By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
Growing up in a big family of book-lovers and where the head of the family was a distinguished author, it was inevitable that one got books as birthday gifts. Added to that was the daunting task of delivering an oral essay of every book read to a stern panel of adults! The love for words, consequently, was destined to bite very early. Although I trained for commercial art and worked as an illustrator-visualizer in my early years and aspired to paint in oils someday, the weight and thrust of words and story ideas was too great at one point and they threatened to erupt and take precedence over everything else, including my domestic life. I had no option but to sit down and put pen to paper. All of life’s experiences appeared to be translating into words somehow, and the need for self-expression took the form of writing (both fiction and non-fiction). Painterly aspirations went flying out of the window.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What are you trying to say or achieve with it?
My most recently published book is a collection of short stories, Lamplight: Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands. Some of the stories in this collection are loosely based on the ghost stories handed down from generation to generation in my father’s family. My grandparents lived in an old rambling house in Munger, Bihar, where all kinds of creepy things are supposed to have happened and I’ve taken inspiration from these.
I’m a huge admirer of the subtle form of story-telling, especially when it comes to the paranormal. Authors like Henry James, Stephen King and Ruskin Bond who create menacing atmospherics with the crafty use of language, where the reader’s mind can come unhinged with terror and imagination run rampant by the mere use of subtle suggestions, is the kind of craft I aspire to. Not for me the over-the-top spooking with blood, bones, screams and a whole lot of pyrotechnics. In Lamplight, I’ve taken an empathetic stance towards ghosts. Along with being chilling entities, I’ve tried to portray ghosts as piquant, funny, amorous, lovable and even gluttonous! I’ve allowed my ghosts to have the blast of their lives (or death, as the case may be!) in the stories.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I was barely nine when I read this magical novella called The Grass Harp by Truman Capote. The plot remains fuzzy in mind, it had something to do with an orphaned boy and two elderly ladies sitting on a branch of a tree and observing life. But till date I remember the vivid scene created by the author’s prose, that of a sea of emerald green grass waving in the breeze, bright golden sunshine, an idyllic summer’s day and a child with a head full of impossible longings. I love the auditory and visual qualities that certain writers conjure up by the magic of their prose. Some books titles are forgotten, one may even confuse plots but certain passages remain in the mind with their wonderful imagery. A rainy city at dusk, the lapping of waves against a boat on a starlit night and the silent aftermath of a riot-torn area are just some of the assorted bits that have stayed in memory after reading a couple of recent books. A book’s plot is of prime importance, for sure, but the rhythm of words, vibrant imagery and the ability to create a frequency that connects instantaneously with the reader is what I hope to achieve with every work of fiction I write. It is also immensely interesting to explore the secret worlds that people inhabit. There is a gray zone between what most people appear to be and what they truly are and it is an author’s privilege to explore this no-man’s land. Fictitious characters are almost always based on real life models, the twists and loops in their personalities, the angled perceptions of reality by different characters (reality, as it is, is a very subjective affair), mirages of the mind and the point where the real often blends into the surreal….. I try to explore these aspects in my writing.
Who are your favourite authors?
I believe there is an author for every reason and every season! Crime fiction and espionage make for my all-time favourite genres and I hoard books written by Ruth Rendell, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, John le Carre and Jo Nesbo. The historical romances penned by Mary Stewart, Catherine Gaskin, Hillary Mantel and Georgette Heyer never lose their charm for me while my admiration for the quiet craft of literary giants Antony Doerr, Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson knows no bounds. P. G. Wodehouse and Gerald Durrell for unlimited laughs and Tagore, Manto, Premchand, O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant and Gulzar for their exquisitely crafted short stories. J. D. Salinger for every kind of season and reason.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Recently I was commissioned to write a story for the collection of short stories, The Pleasure Principle: The Amaryllis Book of Erotic Stories. So far, my fiction had always revolved around situational humour, Bengali angst, family drama and the paranormal, all of it very wholesome and sanitized. With erotic writing I was on alien territory and the urge to refuse the offer and bolt for familiar spaces was very strong. However, on second thoughts I felt that if I refused to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself, I had no business calling myself a writer.
