Interview 11- Tejaswini Apte-Rahm
Tejaswini Apte-Rahm is the author of the short story collection These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape published by Aleph Book Company in December 2016. She is a full-time writer from Mumbai. Her short stories have been published in Himal Southasian (Nepal), BLink (Hindu Business Line, India) The Big Chilli (Thailand), Six Seasons Review (Bangladesh) and The Daily Star (Bangladesh), as well as in Monsoon Midnights, an e-book anthology of stories about Bangkok. Tejaswini worked as an environmental researcher for ten years, during which time she wrote two non-fiction books. She was also a journalist in Mumbai, and has written on cinema, photography and environmental issues for Screen, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Asian Age. She studied at the JB Petit High School for Girls (Mumbai), the United World College of South-East Asia (Singapore), the University of Sussex and the University of Kent (England). Tejaswini has lived in Serbia, Israel, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, spending a year or two in each country with her husband and daughter. Currently she lives in Azerbaijan.
I read your story ‘Sandalwood‘ in BL ink and loved it. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. It will be about your story, the craft of writing and other things literary.
- The story is about abandonment. In stories that I have read on the same theme, usually the person being abandoned stays and the abandoner leaves. The abandoned (like in Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment) is supposed to learn to live with what they always had with only a small yet major change.
(i)Why do you snatch away this whole world of familiarity for our protagonist?
(ii) Will it make her cope better in the long run?
TA: The genesis of the story was the idea that someone can be in your house, and use your house on a regular basis, without your knowing it. I found that a creepy, fascinating thought, and I started to think of ways that someone might do that, and how they might cover up their trail to hide the fact that they have been there. A great dynamic to explore, I felt, would be an abandoned housewife secretly visiting her former home, because she could think of no other way to spend her empty days. The idea was for her to re-enter her comfort zone, though the comfort is now simply an illusion. So it was absolutely necessary for this scenario, that she be dragged out of her world of domesticity.
- There is a sense of voyeurism in the story. As I came to care for the protagonist I realized I did not feel she is wrong in this context. She was the victim here. She was only trying to cope. (Others may see it differently, like it was all her making and she must not play the victim. Free will, boundaries etc.)
I feel when someone undergoes a crisis only they themselves can feel the pain and the way they deal with it, well, who are we to judge? This reminds me of the protagonist T in Neon Noon by Tanuj Solanki who goes to Pattaya after a heartbreak. What do you have to say about this?
TA: I think the sense of voyeurism is what makes the story work, because it creates a creepiness. She is an invisible voyeur, observing her family by being in their midst without them knowing it. And meanwhile, we are watching her watch her family. As far as her being a victim is concerned – yes, of course she is a victim. The most shocking part of the story for me is how easily her children accept her abandonment. But it is equally apparent that she has also disempowered herself over the years, and created the conditions whereby she is so easily turned into a victim.
- What do you think of BL ink’s special fiction issue and how does it help emerging writers to be noticed?
TA: I thought it was a great idea. There are very limited avenues for short story writers to be published in India. You can try to get your work into a literary journal, but the readership remains relatively limited. So for a mainstream newspaper to carry contemporary short fiction is brilliant. I don’t know why newspapers and magazines don’t do so regularly. Surely their readers also enjoy being introduced to the work of new writers. The DNA short story contest is a great initiative, for example.
- Can you tell us about how your short story collection was published by Aleph. Does it have a theme? I have heard that unthemed collections are tougher to place with mainstream literary publishers.
TA: I had sent my short story collection to three different publishers. I had a very quick response from Aleph Book Company, within a few days, saying that they wanted to publish it. Needless to say I was thrilled because Aleph is one of the top publishers of literary fiction and non-fiction in India, with a small, selective list of authors.
When I wrote the stories I did not have any theme in mind. But when I looked at it as a collection, I realized that the stories were rather dark and twisty, often with a dangerous edge to them. I think that is what binds the collection together. As a writer I would not worry about not having a theme to a collection of stories – the main thing is to write honestly and from deep within, even if that means facing uncomfortable truths about yourself. In the end it is the writer’s unique sensibility that will bind a collection together.
- How do you go about constructing a story?
TA: Each story has a different origin. It might be a fragment of an overheard conversation, or an image in a magazine, or just a creepy idea that enters my head and won’t go away – like the idea of someone using your house without your knowing it. For example, the idea for my story Drinks at Seven came from a scene I witnessed in Delhi many years ago – a well-dressed man was standing on the road next to his car and shouting into his phone in the most vile manner, at his wife or girlfriend. It made me wonder what social circumstances this couple might find themselves in, what kind of nastiness their normal life might hide, and why his wife would tolerate that kind of shouting. That man appears in Drinks at Seven right down to his physical description – but transported to the setting of a classy drawing room.
- (i) I think this story defies gender norms because here Chandan/Sandalwood is a man and when the protagonist is replaced by a man the conflict is heightened because he can do everything that the protagonist thought only a woman could do that she could do. She had limited herself to do all that and she had thought it was enough to keep her position stable in the family. But the cruel reality she faces is that it is not so. Any comments?
Also, why did you choose to include a man and not a woman as the ‘other’ person here?
TA: The only reason that the husband’s new lover is a man, is because the dynamic would have been completely different if it had been a woman. The over-riding dynamic would have been one of sexual jealousy of ‘the other woman’. But in this case, since her husband is homosexual, there is no question of sexual jealousy – the wife has been completely knocked out of the running. This suited me perfectly because I was not interested in exploring the theme of jealousy. Secretly entering the house of ‘the other woman’ would have led to a very different story, with a different ending, and characters with very different motivations. From the point of view of the children too, accepting a new mother would have created a totally different dynamic to the relationships within the family.
