Author: Tanuj Solanki
Tanuj Solanki’s first novel, Neon Noon, was published by Harper Collins India in July 2016.
This interview was conducted through e-mail.
I’m glad that your short story ‘The Sad Unknowability of Dilip Singh’, runner-up of DNA- Out of Print short fiction contest 2014, is the impetus for this interview.
About the short story
The narrator talks about the life and death of his ‘writer’ friend Dilip Singh.
While Dilip’s death begins the story, the reader is then taken on a journey through his life and it is narrated from the memory of the narrator.
The reader witnesses different stages in a writer’s life before publication.
By the end we realize that the narrator bemoans the ‘unknowability’ of the writer Dilip Singh as the apt title suggests.
In this carefully crafted short story, Tanuj Solanki, weaves themes of friendship, writing, rejection, depression, suicide and many other themes.
Read it here.
NOTE: Sentences in italics below are lines from the story.
Me: How did you settle on the name ‘Dilip Singh’ for your character? And how do you generally name your characters? (I had thought of the actor Dilip Kumar when I read the title of your story.)
TS: I wanted a name that was not writerly, something that gave the appearance of not possibly being that of a writer. Correct me if I am wrong, and of course I am a bit wrong, but we don’t really attach the surname ‘Singh’ with that of a writer. It is a warrior caste surname, and India isn’t mature enough to not find any dissonance in that surname being a writer’s surname.
Now I could not have called him Dharmendra Singh or Ravindra Singh (there is a writer by that name, right?) because with such a name I ran the risk of attracting too-much attention to the warrior-caste-ness of the name. The first name had to be light, yet with not the common lightness that a Vivek or a Sahil or a Samir or a Vinay has. Abhay was too strong, Anil too light. And so on…
Did I make any sense?
Me: Dying at twenty-nine feels like Dilip has missed out on the milestone in life- turning 30. Any comments?
Dying at any age is a bit of a pain, no?
Me: Some plaster and cement fell on her face, but the body could not be set free. It never occurred to her that had she managed to free it, the heavy ceiling fan, which was from an era when it was made of metal, would have crushed them both.
I liked these sentences because they highlight the desire of a bereaved mother to still live after her son’s death. Any comments?
TS: I find them quite morbid. That must have been my intention.
Have you read any suicide reports in newspapers? Whenever newspapers can, they identify the person who discovers the body. They cannot, however, describe the discovery as it actually happened, in its horror. That is beyond their ethical purview. The discovery of a kin having committing suicide, like walking into the room where the body hangs from the ceiling, must be a horrifying experience. I’ve just tried to imagine it, and I hope it doesn’t offend anyone who has had the great misfortune of having been in such a situation.
Me: In the story, the narrator mentions that topics like ‘apocalypse,’ ‘love’ and ‘inescapable misery of life’ were muses for Dilip’s initial writing (poems). According to you, is this the plight of most writers when they start out or do they just know what they want to write about? Did you know what you wanted to write when you began?
TS: This plight, as you call it, is for every writer. I’m reading some Kierkegaard these days, and I find that his most beautiful writing is in the journals, where we see a young Kierkegaard struggling to find a subjective truth, a truth that is in him and for him, a truth for which he is willing to live and die. Writers are doomed in the sense that they have set out to discover a (subjective) truth within themselves.
Now, our interiority is not the easiest landscape to traverse. Being a writer requires, at the least, a consciousness that can talk back to itself in an articulate fashion.. Today, modernity means that we are always on the edge of nihilism, and the writer’s position is one that strives to save the universals, a position at the very edge of an abyss, so to say. A lot of bluster goes with that position. The writer on the edge sees things in their true horror; he or she becomes, what is commonly called, a freak.
I think Dilip Singh is an example of a writer who isn’t articulate enough to stare at the abyss unflinchingly. Like many, he turns hysterical, and falls. The fall may mean madness, neglect, suicide; for him it so happens that it is the last one.
Me: I also suspect that it was all under the duress of some broken love affair that none of his friends had ever been aware of.
