By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write because I have stories to tell. Because I want to tell these stories in a particular way. Some characters, and a vague, blurry indication of their predicament just pop up inside my head and I have no idea how they got there. Together, my characters and I, we embark on this journey to find out. This entire process – unpleasant at times but mostly exciting – provides me with the rush of air that keeps me going.
Sometimes though, I meet my characters in the real world. I may have heard about them from someone, so I go and meet them and find out their stories. I am talking about my non-fiction and reportage work here.
Basically, I am quiet, introverted and a loner. There’s silence all around me. Writing helps me to survive because I can’t talk much. I like to dwell in my own world in the company of my books, very few people I can relate to, and, the only way I am able to give vent to what’s buzzing inside my head is through the written words – whether it is published or what remains in the closet.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My recent book, Out of War (non-fiction), published by Speaking Tiger Books, is about the narratives of surrendered CPI (Maoist) cadres. I spent two years travelling through different parts of India – Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. I located them, talked to them for hours, and I’ve remained in touch with many for four years now. I tried to understand their lives and stories. In my book, I look at the Maoist movement, its successes and failures, the passions and sacrifices, through the struggles of individuals – their individual needs, personal longings, sufferings and self-respect.
How do these foot-soldiers themselves view the Maoist movement? Is the movement free from hierarchies and compromise? Are the soldiers free to visit their parents, partners, children? What about those that trust the police with the promise of a safe life and opt out? I visited their homes, heard their stories – stories of abuse, poverty, suffering, hurt, deceit, joy, love…
I worked hard to get these stories. The research was also emotionally taxing for me. It wrung out all my energy. These people and their stories deeply influenced me. Now I know why people turn to the Maoists for support, I know why they become Maoist cadres.
Professionally, I’ve achieved only that much – I’ve written the book, pouring my heart into it.
But personally, I’ve achieved much more. Without expecting to. It was incidental. There was a time when I worked full-time with a reputed newspaper, earned a fairly decent salary and felt happy about certain material comforts. I quit my job to write this book, but the cravings for material things had remained. Bit by bit, in the last four years that I worked on this book, the attachment to material things has gone, and I hope for good.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Simplicity in terms of the language I use. I am a bit gripped by and fixated on the inexorable sorrow of human condition, inequality, violence on account of gender inequality, and all of this comes into my writing, making it depressing. I think this morose streak – a bit like the huzun that Orhan Pamuk says the city of Istanbul is engulfed in – is part of me, and that is reflected in what I write. I have to struggle to find ways to fit it into a framework where the treatment can be simple. But humour is sadly missing. There is a lot to learn and rectify.
Who are your favorite authors?
Sylvia Plath, Anuradha Roy, Alice Munro, Truman Capote, Saadat Hasan Manto, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, Roald Dahl, Sailen Ghosh . . . too many . . . there are many more favourite authors . . .
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
My Young Adult fiction, Half the Field is Mine. A fiction that treats the subject of gender equity is challenging primarily because there are so many misconceptions prevailing, and even those who know these issues relatively better than others, feel that certain things ought to be treated in a particular way.
Half the Field is Mine is the story of a mixed football team where teenage boys and girls play together in the same team. The story concludes with a football match and I do not say which side wins – the mixed team of boys and girls or the only-boys’ team. Simply because when I talk of equality, I do not want the boys to lose. One of the difficulties in discussing gender and politics is that many tend to think you are being fair only if you make girls win. I do not agree. We easily get trapped by the same prejudice by being biased in favour of women. Parents do not let their boys cry, there are huge expectations from them to earn good salaries and financially support their families. That is unfair too.
When I talk about gender politics, I always keep that in mind. I did not make the mixed team win and the boys’ team lose because I do not want people to draw a conclusion based on that, as people are likely to do so.
Also, there is an episode in the book – when the two girls are threatened to be groped by one particular boy on the football field (when some boys want the girls out of their team), some readers thought it was a very serious matter that should have been discussed at length. It is a serious matter, but it was a conscious decision to deliberately not discuss it further. I didn’t want this to be debated, discussed and a “solution” presented in the book. I wanted the girls to boldly handle this and overcome the crisis quickly. I also mention rape in the book, but I go on to something else after briefly mentioning it. Because I wanted it to be a fun story that would handle such difficult issues with as much mirth, and in as much a positive way as possible.
The book was received extremely well, and I am very happy about that. People read it, talked about it, criticised, argued.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Travelling alone in buses through small towns and villages of India,
drinking tea with birds chirping around,
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
When I see the powerful hurting those that cannot strike back. Also, a certain Indian politician, whose appearance on TV channels and photographs in newspapers upsets me. It’s because of his policies, his work, and though I do not know if such hatred for an individual is acceptable, I can’t stop that feeling.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
The Grass Harp, by Truman Capote. I’d taken the book to the hospital (despite reading it twice) when I was going to have a baby. I thought I must have this book by my side if I were to die. Mysteriously, the book had vanished when I was back from the operation theatre after the birth of my son, though the so-called valuable things such as my mobile phone and the money in my wallet remained.
I would also take Anuradha Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing (which I have read), The Folded Earth and Sleeping on Jupiter, which I can’t wait to read. I would also carry Sukumar Ray’s nonsense poems, the complete works of Satyajit Ray, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Jean Genet. I haven’t read them in a long, long time.
Some books on Indian tribal art (Gond paintings are my favourite) and my list is almost complete. Just add some French poetry books which I will try to decipher without referring to the English translations because I have just started to learn a bit of French and it needs lots of improvement! Three months should be good.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My son’s Tintin books. My mother had saved money over many years to buy the entire set of Tintin books for my son. For us, it’s the most precious thing on earth.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
“I could leave the world with today in my eyes” – Truman Capote in A Christmas Memory.
Swati Sengupta studied English at Jadavpur University and then worked as a journalist for various newspapers in Kolkata. She now freelances for newspapers and writes fiction and non-fiction books. Her published books include Half the Field Is Mine, Guns on My Red Earth and The Talking Bird. Out of War, published by Speaking Tiger is her latest book.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab