Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London, and currently lives in Bangkok, where he works in an electrochemistry lab. His short stories have been published in The Sun, Natural Bridge, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine among others
Mithran, The Mask Under My Face chronicles how a number of people’s lives and families are turned upside-down by a single event. Can you briefly encapsulate the situation for readers?
The situation is that an off-duty policeman is shot and killed in a nightclub toilet by the son of a rich and very well-connected businessman (Sirichai). This leads to a country-wide outcry, as it’s not the first time Sirichai’s son (Surapat, nicknamed Gai) has killed, and up to now he has always escaped punishment. Meanwhile, although Sirichai is well-connected, he has accumulated some very well-connected enemies — Old Money types who resent him as a nouveau riche upstart, and resent the politician he funds. One of these people controls a newspaper, and she gets it to run a campaign on behalf of the policeman’s widow, Attiya, and her ten-year-old son, Den. It’s easy to do as Attiya is beautiful and not at all well-off, while Den appears to be everything Surapat is not. Apart from simply collecting donations, the campaign keeps the fires of outrage stoked (which is its main purpose) and ensures Surapat has to leave the country for an extended period. Meanwhile, Attiya is forced unwillingly into the role the media creates for her, while knowing the public portrayal of her “heroic” husband is largely false. He was a serial philanderer who was in the nightclub because he was selling drugs.
The book looks at how these three lives develop. Attiya has to cope with becoming a kind of public heroine, while watching the media re-invent her marriage. With Den there is the question of how to be a man and how to live up to the public perception of his father. Meanwhile, after Surapat is forced abroad, the ’97 South East Asian economic crash happens, and for the first time in his life he has to manage without the safety net of money and contacts. Fifteen years later he will be back in Bangkok, having been altered both physically and emotionally by his experiences. He will re-enter the lives of Attiya and Den without them realising who he is. Den will end up working for the man who killed his father.
In this excerpt we learn a lot about Sirichai’s family, both in the opulent way they live and the family dynamics themselves. There appear to be a few contradictions. You write: His house has been built like a fort to keep out wrongness…And yet so often he feels defenseless. As though there is a flimsiness to everything he owns. It seems his wife is blinded by her favoritism for Surapat(Gai), his other son has a gambling addiction, his daughter dresses like a slut, and Sirichai himself drinks too much. Not to mention Gai, his disreputable son and the violent havoc he’s wrought. It seems no amount of money and security can keep his family immune from trouble. What is your intent in developing these characters?
Surapat shooting the policeman was my novel’s starting point; the characters around him developed from my wondering what kind of family, and what kind of environment, could produce a son like that. On my way to work I drive past a house like Sirichai’s and it seems to me it has the look of a fort, the kind of thing a colonial governor would shelter behind when the natives got restless. Though a fort can’t protect you from your own corruption, which is the problem for Sirichai and his family. He has always wanted the best for his children, but unfortunately this translated as giving them whatever they wanted. For Sirichai and Surapat both, my intent is to show how their worldview brings about the events around them, and how those events change their worldview.
You mention that the novel also follows the murdered policeman’s son, who, along with Gai and Sirichai, becomes a focal character. Do you consider one of them the central protagonist?
I don’t really have a central protagonist, as such. The three main players are the policeman’s widow (Attiya), her son (Den) and Surapat. Funnily enough, I set out to write a book that would follow the parallel lives of the two sons, and then as soon as Attiya appeared she became protagonist number three. I couldn’t stop that from happening. I should add that although Sirichai features slightly less than these three characters, he and his family are hugely important to the novel. I submitted the excerpt I did, featuring Sirichai, as it seemed the most self-contained section of what I’ve written so far.
This chapter takes place at the family home in Thailand, with Gai on the lam in Laos, and possibly soon headed to London. Is the novel set in various locales?
Most of the novel is set in Bangkok. Laos, briefly, and then London, more importantly, come into it because of Surapat needing to be out of the country. I’m looking forward to writing the London part as, having been in Thailand for so long, I find when I go back to England there’s an initial alien-ness about the place. I’m looking forward to tapping into that. In the case of Surapat’s brief stay in Laos, that section is already written, based on a trip I made in the late ’90s. At some point in time I’m going to have to go back to Vientiane and check up on my unreliable memory
How is the novel coming along? Do you have other literary projects in the works currently?
So far I’ve written just over 50,000 words. In terms of actual plot events I would say that’s no more that sixty percent of it. So I’m resigned to writing a long first draft and then cutting it. As far as other literary projects go, I’ve written a mystery novel about a translator-cum-private detective (also set in Bangkok), which is sitting with a couple of agents, and I’m waiting to see if they want to represent it or not. Other than that, my only project is this one.
Thanks, Mithran. Is there anything else you’d like to share or explain to readers?
Really I’d just like to say thank you for taking an interest in my work and for your thoughtful and stimulating questions.