By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
If I knew the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be able to write. It’s a question as difficult to answer as “Why do you love me so much?” I came very late to writing, and because this was after my divorce from standardised academic writing, I decided, almost moodily, that the reason for this would be cathartic. Soon after, fortunately, I realised that writing wasn’t therapeutic in the way I’d heard it was. Or at least that it wasn’t a painkiller. I write to make sense of my relationship with the world, I suppose.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My most recent book is my first. It’s called How I Became a Tree (Aleph Book Company). It’s a work of non-fiction, something between the essay, memoir, and meditation, and it’s a reflection on what constitutes the difference between human and non-human experience. I look at people like myself, writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, lovers, thinkers, who felt the desire to become a tree. What does it mean to live to what I call “tree time”? Or what is so special about sitting under a tree, or to live in a forest or make love to a tree? Is it true that the childless or childfree feel closer to plant life? My book gives a home to such speculations and investigations.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
This is a really difficult question. As an apprentice one is evolving and looking for a home – or homes – in genres. I find that I am repulsed by genres that have solidified into something readymade. I like the fluidity between genres, so that one can never say whether this is fiction or nonfiction, a poem or a found text. I gravitate towards the shorter forms, the poem, the essay, the novella. In subject matter too, the more neo-bureaucratic models of seriousness bore me. There are very few things I know about myself, but this I certainly do – I find the seemingly non-serious immensely interesting (my interest in plant life comes from that space too) and everything that is declared to be conventionally useless occupies my thought and attention.
Who are your favourite authors?
Amit Chaudhuri opened up the possibility of unusual – unconventional – ways of seeing the world. His novels challenged the way I’d allowed myself to become conditioned to the 19th-century novel and the various hand-me-down versions that have become the only way we understand the novel today. His essays, with their unique voice and the fluidity of movement between the personal and the political or aesthetic, allowed people like me to write a book such as the one I’ve written, with its meanderings and digressions and halts at different kinds of philosophies and their interactions with life. Not to forget that he is one of the best prose stylists in the English language. I was recently introduced to James Salter and I like the prose in a couple of his books. George Eliot’s prose style remains a go-to from my university days. I rarely read fiction now. I read a lot of poetry in Bangla – Shakti Chattopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore, the usual suspects, but also a lot of young poets in the little magazines.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
I find it difficult to reproduce – report? – the neighbourhood of everyday sounds that I meet every day: the shrill announcement of the pressure cooker, the whirr of the ceiling fan, vegetables scalding in burning oil, the sound of wet sand screeching from a slipper brushing against the floor, the creaking of a door, a growling stomach, the sound of leaves in the wind, and so on. It’s not onomatopoeia that I’m aiming for. I’d like these sounds to be the poem, without the crutch of adjectives. I’ve failed.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Walking with the one I love, our shadows melded in the winter sun, laughing, talking, unconscious of the obvious fact that in love even disagreement is a kind of agreement. The sad thing about such a state of bliss is that it is almost always retrospective. One begins to value it only after the moment is gone, after the shadows – and the light – have changed tropics.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Anger or rage is not something I can claim to have felt with any degree of authenticity. Inequality – a term that I do not use as tokenism but for a sense of entitlement that a certain class or group of people seem to take for granted – annoys me. As do our reliance on clichés. If you insist on the “raving mad” kind of anger it’d be the unnecessary honking of automobiles.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I feel far more adventurous at home than I do in places traditionally thought to nourish the “wild”, the boondocks, for instance. Also, the idea of a “retreat” is scary to me. What am I retreating from? That word – indeed the notion of a retreat – makes reading and writing, or any “creative” activity seem like a temporary one, one that must be abandoned when one returns to civilisation as it were. Writing, thinking, the practice of the arts as well as the sciences, these are everyday activities. A retreat seems like a sophisticated and artistically utilitarian version of a holiday. As someone who doesn’t have the liberty to enjoy such a break, I will name a couple of books I turn to often. This also fits in with the kind of person I am, and my aesthetic – which is an investigation of what is rubbished as the “ordinary”. Just as we wake up every morning knowing the day is the same and yet also different, just as a singer sings the same raag every morning but also brings something new to it every day, these books, with the same words and the same lines, left static and immobile by printing technology, become new to me every time I read them. Rabindranath Tagore’s Sanchayita, a selection of his poems and songs, brings something new to me every time I read it, which is quite often. Lately, for instance, I have been reading some of the poems aloud, scanning them, breathing as the structure of the lines demand. I’m left stupefied each time. In that fat book – perhaps the only fat book I like – is also a sensitive study of the writer’s anxiety, a feature I have only begun noticing in the last decade or so. If Tagore’s Sanchayita is a book found in most middle-class Bengali households, the other book that lives by my bedside is one that is perhaps out of print now. It is a slim collection of poems by Amit Chaudhuri and is called St Cyril Road and Other Poems. In no other book have I found such magical descriptions of light, light at various times of the day. For someone who feels deeply related to light in a way that is difficult to explain, being able to return to a line like “where the noon is a charged battery, and evening’s a visionary gloom” every now and then is to feel “charged” as it were.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
It’s a terrifying question. I wish I had the nerve to say something smart, but reading your question I have the sense of something burning – I can almost smell it, that black carbon.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
There’s a line in a Tagore poem that I read in middle school. The poem is “Dui Bigha Jomi” (Two Bighas of Land). The poor farmer, to whose piece of land the zamindar has taken a fancy, states the obvious, and Tagore gives this statement of fact the spine of a moral: ‘Ei jawgotey hai shei beshi chaaye, aachhey jar bhoori bhoori …’. In my very poor transliteration that would be – it is the wealthy who are greediest. In my reading, this is not just an indictment of materialist tendencies but also an aesthetic. It is a rejection of excess. I’m a believer in surplus but whether in life, in the way I cook or dress or decorate my house, or in the way I write, I reject excess.
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. Her first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, is published in India in February 2017. Her poems and essays have appeared in Granta, Guernica, Drunken Boat, the Prairie Schooner, Caravan, and other journals. Her website: http://sumanaroy.in/
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab