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By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
My stories arise from discontent, disenfranchisement, the periphery. Mainly because I’ve grown up in a country that refuses to accept its own plurality, is determined to forget its history even as it flounders on the brink of self-destruction. I internalized the subliminal conflicts of daily life wrought with issues that should be clichés but were my reality: patriarchy, lack of opportunity and gender discrimination. I, as an individual—woman, thinker, writer—was at odds with the limiting and reductive social constructs of my culture. And I read and wrote to make sense of everything around me.
Being an educated woman; being a writer, and writing in English particularly, make me a minority, and these realities have pushed me to resist labels, categories, and monolithic ideologies, in life and so perhaps my very identity is a site of resistance. How can I not write?
I’m a product of the textual multi-verse. Stories are my home, and literatures in Urdu, Punjabi, English, as well as translated literature from around the world, have informed my intellectual landscape.
Writing was not a conscious choice. I write in English but my diction is steeped in cultures, languages and literatures that are not English. I feel privileged to have a voice with multiple and multifarious echoes that coalesce together to form new patterns. I have to write to stay in touch with who I am. I am most myself when I write.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
This House of Clay and Water is very close to my heart. It’s a love story. Love as incarceration, and intertwined inextricably with tragedy, is an important theme in my novel, and the metaphors of walls and boundaries represent that idea in a way. I’m fascinated by the dichotomies of appearance and reality, duplicity, the panopticon gaze of society which exists to police others and force into conformity. I write mostly about all of these themes and about self-deception, the struggles of ordinary women to achieve extraordinary personal heights as my protagonist Nida demonstrates with her refusal to be corrupted by the world around her.
Imposed gender roles lie at the heart of this novel and the body is an important symbol. But it’s not a male body. The body of the other is shown as a commodity — to be claimed, owned and discarded — it is the site of power struggles for men.
My novel focuses on the various kinds of love and its failure. When I write, I’m only ever trying to tell a good story that will engage the deepest parts of the reader’s heart and mind.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I want to write the kind of books that crack the reader’s assumptions about life and universal truths, about human nature and the condition of being human. I like fiction which gives value to the action happening inside character’s minds and hearts.
So for me, unless a character speaks to me intimately I don’t have a story. I start writing only when a character begins to live with me and I hear them constantly. I don’t plot and plan. I write what I hear from the character. Once I have a first draft, and it’s often a slow process, it takes me a year to write the first draft, only then do I proceed to edit. I start from the top every day to edit. Again, it’s a rather slow process but the good thing is that I have very few edits by the time it goes to an agent or publisher.
I prefer working in the morning after the boys have gone to school, but I also work after they’ve all gone to bed. But that’s only when I feel I won’t be able to sleep if I don’t write whatever I have thought of to add.
I want to be able to write stories that leave a residue behind with the reader, because those are the kinds of stories that I have always loved. Anton Chekhov, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal and Michael Ondaatje are some of the writers who awoke the wonder of words in me and whose stories I go back to repeatedly. I am not shy of overreaching in my writing. I aspire to the highest models.
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My body, ji, isn’t my own. It’s a communal vessel for lust that finds expression in dark corners. I learnt that early in my life, na. I am like the spaces that belong to no one; a dirty thought never acknowledged.
This cage of bones and flesh that holds me prisoner . . . makes a mockery of me and my desires, destroys me daily. How can anyone be held responsible for the body they’re born with, ji? Who can help that?
Growing up, I’d watched men haggle with the older hijras, over the price of an hour of guilty pleasure. It’s the price of a life they squabble over, and it’s cheaper than an old chicken. Few hijras live past the age of forty. We trade our lives for a few rupees, ji, agree to bear the burden of desires, confidences and diseases that no one else will. Women are more trouble. More expensive too. Hijras are simpler; no questions asked, even if caught by the police—some of whom are regulars too.
Some prefer about anything else to a woman.
I watch the Nightingales every night. Once the streets are empty and everything is quiet and even the dogs stop barking, the silence is broken only by the sounds of occasional cars passing by, or a drunkard, yelling at a cat underfoot, the hijras known as Nightingales emerge from the few houses in the alley, a space that is only ours: the hijra chawl.
