Rheea Mukherjee — interviewed by TBLM Staff
First of all, let me congratulate you on compiling a collection of short stories. It is still a beautiful moment when a writer makes their debut.
Your collection, ‘Transit for Beginners,’ due in March 2016, contains stories that you’ve placed in various litmags in India and outside. We are happy to inform our readers that the collection includes two stories that first appeared in TBLM; one of them is the story that gives the book its title.
Let me begin the interview with a question related to the litmag experience itself. How beneficial has the litmag sub-culture been to your development as a writer?
RM: Thank you Tanuj, it’s been 9 years in the making, so it feels pretty damn good. I think the thing that has kept me motivated as a writer has been, in fact, literary magazines. The ironic thing about literary magazines is that it caters to a progressively dying niche crowd. Despite this, there are so many magazines devoted to the act of finding voices and giving writers a space to be published and acknowledged. Submitting to literary magazines requires a steel gut, you have to be prepared to be rejected 90% of the time, so it takes years to get a few good stories published in a few good places. And each publication is a celebration. It’s tiny victory for the writer, a story has truly found a home.
I’ve seen you talk elsewhere about the importance of finding a voice. What is this voice? Is it fair to call it style? Is it more or less than style?
RM: It’s a combination of things that evolve over time. It’s the way you approach your narrative, use your sentences, and subtly (or not so subtly) bring out repetitive themes. A writer who has a strong voice can experiment with form, theme and style, but their DNA will be present. A reader can sense it.
So one presumes that a writer’s voice becomes / is their voice because it is authentic for them. Yet this voice needs to have the potentiality for communication, a kind of universality. So are we talking of a paradox – something that is private as well as public? How do you reconcile that?
RM: I think that’s the beauty of good writing. The writer comes out into the world and witnesses how their voice is received. Did they do a good job communicating what they needed to? Did it allow for people to make their own interpretations? Did their voice allow people to be compelled by what their words had to say? Did it make them think? Talk? Giggle? The relationship between the writer and their own words translates to another tongue, another relationship with the reader. Both of these relationships are private in their own way.
We would not be wrong in saying that your voice is a young urban voice. So is it fair to say that urbanity, whatever it means, positive or negative, is its major attribute? And is it fair to assume that this urbanity is what all your characters have?
RM: This is a great question. I think my voice is urban. But more than that I think my voice is an expression of a world I have been taught to interpret with urbanity as a backdrop. There is a certain amount of myopia new English writers in India will have- we’re a breed of writers that can now write about a very globalized world. The days of Bharti Mukherjee first generation immigration have lost relevance- urban India approaches the world with a more balanced experience and exposure. What’s really exciting the potential for writing in this time – despite the potential similarities a middle class Indian in say Bangalore might have with an American in say, San Francisco, India is still ripe with a more tactile experience. We interact with a larger spectrum of stimuli and linguistic twisting, we season our English with multiple languages and tonal inflections depending on who we are speaking to. We are exposed to a variety of different people who each live life in such drastically varied social and economic realities. The time to experiment is now. The time to challenge what Indian English writing can do for both the country and the world is now.
Aren’t you interested in fiction in which there is a wider zone of conflict, where, say, classes collide, or the urban meets the rural, so on? Is irony, or, hipster irony, a part of urbanity? If yes, how do you think irony problematizes the Indian urban discourse
RM: Yes. And that’s because I live that conflict every day. I refuse to pay an extra 20 bucks to the auto rickshaw wallah on principle but I don’t think twice about buying an iced coffee for 200 rupees. Most of the new urban India is based on living an irony. I want to be informed about the world and look at things as a larger network of relationships and agendas. I do feel passionately about a few things like gigantic malls shoving a slum area to the streets, animal rights, water politics, freedom of expression, and of course gender inequality, but I also know that many things I do every day is hypocritical, ironic, and just plain stupid. It took me a while to pull together this identity crisis I was having- being a leftist hippie while simultaneously exhibiting yuppie behavior. I think when I turned 30 I realized it’s not about being one label but rather understanding my own complexities and how they came to be. I think what our country lacks (if I may just go ahead and blanket generalize) is self-awareness. How are we reacting to the world and why? What informs us in order to make certain value judgments? When does our own behavior patterns merge with what we might theoretically disagree with?
Most of my fiction has this underlying urban angst built into it, because I don’t think as humans we can truly judge. We can’t beat ourselves up for being caught up in a system that allows us to feel compassion and passion for certain issues while facilitating acute apathy for other pressing problems. 8 out of 10 times we will knowingly or unknowingly make choices that actually go against that passion, that compassion, that value system we think we have. What we can (and should) beat ourselves up for is not being aware, for not trying to scrutinize our place in the world and how every little decision does play into the larger world narrative. We need to think more. If we think more, I am pretty convinced we will make micro changes. Those are the changes that last. The politics of class, gender and mental illness is something I run into everyday so it’s something that organically fits into my writing, I’ll be surprised if that really changes.
About your stories: In ‘Transit for Beginners,’ a young woman gets into a conversation with a stranger at the Changi airport. In ‘Keeping Pace,’ a young woman notices the exercise routine of another woman who is the current love interest of her ex. These could very easily have been two events in the life of a single person, and it is possible to read the two stories in such a way. Does your collection have characters that appear in more than one story?
