By Neha Mehrotra

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories, Seahorse, a novel and The Nine Chambered-Heart, a novella, published by HarperCollins India in November 2017 and HarperCollins UK in May 2018. In 2013, Janice won Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction; in 2015, she was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize for her novel Seahorse.

Janice studied English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi and went on to study History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She currently lives in Delhi; among other things, writes a monthly literary column ‘Paperwallah’ for The Hindu and teaches creative writing at Ashoka University.

The Nine Chambered Heart is currently being translated for publication into six languages, including Italian, Spanish, French and German.

Janice Pariat.jpg
Janice Pariat

How do you identify as a writer?

By writing? I don’t see what else would suffice. Although I’d hasten to add that identifying as a writer implies something of a stasis–and I think, for me, it’s about “being” a writer or seeing that identity (as with all?) as something that’s perpetually in flux. One is always “becoming” a writer. It isn’t some pleasant destination you arrive at, at the top of a mythical hill. It’s also an identity to which people are keen to prefix with labels – “woman”, “Northeast”, “Indian” – while I would prefer to shrug them all off. Labels say very little about me, and tend to skew expectations of what I should write, the kind of stories I should be telling, where my books should be set.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

I’m afraid I’m not very good at anything else – painting, pottery, playing a musical instrument. I feel kinship though with literature and books and writing. Reading impels me to write. As does remembrance, and memory. Bleakness. Joy. Frustration. Fun. Anger. Sadness. At the risk of sounding like one of those terrifically earnest people, writing is at the very centre of everything I do because it helps me make sense of the world, to record it, unravel it, and give it away. They say we write the books we want to read? Perhaps. I guess I write the books I do to explore aspects of myself, and other people and the world that most intrigue me.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

A terrible poem which must never see light of day. Hastily scribbled notes, which may make it into the next book. To be honest, I’ve been reading more than writing this summer.

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2018), for her novel Home Fire – also long listed for the Booker Prize in 2017 – an extraordinary book that serves as a reminder of the times in which we live. Her other books include In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron that won her a place on Orange’s ‘21 Writers for the 21st Century’, Kartography, Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction), and A God in Every Stone.  She was one of the five judges for the Golden Man Booker winner and is one of the three judges for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2018.

Kamila_shamsie

Kamila, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Sucharita: Antigone sets up a conflict that ruptures a family and raises complex ethical questions related to the personal and the state, family and identity. When you decided to write Home Fire, what was the immediate trigger to turn to Greek Tragedy and to this particular text?

Kamila: Sometimes the best ideas come from other people.  In this case, it was Jatinder Verma, the artistic director of Tara Arts in London who suggested to me that Antigone could work very well in a contemporary setting. That made me go back to the text, and as soon as I started reading it I saw how directly it spoke to our contemporary times.

Sucharita: Home Fire is a political story firmly rooted in the age of global terror and what it does to individuals and families. It is also about the difficulty of moral certitude in an age of deepening schisms, most evident in Karamat Lone, making him perhaps the most conflicted character in the book, dealing with much more, it seems, than Eamonn or Aneeka – a complex, modern adaptation of Creon’s character in Antigone. The moral burden is terrifying and rests squarely on his shoulders. What led to this positioning of the book’s moral complexity?

Kamila: I’m always interested in the ways in which different readers respond to the characters in the novel. Some see Karamat as shouldering a moral burden; others see him as acting out of political expediency with no interest in the moral questions. I prefer not to interpret the characters and get in the way of readers’ freedom to do so. So all I’ll say is that Karamat and Isma are the two characters who really inhabit the world of adulthood with all its messy complications and contradictions.

Sucharita: At the time of writing the book, the idea of a Tory from a Muslim immigrant, working class family as the country’s Home Secretary would have seemed unbelievable. In fact, you thought it to be ‘ridiculous’. Eventually, when Sajid Javid became Britain’s Home Secretary, how did the writer in you respond? What does prescience mean to a writer?

Kamila: I would love to claim prescience, but the truth is, my first instinct was, as you say, that the idea of such a Home Secretary would be ridiculous, but then I thought a little harder about it and considered the fact that Britain had three prominent up-and-coming politicians from Muslim backgrounds: Sajid Javid, Sadiq Khan and Sayeeda Warsi. One or two is an aberration; three suggests that something has shifted in the political culture. That’s why I was able to create Karamat Lone – because I started to see that actually a Home Secretary from a Muslim background was possible. But it also seemed to me that Muslimness would be something he or she would have to find a way to negotiate around, possibly by creating distance from it.  So what I’ll say about prescience is that actually it’s just paying attention to the currents around us and guessing what’ll happen if you move things forward just one step.

