This appeared in the first week of March, as far as I remember. Like many things, I forgot to upload it here. Anyway, here it is:
The longer version, in other words my original emailed responses are here:
Questions for an article in DC , Sunday Chronicle
Mug shot in The Sunday Chronicle
Deccan Chronicle: Culling… is your first full length novel and quite a departure from composing poems and writing short stories. How did you go about preparing for such a feat? Any research?
Me: Yes, Culling Mynahs and Crows – henceforth let’s refer to it as CMaC – is my first published novel. I have written at least one novel length work before and one more that is a novella. As far as writing goes in terms of prose, it isn’t a big departure. You just go on a longer journey with your novel. Some writers like to chart a plot, make notes on the margins, and etch characters (in words) and so on. In CMaC’s case I first saw the story unfurl in my mind, maybe with the smallest details missing, but it was there. Like a movie in my mind. I wrote it as I saw it. Each time I went back to it, I saw details and I wrote them down. It’s like observing things in a place you are visiting for the second or the nth time, things you hadn’t noticed before. I write my short fiction the same way, looking at my private screen and watching the whole thing get enacted before me. Poetry is a more “felt-within-my-skin” kind of experience. Sometimes I choke on a poem and can’t breathe unless I put it down there itself.
Research is important, especially for setting, for all those background details that make any work of fiction seem alive. For my future books I will have to do a lot of research, as I move out of the familiar and into uncharted territory – especially in science fiction, a genre I have loved since my childhood, perhaps long before the term became popular! In this case however, in CMaC’s case, I didn’t have to do much, except look up a map or two and the railway timetable for the names of trains and stations. But that was a very small part of the book. I had made up the town, Bisrampur, but in order to make it feel real I wanted to give it a background that exists in real time and geography. The prototype was a jute mill that I had visited in 1990, near Kolkata. As far as Kolkata and Mumbai are concerned, I was in Kolkata during the 80s and first few years of the 90s, and had lived in Mumbai for a year, a few years down the line. I didn’t veer too far away from the places I had been around in these two cities. When you are young, things and incidents appear sharper, experiences are lived more intensely. So when they become memories they have this sheen over them, like glossy photographs in an ageless album. Memory is an excellent hunting ground; a good place to start one’s research.
Deccan Chronicle: What was the inspiration for the characters in your book and how did you end up defining who they were? For example, the book has strong feminist themes and contains two complex female leads, who while leading very different lives cross each others’ paths in an intricate manner.
Me: CMaC didn’t start with the female leads – Agnirekha and Agnishikha. It began with Pagla-khooni – the mad serial killer, and his philosophy. Agnishikha’s was a separate story, one that I was writing more or less at the same time. (I have this habit of writing several things at the same time, the way I read several books at the same time; and writing or reading something entirely different in order to take a break from the previous one, before I return to it again). Characters tend to have minds of their own, some are very stubborn. So there I was writing parallel stories that were also joined at the hip. I sent a few chapters to Anuradha Kumar who is a prolific writer, currently living in USA. Her latest book for adults is It Takes a Murder. She has written many books for children as well. I was still working on the second draft at that time. The book also had another name then. Her feedback helped me in giving the book its present shape. Another person who has been a source of encouragement in my writing life and who also gave me her feedback on an extract she had read in The Four Quarters Magazine (an online literary journal) is the well known and award winning British writer Vanessa Gebbie.
Coming back to the inspiration aspect of the novel, a long time ago I had read a newspaper report on political goons ruining a woman’s life, I can’t remember when or where. But the incident remained with me, and a woman began to talk to me in my head. Yes, the book does have strong feminist themes. I am an angry woman, and that anger finds its outlet in my writing. Also, the incident at New Delhi where a young woman was violated and fatally brutalised in a moving bus, which happened when I was still working on the book, giving it the last finishing touches, convinced me that I should remain angry, and keep on writing what I feel. I should not hold myself back in my writing. However, I am not a protester. I am not an activist. I have strong ideas about how India should be, just like any other middle class Indian. It so happens I am a writer. There is a lot of internal violence, as in thoughts and words, not blood and gore, that course through the entire book. I don’t think I defined them. The characters defined themselves. I think after resisting for a while, during which time the book simply thrashed around and didn’t flow, I let myself be led by the characters. I began by disliking Agnirekha, and towards the end I understood her, and when I did the story raced towards the finish line.
