Airship Ambassador: Hi Rati, thanks for joining us for this interview.
Rati Mehrotra: Thanks for inviting me, Kevin.
AA: You have a number of stories already in print, including those in AE–The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Apex Magazine, and Inscription Magazine, along with having your debut novel, Markswoman, due to be published in 2018. Right now, though, your story Komagata Maru is in Clockwork Canada. What is it about?
RM: It’s an alternate history story about the 1914 Komagata Maru ‘incident’, in which a shipload of Indian men were denied entry at Vancouver port. In real life, the ship was forced to return to India, under exclusion laws designed to keep out Asian immigrants. In my story, something else happens!
AA: No spoilers, but I totally loved that ending! Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel for this story?
RM: Because of the freedom it gave me and my protagonists. They use steam technology to defy authority and gain a new future for themselves. It was what I wished had happened, instead of what actually happened. I have never written steampunk before, but it seemed perfect for this particular story.
AA: That’s how most of my steampunk story ideas turn out, too. What was the motivation for creating Komagata Maru?
RM: I had been researching the Komagata Maru ‘incident’ just before I read Clockwork Canada’s call for steampunk stories. It was like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and how to say it. The 1914 incident still resonates in parts of the community today. It is part of our history. When that ship was sent back to India, the fate of its passengers was sealed. It was met in Calcutta by a British gunboat and placed under guard. Nineteen of the passengers were killed by gunfire and many of the rest were imprisoned. There are plaques in both India and Canada in memory of these people. This story is my own kind of memorial.
AA: What can you share with us about the main character, Gurdit Singh?
RM: The character is based on the real Gurdit Singh. He was a Singapore-based merchant and community leader who wanted to challenge the exclusion laws by hiring a steamship to sail from Calcutta to Vancouver. His aim was to open the door for immigration from India to Canada.
The main character of my story is also a ship engineer, a devout man and a true leader, whom everyone naturally follows, because they trust and believe in him.
AA: Are there any objects or things which play a major role in telling the story?
RM: The ship of course, which is much more than it appears to be…
AA: How did elements of your own life play into Komagata Maru?
RM: I suppose the most obvious fact is that I am of Indian descent myself. I chose to immigrate to Canada, much as the characters of my story did. I am, of course, more fortunate than they were. Canada in 1914 was a vastly different country from what it is today. So was India.
AA: What kind of back story is there for Komagata Maru which didn’t make it into the final book?
RM: The story is almost exactly as I wrote in the first draft. Sometimes I revise stories quite extensively, and there are pieces that don’t make the final cut. But not this one.
AA: Are there any plans for further adventures of the Komagata Maru?
RM: Not at the moment. I rarely re-visit my short stories. And I do think some things should be left to a reader’s imagination. And my own. As long as I don’t write about them, I am free to imagine all sorts of possible futures for Gurdit Singh and his men.
AA: When people read Komagata Maru, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
RM: That there is no ‘them’. There is only ‘us’. At one point, Gurdit Singh looks at the ocean and thinks how it is the same body of water, given different names in different parts of the world. Naming it does not change its nature. And he thinks about how God is like that too.
We’ll stop here in our chat with Rati. Join us next time when she talks about research and writing.
You can support Rati and our community by getting your copy of Clockwork Canada here.