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Interview with Aishwarya Jha

Aishwarya Jha

Aishwarya Jha, a rising literary talent, crafts an evocative tale in her novel "The Scent of Fallen Stars." The narrative interweaves the lives of two characters separated by over two decades, each on a personal quest in the complex, vibrant backdrop of India.

In 1995, Will, a thirty-six-year-old academic whose dreams have crumbled, relocates to India amidst its economic liberalization. Despite the lucrative telecommunications job he secures and the comforts of New Delhi’s expat community, Will finds himself adrift, disconnected from the fulfillment he once sought. His life takes an unexpected turn one monsoon night when he meets Leela, a young, mysterious woman whose entrance into his world ignites a profound and tumultuous passion, forever altering his path.

Fast forward to twenty-three years later, and we meet Aria, a musical prodigy estranged from her convalescing father. Aria arrives in New Delhi on a mission to uncover the truth about her mother, whom she thought was dead. Her journey unravels a complex tapestry of her parents’ pasts, from her mother’s childhood in an orphanage to a tragic love affair, and ultimately, her retreat to the remote shores of asceticism. Through Aria’s exploration, she encounters the remnants of lost worlds, unearths haunting memories, and discovers a shocking secret that shattered her father’s life—a revelation that promises to shake her own existence to its core.

Jha’s narrative is richly textured, blending personal histories with the broader socio-cultural changes in India, and exploring themes of love, loss, identity, and belonging. "The Scent of Fallen Stars" is a poignant exploration of how the past reverberates into the present, shaping the identities and destinies of its characters in profound and unexpected ways.

1. The Scent of Fallen Stars spans over two decades and follows two distinct timelines. What inspired you to weave together the stories of Will and Aria, and how did you approach balancing these parallel narratives?

>When the inspiration first came to me, it was for Will and Leela's story--two people from different worlds who are bound together by love and a destiny that can't be subverted even if it tears them apart.  It was only later, as the story unfolded in my mind, that I realized it was incomplete, and that there was another protagonist--Aria--who would complete it, while also finding her own destiny.  I felt it made for a much more dynamic narrative if both stories unspooled simultaneously, instead of in a straightforward, linear fashion, and in order for the climax to make its full impact, it had to hit both protagonists at the same moment.

2. The setting of India during its period of liberalization plays a significant role in your novel. Can you elaborate on how the socio-economic changes of that time influenced your characters and the overall plot?

>I was a child during the period of India's liberalization so I experienced it at a very micro level, savouring events like the advent of Cartoon Network on TV, the introduction of power windows in cars, the first Betty Crocker cake mixes on grocery store shelves.  The 90s were a time when the world seemed to just be opening up, with Hollywood movies providing promises of a glittering future to come, filled with newness and excitement.  But the pace of change was slow; India was still India, an ancient behemoth which wasn't ready to give up its Ambassadors and Fiats, its red tape and its timeless beneficence.  I wanted to capture this magical, interstitial period in the book, to introduce my characters and my readers to this Delhi, which I have so much nostalgia for, and contrast it with the radically-changed city that we find in the second timeline.

3. Leela is described as a young, enigmatic character who has a profound impact on Will. What inspired her creation, and what does she represent in the broader context of the story?

>Although Leela's own voice and point of view are largely absent in the story, she is the pivotal character who changes Will's life--and later, Aria's.  It was important for me to depict her from Will's perspective because her outlook and way of being are so alien to him; he is a worldly man while she is always lost in dreams and other realms; his life has followed a conventional path while hers has followed the sinuous curves of the heart; he has no interest in anything spiritual while she is on the quest for something deeper.  On the surface, they're polar opposites--and yet, upon closer acquaintance, it's clear that they are bound by certain critical common threads: shared values of decency, honour and humanity, and disillusionment with the world.  To me, Leela represents the other path of life, towards something finer and more mystical; looking inwards instead of outwards.  She embodies what CS Lewis termed "the deeper magic from before the dawn of time" and opens up a more unconventional, fulfilling way of life for the other characters, as opposed to the thoughtless circumambulations of regular existence.

4. Aria’s quest to find her mother takes her through various stages of her mother's life. How did you research and develop the different settings and time periods that Aria explores?

>My research was primarily based on my own life and experiences as these are time periods that I've lived through.  The settings are also familiar to me, whether it's the historic Delhi landmarks and neighbourhoods that Aria discovers, from Humayun's Tomb to Mehrauli, which never fail to hold me in thrall no matter how many times I pass by them, or the ashram in Rishikesh, which was modelled on ashrams that I've spent time in.  I did my first few years of schooling at Mirambika, a free progress school within the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which provided me with some grasp of the day to day rhythm of such an institution, but more crucially, my Mother is a Guru of Advaita Vedanta and I have been fortunate, because of her, to be exposed throughout my life to such settings; to a quieter, more esoteric Rishikesh, and to ancient knowledge that is radical and searing enough to transform any character's life and perspective.

