Monthly Archives: May 2018

Interview with Sumana Roy

Reading Sumana Roy’s books only make you humble. The magnanimity and scope of her writing will only make you feel small and aspire to perhaps write, imagine and feel like her.

I remember reading, “How I Became a Tree” and it left me stunned and hapless. With her recent work of fiction, “Missing” – I felt so many feelings, that it became kind of difficult to contain them.  You can read my review of the book here

And that’s when I knew I had to interview Sumana to find out more about Missing and its writing process. Hope you enjoy the interview.

missing-by-sumana-roy

What made you write “Missing”? What led to its conception? Did you always have clarity about the plot or did you struggle with it? 

SR: I wanted to see, imaginatively, what might happen if a woman of my socio-economic class left everything and disappeared. I was interested not in the gossip and social repercussions but in the afterlife of love – what happens to those whom we’ve loved and those who love us? How do they continue to live?

The other trigger for writing this was to show the gap between the everydayness of our lives, its joys, and frustrations, and the artificiality of news that condensed time and turned it into noise. I reject news (its current mode of dissemination) and the artificial time of news. I also saw how time had become a very artificial thing in the novel – James Wood has called the last sixty pages (or was it fifty?) the most artificial thing in literature. I was interested in restoring the speed of our life into the novel – moment to moment. There is no climax in our life though we often delude ourselves into thinking of death as life’s climax. Why should the novel have a climax then?

No, I never have any clarity – I love the journey into unknowingness, not knowing where I’ll reach. I’m as clueless as the reader. The writer doesn’t know anything more than the reader – I’m certain about that.

To answer your question about the plot – the plot wasn’t my aim, Vivek. I was interested in communicating the experience of what it might feel to live through those seven days in Siliguri. Woh Saat Din, as it were. I think of the novel as an experience, not as a means of acquiring knowledge (like the writer rewarding the loyal reader with information about the identity of the murderer in a whodunit, for instance).

Kabir’s character is always in the shadows. Almost like he exists on the fringe. Was this intentional? Or did it happen organically as the book progressed? 

SR: I could be completely wrong in my understanding of this, but I have the sense – as an outsider of course, for I don’t have children of my own – that my friends and I were closer to our parents than children are to theirs today. It is also possible that our relationships were more embodied. Even when our relationships were difficult, there was more of ourselves, our bodies, our throats, our hands, our tears and our laughter. Even our indifference, whatever its duration, was visible – the closing of a door, not looking at them in the eye, turning away from them to look at the wall when sharing a bed, and so on. Today, because of technology and the way it has impacted relationships, there are more words, but something is ‘missing’. To use your metaphor of the ‘fringe’, children don’t realize how central they are to their parents’ lives – they choose to keep the parents on the fringe of their lives. Perhaps it was this that I felt when I thought of Kabir? Also, he’s far away, and his search can only be two-dimensional. Even the photograph, in the end, is two-dimensional, of course.

How tough or easy was the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction?

SR: I’d begun writing Missing in July 2012, as some of the events mentioned as news reports in the book were happening. I began writing How I Became a Tree the next year, I think. But it wasn’t really meant to be a book – I was making notes on my phone on my way to work. I began to see the shape of the book much later. I really don’t believe in the presumed distinction between genres. At any given point, I could be reading or working on a poem, an essay, or a story on the same day. For me, it is like having watermelon juice for breakfast, mutton curry for lunch, baingan bharta for dinner. I don’t need to change the settings of my tongue. I suppose, similarly with my mind.

So somehow in the first half, I never took to Kobita. In the second-half, I fell in love with her. Is that how it was supposed to be? Why is she so emotionally distant and yet seems connected? 

SR: But do we ever know Kobita? We presume we do, from recollections and semi-reportages from the people who knew her – husband, son, household staff, a student’s father, and so on. I suppose we’re not meant to see the poetic completely – something is kept away from us, isn’t it? We see her through the prejudices of people (and all of us are prejudiced, even about those we love) – all our impressions of her are formed from what men tell us if you’ve noticed. Her physical distance is turned into emotional detachment in a way that might not have been the case had a man gone on a work-trip leaving his blind wife in the care of household staff.

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Distance, absence, and loss of the self all come at a very high personal cost in the book. At some point was it cathartic for you to write it? Has all of it come from a very personal space? 

