By Varsha Tiwary
I have a bad habit of scribbling my copies of books with one line summaries of the chapters or stories. In some youthful misapprehension I felt, if only I could hold on to every theme, I would grasp the process, grab the narrative. I hold no such misconceptions now, but I have not discarded the habit. Constantly making notes, defacing books. These summaries do serve as spurs to memory, to discuss what really blew me away about a particular story. I am no professional reviewer of books, adept in thrashing the grain of writing under scholarly pincers of a critic’s unsparing intellect. I take a child like pleasure in books. Call it vanity, but I believe this makes me a very good reader. One who can get wowed by beautiful sentence structures, who finds wonder in the slant way a good writer nudges a reader towards what the writer wants the reader to arrive at.
The stories in Sucharita’s collection, Cast Out and Other Stories, pull you into their world with a shiver of recognition. They explore the world that lies beneath the fact ridden headlines that shock and then numb every Indian. The characters belong to the world of the forgotten, the overlooked, the ones buried in history, mythology, memory. They ask difficult questions, without falling in the trap of giving easy answers.
Let me list the questions raised in her book, each answered by the author in lyrical prose. What are the limits of virtue? Is the desire to do good only a selfish wish to ennoble oneself? Are urban adventure seekers seeking an ideal that has ceased to exist? What harm are they causing in the process? Are they ready to look at the truth?
Can love exist when the memories of a shared past evaporate from the mind of your lover? Can you break the stranglehold, fell the walls of tyrannical family history?
What are the limits of guilt and love a man can measure out for a girl who has gone missing in a riot torn town? When even her monthly cycle is policed, can even a mundane desire to worship become rebellion? Maybe what we call rebellion is a quest to be normal. Is there any tranquil island to be found for those whose abodes the city bulldozes carelessly after using them? Who is the real outlaw in a collision between the State and the tribals? A tribal woman rebelling against state led land-grabbing or the ones who raped her and killed her husband? Was turning to stone the better choice for an Ahilya confronted with unanswerable questions on purity and virtue? What if the bell rung and not answered was yours? You who are enlightened and feminist and activist? What if you did not open the door and the rape victim of newspaper headlines was your neighbor?
Sometimes it is a reckoning. A romance that must get off the station, on a train journey. The romance of the train itself. If you want to understand how these questions, that routinely form the cacophony on television debates and op-eds, can be turned into evocative stories you will have to read her collection.
Sucharita’s stories are superbly structured. They have a moral core, yet they do not cloy you with polemics. The narrative dawns with surprising clarity through a series of deft impressionistic sketches, pieced by the reader’s imagination. The writer leaves enough gaps and exercises restraint so that the truth tells itself without any rhetorical flourish. The writer in fact is not bent upon arriving at a fixed truth. Just in making the reader think. For a writer coming with a first book, hell, for any writer, that is a startling accomplishment. Her stories don’t claim any wisdom, beyond just following a train of events or memories to conclusion, which mostly is a changed state of mind. That transformation of self and the reader is her accomplishment.
Small moments linger, a woman’s fascination with the river and the tiger, a child’s awe in magical fireflies-lit darkness, the wetness of grass, the smell of jasmine gajra, the toot and clang of the Indian train journey as the landscape melts into shadow; the smell of a railway dinner. The landscape of the stories whether city or the village, is unflinchingly Indian, and the author pours love in the descriptions. I know, no summary, no review, can recreate the pleasure of an actual reading; that intensely personal conversation between a writer and a reader. So you must experience these stories to be able to end richer, to articulate your own responses to the events around you.
Sucharita, who is also Kitaab’s editor, and passionate about good writing, was surprisingly, open to an interview. Most writers would like to see who the interviewee is, in literary terms, and what coverage would that interview get. I had nothing to offer her except readerly appreciation.
Varsha Tiwary: In your stories, intelligent, well-meaning protagonists try to grapple with an unequal, violent, patriarchal world. Is that a personal quest too? Can you tell us about how you first moved into the world of words?
Sucharita Dutta-Asane: I think every story we tell is a personal quest to try and understand the world a little more. The characters – the tags of ‘well-meaning’ or ‘intelligent’ might be restrictive – in this collection deal with the self vis-à-vis the world and its inequalities, with darkness that lurks at the edges. These stories already exist around us; as a story-teller, I merely re-present them in a fictional world.
