Radhika Philip was crying when she wrote the first page of Reyna’s Prophecy, and she cried again when she wrote the last. “And it’s a happy book!” she says now laughing. We are sitting down to Radhika’s very first interview about her debut novel. Published by Harper Collins, Reyna’s Prophecy is a work of fantasy set in modern Sri Lanka; among the very first the island has produced, it has already inspired great reviews. Our heroine, Reyna – impossibly strong willed yet wildly gifted – is born to fulfil a prophecy and her destiny is to save the Kingdom. However, well before Reyna could complete her quest, she had already saved her author.
Radhika wrote the book at a time when she felt her life had fallen apart. She was on the losing side of a battle with her personal demons when she remembers watching her young daughter begin a conversation with a crow (unlikely as it sounds, she has witnesses to back her up.) She remembers thinking, “‘What if I’m too focused on the physical? What if I’m missing something?’ There was so much beauty in that tiny interaction.” It’s a moment that she went on to immortalise in her book and it’s also an explanation for why someone who isn’t a fan of fantasy became the author of a fantasy novel. Radhika doesn’t shy away from confessing to her ignorance of the genre and it soon becomes clear that this unapologetic frankness is very much her style.
In fact the author’s business-like approach to writing this novel is as startling as it was successful. She began simply by Googling ‘how to write a novel’ and then determinedly set about surpassing the daily recommended writing quota of 5,000 words. A successful business woman, she is better known as the one time Director of Business Development & Legal at Investor Access Asia and now the creative director at LT PRO, a media production company for whom she also edits the Sri Lanka based Life Times magazine. It’s revealing that when she talks about her plots for the next two books, she refers to them as “business plans.” However, Harper Collins isn’t quibbling with whatever Radhika chooses to call her synopsis – they’ve already optioned the next two books in the series.
As with many other first time authors, Radhika has poured herself into this book. In Reyna’s housebound mother Karina, Radhika sees herself as she was when she began writing the book – a woman trapped by her own fears. She certainly has more than one thing in common with her bright eyed heroine. For starters they were both quite a handful as children, clever with finely honed rebellious instincts.
Radhika grew up in Colombo, the daughter of Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. During the tumult of the 1983 riots, her parents decided to send her into boarding abroad. Some of those experiences are going to find their way into the second book in the planned trilogy. The tale itself will only grow “darker” as our protagonists become older and consequently more aware of a world fraught with perils.
Still while we wait for the next instalment, Reyna’s Prophecy makes for cheerful company. Our heroine is born into a happy, if eccentric, family and spends her childhood surrounded by a coterie of animals that she can talk to. From the barbed wisdom of Magenta the crow to the strength she finds in the company of the elephant Maxi, Reyna is allowed to mature into her powers while the world is kept at bay. But when Reyna grows up, the circle of protection develops cracks and the book is suddenly at its most interesting. Fantasy and fact collide, as Radhika yanks her heroine out of the safety of wealth and privilege and into a Sri Lanka still rent apart by conflict. On the streets of Colombo, an LTTE bomb explodes too close for comfort and later Reyna is challenged to fight for those she loves best. Like so many Sri Lankan authors before her, Radhika also finds herself unable to leave the tsunami out of fiction. When it comes crashing into the coastline of the island, it robs Reyna not just of her friends but becomes, in a sense, the harbinger of childhood’s end.
Reyna isn’t the only player on the board. There’s her brother Raj (who they’re about to discover has his own part to play in the prophecy) and the possibility of romance between Reyna and her childhood friend Jacob has already set a few hearts a flutter but Radhika advises her readers to not hold their breath – “I can’t imagine writing romantic fiction. I would likely vomit. Besides, Reyna can’t afford to lose focus if she is to save the world!”
It’s appropriate then that the animals may just outnumber the human protagonists. In a scene set in Yala, one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful national parks, Reyna encounters Sri Maximus, the ruler of the Kingdom. Their conversations confront some of the challenges that wildlife conservationists have been struggling with for decades. Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity has long been under siege; as tourism booms, animals in national parks are on the run from buses overflowing with rowdy visitors; poaching remains an issue while roads and poor infrastructure have threatened the integrity of protected lands. But its Radhika’s decision to imbue her animal characters with intelligence and wisdom that has most resonated with one man.
Rukshan Jayewardene wears many hats including Chairman of the Wilderness & Protected Areas Foundation and Vice President of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society – he also fact checked the book for Radhika. “Today few would doubt that many birds and mammals in particular are intelligent, are able to make decisions, and have individual personalities and emotions,” he said at the press conference that launched the book, adding, “One has to be brave or prescient or both, to write a novel such as this, because unlike in the popular genre of magical fantasy fiction, much of what Radhika writes about is becoming the real life experience of several people who work closely with animals.”
Certainly, it has been Radhika’s own experience. A single parent, she and her daughter have many pets and among them is an Alsation named Richard Parker with a gift for rescuing birds. If you recognize the name, the chances are you’re familiar with Life of Pi – the one ‘fantasy’ book Radhika has read and loved. She’d like to think that Reyna’s Prophecy and Life of Pi have something in common.
In Yann Martell’s extraordinary book, a young survivor of a shipwreck claims to survive his ordeal aboard a life raft in the company of a tiger named Richard Parker. In the end, whether the tiger really existed or not is uncertain – the reader is allowed to choose what to believe. “That book helped me heal,” says Radhika now, explaining that she feels her novel has the same message. “I understood that Richard Parker is the triumph of the human spirit. I wanted people to understand that not all is as you think it is. There’s actually something much bigger, much more beautiful than you are and you can easily belong to it.”
Published in The Hindu on 5 July, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Radhika Philip.