Interview 8- Sharanya Manivannan

 

Sharanya Manivannan’s latest book is The High Priestess Never Marries (Harpercollins India, 2016), a collection of stories on women, solitude and desire which was shortlisted for the Tata Lit Live! First Book Award (Fiction). She is also the author of a book of poems, Witchcraft, and a children’s picturebook, The Ammuchi Puchi. 

In this interview, we will be discussing her short story collection, her thoughts on marriage and more.


1- Most of your stories from the collection are published in online journals.  Did your publication credentials play a pivotal role in your MS acceptance at Harper?

It was actually poetry that brought me to HarperCollins India. At the end of 2013, I got a note from ManasiSubramaniam, who had just moved to HCI at the time from Karadi Tales in Chennai, where I had previously worked with her on an audiobook for children. She asked if I had a poetry manuscript for her. It was mid-2015 by the time I did, but a beautiful and miraculous thing happened: I finished both the poetry manuscript (The Altar of the Only World) and a manuscript of short stories (The High Priestess Never Marries) within a couple of months of one another.

I was given a choice about which I wanted to have published first. Most of the stories from the collection are not online actually, although several vignettes are. Many of the most substantial ones (such as “Conchology, “Cyclone Crossing” and “Sweetness, Wildness, Greed”) have never been published anywhere else. But what is true is that many years of publishing poetry, fiction as well as columns and other prose in various places did bring my work to the attention of both readers and publishers.

I would recommend that to anyone who writes: send your work to journals as you work on a lengthy manuscript, otherwise it will be very difficult to get noticed from the slush pile.


2- The prose drips with carnal desire. What motivated you to write on this theme?

I see desire not as a means to an end, both on the page and off it, but as a way of being. I know what most people think of here is the eroticism in my work, but I expand my definition of desire to cover all states of longing.

There’s a passage in the story “Corvus” that encapsulates this: “The one thing I know to be true is not that love is all there is, or that everything dies. It is that everybody has want. It’s a tiny nerve, a vein of gypsum, that runs through everything—everyone—and sometimes I see someone else’s so clearly that it catches me by the throat. In every place I have been in the world I have looked at people and seen right through into their lives, into the one true thing for which this wretched bittersweet is worth enduring, and I have broken into pieces at the recognition of it. It’s the smallest thing. The smallest, smallest, smallest thing.”

But I’m not going to shy away from the eroticism in my writing. It’s there, and why not? It isn’t there to titillate. It’s there, like everything else, only to tell the truth.


3- What is your idea of feminism and according to which story in your collection portrays that idea the best?

This is a nicely challenging question, because so many of the stories are deeply feminist in my view. Even when the character in question isn’t necessarily a feminist herself, her choices reveal something about the effect of the patriarchal paradigm on women. Like the married women and how they choose to operate within that scaffolding.  And then there are the wild, petal-soft and trauma-toughened women of “Corvus” and “Sandalwood Moon”, for instance.

The latter story contains the genesis of the book, this line: “And if I could not teach you how to love, I would teach myself how to live alone”. But I’m ultimately drawn to the narrator of “Ancestress”. She tells the story of the goddess Kanyakumari, who is deserted on the day of her wedding, and about how she herself – an ordinary human with her ordinary human loneliness – ritualistically marries her own ancestral goddess. I’d pick that story because it is so completely about devotion and self-possession and purpose in the world. And these are the things that inform my feminism.

The author Tanuj Solanki discussed with me in another interview how my women seem to be feminists not in response to a patriarchal paradigm but as a natural state. I agree. The Sanskrit word “swayambu”, or self-manifested, comes to mind. Fighting the system from within is passé. Things have evolved: free yourself.


4- Have you ever been told not to write so boldly like women are often told not to do many things?

Absolutely. Like any woman, I have been told to not be, not do, not love, not live.


5- Do you feel contemporary Indian fiction in English lacks anything and does your book fill the void in any way?

I actually think that, when you include all the work that is being translated from other Indian languages, Indian fiction in English is quite diverse. I’m not sure if there’s a particular void my book fills, even though I’ve been experimental both in terms of story lengths and language.


6- When one reads your collection, there is a feeling that all stories are of the same woman. One woman. How often have you been asked if they are autobiographical and do you like the question?

To be honest, how I respond to the question depends a lot on how I respond to the person asking it. If I sense voyeurism of any kind, I bristle. If I sense sincerity, I am more forthcoming. While biographically the women differ, there is certainly something similar about most of them at their core. And I share that core with them, if not always the details. I’ve never been married (“Afternoon Sex”), I’ve never had children (“Cyclone Crossing”), and god knows I haven’t committed murder while literally having sex (“Sky Clad” and “Salomé”), so sometimes the question is odd. Ultimately, I think that intangible core is what makes the book cohesive. Our circumstances are not who we are, there’s something deeper in each of us that informs our every stirring, our every step.


