Childhood memories come alive in 81-year-old's debut novel

NEW DELHI Tue Jan 22, 2013 8:37pm IST

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Writing a novel wasn't the tough part for Srikumar Sen, a sports journalist. He just didn't have the time - for a long time.

In fact, it took nearly half a century after he had his idea before he sat down to write. But when he did, the first draft just poured out.

Sen, now 81, made his debut last month with "The Skinning Tree", a novel about a boy struggling with the harsh realities of boarding school in pre-independence India. Like his protagonist Sabby, the author was also born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) before moving to England with his parents.

"What got the story going was a visit to my grandmother's house ... In 1964, I went to the house and saw that it was more or less the same as I had known it," Sen told Reuters in an email interview from London, where he has lived for decades.

"I saw that there was a tremendous contrast in the two existences of the child - at home and in school more than a thousand miles away - and writing about that was an exciting prospect with all sorts of exciting possibilities."

The problem was that Sen never got the time. As a sports journalist for The Times, he was busy writing to deadlines and had to wait until he had retired.

"The story kept growing in my mind, not in any particular order as such, but whenever I was looking out of a window in a train or a plane, bits of the story came into my mind," he said.

When the Japanese advance on India during the Second World War, 9-year-old Sabby is plucked from his sheltered life in Calcutta and sent to boarding school in northern India. It's Sabby's introduction to corporal punishment, a world where teachers are armed with leather belts to beat the children - and the students' thoughts turn to murder.

Based on Sen's boyhood memories with characters, family history and imagination moulded to fit the story, the unpublished manuscript won an award for debut South Asian authors in January 2012 and Sen flew to New Delhi for the ceremony. It was his first trip to India in 47 years.

"Everything was more Westernised, more consumer items and cars available and the young seemed much freer than we used to be," he said. "It is place which instills in the Westerner a sense of tremendous energy."

Now that his debut novel is out, Sen is hard at work on his second. It will continue Sabby's story as an Indian living in the UK.

(Reporting by Tony Tharakan; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Elaine Lies)

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