The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Poile Sengupta

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By Monideepa Sahu

Poile Sengupta2 - October 2014Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I have to. I do not know how to define it; it is more than a need, more than a want, a passion, an identity, a gift, a curse, the demon – the vetaal – on my back. I do not know what I would be if I were not a writer.

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

My latest book is my first novel for adults – Inga. I was exploring a new genre. I started, as always, with the characters;

they had to be true. Through Rapa and Inga, the main characters, I brought up issues of sexuality, caste and patriarchy. In a land where same sex relationships are still considered to be criminal, I tried to say that love, and the language of love, is the same for everyone. Apart from this, I have been critical of the iron restrictions of Brahminism, which still exists in many conservative families. Running through the whole novel is the questioning of religiosity and the true meaning of spirituality in the lives of ordinary people.

But I also wanted to take the English language by its neck and make it writhe and twist and coil, and dance and bloom. One of the ways by which I have done this is by deliberately imitating the classic English writers in an Indian context, through Rapa’s journal entries. Of course I needed a story too, to keep my readers engaged. And, using Wilkie Collins’ recommendation, I had to make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Everything I write has to fit. The title, the narrative, the length of that narrative, and of course, the choice of words, the way I fashion them, all have to fit the genre I have chosen. I also have to keep myself aware of the age group I am writing for when I write for children. This is always tricky, since a child of ten thinks very differently from a child of five, an urban child with access to a computer and video games has a vocabulary much more sophisticated than a child from semi urban and rural areas. Actually, no writer really knows who reads their work. What is important to me is that my writing sustains its own inner logic rather like a market scene in a Tintin book, where every detail however strange in itself dovetails into the larger picture.

You write for children and for adults. You’ve written stories, novels and plays. How do you tackle the demands of these diverse genres?

By forgetting what I’ve done before. It helps that I’ve never given myself a formula for writing though I am often tempted to do so when I see the commercial success of chic lit and the like. Since every new work is as fresh as a piece of bare ground, it takes me time to fit in the features I want there. The genre I choose must be appropriate to the concept I wish to explore.

I am also particular that the narrative reads well to the ear; this is very important when writing for the stage but for me, it needs to be so in whatever I write.

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

Oh! Every piece of work is tough. The starting is probably the most agonising, then it gets a little easier sometimes, but there could be rough patches too in between. And then the ending! O God! The sleeplessness, the torment, the choosing, the rejecting!

In terms of time alone, Inga has been the most difficult of my work. It took me nearly five years to write. I had to live with this character who began to beat drums in my head and would not let go till I wrote her out of me. This was Rapa, the main narrator in the book, obsessive, one track minded, always in a rage, so very insular. Then there was Inga, softer certainly, but insistent too, and irritating because she shrouded herself in deliberate mystery. But I had to live with them for years, create a habitation for them, a lifestyle, a context, make them believable. This, no doubt, is the challenge all writers set for themselves.

What’s your idea of bliss?

To know that all my family is well, to be sitting quietly listening to an audio book and knitting.

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

Dishonesty in words and behaviour especially in those who can afford to be faithful to what they say. My money may be stolen by somebody who feels deprived, I can accept that; but to rob me of my trust is villainy.

I now have a new challenge visited on me. I have lost my ability to read because of macular degeneration, even my own work. So….

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

Probably the English audio versions of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam, with their Sanskrit originals, if available. Some Shakespeare, not his tragedies though, and lots of Trollope, all to be listened to.

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

Of course I would pull out anyone else who may be in the house with me. But otherwise, I would take my reading glasses if I could find them.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

I would like people to be happy when I am with them.

We would also request a 100 word author bio note with links to your website, and an author photograph.

Biography

Poile Sengupta is a novelist, poet, playwright and short fiction writer, for both children and adults. Her recent fiction for children includes Role Call and Role Call Again, Rupa, 2003, Vikram and Vetal, Puffin, 2005, and Vikramaditya’s Throne, Puffin, 2007. Her stories have also been widely anthologised and her works have been translated into Bhasa Indonesia and French.

Sengupta the playwright has a book of six plays – Women Centre Stage, Routledge, 2010, and a set of seven one Act plays for children – Good Heavens!, Puffin, 2006.

Sengupta’s first novel for adults, Inga, was published by Tranquebar in October 2014. Suresh Menon in the DNA Mumbai calls it Booker-worthy. Aparna Karthikeyan in The Hindu calls it “A story that’s as brutal as it’s beautiful; told in dazzling language.”

Her website is http://poile.net/

 

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

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