SR: All kind of writing is cathartic in some way, I suppose, though everything might not leave us ‘calm of mind, all passion spent’. Yes, it comes from a personal space, as did How I Became a Tree. I suppose I am a very passionate person – I can only write about things that affect me deeply and spiritually. In both, I was interested in the disappearance of the human from social life – whether by transforming into a tree, even on the level of metaphor, or disappearing from family and the familiar.

Nayan as a character, being at the center of it all is always under tremendous pressure. He knows he has to do something – anything at all and yet is always hesitant. At some point, it even felt to me that he didn’t want Kobita back. What does it take to write about such passive-aggressiveness and veiled emotions that can shatter in a moment? 

SR: As you said in your review of Missing, Kobita means ‘poetry’. Nayan is a poet. What could it mean for a poet to find the poetic gone missing from his life? Please don’t think I’m talking about it allegorically. I am not. The artist has a very complicated relationship with his or her chosen art form. A singer is always trying to tame their voice – they never seem to be satisfied. It’s like riding a tiger, a kirtan singer (whom you might know as Bimal-da from the novel) once told me.

I think all relationships are difficult, Vivek – the joy is in finding the right sur. It doesn’t come to us every moment, but when it does, it erases memories of all the tears and all the hard work, the sadhana. The singer smiles when he gets the sur right, the poet smiles though we can’t see it. This is not very different from the smile of the lover who’s loved and been loved back, a moment of synchronicity that justifies all the striving.

What is next on the cards? 

SR: I am trying to write something about the experience of reading.

Your top 5 favourite books and why? 

SR: This keeps on changing. George Eliot, Middlemarch; Amit Chaudhuri, A Strange and Sublime Address; Rabindranath Tagore’s songs (I don’t mean the Gitanjali); Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali; Bangla poetry – Jibanananda Das, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Buddhadeva Bose (I like his translations of the European poets in Bangla more than I like them in English).

Do you think that the art is separate from the artist or are they interlinked? 

SR: Is that a kind of Yeatsian question – How can we know the dancer from the dance? J

I can perhaps guess the slant of your question, and I’ll be completely honest with you, even if it is not a politically correct answer. I think we live in an age where the artist has become more important than the art – it’s a cult of the personality, and it’s one that I find repulsive. It has taken away attention from the art, from the text and moved the locus to the person – what is this celebrity figure? We’ve forgotten that art was once anonymous. Whether that was a good or bad thing is not for me to say. All I’m trying to say is that we’ve forgotten that. Lok Sangeet – lok, people, people’s songs, composed by people, through generations. The songs are the autographs. They did not need to sign books. I studied in a small town with generous teachers – they were not celebrities of the kind you find in academic mafia circles (I use ‘mafia’ with irony, of course – why would anyone call an academic a don, tell me?). One thing I learnt from them was that everything was in the text and it was from this that I’d need to make my deductions. I continue to read in this way. Funny as it might sound, I try not to look at author photos on the jacket – I don’t want the face of the writer to be on my mind when I’m reading. That is also the reason why I don’t socialise with writers – I write about them often. I don’t want to be writing about a person whose voice I can identify. I want to be immune to everything except the voice in the book.

If you had one book to give to the PM of the country to read, which one would it be and why? 

SR: It’d be a DIY kind of book – the Constitution of India.

What is on your reading stand right now?

SR: Michel Serres, The Five Senses – a book I’ve been reading very slowly; Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave – a gift from a friend, and I’m looking forward to reading it; Debesh Roy, Teestapuran; Rohit Manchanda, In The Light of the Black Sun – a book published in 1996, which I’ve only discovered now.

That’s that then! I cannot recommend “Missing” enough! Please do read it, if you haven’t already.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, and Missing, a novel. She writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.

You can follow Sumana Roy on Twitter:  @SumanaSiliguri

You can buy the book here

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The Bloody Chamber, Wise Children, Fireworks (Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics) by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber Title: The Bloody Chamber, Wise Children, Fireworks
Author: Angela Carter
Publisher: Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics
ISBN: 978-1101907993
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fairy Tales
Pages: 504
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Well, if you ask me, Angela Carter was a movement in herself. I have read most of her books and there isn’t a single one which I haven’t been enthralled by or thought about its layers, once done with it. Also, might I add that while most people think (and rightly so) that “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories” is a very raw and grisly take on fairy tales, it is much more than that.  Carter’s stories are underlined or rather soaked in eroticism and subverts their so-called “intended message”. At the same time, they entertain, enthrall and amuse.