RM: You know, that was definitely not intentional but now that you say it, I can see it. I wrote TFB when I was 26 and in grad school and wrote Keeping Pace when I as 31 and living in Bangalore. I guess there is some consistency in my character voice for a 20-something Indian urban woman. I think it’s great if readers imagine these links, sometimes they become more interesting when they are marketed that way. The thing is my book does have some similarities with some of the characters, my thesis advisory had recommended I link the book this way. To be honest it’s easier to sell a collection of short stories if you tell them that the stories are linked, because it allows the reader to approach it as a novel. My book has stories that I first wrote when I was 22, today I am 32. It did not seem authentic to link them, they needed to be on their own. And yes it took forever for a publisher to see the value in them as they were.
Does your writing process involve keeping yourself as the ready template for a character?
RM: No. It involves having a sudden idea about a story. A situation, a set of circumstances. I’ll admit I tend to go back to a very familiar first-person voice (like you noticed with TFB and KP) however it changes quite a bit in the second person and third person. My characters can surprise me. They start to make oddest of reactions to the narrative I build, things I could have never pictured when I started a story. When that happens it’s usually one of my better stories. It’s like in Keeping Pace, the actual things she says to her ex-boyfriend’s love interest is so bizarre and ridiculous, but it just came out, the story led me up to it, and there was nothing else she could say. She had to talk about sugar.
What is your take on confessional versus imaginative writing?
RM: Errr. I think to be honest that’s a fine line. At least in my own writing, the imagination and confessional part of my work blurs. In fact I am pretty certain that it’s a healthy mix of both and it makes writing fiction so liberating.
What’s your stance on the Chetan Bhagat debate, which is to ask, conversely, isn’t the Indian readership largely absent with regards to intellectual authorship?
RM: I think Indian writing in English is at risk. I think fiction in Indian regional languages has experimented with with an imagination that English writing has not even vaguely approached yet. I feel terrible that I don’t read enough translations. I also think we don’t have enough translations, or translators who are motivated enough to do justice to the type of work that is out there.
When it comes to English writing in India there are only a couple of types, one is literary- a shrinking audience but the potential to experiment is what I look forward to. You know what I want my contribution to Indian English writing to be? It’s to bring a gothic element to Indian writing. Setting up a darker set of circumstances and carrying that narrative with a certain biting calmness. That’s what makes me tick.
Listen, about Bhagat and all, those entertain the masses, especially an aspirational urban crowed that doesn’t need a literary perspective or approach to storytelling. Is the writing bad? I mean it’s catered to young middle India and in that it does a good job. The books themselves have no nuance, it doesn’t force a reader to ask the larger questions or imagine anything more than flirting with the idea of being mildly rebellious in love and balancing a “passion” as they sweat it out climbing the corporate ladder.
I think these types of books have allowed anyone to come write a really c-grade love story and get it to sell. These people go and call themselves writers and give talks all over the place. That part irks me, I mean whatever you are writing- pulp, mystery, science fiction or literary fiction, a good writer has to put in the work. The work entails months of editing, channeling the narrative arcs, and creating purpose with each word. It also involves being a good reader and having an appreciation for all types of writing or at least understanding why you don’t like certain kinds of writing as much as you do others. That’s being a writer. A country that is going gaa-goo-gaa over a person who wrote some I kissed- you- in -the- rain- nonsense and gets a platform to talk as a writer and tell others they can too, because it’s easy- that I have a problem with. It’s inauthentic and it’s stupid. Read all the pulp and c-grade stuff you want, there is no problem there, just don’t put too much value on the writer. Once a nation starts believing that these people should be heralded as writers and lead talks and answer questions on the process of writing- that’s a sham. I love them ripe 90’s type Bollywood movies just as much as the next person. But are we going to ask that scriptwriter to go to a film school and give a talk about writing a good script? His process of writing it?
Globally though there are books that do just this, target the masses with formulaic crap, and hey it entertains and it sells. I think literary fiction has always had a smaller audience and I don’t think that is going to change. We can however shake things up by writing books that don’t fall deeply into traditional thematic literature that has the usual caste, class, and sun ripened mango pickle. Books that challenge how literary fiction can be presented in new forms, with unexpected voices, and blunt themes. Perhaps that will create more readers. Let’s hope.
As a writer, how have you reached where you’ve reached?
RM: I think I am the sum of my rejections. Every rejection so far has been met with more writing. If you can beat the rejection and write with purpose. If you can look back at your work from 5 years ago and see why it’s such a terrific mess, then you know you have been growing and evolving your craft. My only ambition for the last decade has to been to get out a book of stories, it’s happening now. There’s a lot more that can come now if I am not lazy, but let’s say for now, I have reached a happy place. Ever been on an annoyingly long road trip? And then you see you’re close to that once place where everyone in the car has agreed to stop for lunch? And then you finally get there, you open the door, tumble out of the car, stretch and feel that growl in your stomach? That’s where I am.
As a writer, is there somewhere that you want to reach? What’s next?
RM: Totally want a Wikipedia page. I mean all real writers have a Wikipedia page, right?