A civil servant, environmentalist, and writer, Avay Shukla dons many hats with equal panache. His book – ‘Spectre of Choor Dhar – Tales from the Mountains’ published by Vishwakarma Publications is a collection of intriguing short stories set in Himachal Pradesh. I interviewed him after the release of his book. He revealed interesting insights into his book and his experience of publishing with Vishwakarma Publications. Read the full interview here.

1. In the short but compelling introduction, you dwell on the nature of art and reality and their interlinked existence. Do you consider that art can testify to alternate realities since you choose to focus on a non-urban, non-metro area of India, especially as most contemporary Indian Literature is centered around urban India?

I’m not an art or literary critic, but I do know that no art can distance itself from the reality beyond a point. Fiction, particularly, has to cling to reality to be credible. As I’ve said in the introduction, even the most creative fiction has to observe the rules of reality, and every story is founded on something possible according to these rules. All the stories in my book happened or could happen. As regards their setting in the natural environment, I suppose that comes out of living for 35 years in the mountains where, even in the cities, one is never far from the soothing, sometimes savage, beauty of nature. I am uncomfortable in urban environments and never understand them, nor care to be in them. The basic values and principles of life and truth can only be found in environments that are least touched by the corrupting hand of Man. It was ,therefore, inevitable that I place my stories there.

2. The stories rely not on exaggeration or any great twists, rather it simply lets the inherent nature of evil to horrify and create an impression on the reader? How did you resist garnishing the tales, and how did you ensure that the narratives remain economical and tight?

Any garnishing of the stories would have taken attention away from the essence of each story – venality in ‘The Judgement’ , opportunistic villainy in ‘AMBUSH AT CHANSHI PASS’, cupidity in ‘THE LOST TREASURE OF DIBBI BOKRI’, for example. But it is not only the baser instincts which I portray. Life is a kaleidoscope of vices and virtues, and so is this book: in a way, the balance between good and evil is set right by ‘THE CAVEMAN OF SAINJ VALLEY’, ‘THE SPECTRE OF CHOOR DHAR’ and ‘THE HOUSE THAT DIED OF GRIEF’. ‘The MIDNIGHT VISITOR’ combines both in the same story. Too much garnishing, as we all know, can spoil the natural flavor of anything!

3. The stories carry a distinct ecological whiff where not only is nature described in great detail, but also the cyclical force of nature and the ill-advised attempts to meddle with it. What prompted this tilt? Was it the zeal of an activist or the wizened realization of long years or both?

I have been a passionate environmentalist for most of my adult life, though not an “activist” in the true sense of the word: a career in government would not permit that. I have been a high altitude trekker for the last 25 years and have published a book on some of the more memorable treks, ‘THE TRAILS LESS TRAVELLED’, in 2015. I am a founder member of the ECOTOURISM SOCIETY OF INDIA and President of the TREKKING ASSOCIATION OF HIMACHAL. I write frequently on the environment. The background of, and the emphasis on, the environment in this book is a conscious and thought out decision on my part, not only to showcase the beauty and wonders of nature but also to warn the reader of the very real danger it faces in our reckless pursuit of material comforts. I seek to do both, entertain and inform through these stories.

4. Inevitably, many stories have an ironical end, poetic justice is served. Why did you decide to employ irony to show the folly of greed, and avarice especially as they go unpunished mostly in the real world?

Irony, satire, and humour are an effective method of criticism; they have the advantage of conveying a message in a lighter vein, without causing offense. That being said I have not intended to preach any moral lessons through the stories in the book; if poetic justice imbues some of them, that are coincidental. I have simply chosen the most interesting stories and incidents. Yes, if there is one message- it is, that we must appreciate the beauties and wonders of nature, of the mountains, respect their power over  the mankind and do all we can to conserve it for future generations. 

5. I enjoyed the eccentric narrator, the retired collector with a penchant for drink and narrating stories. Was there a particular reason for choosing this narrator apart from the convenience he offers with inserting side narratives through his digressions? To what extent did this raconteur determine the plot and characters considering he appears to be off a particularly sanguine temperament?

The narrator of the stories in the book, the ” Collector”, is by no means an eccentric but a man of vast experience, intuition, understanding, and compassion. Whereas he reinforces some stereotypes of a civil servant he also demolishes other not so favourable ones. I have used him as a “sutradhar” to put the stories in their contexts, and, in a way, to interpret them for the reader. Every story portrays one essential facet or aberration of human behaviour and that is the Collector’s role to subtly guide the reader in that direction. He is the quintessential civil servant of the old school- unfortunately, a disappearing breed. He is the pivot of all the stories.

6. How was your experience of publishing with Vishwakarma Publications?

I must say the experience was quite satisfying, though initially, I  had my doubts as I had not heard of Vishwakarma Publications. The two editors I had to deal with – Rahul and Stanley were friendly, responsive to my suggestions, and quietly efficient. The quality of the final product – the book itself is quite outstanding. I look forward to continuing my association with Mr. Soni and his team.

7. What is on your current reading list?

I am a very eclectic reader. Since I write extensively on current affairs I necessarily have to read publications like the Economist, TIME, and websites like the Wire, Quint, The Citizen, Hill Post, etc. At the other end of the spectrum, for personal gratification, my favourites are Bill Bryson, Noah Harari, Ruskin Bond, Atul Gawande, Jeremy Clarkson, William Dalrymple, and John Grisham. But the book I go back to again and again is ‘THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM’, discovering new meanings about life beneath the veneer of wine, women, and song every time I pick it up.

Click – to buy – ‘Spectre of Choor Dhar – Tales From the Mountains’

Avay Shukla spoke to Richa Singh, Content Writer at Investronaut.