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."