Category Archives: 2018 Interviews

Interview with Sikeena Karmali

If you have to perhaps read historic fiction, and as we all know there are only two months left in the year, then you should read Sikeena Karmali’s, The Mulberry Courtesan. I read it earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It is a story of a courtesan in the last court of the Mughal Empire, that of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Karmali has written the book with great skill, passion, and accuracy. In my opinion, everyone must read this book because of the language and the plot. I got a chance to interview her via mail, and here goes:

What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel, that too set in 1857? What drew you toward that time? 

The novel was actually very much inspired by a visit to the Humayun’s Tomb and Gardens complex in 2003 – before it was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. At that time I was living in Uzbekistan, directing a human rights project. I had just visited Ferghana – the birthplace of Babur and Samarqand and Bukhara are both also in Uzbekistan so the Central Asian/Timurid/Mughal civilization was already playing in my imagination but for some reason I was not really expecting to find that in India so when I visited Humayun’s Tomb I was kind of blown away at how beautifully this heritage had married with the civilization of the Indian subcontinent to create this breath-taking architecture. So I wanted to try to capture some of that.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – Ghadr. It was actually the first serious challenge that the British East India company faced by the people it had colonized.

Bahadur Shah Zafar thankfully isn’t made a caricature of in the book. What kind of research went into ensuring that more facets of his personality came to light? How did you manage to translate that or incorporate it in the book?

I did a lot of research and I read his poetry. I visited the National Archives in Delhi where I also found a lot of information. He impressed me and I tried to understand him as a poet and a mystic rather than a ruler.

Laale is headstrong, independent, and yet has to adhere to the societal constructs of that time and age. What were the courtesans like in that period?

It is certainly true that there were societal constructs for women at that time, as there are today – however they are not always what we imagine them to be. Courtesans were often quite empowered as women. They were educated and erudite, they moved and circled in public spaces, often in male domains where they would have to hold their own among Nawabs and Mirzas. They were also not merely sexual slaves – many courtesans were respected women who came to wield a fair amount of power at court. Beghum Samru for example was a nautch girl who ended up becoming the head of a professionally trained army. Or Mah Laqa Chanda who became the first Urdu poetess and whose Divan is currently at the British Library in London.

How is Laale different and how was it like to place her in around 160 years ago, though she could very well fit in today’s time and age? 

It is funny you should ask that because The Mulberry Courtesan was originally about two women Laale and a contemporary women who is like her mirror or soul mate. So that contemporary story is now going to be The Mulberry Courtesan Book Two.

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The book moves between multiple nations and times. How easy or difficult was it to write about that? 

That is actually how the book unfolded so it’s how I wrote it. At the time that much of the book was written, I used to travel quite a lot so it didn’t feel unusual for me.

How is it to bring the interactions to life in a historical novel, given the context and plot? How does that work? Is it any different from say setting the novel in the 21st century?

I’m an avid student of history so it’s quite normal for me to be inhabiting another century in my imagination while I go about my daily existence in the 21st century. I think with historical fiction writing you really have to take the time to set the scene, to illustrate the details that will really transport your reader to another time and place.

Your top 5 historical fiction novels 

In no particular order:

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Song of the Assassin – M.G. Vasanji
My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

What are you currently reading? 

I have just finished Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhtoy and I am in the middle of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien which is really lyrical and beautifully written.

You can buy the book here: 

https://amzn.to/2PCXUIt

 

 

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Interview with Amy B. Scher

I had reviewed the book, “This is How I Save My Life” by Amy B. Scher, way back in August 2018 and enjoyed it a lot. I got the opportunity to interview her, and here are some excerpts from the interview. Thank you, Amy for the interview.

Amy

What were the differences you saw and faced between the Western and Eastern paradigm of healing? 

Western medicine creates a focus on physical symptoms, while Eastern focuses on the whole system — including mind, body, and spirit. I was a little resistant to this at first because it felt like looking at my thoughts and emotions might place blame on me for illness. But in the end, addressing those aspects were necessary for my healing.

How did you include humor in your narrative? A narrative that is staggeringly terrifying. How and where did wit come about? 

I tend to look at everything with humor. It’s how I was raised, thank goodness. My family tried to laugh as much as we cried about difficult things. And I think that just naturally comes through in my writing. No one wants to read a depressing book; and I surely didn’t want to write one. Humor is the element that can keep us going even in the worst of times…and I really wanted that to come through in my story.

Amy 2

Could you please tell me something about your writing process? Where and how did you start writing This Is How I Save My Life? 

During my time in India, I kept an online blog about my experiences. This “record” was used later as part of my writing process. I ended up including my “before” and “after” India experiences and expanded and rewrote what happened while I was there. But it did help to have notes on what happened. There is so much that we forget, even when it feels huge and important at the time. Because I wrote the book years after I got back from India, I was able to add in reflection that I couldn’t have incorporated if I was still too close to the experience. Time and space always allow for a clearer picture to emerge.

How difficult or easy was it to get out of the exotic mode of India and weave your story right into it? I am sure it was extremely cathartic for you to write this book. How did you deal with that? 

It was very cathartic to write the book. I had my own relationship with India — and so I weaved it into my story as a character. I allowed it to be my teacher; and I felt that going back there in my mind really helped me to write it with more ease.

