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.
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.
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”!
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