Altaf Tyrewala is a Mumbai-based Indian, English-language writer. He studied advertising and marketing in New York, and returned to Mumbai in 1999 to work on his critically acclaimed debut novel, No God in Sight. In 2012, he published The Ministry of Hurt Sentiments. His new book is a collection of short stories, Englishh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperral Nation.
Kitaab’s Zafar Anjum interviewed him recently over email:
You started writing short stories in 2001 if I am not wrong. So far you have published two collections of short stories, assuming that your first book was a collection of interconnected stories. What explains your fascination with this genre?
I wrote my first short story on the job. I was working as a content developer for an e-learning firm. I guess I would have attempted a novel if I had cut my teeth doing long form journalism or even coming up with ad jingles (I had a degree in advertising). But creating content that would be accessed entirely through computer screens, it taught me a lesson in conciseness and making my point as quickly as possible. So when I began my foray into fiction writing, those e-learning habits were hard to drop. In a sense, No God In Sight is structured like a website, one story hyper-linked to the next, each story containing a world in itself, until things finally come full circle. But I also have to clarify, I never wrote a story without being acutely aware of how it would fit into the larger pattern of the stories preceding it. I wasn’t writing a novel, I wasn’t doing the classic short stories, I didn’t know what I was doing, but it consumed me for 4 years.
Do you plan to attempt a novel anytime soon? I am not saying that it necessary to do so.
Thank you, I appreciate how you’ve tried to soften the blow.
I tried, for several years after my first book, to write that follow-up career-defining agent-pleasing smash-hit book. And of course it had to be a “novel” novel, no cheating with interconnected stories, no pastiche work masquerading as a cohesive whole. I even came very close to finishing a novel or two. Maybe I am not old enough or skilled enough to be able to genuinely pull off a narrative arch from start to finish. I grow skeptical of my own devices. I see the artifice in ending something, unless it ends in death, which is predictable, or a sort-of-death, which is sentimental. Where writing a novel (and more importantly finishing it) is concerned, I become a bag of self-serving excuses.
Your stories are set in Mumbai. How do you see your relationship with Mumbai?
My stories used to be set in Mumbai. The city has started to wane from my fiction. Ironically, so have actual identifiable characters. My fiction, too, has started to become more conceptual, experimental, less rooted in actual physical milieus. I no longer live in the neighborhood I grew up in. In a sense, I’ve become estranged from the part of the city I knew most intimately. I live in a suburb now. I am navigating a different Mumbai: a Mumbai without pavements, with too much traffic, a place where one doesn’t loiter too much. It’s changing my writing already.
What is your typical day like?
I have a full-time job at an e-learning firm. Enough said about my “typical day”.
Who are your favourite short story writers? In English and other Indian languages?
No favorites, as such. But I’m a die-hard fan of the concept pieces that go up on the McSweeneys.net site.
Do you follow any particular writing technique or process? How do you know when you are done with a story?
When it starts to put me to sleep, that’s when I know I’m done with a story.
What kind of stories you are drawn to?
I used to believe that people revealed their true selves when they were in moments on crises. But I find that people also often reveal their true selves when they’re desperately trying to sell something to someone. I find marketing spiel riveting. Characters or situations revolving around the process of selling really make me curious. We’re all consumers now, it’s our predominant identity, and so we’re continuously being lured and enticed into spending our money on something by someone. How they do that luring, I find fascinating.
Your advice for new short story writers?
Never think of a short story in isolation. Remember to make your short stories talk to each other.