7- Indian women writers who have influenced your style?

Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things opened my world. I read it when I was 14. The language was exquisite, and I think that was one of the first books that made me sure that a wide vocabulary was no hindrance to simple storytelling. But my influences are wider than only women or Indian writers.

I’d be remiss to not say that I educated myself on a literary canon of women writers of colour. Among them: Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich and so many more.

And men: Michael Ondaatje, for example. What would my work, my world, have been without his? AK Ramanujam’s bhakti and Sangam translations were another experience that expanded my heart and mind when I was much younger. For someone who reads as widely as I do, it’s reductive to name only Indian women as influences or favourites.


8- What led you to start penning stories? A person?A book?

I loved books from before I could read to myself, and loved them even more once I could. I started to write poems when I was 7 years old, and still experience the headiness of it. To be able to feel a thing and to give words to it – it’s intoxicating, and it made me feel powerful even as a child.


9- I got the sense from your stories that you have paid emphasis to each line of each story. And a single line can be so profound, it is obvious much introspection has gone into framing it. Like this:

‘there was one man who seemed to discover the eloquence of kissing the hand, because the way he then took mine and did the same suggested unfamiliarity, wonder, the simplicity of imitation. I would later grieve thinking about the other women he would confer the same upon, this tenderness I had given him. As though anything in any of us is truly new, unclaimed.’

-Corvus

Any comments?

Every line, yes. I’m a poet at heart, and always will be.


10- The vocabulary in your book is rich. I have never heard of some of the words.

Do you think of an ideal reader when you write your stories/Are you concerned about losing readers for the complex language?

I can only write a story in the ways I know how, and my large vocabulary and my belief that every word has its place are tools for the telling. Just as if I were to narrate something to you over a kitchen table, my eyes would speak, my voice would reveal, and my hands and the tactile sensation would finely detail the story. Those tools aren’t there when it’s between a reader and a book, when the printed word is all there is. For me, the honest desire of a story to exist, to be spoken, to be seduced onto the page, is the only guiding light I concern myself with.

I wrote a children’s book, The Ammuchi Puchi, that didn’t get published for several years because the language was too heavy for a picturebook (it was eventually released by Lantana Publishing – in the same month as The High Priestess Never Marries!). For it too, it was the same thing. I can only tell a story as I know how to tell it. I trust that every reader the story will encounter will share my heart. Even though I know that isn’t true, but I write and release my work into the world in that good faith.


11- I would like to discuss the title story a bit.

(i) As the context of the story is set in India. I would like to know your thoughts about the way ‘marriage’ is looked at in India?

(ii) Do you think it is necessary for a woman to be married? If not, why?

I’ll answer the second question first, and simply: obviously not. Choosing to marry because you are investing in property together, having children together and so on make sense to me from a legal framework. But seeing marriage as a necessary life step, a life goal if you will, does a very dangerous thing to one’s sense of self.

Historically, marriage everywhere had a practical function rooted in hegemonies. Did you know that only 2% of Indian marriages are inter-caste? That’s the primary criteria (religion is already implied), followed by class. This means that even those who believe themselves to be liberated subconsciously toe the line. I think we’re in deep denial about how bigoted we are in this country, on so many levels: religion, class, caste, language, skin colour, eating habits, gender. And we’re unable to see that matrimony isn’t just about two people or even two families. It maintains and enforces political and social status quos.

Public discourse is very cowardly. We’ve speak about how marriage is difficult for women without actually interrogating the institution itself. As long as we don’t do this, the problems that women have faced for centuries: dowry, giving up one’s career, moving into the man’s home with his parents, being responsible for childcare, etc, will be the same one’s that we’re working out. It’s also necessary to delink sexuality and marriage completely, which we haven’t done. We’re still talking about pre-marital and extra-marital instead of removing the word “marital” from the equation altogether. And the social unit of the family itself needs to change its focus from this new rallying cry of raising strong daughters to raising kind sons.

I’m totally unimpressed by what is popular in Indian cities these days: the “arranged-cum-love” marriage. What a complete oxymoron. What it means is that you are casually introduced to someone of your own background, already vetted through subtle and overt cues. You perform together for six months or a year, presenting the social impression that you are dating. When in fact, there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over your head: you know you were informally engaged to this person from the day you met them.When that six month or one year milestone arrives and your families are about to make a public announcement or put down a deposit on a wedding hall, can you say No? Only technically. In actuality, the pressure makes it very difficult. This is how marriage has evolved in urban India for my generation, which is why the next generation will comprise of so many children whose parents are divorced. That’s the generation that will hopefully make a more meaningful change.

