Team Kitaab is in conversation with writer and translator Bhaswati Ghosh whose story is soon going to be published in TBASS 2021.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her first book of fiction is ‘Victory Colony, 1950’. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English, ‘My Days with Ramkinkar Baij’ won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Scroll, The Wire, Cargo Literary, Cafe Dissensus Everyday, Pithead Chapel, Warscapes, and The Maynard. Bhaswati lives in Ontario, Canada and is an editor with The Woman Inc. She is currently working on a nonfiction book on New Delhi, India. Visit her at https://bhaswatighosh.com/
Her story ‘Apu’s Goals’ is going to be a part of TBASS 2021 (Kitaab, 2021)
Team Kitaab: Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
Bhaswati Ghosh: I think my first taste of writing as a vehicle for creative joy happened in an English examination in middle school when I had to write an essay on a memorable experience. That and having an author for a grandmother at home must have been the initial catalysts in my writing journey. Writing is one of those bugs — once it’s bitten you, you can’t let go of its influence on you.
Like it is to most practitioners, writing is for me a mode of self-expression, a way to connect with and respond to the world out there and also a way to connect with my inner universe and its meteor bursts. More selfishly, it is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to inhabit places, moments and lives I would never get to otherwise.
Team Kitaab: Share a bit about your writing journey so far. How did you start? Any roadblocks? Who were your strongest supporters? Any tips to share with aspiring writers who are just beginning their journey or are about to begin it?
Bhaswati Ghosh: My writing journey began as soon as I finished formal education and joined the world of journalism. While a lot of that was related to factual reporting, it also introduced me to the world of “soft stories,” features and essays surrounding art, culture and social developments. I began by writing for newspapers, then television news and eventually the online world.
My first published book, ‘My Days With Ramkinkar Baij’ is a work of translation that came out in 2011. This work also got me the Charles Wallace (India) Trust fellowship in translation. More recently, in August 2020, my debut novel, ‘Victory Colony, 1950’ was published.
Roadblocks: None that I can think of.
The key for me has been to simply keep at it. In that sense, I’ve been my strongest supporter, while also receiving the love and camaraderie of some great writer friends and my closest family members. What has worked for me is to always learn from writers whose work inspires me, consciously improving my craft with continuous practice, rigorous editing and fine tuning and broadening my scope beyond my comfort areas, which in my case has been creative nonfiction.
Team Kitaab: Tell us about your most recent book or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Bhaswati Ghosh: My most recent book is Victory Colony, 1950, my debut novel. It’s a book of historical fiction set against the aftermath of the partition of India and the refugee crisis that the state of West Bengal witnessed in the early 1950s. I not only wanted to tell the story of the refugees, but that of a poor refugee woman. Those are the stories that are completely whitewashed. You only hear about them as numbers, as in “so many million” refugees crossed the border and such. I wanted to explore this traumatising event at a human and emotional level.
I did so by looking at what happens to a young refugee woman like Amala Manna, the protagonist of my novel once she’d been forced to migrate to a new land — how does she make herself at home in an alien setting where everybody else is a stranger; how does she cope with the trauma of her very recent past; and most importantly, how does the influx of people like her in a city like Calcutta affect the social dynamic of that place? Forced migration is a phenomenon that continues to afflict many even today, and as I read about refugees from different conflict regions the world over, these were the questions I wanted to ponder on.
Team Kitaab: Describe your writing aesthetic.
Bhaswati Ghosh: My writing concerns itself with understanding, at a deeper level, the stories I want to tell and to tell them with a degree of dignity and poise. In that sense, I would say my writing aesthetic is one of lyrical empathy.
Team Kitaab: What/ Who is your writing inspiration?
Bhaswati Ghosh: Life itself is the biggest inspiration, of course, as it invites me to be curious with both a learner’s quest and a child’s wonder. My grandmother, who is no more, continues to be a strong motivator to me as a writer. I can scarcely remember a day when I didn’t see her writing, notwithstanding the enormous challenges she had to face in her struggle for survival as a displaced person in Delhi, which was completely a foreign country for her when she landed there from Bengal in 1948, following the trail of my grandfather’s job.
My brother, a graphic artist and writer himself, continues to be a major inspiration as are the many wonderful writer friends I’ve had the good fortune of knowing.
Team Kitaab: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Bhaswati Ghosh: I’ve never given much thought to this concept, so I think I have the opposite problem. There are always way more writing, editing and translation projects I have on my plate at any given time than I can handle. I have a full-time day job, so my writing time is already pretty limited.
Team Kitaab: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Bhaswati Ghosh: Having written only one novel so far, I would say I am a combination of the two with a heavy tilt towards being a pantser. I don’t have the plot fully fleshed out when writing fiction. It develops as the writing does, bit by bit. This can be painful, but it also leads one to surprises and plot twists one hadn’t seen coming before.
Who are your favorite authors/screenwriters?
Bhaswati Ghosh: The list is too long, but I want to name women writers like Amiya Sen, my grandmother, as well as Mahasweta Devi, Ismat Chugtai, Toni Morrison, Alice Munroe and Anuradha Roy, whose works have always brought me delight, heartbreak and hope as a reader and gratitude and inspiration as a writer.
Team Kitaab: What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Bhaswati Ghosh: Every work, no matter how big or small, brings its own set of challenges, but by far, my novel, Victory Colony, 1950 proved to be the most challenging for me. This was because I had no previous experience of writing a full-length work of fiction and even more so due to the research involved in writing the book.
As it is based on historical events, I had to dig out not only a lot of facts and figures such as government measures for refugee rehabilitation, camp conditions and such, but also details on the everyday lives of the refugees — bus and tram timings, transport routes in Calcutta, the kind of food the characters ate, down to the smallest details of their lives both inside the house and outside. This took a long time, as I was geographically far removed from the setting of the book and didn’t have direct access to libraries and archives in Kolkata.
The crafting of the novel — how much to tell and what to withhold — posed its own share of challenges as did advancing the plot (did I say I am more of a pantser?). But all of it was well worth the effort in the end, going by the feedback I have received from some kind readers with whom the story resonated.
Team Kitaab: What’s your idea of bliss?
Bhaswati Ghosh: The spark in momentary and seemingly ordinary things. Discovering the self-assured song of a song sparrow, spotting a plant at the local nursery that reminds me of my hometown oceans away, getting to pick vegetables from the backyard for a weekday dinner, seeing my niece act all grown up at ten and realizing how endearingly innocent she continues to be, finding kind souls and unplanned marvels while travelling.
Bliss, for me, is not a special state to achieve or aspire to, but having the sight of a child that ferrets out wonder in the unlikeliest of places and the wisdom of a seer who knows it to encompass everything we experience, even darkness and discomfort.
Team Kitaab: What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Bhaswati Ghosh: I would be hard pressed to feel angry, especially of the kind described in the question. But many things make me sad, really, deeply, achingly sad. Bigotry and the hate it can generate, the denial of climate change and devastating effects of human interference on the environment, majoritarianism in any form or shape, lack of empathy, passive aggression in “friends”.
Team Kitaab: What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Bhaswati Ghosh: Chhinnapatrabali, Rabindranath Tagore’s letters written to his niece, Indira Debi. Gitabitan, Tagore’s book of songs. Any book on my current reading list.
Team Kitaab: Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
Bhaswati Ghosh: My heart.
Team Kitaab: Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Bhaswati Ghosh: Free yourself of every philosophy and be.