It was somewhere in the last year of college that I started reading Carter. As most would, I started with “The Bloody Chamber” and finished it in one sitting through one night. Her sense of fabulism had got me hooked to whatever she had to say. To my mind, that mixed with the feminist tone, enhanced every single word and sentence, lending it the much-needed sense of imagination and force. Perhaps, it was also the age when I first read her that changed me as a person and kept doing so everytime I would go back to her works, as I grew older.

“The Bloody Chamber” is a collection of stories that isn’t an adaptation of fairy tales. They are just revisitations. The world is of Carter’s – where young girls are more aware of themselves sexually and emotionally, where beasts can be suitors, mothers and pets could be saviours and blood flows endlessly. If nudity, sex, violence, necrophilia, and murder upset you easily, then perhaps this collection of stories isn’t for you. You wouldn’t want to see your beloved fairy tale characters (or a semblance to them) being so aware and liberal about who they are and what they stand for.

Now to the next book in this collection: Wise Children. “Wise Children” is perhaps the onyl Carter which I read right now for the first time. I was almost cursing myself for waiting for all this time before reading it. This book isn’t strange as much as it is farcial, humorous and engaging. The signature elements of fabulism, magic realism (hate the word but shall use it) and this entwined with the ongoings of two families, make “Wise Children” for a splendid read. It is theatrical and nostalgic in its scope. The narrative voice of a 75-year-old former song and dance girl, is perfect. The larger than life characters of theatre and film is what Carter captures with such wit and scope, that it is enough to engulf you. Before I forget, the multiple Shakespearean references and plot devices used (since Dora and Nora Chance are Shakespearean actors) only enhance the humour and irony of the book.

“Wise Children” is almost a tribute to the Bard, both in characterization and its plot. The writing is wry, intelligent and fantastically told. Even if you do not get the Shakespearean references, it is quite alright. You will enjoy the book nonetheless.

“Fireworks” was Carter’s first collection of short stories. Published in 1974 (four years prior to The Bloody Chamber), it was subtitled, “Nine Profane Pieces”. I love how Carter doesn’t mean to titilate or scandalize and yet people feel that way when they read her. When all she was doing through her stories, was asserting her identity, womanhood, and the claiming of sex (as it would seem).

This collection of stories have her constant themes – domination and transformation, also the untimely loss of innocence (traces of this would also be seen in The Bloody Chamber and other stories) and entering the dark territory of emotions – mainly lust, and horror of the body and the mind. Carter never shied from exploring themes and pushing the envelope so to say. To my mind, she was one of the foremost women writers who captured the mind of a woman and merged it with the surreal and fantastical, almost leading the way for other writers.

The stories of “Fireworks” are all about the darkness within and somehow Carter’s writing makes it playful, non-linear and intriguing. I often found myself yet again wanting to be a part of the worlds she creates.

Angela Carter’s writing has perpetually been fascinating, not treating gender as anything but a social construct and love mixed with a lot of comedy. Her characters are undecided,   forever changing their minds, and strangely know what they want. The richness of her imagination was always evident in what she wrote and all I can say is read more of her. Her essays, short stories, novels and journalistic pieces. Read them all. She is a treasure worth admiring.

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

Whistle in the Dark Title: Whistle in the Dark
Author: Emma Healey
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0241327623
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I read “Elizabeth Is Missing” some time ago and loved it. Having read that, I had very high expectations from “Whistle in the Dark” and thankfully it did not disappoint at all.

Jen and Hugh are a fairly ordinary couple – middle aged, middle class and not with too many aspirations, or so it seems. Their eldest daughter, Meg has left home. The younger one, Lana lives with them and is a recluse, like most teenagers, are meant to be. At the heart of it though, Lana is a troubled young girl, who is undergoing therapy and has tried to harm herself. Jen wants the closeness back with her daughter, so she takes her for a painting holiday to Peak District. Lana disappears for four whole days and is discovered, well and bruised and shaken, but alive.

