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.
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.
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