap of glorifying India in a false way, as “noble savages,” much as we spoke of American Indians as above problems. They certainly aren’t, because they do have their problems.
LM: Yes. That was a book group in Chicago, a group of lawyers with a feminist bent. They were reading the book along with another story [The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga]. I think it is a good criticism and they are exploring the ideas. It is right back to the point that you were just making that India is the Slumdog Millionaire part, but it is also this “textbook” type of family in Kali Sunset where this matriarch is the classic, traditional Bengali grandmother. Part of the story that I bring out best in Kali Sunset, is the fact that she follows all of these traditions and sometimes, at the end of her life, that last moment when she is getting nearer to death, she has perspective and maybe thinks that everything she has done was not the best path. Where she was so confident that she was following the right path the whole time, doing things the right way because it was the traditional way. Maybe, toward the end of her life, she has a few second guesses for the first time. That is a real subtlety that would be very hard for a book group to pick up initially. I am sure that this group, on a second reading, would start to see some of that subtlety.
BC: I am still a little bit confused about “Kali.” It’s a Hindu god, the goddess of death. What is the meaning of that word and why do you use it with “sunset”?
LM: Kali is the goddess of destruction, black and darkness. Kali has two sides. You will see any goddess icon will have four arms on one side and four arms on the other, multiple arms on each side. She might hold a knife in one hand on the dark side, but on the other side she might be holding a hand in blessing or holding a lotus flower. It is these two sides that are both important to the spirituality, and it is very important to the spirituality of the region. In any particular home, there would be a puja area set up, a little prayer area. It could be in the corner of a bedroom or in a closet sometimes where there would be a shrine and a Kali mandala, such as is on the cover of the book, along with multiple goddesses and gods. These are manifestations of different aspects of spirituality. Sometimes you need the fierceness, you need to fight. You need the balance. Sometimes you need the blessing, the forgiveness, the purity. It is really important, a lot of the other gods in there. A central god within this story is Durga. They have a big festival in Kolkata every October, the Durga Puja, which is a lot like our Christmas and New Year combined. Everyone has a week or two off from work and they build these large shrines in every neighborhood, a friendly competition. The Mother Durga image is built with her four children, the same theme. Everyone is celebrating the visit of Mother Durga, who is another manifestation of Kali. In a lot of ways, there are so many Hindu gods that represent aspects of spirituality. They are trying to describe the aspects of maybe what Christ would have or Buddha.
BC: Are you going to write more books?
LM: Yes, I’m sure I will. I am always gathering and looking at stories. A couple of my friends were chatting the other day. We were really intrigued by Tom Catena’s story, a physician that went to the Sudan. That might be a similar effect, I suspect, with Tom. He lives in this other world in the Sudan where almost all of the social norms are flipped around. It must be very odd for him to come out of the Sudan working the hospital and come here.
BC: I certainly got that impression from the newspaper accounts of his visits here to get an award. He was just so different.
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