Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Random Rants and Fears

My productivity always goes down significantly during the months I live in Kolkata. I indulge in it, because this is the time I have ear-marked for myself for getting back to the community of friends and acquaintances whose presence and activities have helped me to be who I am right now. I don't know if there is any "back" in that sense, but the thing is, in the last seven years, I have never felt out of sync with Kolkata or India. No, it's not that I identify with everything that is happening in here. I have a fair amount of ideological/political/aesthetic/personal alienation from spaces and communities here, but it's not really the neither here nor there kind of alienation the so-called diasporic intellectuals seem to be in love with. In my opinion, all places in this planet are equally infested with problematic power relations, problematic ideologies etc. which make living hard. And in all those places, there are individuals and collectivities who are trying to deal with those structures/ideologies in their own ways. Whether I will grow as an individual or not, really depends upon how I negotiate with those individuals and collectivities and how deeply I am reflecting on them or representing those negotiations in my chosen medium.

Speaking of which, have just begun to work on a new short story. It's not coming together yet, but in my experience, some of the stories that I have gotten the biggest satisfaction from are the ones which I found the hardest to write. Probably because in those stories, I have simultaneously allowed and forced myself to go to places within which I am not exactly very comfortable. And I think, one of the biggest understandings that I have come to, through all these exercises in the last two years is that, I am kind of lacking (A LOT) in the Talent Department (Thank God!). Which means, I have to work hard, Hard, HARD, HARRRRRDDDDDD, to produce something that is halfway coherent. I am often worried that I am not putting in that amount of labor, I am slacking off, and some day, I will just get up in the morning and find that all the things I thought I had to say and write about, have vanished over-night, leaving a colorless hole in my head.

That's why, these days, I begin my writing days reading a random page from a book I love. If I can read, and still make sense of what is there in the page, probably it means, that the skin and all those other things in my head haven't eroded so much to form that hole. So, today was Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. So, today, this is the passage I read:

While other children of their age learned other things, Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws. They heard its sickening thud. They smelled its smell and never forgot it.
History's smell.
Like old roses on a breeze
It would lurk for ever in ordinary things. In coat-hangers. Tomatoes. In the tar on the roads. In certain colours. In the plates at a restaurant. In the absence of words. And the emptiness in eyes

This is why, I have always believed that any good art is essentially also good theory. There is no way one can move about it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Longish Short Story Done!

Not everything is okay in K-town. Lalgarh...I am in no position to undermine or trivialize the violence that has been unleashed in there...but apart from all the co-lateral damage involved,one cannot help recognizing this plain old fact that the states, all over the world, can be extremely funny and idiotic when they are scared. And quite ridiculous too! Not too many years ago, in Kenya, Ngugi wa'Thiongo's novel Matigari was arrested. This is not a typo. I am serious. They issued a fucking arrest warrant against a novel. I wouldn't be surprised if I witness something similar in my home-state!

In terms of my writing, I finally finished the story I had been working on (yay!). It was a painful process--writing this story. For one thing, it took me almost three months to finish it. Granted, in the middle of it all, I took my comprehensive exams, wrote and defended my dissertation proposal, but still, this is the longest short story that I have ever written. And during the entire process, I kept worrying about the plot, the voice, the cris-crossing of voices, point-of-view, characterization etc. But now, I realize that this story had been influenced a lot by the general tone of Jhumpa Lahiri's latest short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, which I was reading during a big chunk of this time that I was writing this story.

I must confess, I am not a great fan of Lahiri's. I do think she is a very competent short story writer, and has a lot to teach in terms of the craft of short fiction. But for most part, she is replicating in a much more sensitive way the kind of assimilationist narrative that was popularized by Bharati Mukherjee and the ilk. No doubt Lahiri is much more sensitive and adept at representing more complex characters, but at the end of the day it is all about the American Dream. But what to do? If you are a Bengali, a writer and a poco-lit-critter, then you will end up bouncing against her. Even if you yourself choose to ignore her, people will ask your opinions about her and her work, and then you suddenly find yourself leafing through her books.

At the same time, I must confess that Unaccustomed Earth is a very important book to me. It has given me the permission to write long, novella-like short stories where nothing much happens. Where I want to deviate from Lahiri is, the whole complex question of how to represent women. My own thesis is that, Lahiri finds it extremely hard to represent feminine rebellion, feminine intellectuality, feminine radicalism. Consequently, her women characters tend to inhabit that space of demure Bengali femininity which does not nettle with either the mainstream South Asian/Bengali perceptions of womanhood, or the American/Western/white perceptions about hapless South Asian women. On the other hand, I like to think that this story is primarily about women resisting. In multiple ways. Across generational lines. And also, the failure to resist. I think the story is also about memory, destruction of memory and the vicious circle of violence within which families are often implicated.

