by R K Biswas
Monideepa Sahu is a former bank manager. She has authored Going Home in the Rain, and Other Stories (Kitaab, Singapore), Riddle of the Seventh Stone (Zubaan) and Rabindranath Tagore: The Renaissance Man (Penguin/Puffin). Her short fiction has been accepted into collections from Central Michigan University, Northeastern Illinois University, Marshall Cavendish (Singapore), Puffin, Scholastic India, and elsewhere. She has been a Views columnist with Bangalore Mirror (Times of India Group), and regularly writes for Deccan Herald and other mainstream publications. She is Fiction Editor with Kitaab.
Spending her growing years in New Delhi and Washington D. C., and a couple of decades in Bangalore, she is now living out of suitcases and packing boxes. During her nomadic phases, she has also called Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar and charming small towns in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh her home. She blogs at: http://monideepa.blogspot.in/.
RKB: There’s a quote in your blog which reads “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.” Can you share some more musings on this?
MS: I see stories everywhere; in overheard conversations, in the gestures and body language of passing strangers, or a post-it note stuck on someone’s fridge door. I often play with various themes, techniques and styles. Fantasy, ghostly supernatural stories, “literary” stories, magic realism, have all touched my writings at different times. While I have a soft corner for literary fiction, it’s challenging to step out of the comfort zone of a favourite genre. It’s also more fun to come up with the unexpected.
Creative artists need to play freely with ideas and modes of expression, and there will be mistakes and false steps. The end product may be quite different from the original plan. The perceptive artist will realise which of these deviations are not working. The artist will also realise that some tangents from the original plan are leading to interesting, if unexpected paths. Those are the mistakes to keep, and work upon. The short story “Dhatura” is one such “mistake”. I imagined Surpanakha as a wild character with her own code of ethics. When I submitted a draft to an international online workshop, a fellow writer saw a strong combination of horror and erotica, which I hadn’t initially planned. This “mistake” was definitely a keeper.
Sometimes it is difficult for a writer to straddle the twin worlds of adult and children’s writing. You seem to be at ease, gliding from one realm into the other. Can you give us a bit of insight? Is there a method to it or you give in to inspiration as and when it comes?
I’m happier probing beyond the known and predictable. I sometimes work on various ideas simultaneously. I try to empathise, put myself into the shoes of the protagonists of my stories. Once I get myself into my character’s head, I imagine how the character will deal with situations arising from the plot. The rest follows. That’s my method, in a nutshell. My protagonists have a good mix of men and women of various ages and stations in life. There are also the ancient garbage-loving rat and smart-alecky spider of Riddle of the Seventh Stone, and the monkey protagonist of Road Kill.
In your short story collection I found a strong element of nature permeating through the book. Tell us about your relationship with nature. (Glimpses from your childhood?)
I’ve grown up in national capitals. Yet even in urban jungles, various life forms thrive alongside humanity. Monsoon downpours can flood city streets, and bring human life and commerce to a standstill. Wherever we are, natural forces are at play. We only need eyes to notice this.
That’s how rats, spiders and bugs with their own alternate secret world within the city of Bangalore, are the movers and shakers of Riddle of the Seventh Stone.
Life, living things, fascinate me in a way inanimate objects cannot. Tiny birds flocking to a birdbath outside my window, excite me in ways a shiny new BMW parked in front of our house never will. Rather than burn with envy and curiosity about that grand car and its owner, I feel happier listening to the little birds’ songs. I’m amazed by the balancing forces of nature. Young plants hopefully spread tendrils through cracks in walls and pavements. A couple of cups of water can sustain many birds for a whole summer’s day. Even predatory animals attack because they need food. Senseless greed, jealousy and violence seem to be more evolved, human qualities.
Is there any particular story in your own collection that means more or remained with you longer after you’d written it? The first story “A Royal Tour” appears autobiographical, but I would like to know more about any other that impacted you the writer.
“A Royal Tour” does indeed draw heavily upon my personal experiences. I was asked to write a creative non-fiction piece, which evolved into fiction, and was accepted for publication anyway. Each story is based upon something that affected me in some way. “Hoshi’s Bombay”, with its backdrop of urban violence and decay, has special relevance in these times. We see how vested interests fan flames of communal hatred, inciting death and destruction for their petty political and material gains even today. Like Hoshi in the story, I also see glimmers of hope, of people’s capability for random acts of kindness and selflessness.
