By Priyanka Chatterjee
‘She is looking out to the world rushing by, I only see the people beside me’ – Missing (2018)
I remember an afternoon, a dim-lit room at the Department in NBU, a small group of enthusiasts intent upon cultivating a culture of thinking, reading, writing, conversing in a town that did not seem to show any such extant tradition. I am seated in a corner, eager to know more, participate and as usual, unsure of myself, and she, sitting at the other end, talking, encouraging opinions, her smiling eyes meeting others’, looking around, looking beyond. The Facebook ‘friend request’ was inevitable after what her persona had done to me. She graciously accepted the ‘request’ and what opened up for me was a surprising world of the familiar, observed in the most unfamiliar way. The meetings increased; I was/am fascinated by her observations. Gripped by her language, images, allusions, I fell for her poems, her short stories, her essays, her person; I fell in love with her and I am still enthralled by Sumana Roy, and rightfully so! For her, the inconsequential everyday matters, like the rain dripping across her window, the sound of mother’s bangles, the daily conversations, the ordinary lives, the invisible. “I’m moved by the invisible even as I love being invisible,” she says. Thus, her writings are triggered by her dwelling on the ordinary, like our town, of which she says, “I like Siliguri’s ordinariness, its unremarkable character.” I couldn’t resist the temptation of speaking to her exclusively. I jotted down the most ordinary questions and on a Sunday evening, in a quaint tea-boutique, Moutat, situated at the heart of Siliguri, Sumana Roy amiably indulged me and others who were there. What an evening we spent discussing her writings, her thoughts, her novel, Missing – all the time her smiling eyes speaking even more. Excerpts from the adda:
Priyanka Chatterjee: How did you come about publishing your first book, How I Became a Tree?
Sumana Roy: I’ll try to tell you how I began writing it. I cannot specify what it was –how much do we know about ourselves, after all? – that had made me feel injured by human life, by the social, by things around me. I wanted to abandon the social. What could I live like, I’d ask myself? A ceiling fan, a cell phone – no, I did not want to be a machine. A dog? No, I wanted to escape the emotional economy of humans and other animals. What then? It was then that it struck me that perhaps living like a tree was the only route out of whatever it was that I wanted to escape.
I began to identify characteristics of plant life that I wanted to imbibe, and in doing so, I began to ask myself: Was I abnormal in harbouring such an uncommon ambition? So I began looking for people, writers, artists, thinkers, scientists, philosophers, who’d exhibited a similar ambition. How I Became a Tree is a documentation of that search – emotional, intellectual, spiritual.
PC: You have said in interviews that you began writing very late. What stimulated your creative process to the extent that you began doing it seriously?
SR: Seriousness wasn’t the issue, I think. I’m essentially a serious person – I indulge the non-serious seriously, too. I hadn’t planned my life in the way I see many – if not most – young people did then. I studied English Literature at university, cleared bureaucratic exams without great thought, and got a teaching job in a government college. One thing led to another – almost assembly-line production. Something had happened before that. I’d encountered Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address at university. I was blown away by the beauty of everything in it, the language, the way of looking, that world, now forever lost. I realise only now that I was also energised by it – I realised that it was possible to write about our lives in English. I went on to write a doctoral dissertation on Chaudhuri’s writing, but what living with that writing did to me was to open up possibilities of looking at the lives we lead. It provided me with an aesthetic and a kind of independence that is difficult to explain in words.
PC: Did you find your academic job impinging upon your life as an artist? Was giving up the job a difficult decision or a necessary one?
SR: I hated waking up to the fact that I’d have to go to work. The office, the workplace – they tire me, but they also fill me with fear, with a kind of permanent anxiety, of being a misfit. I wanted the elasticity of the day to be mine. Also, I began to realise that higher education in Bengal – possibly in India – is a scam. Nothing is taught or learned anymore. I was of no use to students because the interest had shifted from getting an education to getting a degree – it’d have been wrong to continue to draw a salary. Resigning from my job wasn’t a difficult decision emotionally – I felt no attachment for it. But yes, I’d have to worry about an income. I’m grateful to my family for that.
PC: You have been writing fiction in the form of short stories already. You began Missing in 2012, tell us about this prolonged engagement with writing a novel.
SR: I love the short story. But it wasn’t a lab that helped me to write Missing. I began writing Missing in July 2012, as the things described in the novel were happening. I wanted to record this moment – of how everything was changing, the demography of a town, its language, how fake news was growing into becoming a part of our lives, of how we were dealing with the difference in the speed of news and the pace of our lives. I was also interested in exploring the after-life of love – what might happen to those who love us if we disappear?
PC: Siliguri as a location, even as a character has been there in your writing, in this novel as well. Why so, and how do you process this spatial appearance? What kind of resonances does this place have in your writing?