All this being said, the title story of “The High Priestess Never Marries” was such fun to write. I’ve loved hearing people laugh out loud as they read it or heard me read it to them. I think it surprises people that such a heavy title belongs to such a light-hearted story. But it does. The High Priestess never marries because she has better things to do, babe.


12- Your book has received great reviews. When you were writing it, did you anticipate a negative feedback- the ‘morality’ of the protagonists questioned?

I never expected the warmth with which The High Priestess Never Marries has been received. Even when we were in the final stage of proofreading, I couldn’t get enough distance from the manuscript to be able to see it objectively. All I saw was my vulnerability, my blood, my desire to hold my heart up as a torch to light my own way and anyone else’s. There were pieces no one had ever seen other than me and my editors; I was so close to it that even my dearest friends hadn’t read some of it.

There is moral policing, yes. I come from a conservative and dysfunctional background, and I live in a conservative city, so I am used to being morally policed. And I’ve always fought it but I would be dishonest if I said it hasn’t at the very least left scratches on me. That will happen despite all the positive responses to the book. But there is another type of moral-shaming that also takes place, which disguises itself cleverly. The book received one sexist review by a male critic, who tried to dismiss it by saying that it contains no mythology or history and is preoccupied with the body.

Can you imagine – a book which contains Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, Sara-la-Kali of the Romani people, Lilitu and Inanna of ancient Sumeria, the Biblical Salome, Kali in coitus with the corpse of Shiva, the Shivalingam not as penetration but as birth, Kanyakumari as an abandoned bride, Narasimhar placing his bride on his benediction-bloodied lap, rarely heard narratives of women mourners and women honeyhunters… and much more! – being charged with this? The reason is sleazily simple: if one is unable to situate a woman’s body as the site of its own stories and histories, if one’s gaze only clocks her as an object of pleasure – ah, how much else is unseen, unexperienced.


13- I enjoy reading contemporary Indian fiction. I have to admit I haven’t seen women portrayed in the way they are in your book. Do you think India is ready for such women?

We will live and love and die with or without that sanction. We always have. We always will.


14- I feel your stories have a perfect union of content and form.

Content:  Short stories about relationships that do not materialise into something significant or that most people would consider failures.

Form: Stories without a beginning, middle or and end.

We often wonder after a failed relationship. Oh what was that for? Or after reading a story, oh what was that about?

Your stories have used content and form very well to portray your theme.

Example: It’s not necessary they should lead to something like a conventional end to a love story- A marriage.

It could just be about their memories.

Any comments?

What a lovely question. I do feel that The High Priestess Never Marries is a book of love stories that subverts the romance genre. It puts the woman at the centre of the story – her emotions, her personality, her weaknesses, her choices – and the end goal isn’t to attain another person’s partnership, but to build a sense of belonging for herself that isn’t tethered to external variables. The emotional project of independence isn’t something we often discuss. We talk about it in terms of financial liquidity, qualifications, the fulfillment you get from your job, the ability to travel if you choose, the free time you have and how you spend it, the friendships you forge. But I’ve seen over and over again how, given a chance to have that coveted romantic partnership (or frankly, just the social legitimacy of matrimony), people will give all those things up. The investment in selfhood is revealed to have actually been quite shallow, a waystation. It’s very demanding to shake off the deep conditioning that makes us this way. My life has forced me to do so, and I’m now deep enough into my own emotional project to be able to say confidently – another way is possible.


15- Tell us a little about how your ‘traditional’ autograph came about. Your sign with a smooch.

I’ve been signing that way since my first book, Witchcraft, came out in 2008. I love flamboyance and romance (there’s a line in The High Priestess Never Marries: “I like my fights dirty, my vodka neat and my romance anachronistic”), but even more than that, I love connection. Someone told me at my book launch in Chennai that I take way too long to sign each book – a press of lipstick, their name, a quote and sometimes a note, my name and sometimes a little chat or a hug – but it’s a gesture of gratitude and a personal touch. Everything I make, I make with love. You don’t have to like what I make, but you can’t deny the love I put into it.


16- What is your next book?

The Altar Of The Only World, which I mentioned earlier, comes out with HarperCollins India in 2018. It’s a book of poems that began with Sita in solitude, musing deep in the forest. She looks up at the night sky and watched Lucifer’s fall from grace – cast out of heaven because like her, he was too devoted. And in the stirrings in the underbelly of the Earth, there is Inanna – who demanded to be allowed into the underworld, and was stripped of everything before she got there. It’s a book of poems about grace and resurrection.


17- You are a poet and now a fiction writer. Which is easier to sink in for you like one does into a mother’s arms?

Poetic prose is now the domain where my creativity flows.


 18- Tell us a little about your experience writing non-fiction: your column for the New Indian Express- The Venus Flytrap and about how the title of your column came about.

One day, when I was a 22 year old blogger, the then editor-in-chief of The New Indian Express emailed me and asked if I was interested in writing for the new weekend edition they were launching. I came up with the name of the column in large part because of a Tori Amos quote: “I use innocence in my demeanor like a venus flytrap”. The name has grown with me, as has the column. I’m no longer an ingénue and I no longer plead innocence. I’m not afraid of my own bite. It has been a real gift to be able to write a newspaper column. The first installment ran from 2008 to 2011, when that supplement closed. Then, in 2015 I bumped into one of my former editors, who had also rejoined the paper, and she was revamping the Chennai city supplement, and asked if I wanted to start the column again. Of course I did!

I actually think more about my newspaper readers than I do about the ones who pick up my poetry or fiction while in the process of writing to them. Yes, to them and not for them. This is because with poetry and fiction, I know that whatever the ultimate response is, my words are in their hands because they sought them out. Not always so for a newspaper – a person may be flipping pages at the dentist’s office, or may be looking for the movie listings, or may be interested in the sports section. How do I reach that reader whose eye falls on my column? How do I make the three minutes they spend with me worth their while? What can I do with the platform that will help make the world a better place: whether that’s through a sociopolitical statement I’m making that makes them think, or through an anecdote I’m sharing that moves them in some way?


19- There is a sense of culture in each story in the collection- folklore, tamil words etc. Do you see the freedom to own your romantic relationships different from Indian culture?

I have often heard this line: This is not part of our culture.

Be it any lifestyle choice- dating or drinking. I feel you have weaved the essence of what we inherit and imbibe as humans very well here. Any comments?

We totally misunderstand what culture is, because it’s actually an evolving thing – neither monolithic nor stuck in the past. I think Tamil culture today is Tamil cinema, to be honest. It’s misogynistic to the bone, often incoherent, suffers an inferiority complex but damn aren’t those songs beautiful. Indian culture on the whole, on the meanwhile, has been taken over by the Hindutva juggernaut, and we’re all getting crushed under it. Are these things to be proud of? Or here’s a better question: why are people proud of these things?

So I don’t want to hark back to any kind of nostalgia about what culture is. I don’t want to talk about Sangam poetry or the Khajuraho sculptures or all the sexing and partying in mythology as a means of proving my point. Those are some cultural artifacts. They live on in many ways, but they live alongside what is in the present. So if people say dating or drinking are not a part of Indian culture, yet so many Indian people do both, then I can only surmise this: lying about it, being hypocritical about it, that certainly is a part of our current cultural milieu. Those are the values actually being encouraged. To connect culture to politics: not integrity or plurality, but hatred and dishonesty.


20- A Tamil Brahmin friend told me that in a traditional Tamil Hindu Brahmin wedding when the girl is given to the boy. It is said that ‘this girl is donated to you. This is the biggest donation ever.’ And that a girl is supposed to give up worshiping the Gods she used to worship before marriage and now be loyal to the Gods her husband worships. For me, this seemed like a whole different level of giving up your name after marriage.

Correct me if I’m wrong. What’s your view on it?

Wedding customs are very problematic in many cultures, because marriage itself in an inherently patriarchal idea. In so many cultures, fathers give away brides (as if they are property), women are made to wear markers like nuptial chains and toe-rings to indicate their unavailability, women are made to vow to “obey”, etc. Feminists can challenge these rituals on a simple level, by refusing to participate or improvising them. For instance, I have worn both metti (nuptial toe-rings) and sindoor at the parting of my hair, traditional wedding markers, despite never having married, just because I like the way they look – and I’ve shocked many people by doing so. (I’ve also never married, and I’ve shocked many people by doing so too.)

But your question allows me to propose a much deeper solution, which is ultimately the only one. Indian marriage functions essentially for the sake of caste endogamy, which is why Indian feminism has not gone as far as it can. Which is to say: if women who have the privilege of not giving up caste as a personal identifier choose not to do, their feminism is not intersectional and therefore suspect. There is a clear political distinction between – just to use your example – a woman who identifies as Brahmin versus a woman who is from a Brahmin background. There has been some interesting new scholarship on the fact that upper caste feminists routinely centre gender-based caste discourse on what happens to women of, or in, other backgrounds as a means of obfuscating the fact that Brahminical patriarchy is controlled by their own kith and kin, who do not need to engage in literal violence in order to perpetuate and benefit from it. I’ve personally experienced how calling out the use of caste markers “instead of” talking about violence between castes far lower on the hierarchy invites their tone policing. So here’s a suggestion: want to truly shake up sexist marital customs? Marry outside the caste you were born in!