My own sense is that, I still need to work on the concluding section of the story. Also, I know very very well that once I begin to send it out for feedback, there will be lots of things that I will need to revise. But for now, I will sit back for a while and celebrate!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fairy-Tales, Characterization and Writing

The last week has been a breeze---the revision was turned in on time, Kolkata reached, bags unpacked etc. etc. My teacher called my work "a feminist, queer mythical-fabulist tale." I must concede, as a literary critic, who is used to deploying these and other such labels to talk about literary works, it did seem a bit strange to see them being used for my own creation. Honestly, I don't mind. Every text that has been created on the face of this planet,is inherently political, and I have no objection if someone spells out that politics in terms of such labels. But, I must say, that when I was writing, I was not thinking about these labels seriously. Rather, I was taken the act of writing itself, trying to think of the settings, the characters, the craft~the story in general. But then, the politics, the ideology have seeped in. Part of it has to do,I think, with the conscious thought I have put in behind the writing itself. After all, any choice that a writer makes vis-a-vis the craft cannot be but implicated within a complex history of signs and symbols. And therefore, politics and ideology.

Personally, I find this process exciting. At the end of the day, what it signifies for me is the fact that every word in a language is political. Every image that we conjure up in a text can be historicized.A while back, a good friend of mine, a writer and a voracious reader himself, had argued, that what matters in a text, when we read it or write it, is the "emotional resonance" that the process of reading or writing produces. The social and the political come much much later. I know it's not just my friend, but this is a very popular opinion in lots of ways. I would say, that "emotional resonance" itself is not outside of politics, society, and history. But more importantly, I don't see the social/political/ideological and the "emotional resonance" as two separate entities, or binaries. In that, I think, I am not in for that classical Marxist dichotomy between the
form and the content. Rather, I would say, the form is as political as the content, and not only that, a form often times determines the content itself.

The funny thing is, I was somewhat pushed towards thinking about this specific aspect while working on this particular piece. I was trying to think of certain possibilities in the piece. For example,in this work, I am specifically interested in examining the mythical world of the Bengali folklore, and also throwing a little bit of the Grimms Brothers in the mix. So, the names of my characters are loosely based on the female characters one would find in
Thakumar Jhuli, one of the classic compilations of the Bengali folktales. No, I am not trying to “rewrite” or “reform” Thakumar Jhuli. Neither am I trying to provide a more “politically correct” version of the stories therein. I am merely trying to imagine different lives for some of the female characters. Most of them either reside on the margins of the tales, or, are banished from the royal world most of these tales describe, precisely because they did something that was considered to be transgressive.

But there is something very interesting that I came up during the process. One of the feedbacks that I received from all of my writer/critic friends is that, the central characters of the piece did not always come out as full-fledged characters. Which made me think of the kind of characterization one comes across in classic fairy-tales or folk-tales. There isn’t much of detailed characterization in there. Most of the characters appear as archetypes, illuminating specific moral messages. Initially, I was thinking, if this is more of a case with female characters, but now that I think back on it, I will have to concede that no, it’s generally one of the central features of this form we call fairy-tales. I am still not very sure of the politics/sociology behind it, I am still fumbling. But, I am also concerned with another question:to what extent a contemporary writer can intervene with the characterization when one is engaging with the material that has been handed down to us by this existing body of literature commonly known as fairy-tales?

By the way, there is a beautiful translation of Thakumar Jhuli in English, called Tales My Grandmother Told Me by Rina Pritish Nandi. If you want to increase your fairy-tale repertoire beyond Grimms Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, feel free to check it out.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I am afraid of revisions. And being a slow person, who takes ages to process things, it's always hard for me to digest any feedback quickly and then jump right on to the revisions. That's why, this week will be interesting. I am trying to revise the first chapter of a novella for a writing workshop I am in right now. The whole thing developed out of a 2,500 word short story I wrote last year. So, when I enrolled for the workshop, I was thinking more in terms of revising this short-story, and making it into a more complete piece. I realized during the revision process, that this is the first prose/fiction piece I have written which is not realist. I guess, if I have to categorize it, it will fall somewhere between speculative, revisionist-mythical and fantastic. But then, once I turned in the short story, I realized, especially after receiving the initial round of feedback, that the material I have put out there within that 4,111 word long narrative, would need a slightly longer treatment. More fleshing out, more research, more exploration. So, now I am hooked into this process of writing a novella (yes yes along with a dissertation), and right now, revising the first chapter of it. As I said, I take a huge amount of time to revise, to make sense of things in a more organic, personalized way and to churn out materials which are halfway coherent. So, I don't know what am I going to do within a week! But I am finding this process exciting, as I am sitting in a window seat inside a cafe at Austin and reading a draft of the chapter, sipping on this weird beast called chai. I plan to write a little bit before I leave, maybe 500 words or so. So, let's see how that goes.