An official of the Indian Railway Service, Shruti Smita Agnihotri claims that her debut novel is not autobiographical. It is only inspired by people close to her and her discovery of a fresh perspective of this conflict-torn region writes Monideepa Choudhury
When Indian Railway Accounts Service Officer Shruti Agnihotri first joined her bureaucrat husband in Assam 2001, she was perturbed by the idea of living here.
“I expected to be greeted by guns and was sure of getting killed by a stray bullet,” she says. Like many others, she had a stereotypical notion of the northeastern region. Shruti agrees this view is perpetrated by the media which reports more on discontent and militant activities, than the region’s uniqueness. “For people residing outside, Northeast India is a region that should be avoided like plague. It is because encouraging facets about the region never get discussed by the media,” she adds.
Shruti’s association with Northeast India began when she got married and had to seek transfer to Assam. By now, she has traveled all over the state. She feels comfortable and at home in Assam. Her love for Assam’s countryside shows in how she describes it — “beautiful, green and picturesque” in her debut novel Salt, Sugar and Spice – Of Love, Crime and Governance.
Shruti is Deputy Financial Adviser, North East Frontier Railway. She grew up in different districts of Bihar as her father was an Indian Police Service officer. She studied history at Delhi University. “Like all children, I dabbled in writing even then,” she says. The plot of Salt, Sugar and Spice – Of Love, Crime and Governance germinated when she lived in upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district where drug addiction, especially among small children was rampant.
In a vivid description, Shruti writes: “The den…was dark, dingy and dolorous…Children and men, cramped in the small room were either consuming or injecting smack, ganja, cocaine or other drugs. Their bloodshot eyes appeared cold and frozen… The occupants were unmindful of their presence, as they relished the exhilarating kick they got after the dose of drugs. Some groaned with ecstasy while some lay sprawled over others, heady with hallucination and thrill.”
The story took shape when she visited an NGO for rehabilitation of drug addicts run by a friend. It revolves around the female protagonist Nandini, who works for Parivartan, an NGO devoted to the cause of drug addiction and child labour. Nandini lands up in a small town called Narayanpur, which is Parivartan’s focus district, and finds herself caught in a web of corruption, drug trafficking and nexus of the local police with drug dealers and criminals.
Attracted to Siddharth Joshi, the honest District Collector who she turns to for support in her fight against drugs, Nandini finds herself in a tight spot when Siddharth’s detractors in the administration float a story of his intimate relationship with Nandini. It is an intrigue from which Nandini tries hard to seek a way out.
“People and incidents motivate me to write. Observing, listening and analysing why and how people react to events have helped me shape the novel’s characters,” says Shruti.
Her portrayal of the superintendent of police in Salt, Sugar and Spice says: “Shekhar Khanna was a tall, lean and crooked guy. He deliberately crafted an air of mystique around himself to appear intriguing and attractive. He was a handsome man to look at but his unscrupulous conduct and character ruined his good looks completely. He had joined the Indian Police Service because it fetched him enormous dowry and was his perennial source of wealth, ill-gotten and extorted…For heroes like him the police uniform and authority associated with it were powerful tools for hounding the public, mafia, and criminals for obtaining personal riches and ransom.”
Shruti’s busy schedule makes it difficult to squeeze time for creative pursuits. She took child-care leave when she wrote her novel. “It is difficult to find time when I work. Still, I have started sketching the idea of another novel. My family, my kids are my world.”
Talking about the genesis of the name of the novel, she says, “Salt depicts the romance and the chemistry between Nandini and Siddhartha, the two main protagonists, sugar has been used as an acronym for brown sugar as the story revolves around drugs, and spice denotes the other appealing and thought-provoking incidents in the novel.”
The book’s insights into governance are rare and precise, especially in the interplay of characters at a meeting to take stock of the implementation of the midday meal scheme of the government. Shruti attributes this precision to the fact that many in her family are government officials.
“I have a close acquaintance with the government and its guiles. The novel however is not autobiographical. It is only inspired by people close to me,” she says.
She grew up reading George Orwell, M.M.Kay, Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon, Chetan Bhagat. She says, “The most essential feature of writing a novel is its pace. It should be racy. There should never be a dull moment for the readers. Subtle humour is essential to make the story appealing. Most importantly, whatever is written with one’s heart and soul is bound to make an impact.”
Shruti has interacted with litterateurs from Northeast India such as Dhruba Hazarika, Mitra Phukan, Leena Sharma. She gets inspired to write whenever she reads a good piece of poetry or prose. Her long sojourn here has altered her misconceptions about the region. “I think people here are culturally rich and refined. Most people I meet are into writing or composing music. This is heartening and the future of northeastern literature and art is very promising,” she says.
Shruti would like to be a full-time writer but not at this time in her life. “I like my job and would like to balance both the roles and explore later about this possibility. In my early days, getting into civil service was my only dream,” she says, echoing Nandini’s statement in Salt, Sugar and Spice: “I think the service is one of the best in the whole world.”