21- In this video interview you mention different forms of love- absent love,  requited love, love lost, love demanded, love envisioned, love unforeseen, challenging love, quiet love, ancestral love, the love of the world itself, both given and received…

This categorizing of love left me speechless. How do you think it is easy for you to distinguish one from another? Experience?

The distinguishing actually comes from acknowledgement of their ultimate union. Love is love is love is love. I think what differentiates one kind from another is circumstantial, and what determines its evolution from those circumstances (its consequences, if you will) is action. We call it “choice” but it’s not always conscious. How do we choose to act in the presence of love, how do we choose to act in its absence? These are the things that make us who we are.


22- You also mention in the interview that Frida Kahlo is your inspiration. I love her self-portraits. The first story in your collection is titled ‘Self-portrait without mythology’. Most of your stories in the collection feel like a conscious recording of people met, conversations had, memories shared, habits imbibed etc. overall forming the person, the protagonist herself. Body, soul and mind.Any comments?

I’ve loved Frida Kahlo a long, long time. She kissed her love letters, you know, and I kiss my books goodbye as they say hello to their readers. I think there are many things I do because I was influenced by her from my teens onward, and the reason she had that effect on me was because I identified both with her flamboyance and her perseverance.

I titled the first story as “Self-Portrait Without Mythology” because telling the truth of who we are, telling our own stories to ourselves and claiming them, is the vital first step of that emotional project we talked about earlier. “Mythology” here means something that is unlikely to be factual, and is only symbolic. In this vignette, a young woman considers the facts of her life, what has filled it and how she fills it, and holds the wisdom she knows close. Among these facts is the unknown but foreseen, the ethos and encapsulation of all of her life still to come.

You could say this piece sets the core that unites all the characters the book contains.


23- Any advice to young aspiring women writers in India and the diaspora?

Be brave and be kind, for it will imbue all you do with grace. If you cannot strike a balance between the two, you are failing at one or both, so check yourself. And read – my goodness, this cannot be said enough. Read so much that you don’t even see the point of writing your own books. And then, if words still wake you up in the night demanding to be inked, do it. That’s the only way you’ll say something true.

I’d say that advice was meant for everyone, not just women. But here’s something specifically for women – eschew all legacy except this one: you come from a long line of illiterates. You are among the first few generations who can perform this miracle: turning thought to word to script. Forget everything else if you must, but not this. It will guide you and all you do.


* * *

You can buy her book here


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Interview 7- Manu Bhattathiri

Interview 7- Manu Bhattathiri

Manu Bhattathiri, a writer from Bangalore (originally from Kerala) has written the critically acclaimed ‘Savithri’s special Room and other stories’ published by Harper Collins India in 2016 which has received positive reviews on popular platforms like The Hindu, Hindustan Times, The Hindu Business Line, Spark Magazine, Deccan Herald, New Indian Express etc.

It was longlisted for the TATA lit live award 2016.
His stories are set in the fictional town of Karuthupuzha. The town of Karuthupuzha is loosely modeled on Cherupoika, a small village near Kollam in South Kerala.

Some of his stories have been published in The Caravan, The Bombay Literary Magazine among others. His next book- a novel is due from Aleph later this year.

In this interview, we will be discussing his short story collection, his dogs, the craft of writing and much more.

manuIMG_1440.JPG

Hello Manu, I decided to read your collection after reading two of your wonderful short stories online. The Cold in The Caravan and The Biggest Enemy of Rain in The Bombay literary magazine.


1-What do you think of literary magazines?

I believe literary magazines do the wonderful job of reaching meaningful writing to the masses in easy, economical and convenient ways. And yet they’re perhaps not flourishing as much as the political ones. I think more needs to be done to publicize them and reach them to the right audiences.


2- Your stories always have an omniscient narrator.

(i)Why?

Having an omniscient narrator helps me move back and forth between the heads of people (and things!) in a free manner. It makes my writing, how shall I say, more fulfilling and energized. So no part of a story is a mere ‘filler’ and nothing is told only to make up the book’s ‘structure’. Every element of these stories comes alive and has character when I drift between them. It’s a great feeling to give life to bits of imagination.


(ii) How challenging was it w.r.t how far would you take the reader into the character’s head ( even the non-living things like a chair)?

I would say it takes a lot of dexterity to change hats between sentences, but it sure is fun. The trick is partly to stay invisible; to not make your own – the writer’s own – personality and character seep into the stuff you are describing. In that respect it is challenging, but once it flows … well, it flows.


3- (i) Why a fictional place for your stories?

To be honest, a fictional town makes me less accountable. I can wander with my imagination without having to be factually correct. No one is going to say, “But there is no bus stop at that junction, he’s got it all wrong”, or worse, “In this particular town the Communists haven’t held sway for the last forty years; he’s pushing his own agenda.” Factual correctness and anachronisms are my nightmare.

