Tree of Life

His debut novel, says Srikumar Sen, was always there, waiting to be written. It had come to him on a visit to India in 1964, nine years after he moved to London with his parents and elder brother, but it would be another 44 years before he would finally begin to work on it. The Skinning Tree (Rs 499, Picador India) is the joint winner of Tibor Jones South Asia prize 2011 (given to unpublished works) and has just been published.

The novel follows the life of Sabby, a sensitive Anglo-Indian boy in Kolkata who is sent to a Catholic boarding school in north India during World War II, when the threat of the Japanese invasion seems imminent. But school life is just as dystopic — under the stringent rules and inevitable corporal punishment, the students begin to mirror the cruelty meted out to them. They kill animals and throw the carcasses on to a cactus, which they name "the skinning tree".

Age is truly just a number for the London-based Sen, who began writing the book at 77. "Often, when I was travelling and looking out of the window, I thought the novel and gradually, when I retired, most of the bits of the story were there, not in any order," he says. A retired journalist with The Times' sports department for over three decades, first as a sub-editor and then as the boxing correspondent, Sen says his career oriented him to the rigours of writing. "The years of having to write whether I wanted to or not, always to a deadline and sometimes at a moment's notice, as all correspondents in newspapers the world over have to do, I developed the discipline to face the typewriter (now the laptop)," he says.

The Skinning Tree draws partly from his own experience. "Family history, characters, events, reality and fiction — all are a composite mould to fit into the story," he says. Like Sabby, Sen lived in a sprawling joint family in his grandmother's house in Kolkata's Park Circus till he was 15, when his father, a political journalist, was sent to London. But unlike Sabby, the displacement did not unsettle him. Sen and his brother took to the change instantly. "Even though the war was only just over and there were many bombed sites still and food was rationed, it was a bright and exciting place. My brother and I loved it," he recalls. School, too, was barely oppressive. "The discipline, though firm, was not inhibiting. Lessons were a participatory affair without ever becoming disrespectful to the teacher. There was no strap or caning," he says.

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