Birthplace: New Delhi, India
Residence: Seattle, Washington
Indu Sundaresan has engaged readers across several generations with her captivating stories focused on Indian history and culture. For a global audience unfamiliar with but fascinated by the intricacies of India’s majestic past, her books provide in-depth and personal accounts of a romantic bygone era filled with intrigue, power struggles and multidimensional relationships. Indu’s gorgeous writing flows from the pages into readers’ imaginations, bringing to life relatable characters set against a vibrantly colorful stage. Segueing from an engineering background, Indu forged a path as an author under unlikely circumstances, proving that talent, hard work and perseverance do indeed pay off, even in a highly competitive field. She has been one of the leaders in establishing an opening for Asian female writers who bridge the gap between stories of our history and realities of our modern existence.
Indu Sundaresan was born and brought up in India, on Air Force bases around the country. Her father, a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, was also an avid storyteller—as was his father, Indu’s grandfather. She grew up on their stories on various themes—Hindu mythology and fictional tales of an elephant and a horse living in the wilderness.
She came to the U.S. for graduate school at the University of Delaware and has two degrees; an M.S. in operations research and an M.A. in economics. But, the storytelling gene beckoned and she began writing soon after graduate school.
The Twentieth Wife (2002), based on the life of Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, is the tale of one of India’s most powerful women. This was her first published novel, but the third one she wrote—the first two still languish on the hard drive of some forgotten old computer and are never to be revived; they were practice runs and taught her how to write a novel.
She is the author of five books so far. The Twentieth Wife (2002); The Feast of Roses (2003); The Splendor of Silence(2006); In the Convent of Little Flowers (2008) and Shadow Princess (2010).
All of Indu’s work has been published, in hardcover and paperback, in the U.S. by Pocket Books/Atria Books/Washington Square Press—imprints of Simon & Schuster. Her work has been translated into 20 languages to date.
Dina: When you first moved to the United States from India, was the transition difficult?
Indu: There was a culture shock, of course, when I first moved to the US from India, but on the whole it was an easy move. I came to the US for graduate school (and ended up with an MS in operations research and an MA in economics), so I moved into a university environment, one I was comfortable with, having just been through undergraduate studies in India. However, for the first time, I was living alone, away from home, but I soon made new friends and jumped right into my studies.
Dina: What language do you think in- English or Hindi?
Indu: English. My mother tongue is Tamil, not Hindi, although I’m somewhat fluent in the latter language from having grown up in Northern India. But still, English is the language I think in, read in, speak the most.
Dina: Of all the possible topics to write about, how did you come upon the Taj Trilogy idea?
Indu: While I was in graduate school at the University of Delaware, one winter evening I was homesick and decided to go looking for books to read on India. So, I went to the university library, typed in “India” under the subject keyword, found the section that housed books on India, and came home with an armload full of books. These were not fiction books, mostly travelogues, history, etc. I read for many days after that, whenever I had time, and one of those books was on the Mughal harems and the power women had in 17th Century India. That book stayed with me, after I’d finished graduate school, when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel, historical fiction. I wrote two books, one after another, very fast, and then mulled over what I’d written, and decided they were no good.
So, then, I remembered the book on Mughal harems, and went out researching and reading about Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan’s life, and found what I read to be absolutely fascinating. Here was this woman, a twentieth wife, who comes into the Mughal harem of Emperor Jahangir very late in his life, who then consequently becomes so beloved that she’s the most powerful woman to come out of that era in Indian history. A love story, and a story of power—all true also; what more could a novelist want?
That was how I came to write my first published novel, THE TWENTIETH WIFE, and its sequel, THE FEAST OF ROSES, both based on Nur Jahan’s life—the first two novels of the Taj Mahal trilogy.
Dina: When you’re writing, do you hear the voices of your characters coming to life like dialogues in your head? (If otherwise, please explain what goes through your mind when writing in different voices).
Indu: This is an interesting question, and I think works differently for different novelists. I read a LOT before I actually begin writing, imbibing culture, traditions, court etiquette, clothing, food…everything. I usually know who my main protagonist is by the time I begin reading, and all of that reading is to set up atmosphere for the scenes and places my protagonist will move through.
So, when I begin writing? That character is already living in my head—I know how they think, how they react (to situations I will sometimes put them through), who they love, who they hate, what moves them. As I write and the book takes shape, all that might change, sometimes it does, but yes, by this time, I can imagine whole dialogues, whole scenes, movement of characters through the scenes. I think the facility of doing this, for me, comes only from knowing the world they live in.
Dina: Living in America, do you still feel close to your Indian roots? Do you find it difficult to maintain those original/authentic culture and traditions?
Indu: Writing is an escape for me in some ways, so yes, I can transport myself from my current reality, into one of my own making.
Dina: What is your ultimate dream in life?
Indu: I don’t know…getting published was one, being respected for the amount of work that goes into my books was another, and they’re both happening in some ways.
Dina: What is your favorite food?
Indu: Well, Indian food! I cook a lot, like to eat a variety of dishes, and like trying out recipes from different parts of India—I always marvel at the variety.
Dina: What advice can you give to young girls in India (or young Indian girls living abroad) who look up to you and aspire to become a successful author like you?
Indu: When I was first writing, my favorite word, if you will, was IMAGINE. You’ve got to hope, and hold onto that hope. Now, after all the tough times trying to get published, and being published etc, I’d say the word has changed to PERSIST. It’s easy to give up when you get rejected, but you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and send out your manuscript again (and again). And, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.