Did being a Jewish girl in India affect you in any manner at all? 

It didn’t! I actually went to a Jewish temple while in India. I saw the play Fiddler On The Roof in Hindi, too. I’ve always been interested in all religions so visited many different kinds of temples while I was there.

What memoirs inspired you to write your own? 

Of course Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I also really loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Both books inspired me so much and kept me writing even when it was hard.

Thanks again, Amy and Simon and Schuster India for this opportunity.

Interview with Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed

I had a ball reading The Town That Laughed and couldn’t wait to interview Manu Bhattathiri. The Town that Laughed is reminiscent of Malgudi Days, of small towns, and small lives that amount to a lot when viewed from their side. And yet there is always change that takes place in small towns and things perhaps aren’t what they used to be. The fictional town of Karuthupuzha, nestled within the Kerala countryside, is home to eccentric and the unexpected. The predictable lot of people and the ones who aren’t easy to gauge at all. This is one book that I would recommend to all, who are looking for a light read. It is hilarious and quaint and rather charming.

Here’s my interview with Manu Bhattathiri: 

When and how did you start telling these stories?

I think I picked up my passion for storytelling from my granddad. He would tell me stories from mythology when I was a child. I always wanted to tell stories the way he told them – fantastically, mixing real characters with incredible happenings, lending life to creatures and even inanimate objects. Somewhere along the way, somewhere during adolescence perhaps, I picked up the art of lying: yes, simple lying, to friends and family, just for the sake of saying something I had made up! It was only in my mid-thirties, though, that I realized instead of making things up in my talks with others I can actually just write fiction.

Were you inspired by R K Narayan and similar others who have created fictional towns?

R K Narayan is a legend. It sometimes makes me a little self-conscious when Karuthupuzha is compared to Malgudi. But I must say, I have read very little of R K Narayan. I have only read The Guide, and I think a couple of other books. No, my fictional town is not really inspired by his. I cannot trace it to any particular imagined town at all, to be honest. I draw from a real village called Cherupoika in Quilon district of Kerala. This was home to my maternal grandparents and was where I spent a lot of my holidays as a kid.

MB

Karuthupuzha is almost idyllic and I am guessing that's how it is meant to be. Was it easy or difficult to write that?

I think it is when you keep your characters simple on the surface that you can dive deep into them, like the stars can be well studied on nights without too many clouds. It certainly isn’t easy to define your characters strongly and yet portray them like simpletons. But fortunately in the villages and small towns I draw from, there are real people like this: people who are simple yet deep. They are a reference for me.

How did you manage to excel in characterization given there are so many cameos, and yet each one seems fleshed out so perfectly? Was it difficult or easy when it came to that?

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that for my writings I pull out not from other literature but from life. Every day you meet people and connect with them, but their story—their character, emotions, inclinations—is not any less detailed even if you only met them briefly. You might get chatting with an old man waiting for the same bus as you and never see him again in your life, but even in that brief meeting you can see he isn’t a flat character. There is still a complete and complex story of his life that he carries with him. I think literature must emulate life in this. So whether a character is major or minor
in your novel, I don’t think he/she ought to be flat and lifeless. Working this way takes a lot of thought and careful orchestration between characters, but it is also very satisfying.

Who are your favourite novelists and have any of them inspired the writing of this novel?

My favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, more recently, J M Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro. While The Town that Laughed is not directly inspired by any of them, I do believe they make me who I am. So the stories I think up will have something to do with them, yes.

There you go! This is my interview with Manu Bhattathiri. Do read the book. It is fantastically written.

Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry by Manjima Bhattacharjya

MannequinTitle: Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry
Author: Manjima Bhattacharjya
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN:978-9385932229
Genre: Gender Studies
Pages: 216
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Can fashion and feminism ever go hand in hand? Hard to think of them together, right? Like the perfect bedfellows, isn’t it? And yet, lo behold, “Mannequin” by Manjima Bhattacharjya marries them and how! We are, in my opinion, quick to judge the fashion indsutry, without knowing its ongoings or caring to know about it. And the brunt of it all, whether you admit or not is borne by the women in the industry. Bhattacharjya through this book reflects on feminism and the beauty business and this is done purely through first-person narratives, insider stories, histories that have been buried long before and heavy research and subtext.

“Mannequin” looks at the 70 billion dollar industry at home and what it does and doesn’t do for the women who work in it. The recognition they deserve and do not get most of the time. Bhattacharjya with a very detailed view, traces the history of the fashion industrt – the role of women when it started in the 60s to what it is now and frankly as a reader I felt, not much has changed. The industry sadly still objectifies women instead of seeing and acknowledging their agency and talent.

At the heart of the book there are uncomfortable questions for sure but it is also a personal account of the author, the industry and its women. The writing at no point is pedantic. Yes it is data heavy but that is alright. The narratives and stories are told humanely and that is what is needed.

What role does fashion play in the entire feminist discourse? Does it have a role at all? What about the industry? What do the men of the fashion industry think? The author raises questions and answers are given – maybe not all the time but most of the time with solid research to back. “Mannequin” is the kind of book we always needed and finally got it.

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