Srikumar Sen: 'I've been thinking about writing this book since 1964'

Paul Newman meets 81-year-old debutant novelist Srikumar Sen

It was in 1964, while living in his native India, that Srikumar Sen first had the idea for a novel. Forty-three years later, in retirement after a long career in London as a journalist, he sat down to write it. The first copies of the book, finally published, arrived at his Highgate home a fortnight ago.

At 81, Sen is proof that it's never too late to realise your dreams. The Skinning Tree, about a young boy growing up in India, is already a prize-winner and the author is now working on his second book. "I always felt the book was in me," Sen said last week. "Now I wish I'd written it earlier. All sorts of ideas for books have come to me since, but I haven't got time to write all of them. I would need two or three years for each one."

Brought up in a wealthy family in Kolkata, Sen came to Britain at 15 when his stepfather was appointed London Correspondent of the Hindustan Times. Sen studied History at Oxford and met Eileen, now his wife of 57 years, when she was an art student. They lived in India for 10 years, returning to Britain in 1965. Sen spent the next 32 years as a sports journalist onThe Times – he was both a sub-editor and Boxing Correspondent – before retiring in 1999.

"At first I didn't miss writing because I was just enjoying the time with my family," he said. "But then I thought, I must get down to writing this novel. I'd been thinking about it since 1964, when I went back to see the home where I had grown up. Whenever I was on a train or looked out of a window I thought about the book. Little bits would come into my head and I would write it in my mind, in no particular order. When I finally sat down, a lot of the book was already there."

Having previously lacked "the courage" to write the novel, Sen said the discipline he learnt as a sportswriter helped him knuckle down. "When you work for a newspaper, whether you want to go to the typewriter or not, you just have to do it. There was the fear that you would leave a hole in the paper. It was that fear that kept me going."

Sen enjoyed the chance to write more freely. "In a book you can expand on things, tell more about a person's life," he said. "When you write about Mike Tyson in a newspaper you can't suddenly start writing about his wife, about what she cooked in the kitchen that day."

The novel took three years to write, but then Sen decided it was too long. His wife and one of their two sons cut it in half to 64,000 words before he submitted it for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, which is awarded for unpublished novels. The book was joint winner, and now Picador has published it in India. Sen hopes that publication in the UK will come next.

Drawing on some of Sen's own experiences, the book follows Sabby, a gentle boy from Kolkata sent by his parents during the Second World War to a Catholic school in the north of India because of fears that the Japanese are about to invade. Brutalised by the school's strict rules and the corporal punishment meted out by their teachers, the pupils themselves become desensitised and cruel as they kill animals and throw the carcasses on to a cactus, which they call the "skinning tree".

Though Sen did not plan it that way, the book has been described as an allegory for Empire. Nevertheless, one of his intentions was to convey Indians' attitudes to the war. "They thought it was 'their war', not 'our war'," he said. "The big thing for Indians was independence."

Sen returned to India for the first time for 47 years to collect his prize. He was disappointed by what he saw. "This India is not what the country's founding fathers wanted. They wanted something more considerate. If you have money in India today everything is there for you, but up to 99 per cent of the people are still poor."

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried