Good novels often leave the reader pondering characters’ fates after the final page — and sometimes the writer faces the same question. This was Calgary author Shree Ghatage’s situation after completing her first novel, 2005’s Brahma’s Dream, which made reference to a character named Baba who’d left India to study law in Britain. Despite his minor role, Ghatage found he’d stayed with her, and she says she “wondered what happened to him.”
The answer is revealed in Thirst, which tells the story of Baba and Vasanti (the latter is a more prominent character in Brahma’s Dream), a young Indian couple reluctantly joined in an arranged marriage in 1942. Despite their initial wariness, the two begin to develop feelings for each other, but Baba has made plans to study law in London, and he’s determined to go ahead with them. Fearing for his safety as the Second World War rages, Vasanti begs him not to go, but he assures her he’ll be safe.
As far as the risk of falling bombs goes, Baba is correct, but as he discovers upon arriving in Britain, the war is still taking an enormous toll. The gloom of wartime Britain comes as a surprise to Baba, much as it did to Ghatage during her research on the period.
“I hadn’t really ever researched it, I just learned from history books,” she says. “So just the day-to-day living and how bad things really were, I realized only after I did my research. And how much rationing there was and how people were going hungry.”
Hunger, however, proves to be the least of Baba’s problems. Deciding to visit North Wales before classes start, he slips on a rocky slope and suffers a head injury that knocks him unconscious and, when he comes to, leaves him wandering with a case of temporary amnesia. He’s ultimately taken in by a kindly villager, Mr. Owens, who lives with his daughter Catherine, a young woman with a serious mental illness who seduces the vulnerable Baba.
Despite this exotic twist, Ghatage says Thirst is thematically similar to her past works. Like Brahma’s Dream and the short story collection Awake When All the World is Asleep, she says, it centres on “love and loss.” But while writing it, she once again found that novels are harder to craft than short stories.
“I find novel writing much more challenging,” she says, “because there are so many strands to take care of and so many characters to take care of as well, and that everything has to somehow fit into everything else.”
Beginning with the amnesia-stricken Baba awakening in the Welsh house, Ghatage proceeds to weave together Thirst’s various strands across time and place. She reveals the events in India that brought Baba and Vasanti together and which drove him to travel to Britain — a decision he regrets when he regains his memory.
The novel’s ending doesn’t neatly resolve all the strands, but curious readers may get some insight from Ghatage’s forthcoming book, set in Calgary, featuring characters from Brahma’s Dream and Thirst. It will be a familiar setting for the author, but writing about a city she’s lived in since 1998, she believes, will be just as hard as writing about events that happened before her birth.
“I don’t anticipate it to be any easier or more difficult than it was to write about the Second World War in Great Britain,” she says. “But I will have to do research of course, because I would like to bring [the story] into the 21st century.”