Do you think all writers begin to write to release some sort of grief or could there be other motivations?
TS: I don’t think things are easy to define with regards to a writer’s motivations for writing. First and foremost, a writer is a personality concerned with the truth. I’ve also called it a subjective truth, meaning that a writer is concerned with that which is true for herself. There are certain events in our lives that register as authentic, whose emotive impact is undeniable. Writers, who in some ways are in the search for authenticity, of course deliberate on such experiences a lot. Writing about such an experience can be liberating precisely because of the fact that its qualitative nature is also a universal. Everyone loves, everyone fails, everyone loses—everyone feels these to the marrow.
This should not be understood in its simplistic form, like they did in that movie Rockstar. “Artist ban-ne ke liye dard hona chahiye,” the hero was told. But dard, despite its trueness, is neither necessary nor sufficient for Art.
Even when writing of authentic human experiences, there is artifice required. Artifice is that by which an artist grants form to the Art, shapes it. This is where training comes in; this is where a study of the classics comes in; this is where there are rules waiting to be learnt and then broken.
A very good example is the recent novel by Akhil Sharma, Family Life. The writer is writing about his own experience, but it would be foolish to think that there is no fictive element in it, or that he didn’t painstakingly design the delivery of that experience.
Me: What I got from your story is that Dilip’s first readers or close reading circle had the opportunity to make him but instead they broke him. Their honesty.
On the contrary, I have heard that a lot of struggling writers prefer showing their works to strangers and not close friends for fear that they won’t be told the truth about their work as friends would want to be in the writer’s good books as a friend. What’s your opinion?
TS: I don’t think serious writers are much affected by what others think. They already know their deficiencies. I don’t think Dilip was as worried about his friends’ comments as the narrator thought he was.
Me: He would say that a poet’s primary condition is to be ever-sentient of death, or that a poet who doesn’t know love’s loss is not a poet, or that misery is the automobile that rams us into the wall of death, et cetera. With hindsight, I have come to understand that phase as one where he was struggling to find his feet in the quagmire that is literature.
This sympathy comes from a lot of introspection, guilt, the wish to turn back the clock and he wishes he had more faith in his friend as he is a non-writer. If he had been a writer himself would he have sympathised earlier?
TS: If the narrator were a writer, the unknowability would have been less stark, for it would have been for the narrator an already classified entity, experienced in different ways in his own personality. My story would have been an inferior one.
But I don’t think Dilip killed himself merely because he had no writer friends.
All the details of Dilip’s life story are potential red herrings. None of them may in fact be responsible for his death. It may just be because he couldn’t handle being a writer.
Me: They had in them the scratches of defeat, a defeat not felt or read or imagined, but a defeat experienced in the real.
According to you, is writing a sort of confession, can’t it be imagined?
TS: Instead of answering this as a precursor to the genre question, let me take this to the realm of philosophy first.
Pure speculative writing, if such a thing can be approximated, is the kind done by the likes of Descartes and Kant. Theirs is speculation about what it is to be a human being, and that is the stuff of literature too. Surely we are not talking of that here. I ask – what is speculative in fiction that it may be called speculative fiction? You may write a book with ogres in it, and it will be shelved in certain areas in a bookstore, but don’t ogres already exist? They do! In other books! So do dragons and fairies and giant spiders and hunchbacks and hare-lipped serial killers.
Fiction, for me, is completely imaginative while being confessional, and completely confessional while being imaginative. There can’t be categories based on the qualitative intensity of speculation and make-believe.
My own writing, although it probably doesn’t yet exist for those who are called critics, has been labeled confessional in nature. This is almost an insult, for it belittles my capability for make-believe, something already displayed strongly in that which is being called confessional. People forget that in order to write a confession, it is necessary to remember, and that memory is very nearly an imaginative entity.