Another thing is, an entirely fictional place is very stimulating to the imagination. Now, after writing two books on Karuthupuzha, I actually have the place in my head – the bus stand with its one bus, the market place, the river to the west, even many of the side-streets. It’s very satisfying to know that you created it all!


(ii) Your stories are satirical. Do you think setting it in real place would have made the readers take it more seriously?

I don’t see too much to be gained by basing my canvas on a ‘real’ place. In any case, my effort has been to go deeper into people’s natures, to be more original in my humor and to be truly inventive with my plot and not so much to accurately portray any place. If you see, the town of Karuthupuzha is only a background to the people and happenings. The satire, at least in most places, would hold good for anyone from any part of the world.


4- Every main protagonist in each of your stories has a unique characteristic. How challenging was it and why did you choose to use that trope?

I have not imagined Karuthupuzha as a place with a lot of peculiar people. These are just ordinary people upon whom the camera has been held in unusual close-up. In life, too, when you look at the most ordinary person very closely, his individual peculiarities show up and are often extremely amusing. I knew a milkman once who loved milk and drank it on the way to distributing it, so much so that he lost a lot of business! He was a very routine character from the outside. But look at the quirk when you really get to know him.


5- Can you tell us a little about the cover photo. I understand it was inspired by a painting from your friend/business partner?

Yes, my friend and business partner Sudhir had first painted Savithri’s special chamber; the room where grandmothers in Kerala store grain and food items. He had painted it realistically, and I have that masterpiece hung on a wall in my house. In his picture there was a window through which light entered the otherwise dark room. The artist here has borrowed that window and given it a surreal feel with the fish swimming about. Many people have remarked that the cover is curious and welcoming.


6- Your portrayal of a small town in Kerala is intriguing.

(i) Was it a longing for a home you never knew? In a way like immigrant writers long for their home.

Yes, it is born of a lot of childhood longing, I would say. It’s not a home I never knew, though. It is the home of my grandparents, in a little village called Cherupoika in Kollam district. But I got to visit this place only during my school holidays, and I never had enough of staying in this land of stories and funny people and great food. In retrospect I would say childhood longing is a precursor to a good imagination.


(ii) I noticed the usage of stereotypes like coconut, tapioca etc. in your description of Karuthupuzha. This reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk. The danger of the only story. Do you think your collection resembles the notion of Kerala that others have of it or differs from it? What was your aim?

This is more to do with my lack of a conscious effort to be too different in the particulars. I write easily, without much intent really, and when that is your method of painting Kerala, you get the same old Kerala! Kerala is about coconut trees and achappams and tapioca. After a million descriptions the unniappams still taste unique. But what I have tried to make truly different are my style and characterization.


7- The humour in your stories is laugh out loud funny. Did you start looking at life with a laugh after the difficult phase in your life which you talk about in this article?

Well, I have always had a funny way to look at the world. I can observe things deeply and yet amusedly, and that, I believe, lets me write without taking myself too seriously. The incident described in the article was, indeed, a turning point, yes, but my humor was around always. In fact I sometimes think that it’s because the world is so funny that I came back to it after my illness.


8- What was your biggest challenge in writing interlinked stories? Does it require meticulous planning? (This question came to me when I met your protagonist from ‘The Cold’ in another story in the collection.)

In the case of this collection there was absolutely no planning. I would just get an idea (very often when I was talking to my wife) and sit about writing the story, without knowing how it advances or how it ends. It would be loosely based on some character I knew or had heard about. But as the stories progressed I was able to integrate characters from previous stories by happy coincidence.

But I don’t think that is the way at all. For future writing I think I will carefully put the plot down first. In fact, for my next book, the novel, I wrote down a synopsis first – a chapterwise summary that gave me a skeleton to work on. Of course, many of the characters (most, in fact) were still born outside of this summary, but the structure of the book is tighter. So I think working on the plot is good.


9- Did you decide on a themed collection keeping publication in mind? I have heard that themed collections have a better chance at acceptance than a collection of unrelated stories.

Not really, because I had already got a publisher before I wrote all the stories. HarperCollins and Aleph had reached out after reading the two stories in The Caravan magazine. I’m very thankful to them, because I had the freedom to write the stories easily, therefore, without worrying about what might please a publisher.


10- Tell us a little of how your story ‘The Cold’ got accepted at the caravan.

I had written The Cold just like that, without any intention of publishing it. I then sent it to a friend of mine, Moyna Mazumdar, who is an editor at a publishing house. I just wanted to amuse her with it. After sending it I promptly had a bit of a fight with her about some silly ideology argument, and we went into sulk mode for some time. But then, one morning I get a mail from Chandrahas Choudhury, Editor of The Caravan’s fiction section, saying Moyna had sent my story to him and that he would love to run it! I was overjoyed and needless to say, Moyna and me became great friends again. I still disagree with her often, hoping she’ll help me find publishers for future works.


