Writing Matters: In conversation with Siddharth Dasgupta
By Pervin Saket
Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet, novelist, and travel journalist. His words have appeared in global literary journals such as Litro, Entropy, Cha, Punch, The Bombay Literary Review, Coldnoon, and Burning House, included. He also undertakes cultural immersions with the likes of Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveller, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has three books to his name thus far; the short-story collection The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows and the poetry collection The Wanderlust Conspiracy emerged in 2017. Siddharth is currently looking to secure an adequately courageous publisher for his next literary release – a new collection of poetry. He writes at https://citizenbliss.squarespace.com | @citizen.bliss
Pervin: You’ve worked with the long-form and the short-form of fiction, as well as with various kinds of verses. What are your reflections on the processes behind all of these? In what ways are all three distinctly demanding and fulfilling?
Siddharth: The most compelling thrill for me in all of this is not knowing what comes next, and not knowing how exactly to control or demarcate ‘the process’ once it finally does arrive. In that sense, I treat each form the same – as an arrival with whom a courtship needs to be formed over time. Whether this leads to a relationship that is thrillingly brief or a drawn-out epic, sometimes manifesting itself over years, the frame of mind doesn’t actually alter itself all that much. You simply go in with the knowledge that with some journeys you’re going to have to buckle in for the long ride, while with some it’s more of a ‘wham-bam-Amsterdam’ time frame. Novels and stories will test time, patience, friendships, and perceived ideas of sanity. Poetry will test line lengths, dance forms, the heart, and an almirah of desires. The sense of fulfilment from both is proportionate, and dare I say it, contagious.
Pervin: Your work is very firmly anchored in various geographies, whether remembered or imagined or explored, and yet, there is rootlessness, a wandering, a yearning that characterizes your narratives. Where does this absorption with nostalgia and voyaging come from? And do you use place to actually talk about time?
Siddharth: I find this shared habitat between lastingness and rootlessness to be an entirely natural one. It speaks to our human existence as a motley crew of nomads, refugees, and wanderers. A sense of movement has always been integral to my life; it’s only natural that this state of being would extend to my life as a writer as well. It’s often been second nature to find myself at home, or at least something resembling home, at different places in the world. Concurrently though, I’ve found that you can very well be in a specific place at a specific point in time, and yet find yourself longing for it. You’re right: I think nostalgia lies at the heart of it. Some of us were assembled in that manner, I suppose, with a deep ache for another time and other horizons resident as permanent companion in our lives, nestled peacefully beside this to-and-fro between finding home in different longitudinal addresses and fleeing. In my literature, place is often the strongest indicator of time, even more so than character. A place doesn’t have to speak or gesticulate or enter into lengthy monologues; a place simply conveys.
Pervin: The figure of the flâneur informs the worldview of your books. This modern artist-poet-seeker is a wanderer, an examiner of the human condition, a lover of the urban and yet is not a part of the city’s technological changes, its newer economics and sub-cities. How deliberate is this approach? And what draws you towards this in-between point of view?
Siddharth: Maybe it’s a raging against the digital light; maybe it’s an ache for a time and place where words and the simple act of human conversation were the essential ingredients in fragments, relationships, what have you. I’ve never felt this approach as being too deliberate; these stories have simply never needed to adhere to a modern playbook. Obviously you can’t keep the technological face of cities out of your narrative entirely; it’s just that my stories and characters and landscapes have been perfectly content to perish or find themselves nourished some distance away from it. This ‘in-between point of view’, in the end, allows me to pick what I need and discard what I must.
Pervin: A writer’s influences and inspirations are many and subtle. But do you recognize any of your favourite writers peeking out from your lines or your themes?
Siddharth: I’m sure they’re all there, strewn across a geographical collage of sentences, dialogues, narratives, and landscapes. At times, I’ll find them peeking out from beneath the vulnerabilities of a certain character, or accosting me through the scents of a certain turn of phrase, or even surprising me through a specific passage of conversation. Much of this has to do with the books and bookshelves you’ve grown up with, the ones you’ve known as home. Marquez, Seth, Desai, Rushdie, Baudelaire, Plath, Fitzgerald… sometimes you spot an accent, and you simply smile. Life and a flood of the arts often have an even greater intrusive quality… a frame from Ray, a quirk borrowed from that childhood uncle with the cough syrup laugh, the lingering aromas of a fleeting love affair in Istanbul… nothing gets left behind.
Pervin: You’ve had three books published in the last four years, and across a range of forms – the first one a novel, the second a collection of short fiction, and the third, a collection of poetry. And you have another book of poems in the making. Where does this prolificacy come from, and do you wonder about running out of words?
