Ajay Kamalakaran is an international journalist and writer based in Mumbai. He has been covering economic, political and cultural developments in Russia since 2003. His latest book A Week in the Life of Svitlana is set in Moscow. It features Svitlana Khristenko, a patriotic Ukrainian with dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, who chooses to live in Moscow, despite her conflicting loyalties. Despite her strong political views, all Svitlana wants is to adjust to the changes caused by a topsy-turvy Russian economy, while providing her daughter a good life. The novel draws from vivid post-Soviet life, weaves a saga of satire and intrigue, and presents a unique look at contemporary Russian society.
I chat with Ajay about his novel A Week in the Life of Svitlana, the novel’s protagonist Svitlana Khristenko, book recommendations, and much more.
Hello, Ajay! Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am a writer and independent journalist based in Bombay. My main area of interest is Russia and the former Soviet Union. I have lived in different parts of Russia and until the pandemic hit all of us, I used to spend a few months a year in the country. I have written three books about the country, and two of them are works of fiction.
When did you first discover your love for writing?
I was quite active in college (in the late 1990s) when it came to extracurricular activities. I was more into public speaking at that time, but I started taking part in essay writing competitions, and my success there spurred a professor to take interest in my writing. She mentored me and encouraged me to write more.
Which authors and books were your early formative influences?
When I was in school, I immensely enjoyed the works of Roald Dahl, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. My university professor encouraged me to read the works of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Into my early adulthood, I developed a great liking for Russian literature and particularly enjoyed the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov. The latter has had the greatest influence on my writing.
How would you describe your novel A Week in the Life of Svitlana in one sentence?
A glimpse into contemporary Russian society.
Now tell us a little more about the book! What can readers expect?
I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but it’s the story of a Ukrainian single mother living in Moscow in 2015, at the peak of Russia-Ukraine tensions. I hope readers enjoy a breezy read through Moscow and get a feel of the city, especially now since borders are closed for the predictable future.
Please describe your character Svitlana Khristenko to readers who might not yet be familiar with who she is and what she’s dealing with.
She is a strong, yet emotionally vulnerable woman who does her best to be the best mother to her young daughter. She’s dealing with societal and geo-political tensions, as well as an imminent financial crisis.
The city of Moscow is an important aspect of the book. Why did you choose to contextualise your work in the topography of Moscow?
I have lived in the city and consider it a second home. In my opinion, Moscow is one of the world’s greatest cities, and I wanted readers to get an insider’s look at the mindset of the people, the challenges they face and at the same time, see how Muscovites have a joie-de-vivre.
How have you been coping with the current pandemic and what will be the new normal for you post it?
It’s been a time for me to ponder over the deeper meaning of life. As soon as it was clear that lockdowns would last for longer than we’d all like, I chose to use the time in the best possible manner. The extra time has helped me read a lot. I’ve been bartering Russian literature lessons for Shakespeare lessons. I have also used this time to get back into great shape and eat a much healthier diet. I’ve been “exploring” my own neighbourhood and taking long walks on the beach and across suburban Bombay.
Being at home for a longer period has spurred me to work on balcony and window sill gardening and landscaping. I am happy to say that I will emerge as a better person on the other side of this pandemic.
Lastly, are you currently reading anything and do you have any book recommendations for our readers?
At the moment, I am reading a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction. I would highly recommend Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght, Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, Uncertain Life and Sure Death by Kalpish Ratna, The Village by Ivan Bunin and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
The book ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ is available online and at your nearest bookstore.