11- You were longlisted for the Tata Lit Live award recently. How do such awards help Indian writers?

Awards are always an encouragement for new writers. They kind of attest that you are good. But I feel what one needs to remember is, when you’re writing you don’t write for a jury. So I guess if you don’t win the award, don’t be too disappointed!


12- I loved the title story. Can you tell us why you chose the particular anti-climax?

In the title story I wished to bring out the unique characteristics of a type of woman not found anywhere anymore, in my experience – the grandmother whose entire life was a sacrifice. It’s totally based on my own grandma, my Ammoomma, who was neither educated nor very intelligent. She was animal-like to the extent that she only knew how to love. No one even knew what her secret disappointments were, or if she even had her own choices in things. The depths of her love and sacrifice might be immeasurable to us. In telling her story I needed to convey her longing for her grandson’s visit, her unthinking faith in the gods and the religion given to her to follow, her total compliance with whatever destiny brought her and the resilience with which she always got back to her routine; this routine was more sacred to her than her own desires and happiness!


13- You have a novel coming out by Aleph. Can you tell us a little about it? Your first book is critically acclaimed. What are your anticipations regarding your second?

Yes I have a Karuthupuzha novel set to be out end of this year or the beginning of the next. A few of the characters you have already met will occupy centre stage there, but a whole new cast will accompany them. Among a lot of fun there you might find the one theme of society-versus-individual flowing like the black river throughout the story. It’s the first novel I have written, and that is my main anticipation – I hope it is received as well as the stories. The writing of it has been quite different from the writing of the stories; it had to be a lot more planned and methodical. The characterization had to receive a lot more thought as it is more in-depth and detailed than in the short stories.


14- You have studied literature. How has it contributed to your writing?

I think general reading – however ardent and however well-chosen – will not measure up to the systematic study of literature. Studying literature as a course has irreplaceable benefits. In my case it has given me the power to objectively access my own work, and that is its main contribution. I can read a story that I have written and evaluate it critically when I read it a little later, say how it fares in the general context of stories out there and decide if the file is worth saving or not.


15- Another story of your collection ‘The Wife’s Leg’ was also published in The Caravan. I had a doubt about the ending. You said that you have received most questions about it from readers and that you don’t know the answer either.

What would you call this ‘not knowing’ about the creative process?

Yes, many friends have asked me, “What happened to Amminikutty after that?” and “What kind of a person was she really? What really went on in her head?” and all that. In fact my own wife suggests that I explore her side in another story. Perhaps …

I think the ‘not knowing’ is not just perfectly alright, it’s quite a necessity at times. A writer presents a slice of life; a slice, not the complete thing. He sees something in his head and for it to be natural and true to his imagination there ought to be a lot of things he hasn’t seen, or will see later when he specifically looks for them. I know Amminikutty only to the extent I have seen her so far. I could look deeper and dig her nature up further, but that’s the stuff of another story. In this context I have always found something very curious since college days – In Othello, there’s no reference to Desdemona’s mother at all. Is the mother dead? Is she away somewhere? I think the truth is, whatever happened to the mother, Shakespeare hasn’t seen her, and that’s that. (Always made me wonder what would be Desdemona’s nature if she had a mother to light her way; would she be quite so tactless then?)


16- Writers who have influenced you?

Several, but when you ask now the three names that come up are Dostoevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Twain. I keep revisiting these three gentlemen.


17- What are you reading at the moment?

I usually keep two books by my bedside – one fiction and the other something on brain science or astronomy or something. Right now, however, both are fiction. I’m reading the wonderful Light in August by William Faulkner, and taking breaks in between with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.


18- You met your wife when studying literature. How has she contributed to your career as a writer?

My wife and I are proof that method and madness will fall in love. I literally owe my life to the leash she keeps me on. On a less serious note, she is always my first reader. She patiently goes through my work and her suggestions usually inspire me to write more. But her main contribution to my career has been her selfless love which creates the environment to write. There, now it’s alright if she reads this interview!


19- Advice you would give to young aspiring writers.

I would begin by saying I haven’t come too far from being an aspiring writer myself, though maybe not a very young one anymore. But that doesn’t stop me from telling one thing to all aspiring writers – come unshackled. If you are born to be a writer then you have wings, so do not build a cage around yourself. I see that people become victims of style, trends, even thoughts and isms, and it gives them writing cramps. Invent your own words if you need, be mad with your plot and create your own technique. You can read others all you like – you must – but when you’re writing, be on your own. I think originality and spontaneity are becoming scarce in the writing of our times.