Restless

Epilogue

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

—MURIEL RUKEYSER

Every human being, at some point in time, needs to develop a concept of life. Science rests on two principles— experimentation and repeatability—before accepting any hypothesis. I decided to employ the same method on spirituality. In a way, it is easy to accept something by faith, and all religions demand faith, to begin with.

My theory goes somewhat like this: the life of an individual is the story of his evolution towards full potential, which, in other words, can be defined as the purpose of their life. I might have had smaller objectives and aims within this framework, such as aiming for a good education, making a career, earning well and starting a family. However, life’s purpose can be different things for different people; it can even just be an aim to be happy, whatever that happiness may mean. But a larger picture is essential to obtain a better perspective and to avoid certain complications and complexities. Chasing happiness may sometimes become tiring if you don’t know what will make you happy or what happiness means.

This overarching view of life, as a process of self-evolution towards reaching one’s full potential, opened many questions and possibilities. What exactly do the words ‘self’, ‘evolution’ and ‘potential’ mean and how am I supposed to attain this goal? I was born with certain things and I had no choice in the matter, such as a body, a mind and the environment into which I took birth. These are irreversible, and I could have done nothing about it. I needed to work from that point towards realizing my full potential. To that extent, these things which are given to me at birth become my tools for such a work; a body with all its limitations and potential, a psychology including my mind and its possibilities, and the cosmology, which includes the environment into which I was born.

When I say I am given my body and mind, that implies that I’m not them. If I have a car, I’m not the car. Then who am I? Shall I call that the self? The Bhagavad Gita calls it atman. My body has a name, Sampath, and address, some qualifications, family and possessions, and terabytes of impressions and experiences pouring out of all these things every second of my life and existence. If I’m not my body, then who enjoys the fruits of such experiences? My body can’t because it’s inert, it’s driven like a car which can’t enjoy the coastal ride. It’s the occupant of the car who enjoys the journey or suffers injuries when met with an accident. Shall we then say it’s me, myself or simply the ‘self,’ which enjoys or suffers the experiences?

By Neha Mehrotra

Head of the English department at Ashoka University, Saikat Majumdar is an academic, novelist and critic. He is the author of Silverfish (HarperCollins, 2007), Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (Columbia University Press and Orient Blackswan, 2013 and 2015), The Firebird (Hachette 2015 and 2017). The Scent of God (Simon and Schuster) is forthcoming in 2019.

The Firebird was one of Telegraph’s Best Books of 2015 and a finalist for the Atta-Galatta/Bangalore Literature Festival Fiction Prize in 2015 and the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Market in 2016. His 2013 book on global modernisms was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association Annual Book Prize in 2014.

In addition to being published by major journals such as PMLA, NLH: New Literary History, Cambridge History of the Indian Novel in English, Modern Fiction Studies, and Literary Activism: A Collection of Perspectives, Saikat’s writing also features regularly in mainstream publications such as The Hindu, Outlook, Times Higher Education, Hindustan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Indian Express, Caravan, Scroll, Telegraph, and Times of India.

Saikat Majumdar
Saikat Majumdar

How do you identify as a writer?

Primarily as a novelist. That’s the core to which I keep returning. I do other kinds of writing too, but I realize I do them all on a novelist’s terms. So my literary criticism is criticism by a novelist, and my nonfiction and newspaper essays are often novelistic in spirit and style. Not to say they are ‘fictional’ – hopefully I speak the truth when I mean to – it’s rather about the assumption of a voice of my own and a kind of an eye through which I see the world and think about it. Even when it’s the real world and not a fictionally crafted one. But since I actually do different kinds of writing, I like the term ‘writer’ and the looseness it evokes, and the way it avoids attaching itself to any particular genre or book. I’m not a fan of the word ‘author’ unless it’s used in connection to a particular work – it carries too much authority.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

A ghost grabs me and makes me. Seriously, I don’t choose any of the themes or stories of my books – they always choose me and when I realize I have no choice whatsoever but to write, I know I have a real book there. Usually it’s a ghost from my past. A bit different with newspaper articles, or contributions to edited volumes or collections and there is more conscious choice there. But the books, the most important things, especially the novels, I can only write when I feel that absolute compulsion, and at one level I can never make out where they come from.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

This morning I put the finishing touches to an essay on Calcutta that is part of an anthology of writing by novelists on the cities they’ve written about, Writing in the City, edited by Stuti Khanna, with contributions from Siddharth Chowdhury, Manu Joseph, Amitava Kumar, Indra Sinha, Amit Chaudhuri, Rupa Bajwa, Anjum Hasan, Manju Kapur and several others. Much looking forward to seeing this in print and how everybody has approached the subject.