SR: I like Siliguri’s ordinariness, its unremarkable character – in that it is an extension of someone like me, who’s content with being ordinary. I like that it doesn’t feature in any best-greatest list. I feel grateful that my parents are ordinary people, without any great ambition. In this, it is also plant-like, for plants have no ambition except to live. I feel anxious when in the presence of the grand and monumental. I could never live in a place like that.
PC: The intriguing title, ‘Missing’, talks about the missing at different levels, people, things, place. Please tell us about the larger context of relationships that you seem to address in the novel.
SR: I suppose this is for readers to discover on their own. Yes, it’s not just the woman – or Sita in the Ramayana – who goes missing. There are many other things that are lost every moment. I was interested in keeping a record of the language spoken in Siliguri before it went missing, for instance. The taste of the food I ate in my childhood has gone missing. So many smells, so many views. I’m not being a nostalgist. Something is lost every moment. Art might be the only way to record them.
That Kobita – poetry – should go missing from the life of a poet is also a metaphor for the disappearance of the poetic from our lives, I suppose.
PC: Your characters come from the everyday. How do you dwell on that which goes missing in these everyday relationships, while drawing intimately on these relationships?
SR: I write about the people I know. I often don’t change their names. It’s an aesthetic choice but also a political one because their names wouldn’t be changed in news reports, why is the onus on fiction to change names? The energy of people I encounter every day moves me – their ambition for living touches me deeply. It also helps that they are really funny. I find academia inert particularly because of this – it lacks in the humour that comes from life.
PC: I quote from one of your articles, ‘…in a world where globalisation had flattened the texture of language into a kind of sameness …one of the last remaining habitats of uniqueness…might be in the language of domestic space.’ You do plot this in Missing. Please tell us some more about it, your plans with language.
SR: I don’t need to stress how globalisation has flattened everything. Often, when you’re travelling between cities, you can’t mark out one from the other. I do not remember that happening to me as a child. When the specificities of architecture, clothing, food, among several other things have been taken away from us, I thought of the language of the domestic space as the last habitat of where a sense of place might be recorded. I was also particularly interested in how that language stood out in relief when juxtaposed with the language of news.
PC: How do you fit your desire to write in English in this context?
SR: That was a very difficult thing to do, of course. It has to do with translation – but we must understand that most of us writing in English about India are translating all the time. My aesthetic problem was to find a style that was alive to the nuances of speech. I wanted readers to hear my characters speak as they read.
PC: How do you engage with Time in your writings? Is ‘tree-time’ in How I Became a Tree really different from the time in Missing? How nuanced do you find time in the lives we live in?
SR: I might have answered this already. The speed of news is artificial – it creates breathlessness, not just the unending barrage of information about strangers, but how days are condensed into half a sentence. The speed at which I eat is not the speed at which I consume news, particularly online. I wanted to show that difference. I wanted readers to be exhausted of he news when they were reading it on the page of a book.
News ignores things it considers unimportant. There are no sneezes or coughs reported in any news report. I wanted to hold the lifelessness of news against the vitality of life as we live it from moment to moment.
Urvashi Bahugana, in her review of Missing for Scroll, was one of the first people to point out the similarities between tree-time in How I Became a Tree and the pace of Missing. I was touched that she had noticed, for it was one of my ambitions to rebel against news-time by getting the novel – or writing in general, for I try to do the same in my poems and essays – to move to the pace of living, to breathing and to walking and looking, even staring. Time, I now find, is measured not in tick-tock, analogous to the heart-beat, but to the pace at which we scroll down on our phones. I wanted to stop that time, where nothing actually registers (the reason we forget our friends’ Facebook posts or news items), from entering the space of Missing. I wanted it to be an experience, for that to me is the pleasure of reading.
There’s another thing I’d like to mention here, in relation to news. It is about a culture where we were conditioned to believe in the sacredness of the written word. Whatever was in the books was sacred. The oral might not be trustworthy but the written certainly was. In that sense not just books but newspapers and magazines had also come to enjoy that status. In reversing that process, of the written to the oral, by making Tushi read out from the newspaper to the blind poet, we’re again in a zone of mistrust.
PC: Again a quote from your article, “As I see the difference between journalism and writing blur today and form being rendered a senior-citizen like figure in a world of youthful content” – something more on this and what kind of import does it have in Missing?
SR: I see that the sociological impetus that drives journalism has come to be the primary trigger for the publishing industry too. We’re so obsessed with the content, the ‘what is it about?’, that we’re growing indifferent to form. And yet, we know even instinctively, that it is form that generates pleasure, among other things. The beauty of a sentence stays far longer than the subject of where it was extracted from.
PC: Do you think the way an empowered woman is projected has much to do with how patriarchy structures her – like a woman who balances her life well, or lives it like a dream? What is your idea of an empowered woman in Missing?
