Interview 3- MOHIT PARIKH
It is the season of TOTO awards again. This interview is with the winner of TOTO award for creative writing in English 2015, Mohit Parikh, for his story ‘A Stroller in a Supermarket’ which was published in Identity Theory in 2013, his debut novel ‘Manan’ which received ‘Honorable Mention – Best Book (Fiction)’ at the The Hindu Young World- Goodbooks Awards 2015-2016 and a lot more.
Read the story here.
Italicised lines below are from the story.
Hello Mohit, How did it feel winning the TOTO award last year? It was a pleasure watching you read aloud at the event. You dedicated your award ‘to life’ on receiving it, if my memory serves me well.
What is your view on literary contests such as TOTO and DNA- Out of Print short fiction contest?
MP: When I was working on my first novel, I had no clue how good or bad I was as a writer. To measure myself, and to allow myself to experiment and take risks in story- telling, I resorted to submitting my works to US based literary magazines. But definitely the turning point came when OOP accepted my story and, then, TOTO happened – two years in a row. Those were one of the best things that happened to Manan, and I am extremely grateful to Sarita and team TFA. As a writer, though, I felt I was getting closer to something – some vague landmark that a young writer must reach at. You know, getting published in renowned magazines, maybe having a newspaper column, getting the chance to share stage at the big lit fests. That was a mistake. Self-created external goals while were driving me to write, they weren’t making me a better person. Which is why I took a hiatus.
Okay, let’s talk about your story ‘A Stroller in a Supermarket’ now. I loved it.
What drew me into the piece at first is the choice of the second-person narrative.
- Was it easy?
- What is your view on second-person narratives in general?
- Any story in your view which has done that exceptionally well?
MP: A Stroller in a Supermarket came in a flash – I wrote its first half in a single sitting after returning from Hypercity. My mom was shopping for the usual stuff, and more – stuff she wouldn’t buy from the nearby kirana store – and I was watching her and other shoppers in some sort of disbelief. People seemed to be in a trance. I mean, my mom is a smart person – she is a maths teacher – and really great at budgeting and stuff. So it requires a lot of cunning to modify behaviours of people like her. That got me thinking.
I also realised later that the protagonist closely resembled Tanuj Solanki’s ‘The Bachelor’, as I was reading a draft of his first novel then.
As for my views on second-person narratives, I don’t have any.
But one book that I think has done second-person narrative exceptionally well would be Georges Perec’s ‘A Man Asleep’. A fantastic little story by young Perec.
You have used italics carefully in your piece. When do you think italics has been over-used or unnecessary in fiction?
MP: I don’t know. If something is bringing attention to itself then probably it is unnecessary. As such, I don’t think writers should concern themselves with making rules about punctuations or styles.
I liked how you compare product descriptions to author profiles subtly hinting at books as a commodity and the purchase decision depending on the author’s credits. Any comments?
MP: Absolutely none. I am doing MBA right now, and every day I lam taught the nitty-gritties of how markets function by some very smart professors. The classroom experience has destroyed all the judgements I had had while writing this short story. Now all I can say is, I don’t know. I don’t know if commoditising books is a good thing or bad, or necessary or not, or anything about larger questions like where the society is heading etc etc. What I can comment on is how marketing strategies work and how you can leverage them for your own benefits. Though I may charge you for that.
‘There are no cool, dry and hygienic places in your small kitchen.’
It is in their best interest that you stay away.
These lines shows the narrator’s self-awareness. Why did you choose this trait for your protagonist as opposed to denial, wouldn’t that have been intriguing? Manan, the protagonist of your novel is also self-aware.
MP: Good question! All my characters have, I am told, hyper self-awareness. Which makes sense because my interests are personal growth and spirituality, and I am obsessed with the process of introspection. I always wanted to share and explore my own challenges in that regard through fiction, through my characters. Manan is a result of that.
There are fruits sometimes too, and cucumber and tomato and potato and radish to prepare sandwich the way your mother used to, but half of it rots and, though you can easily afford the waste, your schooling has ensured that you get guilt-ridden.
This describes ‘middle-class’ life extremely well, IMHO. Your novel Manan sheds light on Indian middle class life in the 1990s. What draws you to portray this in fiction?
MP: This is what I know? I’d left my job to write full time. I was living with my parents in Jaipur, in the very society I had grown up in. Little had changed in people from that generation, while I had found new ways of looking at the familiar. There were no young people around. All my friends had moved to metros, working as they were for MNCs. So I have tasted only bits and pieces of that other life, when I was crashing at their rented apartments for a week or two.’At home, I was surrounded by aunties and uncles, and overhearing fights between our maid and my mother or between park caretaker and school students who want to play football. So no wonder domestic is what I wanted to write about.
Another reason could be the huge impact that my upbringing had on me. Sanskrit, Moral Science, those Speaking Tree and HT Faith columns, mythological shows on TV, Gandhiji’s autobiography – I think I conditioned myself to think that desires were bad and greatness lied in restraint and self-control. And I always wanted to be great. So I struggled a lot during my college years and worked hard at unlearning all the childhood lessons.
Sharing spaces imbued in aroma is intimacy.
Reading this piece, the reader is alerted to the senses that the narrator uses the most in the story. Sight and smell. Any comments?
MP: Probably this helps in emphasizing the artificiality of the experience.
There is always the slight mismanagement in inventory, confusions in purchase offers, multiple billing of a single item, quarrels over accusations of shop lifting and resolution of conflicts by a staff which keeps hands over the shoulders of the conflicted parties and manages to convince in Hindi that it’s fine, things happen, like the times before people read self-help literature in your country.
Here there is a heightened sense of touch. Human contact. Any comments?