5. Themes of identity and belonging are central to your novel. How do the characters' personal journeys reflect these themes, and what do you hope readers take away from their stories?

>All the key characters of my novel are on a search, knowingly or unknowingly, trying to navigate what they want from life and where they feel at home.  Any good story must end with the protagonists being changed, sometimes in their external circumstances, but always in their internal understanding and disposition.  In many ways, The Scent of Fallen Stars is about the characters finding answers to these quests of theirs, whether it is Will's realization of what brought him to India and why, despite having lived life on his own terms, he remains restless and unfulfilled, or Aria's discovery of her parents' secrets and what they mean for her own identity and her place in a land that she longs to know but can't connect with, or Leela's understanding of what it really means to give up the world.  I hope readers take away a sense of hope and upliftment from their stories, and perhaps an understanding that instead of striving to tick off all the boxes prescribed by the zeitgeist, a life less ordinary may be one that is more beautiful and rewarding.

6. Your novel delves into the complex relationships between parents and children, especially through Aria’s estrangement from her father. What message do you hope to convey about these familial bonds?

>We live in a time when people are more sensitive than ever to how they perceive others are treating them and, despite a purported liberalisation, it sometimes feels as though we hold extremely rigid ideas about how close relationships, such as those between parents and children, should be, based on what we see on social media or popular content.  If equations don't fit within certain contours, they are often dismissed or reviled.  I wanted to portray, through the novel, that there can be many shades to relationships, and just because they take unexpected twists and turns or traverse uncharted territories, it doesn't mean that they aren't worthwhile or should be discarded.  As long as there is love at the core, they matter.  Maturity is the understanding that the people you love are precious, despite the vicissitudes of your interactions with them, and family, whether it comes of blood or something more ineffable, is what you make of it.

7. Music appears to play a significant role in the lives of your characters. Can you discuss how you incorporated musical elements into the narrative and their significance to the story?

>I always listen to music when I write but it's usually classical instrumental, because I find words distracting.  However, there were a couple of songs that I kept playing while working on this manuscript, bewitched by the poetry of their lyrics, which fit so well into the story that I ended up incorporating them into it--or some version of them.  Storytelling is all about evoking emotion and music, like scent, can evoke very deep emotions and memories, so it became a very important element in the novel.

8. The title The Scent of Fallen Stars is quite evocative. What does the title signify, and how does it relate to the central themes and events of the novel?

>The title refers to the maulsari flower, whose intoxicating fragrance inspired this story.  The fragrance pulls at my heart, invoking the beauty and tragedy of something lost and longed for.  These themes of longing and loss are central to the novel.  The star metaphor evolved naturally, given the shape of the maulsari petals: it always fascinates me that because we're separated by so many light years from stars, we are only ever seeing them as they were in the past; in a sense, we have already lost them by the time their light reaches us.  That is how Will feels when he meets Leela, as though the entire arc of their relationship is lived in that first moment.

9. Your portrayal of New Delhi's expat community in the 1990s is very vivid. How did you ensure authenticity in depicting this environment, and were there any particular challenges you faced in doing so?

>I've had friends from different parts of the world throughout my life, some of whom have lived in Delhi for years at embassies and other workplaces and some who've just been passing through the city temporarily.  Their perspectives and experiences of the city have always been interesting to me, as someone who was born here.  I've also been an expat myself and have felt frustrated, like Aria, that you can't just know a city by spending a little time there; there are layers of history and culture, idiosyncracies that you may never fully unravel no matter how many years you live somewhere.  And of course, there is the undeniable insularity that binds together communities flung outside their homeland, whether it's Indians in the West or foreigners in the East.  Not everyone wants to know a city or a country; for many people, that small bubble of familiarity is the limit of their adventurous spirit, and they are content to hold on to preconceived notions and stereotypes about a land and its people.  I wanted to make sure to accurately depict that, even though it's very alien to me personally.

10. As an author, what do you find most rewarding and most challenging about writing historical fiction that spans different eras? How did you navigate these challenges while writing The Scent of Fallen Stars?

>I never really thought I was writing historical fiction because the timelines in the novel span my own lifetime--and I'm still adjusting to the fact that my generation has now been outstripped by many younger ones!  But I have always seen life as comprising different eras so the idea of the past riffing off the present and the nostalgic ache for something long gone are very inherent to my perspective, as a writer and otherwise.  The biggest challenge was capturing the essence of that bygone era of the 90s, perhaps because, for me, there is so much emotion tangled up with it and it's hard to separate the objective from the subjective.  A grown adult's experience of Delhi in the 90s, especially a British man's, would obviously have been very different from mine, as a child, so I had to make sure to find the right balance between my personal memories and a more expansive, mature viewpoint--perhaps, ultimately, between the child and the adult inside of me.


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