SR: I was surprised when a reviewer almost scolded me for portraying what he thought was a ‘modern marriage’. The easy equation of a modern marriage with an unhappy or loveless one seemed odd to me. I thought Nayan cares deeply for his wife and is dependent on her for affection in a way that is moving. I wondered whether it was because a woman goes on a work-trip leaving her husband in care of attendants. Would we have called it a loveless marriage had the man gone on a work-trip? The speculation about the woman and her intentions by the characters in the novel tells us how a woman-away-on-work is treated. Sita had to take the agnipariksha on her return from the bairey, the world – the notion of purity that attaches to the ghar is baffling, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it’s possible that the risks that a woman has to face once outside the house (not that houses are protective spaces, as statistics about domestic and sexual abuse by relatives tell us) has been turned into a code for purity.
PC: How I Became a Tree was a mixture of genres. Why did you approach it in this way and what were the challenges you faced in dealing with such an approach?
SR: An essay, if I could return to Bacon, consists of ‘dispersed meditations’. My favourite kind of literature, no matter what the genre, is one of dispersed meditations. How I Became a Tree consists of imaginings, speculation, investigation, self-doubt – I thought the essay the most appropriate home for these dispersed meditations.
To be completely honest, I don’t believe in the segregation of genres. Even Missing isn’t only and completely a novel, I think.
PC: You had said in an interview long ago that for men writing can be a closed room, solitary engagement, but women will have to accommodate the happenings around with their writing. Does that create a difference between women and men writings? Is a room of one’s own necessary for the creative process to flourish?
SR: I feel at home with this disturbance now. I see that it annotates and affects my thoughts and writing. In fact, I welcome them.
PC: How do you discipline yourself as a writer?
SR: I really have no answer to this question. I try to read and write a little every day. Not only because it’s like riyaz, but because I suffer from withdrawal symptoms if I don’t.
PC: How does your family react towards your life as a writer? And again does your approach towards them get affected by your life as an artist?
SR: They’ve gradually become tolerant of my abnormalities, I suppose. They allow me to not worry about what they’re thinking of me.
To answer your second question, the good thing is that they most often don’t read what I’ve written. Only my mother’s read How I Became a Tree. My father’s begun reading Missing and is very confused – ‘You haven’t changed the names of people,’ he said. Ranjan hasn’t read either of the books. Neither has my nephew. So I don’t really worry about them reading me.
PC: Do you at any time feel the pressure of writing voraciously as you do?
SR: I’ve written only what I wanted to write, except maybe a few reviews. So there’s never been any pressure, really.
PC: What advice do you have for those who would want to go beyond the pressure of writing for an academic purpose? Or say pursue creative writing in any form?
SR: I’m not sure I like the distinction between academic and non-academic writing that has come to be a given today. Every kind of writing is about allowing an entry to the thought and the senses and life and the living. It is possible to write about what we research in a way that gives pleasure, for we remember and are moved by what affects our thoughts and our senses, not the brain alone.
I’m no one to offer any kind of suggestion, except perhaps to write about what interests us.
PC: In both fiction and non-fiction you have engaged with that which becomes invisible. How does this everyday invisibility, if I may so frame it, affect your artistic sensibilities?
SR: Yes, you are right. I’m moved by the invisible even as I love being invisible. A large part of my affection for plant life comes from what Matthew Hall called ‘plant blindness’, our indifference to the presence of plant life around us. In Missing too I was interested in writing about the invisible people who are actually a part of our family, people we call, in a generic way, servants. I think the unit of the family is changing though we don’t always register it. It also includes those with whom we spend a large part of our day. Yes, I wanted to write about these invisible people in our houses.
I think the invisible invokes a feeling of protectiveness in me – I find that I feel that way about artists ignored by the spotlight, I used to have similar feelings about the quietest students in class, and so on.
PC: Do you think creative writing stands at the intersection of arts and critical thinking? Since you traverse both fields, how do you visualize the realm of thinking and writing?
SR: I think the death of a philosophical tradition in India owes to the marginalisation of thinking here. Where are the philosophers who are telling us to think about our lives today? What academics are giving us is an awkward – even partly imported and partly plagiarised – commentary that is often hilarious, not the least for the language it is being expressed in.
Writing without thought is almost meaningless – the reason we don’t remember news. Writing without a philosophical understanding of life will not have staying power, I think.
PC: How far is writing a form of activism for you?
SR: Everything is a form of activism, isn’t it? The way we live, whom we love, what we eat, how we speak. Similarly with writing – I write about things that matter to me.
Sumana Roy photo-credit: Tanita Abraham
Priyanka Chatterjee presently shuttles between her lives in Siliguri, where she lives, and Gangtok, where she works as a Research Scholar at the Department of English, Sikkim University.
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