Deccan Chronicle: Where’s the story set and in what way the place is meaningful to you?
Me: The story is set partly in Kolkata or Calcutta of the 1980s, mid to late 1980s. But a large part of the action takes place in the Mill town of Bisrampur, which is supposedly located near Murshidabad, in West Bengal.
I came to Calcutta when I was a teenager, a very impressionable age, and I remained in the city off and on for a little over a decade and a half. I saw firsthand, how a beautiful city, full of life and culture was losing out, business houses and industries were either folding up or moving out, hope was dying, people were leaving. It was the same in other parts of Bengal. I could write pages on that and I still would not be done. I understand what a state’s economic failure can do to the self esteem and confidence of its people, how it can give rise to viciousness and anger and also utter hopelessness to the point of desiring self-annihilation. Bengal is and always will be a very meaningful part of my life, even though I will possibly be always far removed physically.
Here is a poem I wrote, that was published in Pratilipi a few years back:
I have not touched that red earth for decades.
I have not smelt the stored up secrets of its warm flesh
after the rain vaporized and returned to the sky.
I have not kneaded my fists on that earth mother’s red anger.
It is now become so alien that it hurts to even think of it.
Is it possible to love something so hard
and yet, never feel a part of it?
Is it possible to gather and distribute my inheritance
in small talk served up as hors-d’oeuvres?
Acknowledge to that silence in my heart
that being Bengali and the Bengaliness of my being
is in reality only a notional thing?
Trans-migrated literature and philosophy is refrigerated dessert
served through the sweetness of the language, nothing else.
Yet, it satisfies for it provides tender refuge
from the harshness of our successful worlds. Even though,
you know that you will never go back again.
For to return is to retreat and retreat is acceptance of defeat.
But the poets who loved this earth before us,
always ran down the same red soil pathways;
and danced across the same carp and lily
filled ponds. These were the poets who
tossed up their hearts to kiss the same clear blue
autumn sky. But they never prepared us -
you, me, him and her – for this sandbar existence.
Maybe our bones know who we truly are.
Maybe these questions will find answers
in the flames flowering on our pyres
when the small knotted bones at the small of our backs
crack up with laughter, bringing to life
this very notional thing in the rituals of a Bengali grief.
© RK Biswas 2007
Deccan Chronicle: Any influences from the writing styles of other authors
Me: Well, as the saying goes, you are what you eat. So it is with writing. You write what you read, or something very close to it. J I read a lot of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, among other writers, as a child. I think I was around twelve when I read Jude the Obscure, and it had a huge impact on me. Reading was a habit in those days. Most homes had shelves and shelves of books. Sometimes you’d find whole families reading in the evening, sitting together and reading their own books etc. Exchanging books and buttering up the school librarian as well as the old curmudgeons at the Club library for more books was something almost all the children in my town did. I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea for the first time when I was around eleven and I read it four times at one go. I simply couldn’t let go of that book. So yes, Hemingway too has touched me. But then, so has Jack London, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield, Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare, Arthur C Clark, Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, HG Wells, Anton Chekov, as also Enid Blyton and all the children’s classics and Agatha Christie. These were the writers of my childhood. Along with some other names that no one seems to remember now – Nevil Shute, Catherine Gaskin, Ethel Mannin, Warwick Deeping, Monica Dickens, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley, Georgette Heyer, Margeurite Young, AJ Cronin, all the animal book writers with Gerald Durrel topping the list. I could go on all day, don’t tempt me. These were my best friends in my childhood and youth. They still are.