As for the second part of your question – there was the usual teenage creativity, the occasional story, poem, even early attempts at writing novellas while in school and later in college, but the first stirrings of wanting to write something that really mattered to the self was around 2007, during the Nandigram agitation. It was unbearable not to respond to the violence, the sense of injustice, to the issues at stake, to the sense of abuse that seems to have only intensified in the decade since. The only way I could deal with that was to write. “Fire”, the first complete story I wrote, was born of this.
VT: Did you consciously choose to write short stories at a time when almost everybody is writing novels?
SDA: When I started writing, it wasn’t a conscious decision to write short fiction. It was more to do with how I wrote, using words sparingly, leaving more to the reader’s immersion in the text than to the writer’s responsibility to the story – lazy writing in those yet-to-form days but telling a story using the shorter form also seemed to be more challenging with its tightness, its brevity, more in keeping with how I liked to use language. The short form impels one to look around corners, into the shadows, read the unsaid; the reader locates herself along and at various points of the arc for the story to reveal itself completely. What you leave unsaid and what you etch, the gaps and where you insert them. … The longer form poses others kinds of challenges for the writer and could test a writer’s mettle more, but the shorter form challenges the writer’s ability to make do with available resources.
VT: What are the major influences on your writing?
SDA: Around the time Nandigram erupted, there was widespread and persistent media coverage and everything that could be was being reported. One tiny piece of reportage caught my attention. It mentioned how some goons had threatened the villagers saying, ‘Keep your doors open at night’. All threats are violent in their implication, but the savagery of this, its sense of entitlement, kept me awake at nights. The trigger for “Fire” was this reported sentence; it carried within it the entire narrative of this telling.
The way individuals negotiate life, especially at the crossroads at which they find themselves, fascinates me; characters and situations, settings and histories arise from these interactions and junctions – real and imagined. “Bulldozer”, for example, has multiple layers but what influenced me to write it was the image of daily wage labourers returning to their shacks at the end of a hard day’s work. What if there is no home left to them at that time? And how is it for those who experience this over and over again? Around this time I also happened to read an article about an island that has only graves, no human habitation. The story came together through these images and the questions they provoked.
There’s no saying what could influence, from a falling leaf to a quarrel by the roadside, a melody heard in the quiet of night, petrichor and the memories it evokes, patterns left behind by waves on the sand, books we love…
An elderly woman who worked in my aunt’s house once told me a story about the ghosts of tigers in her village. It was a common belief where she came from but to my city-bred sensibilities, the story was unique. Tigers and their ghosts! This and Blake’s poem became the determining metaphors for the story “Eyes”. Recently, after my book was published, some readers wrote to me saying how reading “Eyes” reminded them of reading The Hungry Tide. Writers we admire influence us at a subconscious level. Had I been conscious of the resonances of The Hungry Tide in this story, I would have described it as a tribute to a writer whose early books draw me back again and again. In “Fire”, this influence was part of my conscious mind – Mahashweta Devi’s stories and characters, the questions they raise, their narratives of protest and resistance.
VT: Thank you for sharing those snippets, all the unexpected, beautiful way in which stories sprout. Your stories are structurally brilliant. Is it because you are also an editor?
SDA: It is a symbiotic relationship. All writers edit their work. As a professional editor, I guess the relationship becomes more entrenched, visceral. My approach to writing, to some extent, conditions the way I edit and vice versa.
Human lives involve crucial, decisive moments that alter the immediate reality, throw open alternatives, possibilities. My stories tend to zoom in on such moments and then stretch them, explore the points in the overhang of a singular instant. This necessitates pauses and breaks before the story moves ahead each time. Earlier my writing was more cryptic, more subtle, forcing the reader to invest too much in the story. One learns along the way – sensitivities and sensibilities become more acute, intense, so yes, after I began to edit, I also began to think of structure much more, became more conscious in crafting the gaps and pauses. Editing the work of other writers brought me closer to mine. The subtlety and unnecessary brevity I used to impose on my stories began to give way to a more conscious approach. I began to step aside and look at the stories for what they required, not what I wanted them to do. I guess the structure finds itself as the writing balances brevity with expansiveness.
VT: In your notes to stories you share how some of the stories got written and how they evolved and were finally published. Can you share the starting point and evolution of some other stories? Do all of them have long gestation periods or do they emerge fully formed from the sub-conscious? Do they moult over from caterpillars to butterflies over time?
SDA: I remember attending a writing workshop where, in response to a writing prompt I wrote a short, slice of life story – a mother and her daughter cavorting among fireflies. The feedback was that it was perfect in itself but had the potential for a longer narrative. Almost all the stories I was writing at that stage were incomplete because of this untapped potential; I learnt much later how to invest in the process. That story (its original title was “Moonbeam”) came into its own almost a decade after I first wrote it, as “Fireflies” for this debut collection, a much longer narrative in which this short piece runs as a parallel story. “Moonbeam” was written around 2008, I think; I rewrote it as “Fireflies” in 2018.
