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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Ananda Devi

Ananda

By Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

This is the kind of question, like “what do you write about”, that plunges me into a regular quandary because it’s as if I were being asked to summarize my life in one paragraph. I actually don’t know how I came to writing because I started as a child, almost as soon as I began to read and write, and it grew up with me. But I realized its importance when I was around 12 years old and started writing my first “novels”. I obtained my first literary prize at 15, published my first collection of short stories when I was 19 and never really looked back. I would say that I began to write because it was a way to break the silence – both mine and that of Mauritian society around me, which is one where things are left unsaid, where there is a kind of culture of stifling real feelings, and where, as in many other parts of the world, a large number of people are condemned to be unheard and at times invisible. My first novel, after my collections of short stories, was a first person narrative about a prostitute of Port-Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Written in the eighties, it broke a taboo in many ways, including the sexual violence being described and the sensuality of the writing. I’ve sometimes been described as a writer who writes for the voiceless. But this is a little too grand and emphatic for me. We are all voiceless in certain ways, and writing delves deep into our psyches, into fears and obsessions that fear to reveal themselves because they make us vulnerable.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

The novel I have just completed and that will be published early next year was probably one I found most difficult to write because it broke away from my usual literary haunts. For instance, in all my novels, the place where the story is set is extremely important and plays a major part in the narrative. Whether it is Port-Louis, or Terre Rouge, in Mauritius, New Delhi or London, my characters tend to take on part of their meaning from their surroundings, which closely reflect their states of mind. This roots them in history – their own and the larger history of the place – in their being, in their becoming. In this last novel, however, I do not name the place; it could be any modern city, and there is hardly any description of the outer environment of the main character. This is because the story is told by a morbidly obese 16-year-old for whom, in a way, the “place” is her body. It is her prison and her shrine. She is captured by this inflationary process, trying to come to terms with it, with the fact that her mother left her with her father when she was still a baby, and her father, who adores her, also destroys her by constantly feeding her the most delicious food. He has also created the myth that the protagonist is obese because originally her mother was expecting twins, and that somehow, one was absorbed by the other. So the girl is both constantly shadowed by this invisible sister, and believes she has in a way devoured her inside the uterus. At the same time, it is a very contemporary novel because it talks about the constant “eye” of social media and the virtual world on all of us and on her especially, which turns her into a monster that is constantly being watched. The virtual world is the fourth dimension in which we now live, whether we like or not, and that has unleashed the most negative traits in people, mockery, aggression, hate, racism, behind the walls of anonymity. It all ends in an orgy of self-inflicted violence, the nihilism that is reflected in the many different sorts of violence surrounding us.

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Excerpts

Eve out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi

Eve out of Her Ruins_Cover Spread

Eve

The inspector finally agreed to take me to the morgue. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to get me in. He must have connections. That, and he feels sad for me. I don’t care how he did it, I just care that I’ll get to see Savita.

In the morgue, both the light and smell are greenish. I thought the movies would have prepared me for this. But movies have nothing to do with reality. It’s totally different here. The filth in the corners. The ceiling blooming with mold. Chemical smells coming from the    walls.

My whole body goes weak. The place is heavy with their presence. Everybody who came through here has left traces. On the walls, on the ground, on the ceiling, in the air. Like invisible lips sealed to their silence. Nobody ever leaves completely.

The inspector holds me by my arm and says, you don’t have to.

No, I’ve never had to.

I shake my arm free. I don’t want to turn back.

After what she’s gone through, I can go through everything. And then, in my head, I saw her a thousand times like this. I keep seeing her, in that envelope of death. And now I actually do see her. Unmoving and pale. Her face glazed, rigid, solid. The bruises still on her neck from the murderer’s fingers. I know her, yet she is wholly unrecognizable. Her youthfulness, I think. When death comes to someone so young, it makes her unrecognizable. And there’s a bluish, almost purplish tint to her skin. I reel from the strangeness of it all.

But I do recognize her mouth. I hold on to that. That mouth with its darkened edges is her mouth, Savita’s mouth, I’m happy to see it again in all its perfection at last, yes, I haven’t started to forget her features like I’d feared a second ago, I haven’t betrayed her, I still have that memory of her mouth in me as something so precious that, for the rest of   my life, all my senses will bring it back to me.

I explain to her that I was by the stream, and that was the reason I didn’t hear anything. I tell her that for me, it’s life that’s distorting my features and making me unrecognizable.

My hand touches her cheek. I lean in, but the inspector holds me back. No, he says.

He takes me to a small café where the flies are more plentiful than the diners. I want for him to tell me something, for him to ask for something in exchange for the service he’s rendered. He doesn’t ask for anything. But he asks me questions. By the dirty window, I see the world going by. Yes, there’s a world, over there, out there, that doesn’t know Savita and where lives haven’t stopped along with hers. I tell him everything, without really knowing why. How old I was when I began, where I went. I describe these places he knows so well. His questions take me further and further. My actions are getting crazier, I can tell. That’s what he thinks: this girl is crazy.

He looks at me as if he can’t believe me: And you’re still alive? he says.

What was the use of it all? he asks, again. His big hands on the table are trembling and fiddling with a paper napkin to the point that there aren’t anything but shreds left. I wouldn’t like to be a criminal he’d arrested. There isn’t any skin that would resist those hands.

I finally answer his question:

To slip through the cracks. To… To what?

To go on.

The next question had to be, go on to where, but he doesn’t ask it. His eyes are tired and my thoughts are completely blank. I was thinking about buying myself a life. But I don’t know which one.