I’m an archivist in a way. For me the biggest question is: how does experience become literature? Memorialization plays a key role in my writing. I don’t alter the inherently strange elements of lived experience much; in fact, I allow memory to deform them. I fictionalize the other parts, the supporting structure. And I hope it is a strange experience for the reader, something inexplicable, that can appear at once a contrivance as well as something violently and personally true. I want my work to give that: the reader should feel connected, yet be unable to explain the connection.
Me: Perhaps this is an effect that he created by simply turning to a first person voice that was more nuanced than his earlier voices.
What is your view on first person narratives and second person/third person? Which works the best for you as a writer/reader?
TS: I like the idea of “the new first person,” though there aren’t many examples of it. I think I’ll need to philosophize again to explain what I mean by that.
Kierkegaard has said that for the ironic subject, boredom is the only continuity. The subject starts from boredom, taken an ironic detour, and then returns to boredom. This can be despair-producing. In our age, when we routinely deal with the self-consciousness of self-consciousness of self-consciousness (subjectivity of subjectivity of subjectivity), the ironic subject thus oscillates within a hierarchy of boredom. At the highest is metaphysical boredom, or what is usually called existential apathy. I think this is a world-historical event. We are reaching the limit of irony, both in quality and quantity, and it may finally be getting into the zone of being useless. All of us, who take an ironic stance in our dealings with others on social networks, where we are in any case curating our entire existence as aesthetic ironists, which in turn is a virtual existence and is thus ironic in its very essence, are dealing with nothingness on various levels. We are going to implode.
It is possible to confront this tyranny of irony with another one: that of belief. Say faith, if you want to. I mean belief in very religious terms. But simple religiosity is of course not possible any more.
For me “the new first person” is that which takes a meta-ironic stance, and is able to ironicize irony itself, leaving it battered at a site where belief can establish itself. I’m talking about redemption for this age. Hal Incandenza’s first person voice in Infinite Jest. Ben Lerner’s narrators.
In other words, the voice claims it just-can’t, doubts this just-can’t-ness, and then finds something completely authentic outside this just-can’t-ness, which can in turn mitigate it. This leap outside is important. Think of it as jumping outside one’s own head to discover an objective reality that was always there and will always be there.
Did I make any sense?
I’m not talking about the cynical first person, or the unreliable first person, or the hysterical first person—all these are sublated in the ironist himself. What is critical is the salvation of the ironist from the existential boredom of the age.
Me: Conversely, he told me that the grave nature of what he wrote about surprised him as well, and might just be a by-product of the grave voices of the writers that he was reading in those days.
I remember I was into Goosebumps by R.L. Stine in school and my initial works were pastiches of the same. What about you?
TS: I didn’t read much as a child, only some Hardy Boys.
My initial works were poems. I wrote really shoddy ones, and still keep some of them on a blog. Poetry hasn’t been kind to me, ever.
Me: For a while I wondered if Dilip had lied to me about being accepted for publication. But why would he do that? To make me view his poem with respect, with approval? It made me ask questions of myself: had I thought of the poem as a masterpiece because it was due for publication? This would mean that Dilip had conned me, and that I had conned myself too. Now I wasn’t even sure if his father had really hit his mother with an iron rod. And if that wasn’t true, was the poem then a masterpiece because it had appeared so real and personal?
For me, this was the essence of the story.
Have you ever considered getting publishing using a pseudonym to gauge your audience’s authentic reaction to your published work now that you have been published a lot?
TS: I’ve not been published a lot. I’ve not been read a lot. I’m a minor writer, and I’ve none of the neuroses of a Fernando Pessoa to invest in alter-egos.
I love my name, and if it is within my powers or talents, I want this name to mean something when people talk of Indian literature.
I understand that the critical reception that a writer receives is a function of what has already accreted in his or her name—I’m not against that; I, in fact, find it heartening.
Me: So this is what I thought- without having been able to give the voice to what Dilip really wanted to express, he couldn’t live with it bubbling inside him no matter what else he wrote, it didn’t matter, he still felt trapped. Am I right?
TS: I don’t really know.