My parents surrounded me with books from the time when I was a toddler. Somewhere along the way, this love for books evolved into writing. I wrote short stories for my school and college magazines. My first feature story was published by a major newspaper in 1997.
The eight odd years I spent in the bank took me to distant places, where I encountered new people and cultures. Those experiences continue to offer new perspectives and insights, the stuff of stories.
What is a typical day in the life of the writer Monideepa Sahu?
A typical day in my life is full of excitement. Hunting elusive domestic helpers, solving mysteries of missing keys, expeditions to vegetable and fish markets, and grappling with piles of laundry; there’s never a dull moment. As I write this, a borewell is being drilled behind, and stones are being cut in the front of our house. I’m strengthening my mental concentration by tuning out the deafening noise and focusing my thoughts.
I write what I can, when I can. I try to do my best and not waste energy blaming circumstances.
Who are your favourite writers? Also include your favourite women writers.
It’s difficult and unfair to pinpoint one or two favourites when there are so many talented writers and beautiful books out there. Also, a good writer is a good writer. The writer’s gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other socially distinguishing criteria, doesn’t matter so much to me. Their work, their books, are what I love and appreciate.
Tell us a bit about your first children’s book The Riddle of the Seventh Stone (Zubaan). The inspiration, the journey etc.
ROTSS, as some young readers call it, was inspired by real life. Research for a feature story about Bangalore’s Avenue Road area led me to a unique shop dealing in rare herbs. As I chatted with the owner, I noted the dinghy surroundings. A sepia tinted photo of the owner’s grandfather peered down at us from the wall. A spider spun an elaborate web around the lone light bulb dangling from the ceiling. A rat scurried about in the dark corners. That was the stuff of a story for me,
The novel lay in my hard drive for several years. Nobody wanted to back an unknown writer with an unusual story. A couple of US agents nibbled, only to say that a completely Indian story with no cross-cultural elements would not have a wide overseas market. Then I entered it anonymously at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival Open Book Pitch. Zubaan Books picked it up there. It was a pleasure working with thorough professionals with that rare touch of warmth and humanity.
You have also written a nonfiction book for children Rabindranath Tagore: The Renaissance Man (Puffin Lives). Can you share a bit about that journey as well?
This book was commissioned, so there was no tension about finding a publisher. The subject was suggested by a senior editor, and I readily accepted it. I grew up listening to Tagore’s songs, and reading his novels, stories and poems in the original Bangla. His beautiful memoir, My Reminiscences, had charmed me through several readings.
I thought the task would be simple, but as I researched Tagore’s life, I found a wealth of information about this literary genius, musical talent, educationist, philosopher and nationalist. Writing a brief and lucid biography was not simple at all. I learnt so much while writing this and my admiration for Tagore grew as a result.
Your stories have been included in many anthologies. Any which is a favourite, that you’d like to talk about?
My story, “Rites of Passage”, was published by Penguin in an anthology of paranormal stories. This story, set in a haunted medical college, isn’t quite my favourite. But it has elements which continue to trouble me; the unusual pressures, superhuman demands on young medical students, who often feel lost far from family and friends, and find nobody to offer emotional support. It was written in memory of a brilliant young doctor we knew, who left his home in Bangalore for pursuing higher studies in a prestigious medical college at the other end of India. He died there shortly after, under violent and mysterious circumstances. The Bangalore press took up the matter as front page news, and then soon became silent.
This senseless death moved me. I would want to expand this idea someday.
What social issues bother you? How do you tackle them as a writer – anything from your own writing that you’d like to share?
I feel troubled by the artificial divisions created among human beings. Vested interests foment these divisions, hoping to divide and rule over people. The media constantly bombards us with divisive images. Race, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation and much more are projected in a selective and skewed manner which divides people. We are constantly urged to take sides, to be judgemental, to turn against “others” without verifying and understanding the full facts.
This is one of the many ideas in the story “Dhatura”. Some scholars hold that the vanaras and the rakshashas in the Ramayana weren’t really monkeys and demons. They were probably aboriginal tribes whose appearance and customs set them apart from the mainstream society. In my story, Surpanakha and the vanara warrior she rescues from the battlefield, realise how they and their people were manipulated to fight against each other. They understand the futility of war, in which everyone suffers except a few vested interests.