So, yes, barring a couple perhaps, most of the stories go through the gestation period, and it’s of an uncertain duration. Sometimes the butterfly slips painfully back into the cocoon to emerge with different patterns and shape. “Cast Out” too has had a long journey, arising from an image of a temple on a dark hill. Travelling between Pune and Jamshedpur as a student, I would often see people throw stones into rivers or join hands before the fleeting, passing impression of a temple somewhere in the distance. It stirred my curiosity. What if the temple held no deity? That singular thought became the fulcrum of the story. The thought occurred in my student days; the story formed more than a decade later. I don’t write in a hurry, but sometimes there is a flash of urgency, as in the case of “Shame” or the story I had in Zubaan’s Breaking the Bow, the speculative fiction anthology based on the Ramayana, which were written across a few hours.
The initial idea is always intuitive, sparked off by an image, a thought, sometimes a word or a sentence. It is what makes you wake up in the dead of the night and write. The final story might move away from this image or word that made you get up in the middle of the night, but it carries its resonances and traces in a subliminal manner.
VT: Oh no! Stories need such slow cooking! But maybe the process is its own reward. Tell me, do you consciously choose to tell the difficult stories behind the politics and patriarchy over the more particular personal narratives? Why?
SDA: They choose me. I don’t have a range of ideas jotted down on a piece of paper or in my mind to sift through when I sit to write. There is no such volition in the process. Violence, social and cultural rigidities, inequality, memory – these are primary concerns in my stories, but I don’t seek them out. My writing is intuitive. I let the story guide me, often not knowing how it will tell itself or how it will end. What leads to the final form perhaps comes from questioning the world; from the responses of individuals at crossroads; often, from looking into the mirror. Who is it we see when we look into the mirror? How do we deal with this reflection? The conflicts between the image and the real self, between the world and our ways of negotiating with it, find their way into the writing.
These inner journeys, the inner stories as responses to external realities are fascinating for the possibilities they hold out. For “Cast Out”, I had only the image of the temple; I didn’t know the story would turn into Tara’s narrative of the taboo around a menstruating woman. In “Bulldozer”, as I mentioned, I knew that I wanted to work with this image of daily wage earners waiting at pick up points to return ‘home’, always an elusive idea, but I didn’t know how the story would evolve or that in responding to his circumstances, the story’s protagonist would change from being a person fleeing the bulldozers to becoming the metaphor himself. The inherent connectedness of social isms finds its way into the telling and the relentless questioning gives rise to the basic story and later, to the structure the story demands.
VT: What do you struggle most with, when writing?
SDA: Names and titles. I spend agonising hours, sometimes days, getting names right for my characters. Even if the story is already half formed in my mind, I cannot begin to write till I have the name that sounds right for the story. When I write down the name, I need to feel as though it already existed in the story, belonged to its world, that it is absolutely essential to the creation of this fictional milieu. Sometimes, it feels strange, almost akin to telepathy between the character and the writer. It’s a struggle when I start writing. When I finish writing, I struggle with titles.
VT: I had hoped you would tell about your struggles with narrative! What is next in line?
SDA: A novel. It’s done, but I must return to it again. There’s stuff to do. Every time I finish writing I tell myself I couldn’t have done it better and then it’s time to have a go at it again.
VT: What is your writing routine? Do you write every day at fixed hours?
SDA: I am a nomad in that sense. I write on the move – when I feel like, where I want to. Also, like most of us who write, I have a professional role and a role within the family, so it’s a luxury to find fixed hours to write. However, if I were to set down rules for when and where to write I might not be able to write at all. So the sense of freedom is also important.
VT: Words of advice for new writers?
SDA: Edit your writing. Go through it again and again then send it out to a professional editor if possible. Please be open to honest critique rather than depend on the ‘loving’ responses of family members and friends.
VT: Thanks for that. What is the most fun thing about getting your book out there and the most painful thing?
SDA: Oh, the fun thing is in the responses from readers. That’s what keeps us going. The painful thing is following up on reviews and making your book ‘visible’.
Varsha Tiwary has published short stories, memoirs and essays in DNA-Out Of Print Contest, 2017, Kitaab, BasilO’Flaherty, Muse India, Jaggery Lit. Her short stories/essays are forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, Manifest-station, Spark, and Kaani. She is currently on sabbatical from her nine to five job and lives in Maryland.
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