MP: I was eating at a Pizza Hut in Noida in 2009 – I mention the year because the service industry in India hadn’t flourished then. So this handsomely dressed young man comes to me with a smile, greets me, offers me the menu card, pours water in a neat, singular flow into one of those typical Pizza Hut glasses. I order something and he even recommends me a combo offer they are running. Soon, he is methodically cutting the pizza, putting a slice on my dish and alerting me of its hotness. Pizza Hut was epitome of great customer service then. Anyway, so an hour later, as I pay my bill and walk towards the parking lot, I see that man dashing out of the kitchen backdoor with another guy. Their ties are loose. They are cigarettes they are lighting/sharing. And he says, ‘Bhench*d, aaj mausam kitna sexy hai’ – or something to that effect, I can’t recall.
In that moment, he was real.
How did you manage to draw the fine line between author and narrator in this story? For aspiring writers who will read this interview, any advice on how important it is to keep in mind what the ‘narrator’ knows as opposed to what the author knows while writing fiction?
MP: It is crucial to not confuse the narrator with the author, for obvious reasons. Stories aren’t mere vehicles to convey your ideas; many writers suggest you write essays if that is your aim.
How not to do it? I used to write at least 3-4 pages of unconscious writing – you know, non-stop writing without so much as lifting the pen from the paper – just to remind myself of what the narrator knows, where the characters are, what has transpired so far, and what might happen next. This exercise is extremely rewarding when there are breaks in writing sessions. Otherwise too, whenever I need to sort out my thoughts, I resort to this exercise.
Perhaps she attributes your unwillingness to the flurry of messages you will receive on your cell phone – hair solutions from Dr. Patra’s Homeopathy Clinic, love solutions from a hip new Indian dating website where Deepika and Natasha are waiting for guys just like you, and repeated shopping alerts from their own store.
I chuckled at ‘where Deepika and Natasha are waiting for guys just like you’. Is writing humour easy for you? (Your article ‘10 Pieces of Advice For Serious Writers’ in Antiserious comes to mind.)
MP: It does come naturally to an extent. As such, I am a funny person who faces at least two embarrassing moments every day because of his awkward and juvenile sense of humour.
In writing, it is much controlled. I think the more I allow the child in me to write, the more imaginative and funny the bits become. If the adult in me is writing (not editing, writing) then, I find, the characters are taking themselves too seriously or are constrained and even cynical.
You have many stories published in various literary magazines.
In your interview with Open Road Review, you said this:
Most literary magazines, in my experience, focus not so much on what writers are saying but how they are saying—how well. For young writers, therefore, these are great platforms to back their whimsical ideas and try things out. The only drawback, as far as online literary magazines are concerned, is that you don’t get pushed to master the skills of story-telling.
How do you suggest young writers get pushed to master the skills of story-telling?
MP: Watch movies. Movies have enormous time and money constraints so the good movies are really great at story telling. Besides, you watch it in a single sitting and so find yourself more involved with the whole what-is-happening-why-it-is-happening-and-what-will-it-lead-to thing. In literature, a single page, sometimes a single sentence can appear complete in itself. I get distracted after reading 3-4 pages – and there is always something on a page to admire or to ponder on.
Tell us about a ‘Eureka’ moment while writing Manan without which the book might not have been possible.
MP: Many! Off the top of my head, I recall reading the first page of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and feeling ecstatic. I couldn’t believe that one can write fiction like that.
You have used sound words in Manan like ‘Tee-dee-dut’ and more. Why?
MP: I don’t know. They just made their way into the prose.
How did readers receive the illustrations in Manan?
MP: I think they loved it. Urmila Shastry has done some real fine work. One downside however was the perception of the novel to potential readers. Many people – including fellow writers – thought that it was a children’s book or a graphic novel. So maybe I lost out on a few readers and found some others.
Hobbies apart from writing/reading?
MP: I play cricket. In fact, might I mention proudly, since last one month I have been practising real hard for an inter-IIM tournament. I also enjoy trekking. I tried my hand at directing short films but I sucked at team management and with handling equipment. So there went a dream crashing.
Is your next book a novel or short story collection?
MP: No clue. I jinxed three books by talking about them. Don’t want to take any more chances.
Tell us a little about working with Writer’s side- your agent and how new writers can benefit from agents like them?
MP: Kanishka is awesome. He is a bit like Batman – he is up all night, he is always keeping a watch over the industry from some hidden vantage point, he is extremely efficient and effective at what he does and nobody knows where he lives. I was fortunate that Kanishka liked Manan. Once he was in, everything else that followed was easy.
The one thing that singularly sets him apart from any other agent is his response time. He can get back to you in hours if he likes what he has skimmed through. Most agents and publishers sit on manuscripts for months.
If you could change one thing in Manan, now. What would it be?
MP: Making Chapter 03 and 05 less self-indulgent. Many readers I noticed took a break from reading when they came to these chapters. When they reached Chapter 06 they got up only after finishing the book. So maybe I did something wrong with pacing there.
How is writing a short story different from a novel for you?
MP: I did not consider myself a short story writer, until recently. Short stories were like net practices for me, a medium to try things out – craft and all – at the cost of earnestness and vulnerability that’s there in real writing. Ahem ahem.
At present, I am not so sure what they mean to me.
MP: Can I list books that influenced me during my college years? The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda, Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Einstein: Life and Times by Ronald Clarke, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig, The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav.
I was 16 when I read Sherlock Holmes and that made me go ‘I know exactly what the author is doing here’. Before Sherlock Homes, Raj Comics were my favourite. Made my imagination fly. I still buy a comic book when I am at a railway station.
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