- That is, till I discovered that I still had the keys to the house buried in my purse.
This line reminded me of Raymond Carver’s story ‘Neighbours’. In the story ‘A couple had the key to their neighbours’ flat and whenever their neighbours went on vacations they would entrust them with the keys to the house. This couple who was left behind would find that they spent too much time in that house to get a taste of their neighbours’ life and when they realize that they might not be able to go into the house again. They get panicked.
I saw this panic at the end of your story too. Any comments?
TA: Yes, there is panic at the end of the story when she realizes she has been found out – but also there is humiliation – and a decision that she needs to make. She has this strange invitation from her husband’s lover to return as often as she wishes, secretly, as long as she does not cook and does not interact with anyone. Is she going to accept? If the answer is yes, it would mean accepting a strange kind of twilight existence where she is present and yet invisible. And if the answer is no, it would mean looking into the abyss of an empty life – and trying to find the strength to create something new out of that darkness.
- Favourite short story writers?
My favourite writers of short fiction are Roald Dahl (for his adult short stories) and Doris Lessing. Both use language with the precision of a knife edge to get to the dark heart of their characters. Dahl is deliciously ruthless in the way he does this. And Lessing is not afraid to look deeply uncomfortable truths in the eye.
- Your story also reminded me of the Bollywood film English Vinglish– the theme of the unappreciated housewife who discovers herself later in life. In your story, the spouse of the housewife feels he has discovered himself. Any comments?
TA: Yes, her husband does discover himself. But that is not the theme of my story. I don’t explore the struggle he may have gone through to arrive at the conclusion that he is homosexual – which is not to be dismissive of it – but he has already discovered his homosexuality long before my story begins. My focus is the selfish and pitiless way in which he constructs a new life for himself. Instead of treating his wife with compassion and care through their separation, he stacks the cards against her.
- The story is set in London. I was thinking of how geography and law plays a huge role in this story. It would have been different had the story been set in India. Any comments?
TA: There would be no way for this particular story to be set in India. For the simple reason that in India there are people everywhere – a scenario in which a woman regularly enters her previous home, unnoticed by anyone, would be impossible.
- As the sub- theme of the story is also sexual orientation, I was also reminded of the film The Danish Girl. In the movie, the wife stays strong like a rock and supports her partner in his journey of transformation. We got to see her unconditional love for her partner but we didn’t get to see her struggle at all.
Your story shows the spouse in focus. Her struggle and again in this context I came to ponder on how time, geography, and legislation affects relationships. What do you think?
TA: I think the passing of time is certainly a focal point of the wife’s struggle. She has let 17 years go by without doing anything to carve out a position of strength or independent identity for herself. Her identity is inextricable from her children and husband. She thinks it is time well-spent – till it turns out that it was in fact time wasted. That is a large part of the horror of the story – there is a chilling finality to the loss of time – it can never be regained.
All too often I’ve seen situations where the wife, even if well educated, slides into a shadow of her former self, content with having no independent identity other than as a mother or wife – leaving her in an incredibly vulnerable position, both psychologically as well as financially. When this situation is transferred to a different country, where the traditional networks and support systems of India are not available to a woman, the vulnerability increases. I don’t mean to say that such marriages are always unhappy or exploitative – but it is equally true that a woman’s lack of independence and empowerment becomes an integral part of the dynamics of a marriage.
- You have had book signings in colleges in Mumbai.
(i)How important are such events for new writers?
(ii) In your interaction with young students, did you gauge their awareness of Indian contemporary fiction? Do they read literary writers?
TA: Interacting with college students was one of the best experiences of my book promotion. There was always a really good vibe in the room, and the students were enthusiastic and engaged in the discussions. Many were aspiring writers. I didn’t get a chance to gauge awareness of Indian contemporary fiction among them, but I would assume they are very well read, given their participation.
For me these events were a validation that the stories in These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape are of interest, and can generate extensive discussion. Connecting with readers is rare for an author – you spend months and years hunched over your desk, so to finally go out and get direct feedback from people is like a tonic. And it gives you a psychological boost to embark on your next writing project.
- Did you intend this as an empowerment story? A ‘read-between-the-lines’ message to women to make something of themselves as opposed to just being a family woman so as to deal better with contingencies such as the one in your story?
TA: No, that was not the intention. Of course, my own opinions will inform my writing – in this case, a frustration at the fact that women often end up disempowering themselves. But writing fiction with a moral or social message in mind never works. Nobody likes to be preached at. My only aim is to make the story as entertaining and thought-provoking as possible. If Sandalwood creeped you out, and kept you hooked up to the end, then I have achieved my aim.
- Do you have a background in literature?
TA: I did a BA in English Literature and Development Studies from the University of Sussex in the UK. Having a degree in literature is obviously not a requirement for writing fiction, but it certainly helps in terms of introducing you to a wide range of authors and genres, and to different ways of seeing.
- Advice to young aspiring writers.
TA: My advice is to read and write as much as possible. Develop a writing schedule – don’t write only when you feel like it. A story or novel will not come gushing out of you just because you feel inspired – the inspiration has to be harnessed to discipline and writing techniques, which can only come through writing practice and wide reading. You have to be prepared to throw away what you’ve written and start again. This is essential for experimenting with creative decisions such as what narrative voice to use, or even what genre to write in.
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Buy her short story collection on Amazon