About literary contests/editing/writing
Me: Which is better for budding writers- Submissions to writing contests or to literary magazines?
TS: Everything, do everything.
Me: Unthemed or themed? (contests/ submission calls)
Me: As an editor you do not encourage themes or contests, the ‘about’ section of The Bombay Literary Magazine (TBLM) suggests so, but as a writer you like it?
TS: Not particularly, unless the theme is a broad one and allows all sorts of interpretations.
Me: Judges can make or break the reputation of a contest. Do you agree?
TS: Look – the reputation of a writing contest is only in the heads of you and me, people who write. For those who see only the winners, it doesn’t matter.
Me: Is it important for judges to be writers themselves or is it sufficient if they are good readers?
TS: It’s sufficient for them to be good readers.
Me: What is the best part about the DNA-Out of Print contest?
TS: That they give you a whole page in a newspaper if you win. That’s rare. I got emails from people about the Dilip Singh story. That’s crazy for a little-known writer like me.
Me: Like Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’, was TBLM born to fill the void of good magazines publishing Indian fiction in English?
TS: TBLM grew from a very selfish writerly interest. I wanted to sample new Indian writing—basically, to keep a tab on the competition. But I soon realized that that was the most stupid idea.
I actually hit upon the pleasures of running a litmag after I’d run it for some time, when it hit me that there is a good implicit in it. Now I love running TBLM not because of my interests as writer, but because of the simple joy of finding something interesting and helping it reach others. It has, to don a cliché, made me a better person.
Me: How has being an editor helped your writing or vice-versa?
TS: The two are distinct categories for me—they have no impact on each other.
Me: What is the shape of Indian writing in English as of today according to you?
TS: It’s shaped like a dumbbell, light in the center, weight at the peripheries. Does it answer you?
Me: Can you tell us a little about your novel due from Harper Collins later this year?
TS: The novel is about a young man who loses his love interest, and with that, his rational and moral hinges. But he is not a nihilist; he believes in certain things. At the end, this is supposed to save him.
Me: Which do you enjoy writing more: a short story or a novel?
TS: Nothing. I don’t write because I enjoy it.
TS: Pleasure to read, torture to write.
Me: What do you think is great about the writing you come across today from the Indian youth (from the submissions you receive at TBLM) and what is missing?
TS: There is still a struggle with writing in English. Not a grammatical struggle, mind.
Writing of characters who are conducting their business in a regional language, the Indian writer in English has to be aware, at the level of each sentence, that the action is produced in translation. Most young writers forget this simple fact. You, the writer, might be a bilingual, but your choice of characters has turned you into a translator. There is a double fiction operating here, and it can break with one silly mistake. It is a delicate problem that writers from India and Africa face. There are various ways to face up to it, but writers find it difficult to be consistent even in a single piece.
Me: What is your view on love stories by Indian fiction writers like Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta etc. that are bestsellers?
TS: I don’t read this kind of writing. My first response is: there must be something notable in their work for it to sell so much. But that something can be an opiate, too. I’ve never found sales to be much of a barometer. Cocaine sells a lot, you know.
Me: You have begun writing a critique column for the The New Indian Express. How is the experience?
TS: It’s good to have to write something every week.
Me: Some of your short stories are experimental. Like your runner-up entry ‘Reasonable Limits’ at the DNA-OOP contest this year. How has the feedback been? Congrats btw on being the runner-up for the second time.
TS: There has been no feedback, apart from Aditya Mani Jha who saw the story as one concerning a unique kind of guilt: one that is unaware of its source. I liked that interpretation.
Me: What ‘reading’ advice would you like to give budding writers?
TS: Read more.
Me: Favourite books?
TS: Infinite Jest, Life: A User’s Manual, Lolita
Me: Indian writers who you think we should read?
TS: Mohit Parikh, Deepti Kapoor, Kaushik Barua, Jigar Brahmbhatt, Amit Chaudhuri (Other than Mohit and Jigar, I’m not sure if the rest still retain Indian passports)
Thank you for your time!
You can buy his book here