Deccan Chronicle: How long did you take to complete the book and the experiences you have gone through during the period?
Me: To be honest, I can’t remember exactly when the book took hold of me. I have a hazy memory of writing about Pagla-Khooni several years ago. I dropped it and forgot all about it, moving on to short stories, with another novel or two chugging along side by side. Sometime in 2009 or was it 2008, not sure exactly when but somewhere during that time, I wrote quite a bit about Agnirekha. And then almost immediately on Agnishikha. When Agnirekha dropped in casually into the story about Agnishikha, without as much a by your leave I had no choice but to go over the story in my head, and run it like a movie with changeable scenes – heh! That is the experience, watching the whole story again and again, in bits and parts and sometimes in whole sequences, but the end, the crucial end that defines who Agnirekha truly is, did not come to me until 2012, almost days before I submitted it to my publisher. When I was writing it, I didn’t plan or prepare, as in charting out plots and chapters. I sat and wrote, usually from one or two in the afternoon until late evening, when my husband comes home from work. I’d get up when I heard him opening the door. My routine changes when my children are home. Less writing time and being more of a mom. But writing never truly stops. Too much of a back log to clear. Time is never enough. My writing experiences are always internal. Even when I am in a place where I have nothing to do, I am never bored. I simply write in my head. When I return home I put it down on my computer. I work directly on my computer, sometimes even poetry straight on the computer.
Deccan Chronicle: You have said that your poems reflect feminism mostly. Do you aim to bring about a change in the society through your writings?
Me: I think I kind of responded to this question a little earlier, while explaining something else – question 2. But I am not out and out a feminist writer. Not all my poems are feminist in style and theme. I write a lot on Nature and then there are wacky humorous poems, all kinds of themes run through my poems. Yes I do have strong views, but which Indian doesn’t? No I don’t visualise any such thing – about changing society that is. I want to keep on living a principled life, as much as possible, and set a good example to my own kids, keep my house clean and tidy, provide a good home and good food to my family and friends. Writing is my parallel world. I don’t escape into it; it’s just something that I have always had, and hope people can accept me that way.
Deccan Chronicle: The world of publishing is undergoing a huge transition from the print media (traditional books) to the electronic media (ebooks), do you expect this to impact readership in India in anyway? One can assume that the electronic medium would make it easier for future storytellers and poets to get their work out easier, do you reckon this would have an impact of the overall quality of work that’s published?
Me: I certainly hope it impacts Indian reading. E-books are wonderful. And so is the internet. Can you imagine how wonderful it will be if we can harness this technology and plant computers in every village where the children can interact with teachers who are far away? People don’t like to go to the interiors, but computers can. The Indian Postal Service has such fantastic reach, imagine if it’s used to bring knowledge and entertainment for the intellect, children’s minds. Now imagine bringing books and stories along that way. Children and adults interacting throughout India with each other. Farmers exchanging information from one part of the country to another, helping each other. And yes, story tellers. And poets. The electronic media is so much more interactive. Also paperless books means less trees being chopped down. Though I confess I love the smell and feel of paper books, both old and new. Used books have their own stories, don’t they?
But coming back to your question, the world of publishing has changed and is changing and it is impacting India, but mostly in urban areas. It has little meaning for me unless it impacts our hinterlands completely. The technology is not expensive; it can be taken to our people throughout the country. As we keep perfecting this technology, we’ll come up with better and cheaper ways to reach everybody. So far it’s only the phones, but that’s not enough for long reading, and writing. More than writers and poets getting their work out there, I am concerned with readers out there getting their time’s and money’s worth. Quality has to be maintained. Just because it’s fast doesn’t mean anything goes. The technology should empower readers first. Poets and writers have to deliver according to readers’ standards, and for that to happen readers have to be empowered. Till such time, I would go with our traditional publishing practises, where editors decide. These are of course my personal views.