20- You have two dogs, Yippee and Tuffy. How have they contributed to Karuthupuzha? When I observed the personification of nature in the books, my first thought was, he does it so well because of the dogs. Haha.

Well yes, honestly. Sitting with Yippee and Tuffy often reminds me that we are part of nature too. We have just come so far away with our sophistry that we forget to be curious. A dog is quite as curious about a new toy as about a UFO. To him stones and leaves and rabbits and humans are all equally alive and exciting! My dogs make me very happy, energized and connected to the world outside the musty elevator of human beings. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that all writers must keep dogs.


About your short story ‘The Biggest Enemy of Rain’ in The Bombay Literary Magazine

The following paras are from your story.

But the romance in his head vaporized somewhat when Kavitha polished a shocking amount of rice, more pieces of fried chicken than a man could eat and three ice-creams of different flavours. He could see the waiters, who were his subordinates, nudge each other and giggle and build a story for later.

This behavior was borne out of one curious trend, which I have seen in many of our families. Gopi, too, learned it soon after his marriage. It was simply that his wife Kavitha had a mother who had always taught her, right from when she was very small, that the whole point of a girl’s life was to get married. You needed to work towards it, she said. You needed to observe certain rules. Eat less so that you don’t put on weight, talk softly as becomes a girl of good upbringing, do not show your teeth while laughing, do not stare at people however curious they make you, avoid talking or laughing loudly in the presence of young men, always show an interest in womanly duties like washing vessels and cleaning the table, never come out of your room in the morning without taking a bath first, and many more. Her mother told her that it was tough observing all these, yes, but the reward was that you needed to observe them only until you were married. The moment you tied the knot – provided you tied it on the right man – you were free. All the effort towards getting a good husband would have paid off then, and you had a lifetime of relaxation ahead.

Now that Kavitha was married, she was free. During the months following the wedding Gopi saw that his wife was exercising her newfound freedom almost every moment, rapidly letting go the beautiful, nubile girl he had fallen for.


1- Please tell us your motive behind using this in the story. It is one of my favourites. Made me laugh out loud.

My motive, as always, has been what I have observed in my own family and in others. This actually happens, at least in Kerala. It was more pronounced may be until the 80s, but it still does happen that mothers kind of ‘train’ their daughters so that they are ‘good girls’ in the marriage market. And indeed, the poor girl does feel immensely free once she is married and very often her newfound freedom is hilariously visible.

You know, when we were kids we could say “Statue” to a friend and then he had to stand like a statue and not move at all even if we slapped him. It was a game. Our marriages were like that. The critical buildup is till the knot is tied. In the game of marriage, after the knot is tied there’s no going back. It’s hilarious how in our films the villain sometimes kidnaps the girl and forcibly ties the knot. Once it’s tied she cannot do anything. He has said his “Statue”!


Thank you!

Buy his book here

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Two very useful articles on ‘Getting Published In A Literary Magazine’

This article titled ‘The Ultimate Guide To Getting Published In A Literary Magazine‘ by Lincoln Michel is very useful for new writers.

Lincoln is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, an awesome literary website.

Highlights of the article:

  • Emerging writers should keep in mind that online is forever. If you publish your early work in a print magazine, a few years down the line it will basically disappear unless you choose to include it in a future collection. If you get to be an established writer, only someone willing to go plough through the stacks of a university’s library archives is going to see it.

 

  • It’s nice to get a lot of publishing credits, but honestly, after a couple, they don’t really matter unless the work is good. I’ve seen some writers who published seemingly 50 pieces a year in decent journals, yet who took forever to sell a book because the work was rushed and uneven. 

 

Another article is ‘How to Submit Your Writing to Literary Magazines’  by the editorial team of Neon literary magazine is amazing.

Highlights of the article:

  • The first step is to find a magazine that you’d like to be published in, and which publishes the kind of thing you write.

 

  • If, however, the guidelines provided by the magazine have nothing to say about how you should format your work, you can use standard manuscript format. Rather than providing a long description of standard manuscript format, I’ll instead refer you to the expert. William Shunn is the definitive source on manuscript preparation, and on his site you’ll find easy-to-follow instructions on how to format your work.

 

  • A few magazines will ask you to paste your work into the main body of the email, rather than sending it as an attachment. This is easy to do, but can cause problems. Your perfectly formatted manuscript can end up looking a mess once you’ve transferred it to an email.To prevent this, copy and paste the text from your manuscript into Notepad (or another basic text editor). Then copy and paste it again from there into the email. This strips away unnecessary formatting, and ensures a clean and tidy result. You might need to play around with the spacing while you have the text in Notepad, but this little extra effort is very much worth the result.