There are five of them, and their haunt is the crossing, where the narrow alleyways meet. Twinkling like fireflies in their sequined shirts and shiny synthetic silks, they laugh and chat as they wait for the regulars. They are prettier than the other hijras, whose job is to beg in the streets by day; they act as pimps for the better-looking ones. The beggar hijras look different. Their powdered faces look grey, and the exaggerated thick eyebrows and painted red lips only accentuate the hardness of their features. It is a poor disguise. as soon as one looks into their eyes, one knows.
They all said I was pretty too. I would be a Nightingale when it was time, not a pimp beggar. I could hardly wait. Nightingales are important. They bring in the big bucks, so everyone treats them well. They get the best bits of meat in the curry, and the best clothes.
The Nightingales stand together at the corner, talking, laughing, and at times a hearty guffaw would carry in on the night air and thrill me as I lay in the small room, listening.
They were happy, I thought. as a child, laughter is all you need as proof of happiness. as a child you don’t know there are so many different kinds of laughter—like different varieties kinds of birds. Some are flightless.
They share a bidi, and the ends glow in the darkness. Sometimes they share a bottle of homemade liqueur. and I long to try both. Even though I know it is Shaitan’s drink. Or maybe because I know it is.
Gulabo, the master, the guru of our community, found me as a newborn, wrapped in a filthy bloodied towel outside the door of daata’s dargah. She took pity on me, she says. She fed me and clothed me, yes? She looked after me, even when those who’d helped me abandoned me. They didn’t want me. They didn’t want the shame that comes attached to me, a hijra.
Gulabo took care of me. She was also the one who sold me the first time, when I was eight. I was nothing more than an investment, an object to barter for little conveniences: indemnity from the police and a discount at the grocer’s for an hour every night, maybe a few rupees sometimes from a street wretch, if times were hard. That is the only life I am entitled to. There is nothing more, nothing else.
Growing up, I found refuge from the neighbourhood boys in the dilapidated junk shop with the kabbadiya. I hid there because, by then, I already knew why the bigger boys chased me. No one followed me into the dark alley where the kabbadiya lived, usually passed out on his piles of outdated books, magazines and newspapers. There was always a lantern burning low, hanging on the wall inside the shop, the corrugated-iron shutter only half closed. Two gigantic piles of newspapers, so old they were stuck to the floor, held the runner of the shutter up. I squeezed in between those two columns of newspapers, panting, listening to my thudding heart, waiting for the dreaded whispered insults of the eldest boy with the cruel eyes. Often the boys didn’t follow. They were afraid of the kabbadiya. People said he was a jinn. Few people had seen him in years.
But the kabbadiya found me one night.
I’d gone to sleep looking at the colourful pictures in a tattered, yellowing magazine. It was the smell of his breath that awoke me. It was hot and sharp. I’d smelled it on men before, yes? It was Shaitan’s drink. I woke up with my hands reflexively covering my head to avoid the blows I knew would follow. But they didn’t. The kabbadiya pulled me out of the corner.
‘You’ve been here before, haven’t you?’
I nodded; I couldn’t get my tongue to detach from the roof of my mouth.
‘You leave the magazines lying around. You wouldn’t make a good thief. You know who I am?’
I nodded again. He was the junk-shop owner. The jinn.
His eyes were sharp, dark.
‘You don’t know.’ He gave a short laugh and said, ‘That’s new. I used to be the gossip for years. Whose shame has taken over mine, I wonder, that people no longer talk about me. Well, what does it matter? There’s plenty of that to go around.’
He sat down with a big laugh, on the single, broken chair in the corner. He looked at me.
‘a little hijra, eh?’
He looked down at his hands. He had the magazine I’d been ogling. I was ashamed. It was full of pictures of women. Beautiful women, ji.
He raised his eyes to me and asked, ‘Can you read?’ I shook my head.
‘are you mute?’
I shook my head. He laughed softly. ‘Come here. Sit. are you hungry?’
I didn’t respond. My legs were still shaking. My heart, curious and fearful, waited for the jinn to do something jinn- like. From a small half-broken wooden crate next to his chair, he took out a newspaper shaped into a cone and began to unfold it. It revealed two chapattis carefully nestling some vegetable curry. He gave half of his dinner to me.
‘Eat. I cooked it this morning. It’s fresh. Eat.’
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