So, with all cylinders fired, I got down to writing that story that began to emerge more as noir than erotic. The line dividing the erotic from pornography is really very thin and leaves one wondering how much one hold back and how much one should express in one’s writing. Fortunately for me, the sensual parts blended in in an organic manner (or so I would like to think!) with the rest of the crime thriller. The one giant emotion I experienced on completing the story was one of release: release from self-imposed restrictions, society-dictated inhibitions and the freedom to break free of compartments and merrily vault across genres.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Sometime back, I recall seeing a picture of author Jeffrey Archer’s house and his writing station: a beautifully architected house, lush sprawling lawns on a cliff edge with the sea pounding below, and an enormous writing table overlooking this scene. Peace, quiet and sunshine all around. To me, this magazine picture represented the absolute idea of paradise.
At the personal level, I equate bliss with swathes of solitude, silence, a scenic setting, great music and an endless supply of good books. And yes, an inexhaustible supply of ready-to-eat yummy food, too! Although I’m lucky to live in a house that overlooks vast expanses of greenery, real life is always interrupting in the form of doorbells, domestic demands, necessary socializing, electronic clutter and the irrepressible urge to indulge in social networking at all times of the day. But paradoxically, these everyday affairs are the very things that fuel my writing. My perfect recipe for bliss would be long stretches of solitude interspersed with short bursts of hectic activity.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the china raging mad?
One only has to open the newspapers in the mornings for one’s temper to shoot through the roof. Injustice (at every level), sexist jokes and attitudes, a legal system that allows rapists and other criminals to jump parole and vanish into thin air, traffic cops who tow away legitimately parked cars at lunch time and the all prevalent greasing-the-palm norm of getting one’s work done from government officials. . . the list is endless.
Recently, I reviewed a book about hi-society jinks in Delhi which is written by a socialite. A very superficial and frivolous work, the book had very little literary merit and yet, shockingly, it topped the best seller list for consecutive weeks. The current celebrity culture in the literary arena which involves powerful machinery catapulting a celebrity-penned book to best-selling status even before it is properly out in the market is dangerous as most readers on the run go by these recommendation lists. This kind of fraudulent manufactured literary success combined with the constant effort to dumb down popular writing augurs ill for talented new writers looking to make their mark. Popular writing is losing nuances and texture in its hurry to gather commercial success. The aggressive promotion of quick-fix books with their over simplified contents can only result in an erosion in the quality of prose. There is a lot that is going awry in the publishing industry that makes one angry.
What books would you take on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Franny and Zooey by J. D Salinger, The Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver’s tour de force set in Congo, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Gene and the entire collection of detective Byomkesh Bakshi stories penned by my grandfather, Saradindu Bandopadhyay.
Your house is burning down. What is the most important thing you’d take with you?
Quite a few things actually- my bank documents and vault keys, my favourite lipstick that has stopped being manufactured, my unfinished manuscripts, my closet collection of poems and my tattered copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass by Lewis Carroll, published in 1933 and with ninety-two original line illustrations by John Tenniel.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Read, and let read.
Kankana Basu is a Mumbai based novelist, illustrator, journalist and literary critic. Her debut book of short stories, Vinegar Sunday, was long listed for the 2005 Hutch Crossword Book Award and her novel, Cappuccino Dusk was long listed for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize and the Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2009. The latest book of short stories, Lamplight: Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands, was declared a bestseller and her short story Graveyard Shift is featured in The Pleasure Principle: The Amaryllis Book of Erotic Stories.
Kankana Basu’s journalistic writing revolving around travel, humour, wellness, lifestyle, education and Mumbai’s human interest stories have appeared in publications like The Times of India, The Hindu, DNA, Mid-Day, Femina, Bombay Times, Westside Plus, The Deccan Herald, The Bengal Post, OPEN (magazine), Urban Voice, Vislumbres (the annual publication of the Embassy of Spain), Discover India and Swagat. She reviews books for The Sunday Hindu, The New Indian Express and The Asian Age and assists in translating the works of her grandfather, the late Bengali author Saradindu Bandopadhyay.
Her website http://www.kankanabasu.com showcases her most significant works.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab