Journalist `gatecrashes` with novel set in Kerala

New Delhi: Journalist Binoo K John calls himself a bit of "gatecrasher" as he debuts as a novelist with `The Last Song of Savio De Souza`, saying there is a huge crop of young writers from Kerala.

"Malayalam has a very vibrant writing culture. Paul Zachariah is the big dad of Malayalam writing. I am a gatecrasher, so to say. But we have a huge crop of young writers," John told reporters in an interview.

His novel, a gripping saga of life and loss, set among the Christian communities inhabiting the southern tip of the country during the 2004 tsunami, was released in bookstores Wednesday.

"The novel is a cry for some sort of rational thinking to prevail in that educated state overrun by religious fundamentalists of all hues," John, a reporter, writer and promoter of literature, said.

"Religion is the only working industry in Kerala. Tourism comes second and third, information technology. The balance sheets of religions look quite rosy there. It`s quite sad to any rational, progressive minded person," he said.

The impact of the church and freelance evangelists is huge, said John who is 53 and has worked with many media organisations such as Mail Today, India Today and reporters.

"There are more churches in Kerala than anywhere else in the world", said John. "Christianity had an early beginning there, with St Thomas believed to have landed there."

The sea is the soul and substance of the book.

"In the novel, I bring the full force of the tsunami to the tip of Kerala. Though I did not cover the tsunami of 2004, I did a first anniversary special for the Sahara Time where I was working. I travelled the coast and it gave me enough material for the novel.

Kerala was not much affected, only marginally compared to Tamil Nadu," John told reporters.

He has earlier penned non-fiction like "Curry Coast: Travels in Malabar 500 Years after Vasco da Gama", "Under a Cloud: Life in Cherrapunji" and "Entry from Backside Only".

The novel came after two earlier aborted attempts at fiction writing, admitted John, who organises the Kovalam Literary Festival.

"It was a case of third time lucky. Every novel is based on nuggets of various truths and real characters. My novel is no exception. Some readers in my hometown might recognise some characters," he said.

Like the tsunami which changed millions of lives with its sweep of horror, the novel published by Harper-Collins India has a spiritual and karmic canvas in which several stories merge into an epic tidal wave that stands still over Velankanni, a "place of undying faith", before crashing on to the coastal town.

The story unfolds with musician Savio De Souza, the protagonist, rendering a Christian hymn by Yesudas - in praise of Mother Mary - at the Church of Our Lady of Our Heart primarily to boost its business of miracles, a common practice among the churches in Tamil Nadu and Kerala to keep the flock together.

By the time Savio finishes his last song, events swamp the coast dotted with titanium mines, rocket launching pads, churches and impoverished fishing villages. Savio and his love Ragalia are sucked in by a churning sea and washed up dead by a mosque.

John said he took "three years to write the book, since he was working full time".

"Editing took one year off and on work and the Harper editors did a good job. It is tough bringing a regional, in this case, Malayalam sensibility, words, usages, swear words, songs etc into an English novel.

"It`s incredibly tough to write a novel part time. Most of the novel fell in place rather well. I write very fast. Once I got the first para right, I got the voice right and then it worked all the way through," the writer said.