Siddharth: It’s all smoke and mirrors of course, put down largely to the strange manner in which publishers and their schedules play themselves out. The simple truth is that I didn’t conceive, conspire, anguish over, and write these three books in the last four years. They’ve been longer affairs, some stories and characters nourished and obsessed over for years, before finally finding release and a sense of voice on the printed page. As for the second half of your question: I believe ‘running out of words’ is a terrible, unnecessary dagger for writers to live beneath. You simply go about this life and its assortment of passions with the abandon of a kite running wild on an open beach, stupidly safe in the knowledge that the breeze and its co-conspirator, the waves, won’t ever give out on you. If the words do decide to go on temporary hiatus at some point in time, there is of course that career in Swedish disco-pop.
Pervin: What is a poem?
Siddharth: A poem is a love letter to the fickle tendencies of your heart. A poem is the sway of an arm at the crux of a dance movement. A poem, then, is a heartbeat. At times, it’s the beat your heart skips; at times, it’s the beat that stays stilled, naked and alive to the raw resonances of a fractured world; at other times still, it’s the beat that rushes giddily through old gallis forsaken by time and boulevards filled with cobble and cities bred through myth, all the while screaming deliriously, ‘Here I am. I fucking dare you!’
Pervin: What contemporary poets and novelists do you read, particularly from South Asia, whether for companionship, inspiration or an insight into the common times you share?
Siddharth: To keep this reply relatively contained, I’ll stick to writers only from South Asia. There’s such a prolific spring bloom of stories and voices birthed from our lands, that the trick rests in giving each one adequate amounts of time. Jerry Pinto, for truth and his frescoes of Bombay; Rana Dasgupta, for treating the brutal and the fragile with equal hands; Kamila Shamsie, for courage and literary charisma; Prayaag Akbar, for a thing of beauty called Leila; Tishani Doshi, for mingling the scathing with the sublime; you, for poetry that startles; Anuradha Roy, Annie Zaidi, Salim, Kandasamy, Mukherjee… I’m not even venturing too deep into the diaspora tribe, even though they contribute so magnificently towards this being one of the great literary nations.
Pervin: There’s an aesthetic of refinement in your prose and poetry. But the vulgar, the filthy, the degenerate are also subjects of poetry and of an examination of life. Who speaks for that which is ugly in its sentiment or embarrassing in its grief or grisly in its pessimism, without the softness of grace and beauty?
Siddharth: Across time, there have been the warriors and there have been the sensualists. Seminal moments in this world’s history have always accommodated both. And the simple truth is that neither of these forms is an exclusive creature. Writing that skips along with a cadence dripping with lush romance and a sense of poetry can just as easily pinpoint the filth and the fury. Raw and stripped narratives can just as easily stray into the full-blown majesty of love. My personal catalogue thus far is proof enough of this, especially with some of the recent poetry. At the most ravaged of times across our collective histories, the sensual and the rhythmic have had a crucial role to play. You stay aware, you remain politically charged, you keep your social antenna attuned to the near and far, but in your literature you stay real and pay heed to the beat that informs your heart.
Pervin: Along with writing, you’re also a photographer and a graphic designer. What relationship do you observe between words and images, and how do you bring them together to create your unique signature? And also, in the act of reading, how do the semantics of a text work in relation to other elements of size, position, style, font, margins, colour, page to ink ratio? Is there enough attention being paid to this marriage between what the words say and how they are made to form on the page – from formal experiments by writers to production values by publishers?
Siddharth: Design, photography, and the act of creation are all governed by the need to tell a story. They’re subservient, in that sense, to the larger picture – which in this case is the word. The relationship they share – whether it’s centred around what form the cover takes or even an author portrait – is that of confidantes: giving each other enough space to express themselves, one leading the eye towards the other, together forming a narrative that conveys some but also leaves much to the reader’s eye. The act of reading is massively connected to typography (which in publishing parlance is often reduced to “what font are you using?”). Should a chapter title shout or should it defer, should an inner dialogue require the accent of an italic, is there adequate space between one passage and the next, are the words being allowed to breathe on a page, is the paper so thin that the following page ‘bleeds’ over with alacrity, is the page so ‘white’ that it nullifies the sense of nostalgia you were after? These are certainly questions publishers need to start asking themselves and their designers. This is the least attention our books deserve.
Pervin Saket is the author of a novel Urmila and of a collection of poems A Tinge of Turmeric. Her novel has been adapted into the acclaimed dance drama The Forgotten Wife, featuring the classical Indian dance forms Odissi, Bharatnatyam and Kathak. Pervin’s short fiction has appeared in Breaking the Bow – Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, The Asian Writer Collection, Earthen Lamp Journal among others. Pervin’s poetry has been featured in Kritya, Platform, Veils, Halos and Shackles, Helter Skelter and elsewhere.