Lana will not speak with her parents about it, no matter what. She says she doesn’t recall anything but Jen refuses to believe that. She is devastated by the loss of her daughter and relieved when they find her, but she can’t place her head around Lana’s inability to tell them what happened. Jen starts recreating in her head what could have happened, getting paranoid like any mother would, speaking to Lana’s friends, checking her social media accounts for traces and trying to scrutinize her memories of the trip. All of this is happening and Meg is being ignored, feeling left out.

“Whistle in the Dark” is about parents and children and the complex relationship they share. It is about loss, grieving and wondering what will happen when children will leave the nest and fly in the open sky. I loved the writing. It is frighteningly real, sharp, life-like and almost presents both sides of the story. Even though I am not a parent, somehow I could relate to Jen more than Lana. It was almost as if her pain and determination to protect her children, became immensely real.

“Whistle in the Dark” is a book that makes you think of the social dynamics of our times and what perhaps love is all about, parental love more than anything else. A read that is relevant, empathetic, and profound.

Winter by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith Title: Winter
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1101870754
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

 

If there’s one living writer, who sums the way we live, right down to precision and exactness, it is Ali Smith. According to me, at least. “Winter” is more than just the second instalment of the seasonal quartet. It is so many things, rolled into one that I do not know where to begin talking about it, but start, I must.

“Winter” in its entirety could also be a collection of puns, word play and humour that cannot be digested by all. Scottish writer Ali Smith takes on a step further in this one than she did in “Autumn” – the first part of the quartet.  As I was telling my book club members yesterday, as we discussed Winter, “Ali Smith sure has a way of drawing the reader in, right to the bottom of her world and then there is no letting go”.

I, initially had a tough time reading Winter, but twenty pages in and I knew I was sold – hook, line and sinker. It is a family drama and a commentary on the sociopolitical changes (as most of Smith’s books are). “Winter” is mainly about relationships if you ask me. There are three estranged folks in a family and an impostor. The plot: Sophie lives all by herself in Cornwall. She is in her 60s and has started seeing a floating head for no reason (for this, you have to read the book – no spoiler here and won’t be speaking much about this).

It is Christmas Time. Her son, Arthur, who writes a successful nature blog is scheduled to visit her with his girlfriend Charlotte. Charlotte and Art have broken up over a fight of ideals (again, read). Art finds Lux – a Croatian to impersonate as Charlotte, instead of telling his mother the truth. And then there is Iris, Sophie’s estranged sister who is also visiting, though uninvited. The book is about family, dynamics of the self and how the society has changed and continues to when it comes to technology, politics, the environment and human emotions to say the very least.

What I loved the most about “Winter” is the way Ali Smith breathes life into the monotonous activities – going to the bank, buying groceries, or even just being. She has a quiet way of describing events, people and relationships. Ultimately to me, “Winter” is a book that asks what it is like to live today? What it is to be today in tune with the world and not and what implications it might have? At the end of it all, Ali Smith’s “Winter” at the core is about art, love, life – what it once was and what it is today.

The Worm and the Bird by Coralie Bickford-Smith

The Worm and the Bird Title: The Worm and the Bird
Author: Coralie Bickford-Smith
Publisher: Particular Books, Penguin
ISBN: 9781846149221
Genre: Picture Book
Pages: 64
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

 

Is it even a book read, if it is a picture book? I say, why not? A book is a book is a book. Different genres are still counted as books, isn’t it? Picture books read are still counted as read books according to me and that’s quite alright.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about, “The Worm and the Bird”.  This book is about a worm and a bird (as you might have rightly guessed, duh!) and the different things they want and how they almost get it or they do for that matter. Under the earth, the worm needs more space. Above the earth, the bird searches for something else. And that’s what the book is. Of course, what makes it so endearing are the illustrations and what one doesn’t expect (which I will not reveal) as well.

Coralie Bickford-Smith’s earlier book, “The Fox and the Star” was a delight and so is this one. “The Worm and the Bird” is also about the shortness of life, but it also rings true of how life should be lived. Being a picture book, it cannot get preachy at all, which it isn’t.

“The Worm and the Bird” is the kind of book which has to be read and appreciated by people of all ages. It is a lesson, but beyond that it is also to be read because of the stunning illustrations, the ink artwork and to get back to understand how stories are told.