The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Debotri Dhar

by Zafar Anjum

Debotri Dhar (on the left) at the launch of her debut novel in New Delhi
Debotri Dhar (on the left) at the launch of her debut novel in New Delhi

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I have stories to tell. Stories of love, loss and laughter, of travel, mutating histories and multiple geographies, of emotions and impossible choices. And because I’m in love with language, with the way words can hurt and heal…

courtesansTell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My novel The Courtesans of Karim Street has recently been released. It’s a story set in India and the United States, and straddles the historical past and contemporary present. I wanted to write about courtesans, situating them in a shifting political, cultural and material landscape. The courtesans tend to be frozen in time and in our cultural imagination; on one level, I was therefore trying to recuperate their voice. At the same time, I also wanted to engage in cross-cultural conversations, and dismantle the hierarchies between the West and the rest through my narrative choices. So rather than a historical romance, I decided to do something more creative, hybrid and contemporary. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining story, with lots of romance and a hint of intrigue. The two key protagonists in the novel are Megan and Naina. Megan Adams is an academic, and some of the university classroom scenes are inspired by my day job as an academic in America. (Writing fiction is the night job, so to speak!) Naina is a music teacher who hails from a family of courtesans. These two women are supported by a rich array of other characters from the past and present. The story, ultimately, is of the future – of hope, friendship, and love.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Attractive storylines and lyrical language…evocative imagery, rich with sounds, sights, smells. To the extent that aesthetics are hard to separate from politics, I also like to mix English with some words from Indian vernaculars and other languages. In The Courtesans of Karim Street, for instance, I’ve mixed in some Urdu in the form of Ghalib’s couplets, some Pidgin English, some colloquialisms.

Who are your favorite writers?

As a child, Rabindranath Tagore and Enid Blyton. I wrote in a newspaper column not too long ago that Blyton’s books were my first forays into the exhilarating, erotic world of travel, the known and unknown spaces that are born when latitudes shift and cultures collide. Afterwards, Premchand, Virginia Woolf, P.G Wodehouse, Edna O’Brien, Salman Rushdie, Téa Obreht, Bharati Mukherjee (a renowned Indian-American writer, with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure of corresponding), Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai and so many others…my full list would be very long. I also like romantic fiction, and writers like Danielle Steele who give us fast-paced, entertaining stories. I have eclectic tastes, and a part of me wants to unsettle the literary-commercial divide within literature.

book release dhar2What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

I published some feminist fictional rewritings of Hindu mythology. You see, I identify both as Hindu and as feminist. Faith for me is beautiful, but I also believe religious faith must allow space for critique and evolution in keeping with the times. Not everyone thinks of religion this way; discussions on faith often devolve into a polarized debate between those with little knowledge of the texts, philosophies, and original languages like Sanskrit on one side and those adhering to orthodox, unchanging understandings of religion on the other. Those short stories were challenging to write, because you know you’re getting into controversial terrain and no side will be happy…

What’s your idea of bliss?

A pretty cottage tucked away in the folds of the Himalayas. Walks in the mountain mists, silence, solitude. Oh, and a good book, a plate of kebabs and some coriander chutney to dip them in, while it snows softly outside.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Violence against women.

What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

Three months is a long time… To begin with, I would take some academic books, because I’m pretty sure there will be some journal article submission deadline looming over my head, boondocks or not. Then, a biography of someone inspiring. A slim volume of some of the more beautiful portions of the Upanishads. A collection of Ghalib’s poetry. P.G Wodehouse…laughter is important in life, and no one does satire like Wodehouse. An Agatha Christie or Mary Higgins Clark mystery. A nice romance by Nora Roberts. And a cookbook, to shortlist recipes to try out when I get back!

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My passport and my certificates. I live alone, so there are no babies or cats to save. Material goods don’t mean much anyway. But if I lose my documents, can you imagine how much running around I’d have to do? That too, after just having escaped from a fire!

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Transcendence. To have everything mean so much that nothing means much at all. As Ghalib would say, “Mushkilein itni padeen hum par ki aasaan ho gayeen.”

Author Biography:

book release Dhar 3Debotri Dhar was educated in India, the United Kingdom and the United States. She holds a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies, with distinction, from the University of Oxford, UK, and a Ph.D. in Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University, USA, and is currently a visiting fellow and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA. Debotri juggles university teaching and academic research in the day with lively bursts of creative writing at night. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines across the world, followed by the short story collection Postcards from Oxford: Stories of Women and Travel. The Courtesans of Karim Street is her second novel.