He asks me if I have any health problems. I know what he’s talking about, but I pretend not to understand. I show him the blue bruise on my cheek, which has turned yellow: these sorts of problems, yes, every day, I   say.

He isn’t looking at me anymore, I think he’s trying to imagine what they did to me, what they made me do, what they’ll make me do again, in the mirror behind the bar I see us and I know I look young, too young, a bit of string, a little burned thing, and I know he’d like to keep me from slipping further down, but he doesn’t know anything at all.

Suddenly, he gets angry:

What if I shoved you in prison for a bit of time, you’d have to stop, that’d make you get better, wouldn’t it?

I get up to leave. The conversation’s over. There’s nothing else to say.

It’s hard to keep believing, he says quietly. But you have to defend yourself. I want you to stay alive.

He takes me back to Troumaron. In the car I don’t say anything. But I remember something he said: Savita wasn’t raped. I think he said that to reassure me. But then why was she killed? There was no anger there, no sexual violence. For the fun of it? Or to shut her up?

We pull up in front of the buildings. The sky is low. Here, there’s always something watching. Some spirit that’s vibrating, living, malignant.

He comes and opens the door of the jeep for me. I’m not used to that. Before I step down, he slips something into my bag.

Only use it to protect yourself, understand? he says very quietly.

I look down. I don’t know why he did that. I didn’t give him anything.

He holds me by the shoulders as I step down, and rubs them a bit.

He’s talking in English. Be good, he says. I shrug. It’s too late to be good.

It’s only once he’s gone that I realize that we were right in the middle of all the buildings. Every window’s facing us. Everybody saw me come back to Troumaron in a police car, everybody saw the inspector whispering in my ear. I colluded with the enemy. As usual, I’d done what I shouldn’t have. I can almost hear through these windows what everybody must be thinking furiously: this time, she went too far.

The ground starts to give way beneath my feet and cave in just as I walk into my apartment building.

But, after all, there was never any ground under my feet.

***

Excerpted from ‘Eve out of her Ruins’ by Ananda Devi published by Speaking Tiger

***

With brutal honesty and poetic urgency, Ananda Devi relates the tale of four young Mauritians trapped in their country’s endless cycle of fear and violence: Eve, whose body is her only weapon and source of power; Savita, Eve’s best friend, the only one who loves Eve without self-interest, and who ha plans to leave but will not go alone; Saadiq, gifted would-be poet, inspired by Rimbaud, in love with Eve; Clélio, belligerent rebel, waiting without hope for his brother to send for him from France.

Eve out of her Ruins is a heartbreaking look at the dark corners of the island nation of Mauritius that tourists never see, and a poignant exploration of the construction of personhood at the margins of society. Awarded the prestigious Prix des cinq continents upon publication as the best book written in French outside France, Eve out of her Ruins  is a harrowing account of the violent reality of life in her native country by the figurehead of Mauritian literature.

About the Author:

AnandaAnanda Devi is a Mauritian writer of Telugu and Creole descent. She has published eleven novels as well as short stories and poetry, and was featured at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in 2015. She has won multiple literary awards, including the Prix du Rayonnement de la langue et de la literature françaises (2014), the Prix Mokanda (2012), the Prix Louis-Guilloux (2010), and the Prix RFO du livre (2006). Devi was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2010.

 


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Book Review: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi

By Shruthi Rao

Eve out of Her Ruins_Cover Spread

Title: Eve Out of Her Ruins
Author: Ananda Devi (Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 174
Price: Rs. 200
To buy

Eve Out of Her Ruins is a powerful, disturbing book by Ananda Devi, a Mauritian writer of Indian and Creole heritage. The original book Ève de ses décombres is in French; Eve Out of Her Ruins is a masterful English translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman.

The writing is eloquent, the imagery stark, and yet, the overall effect is dreamlike. It is a book that is difficult to put down; hands reach out from the pages, grab you by the collar and compel you to read on.

The story is set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Port Louis, a part of Mauritius that is far-removed from the Mauritius of glossy travel brochures. The book is made up of monologues by four troubled teenagers, growing up in a changing world, tossed about by the turbulence of sexuality, the rage and the desperation of their daily lives, fear of the future and the urge to escape from everything, all of these underlined by a sense of futility and inevitability. Weak adults, difficult circumstances, and bleak futures cause these teenagers to “grow up” too soon, but emotionally, they are stunted, directionless and hopeless. Continue reading


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New Release: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi

eve of out her ruinsWith brutal honesty and poetic urgency, Ananda Devi relates the tale of four young Mauritians trapped in their country’s endless cycle of fear and violence: Eve, whose body is her only weapon and source of power; Savita, Eve’s best friend, the only one who loves Eve without self-interest, and who has plans to leave but will not go alone; Saadiq, gifted would-be poet, inspired by Rimbaud, in love with Eve; Clélio, belligerent rebel, waiting without hope for his brother to send for him from France.

Eve Out of Her Ruins, published by Speaking Tiger is a heartbreaking look at the dark corners of the island nation of Mauritius that tourists never see, and a poignant exploration of the construction of personhood at the margins of society. Awarded the prestigious Prix des cinq continents upon publication as the best book written in French outside of France, Eve Out of Her Ruins is a harrowing account of the violent reality of life in her native country by the figurehead of Mauritian literature.

About the Author:

Ananda Devi is a Mauritian writer of Telugu and Creole descent. She has published eleven novels as well as short stories and poetry, and was featured at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in 2015. She has won multiple literary awards, including the Prix du Rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature françaises (2014), the Prix Mokanda (2012), the Prix Louis-Guilloux (2010), and the Prix RFO du livre (2006). Devi was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2010.


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JLF: ‘Mythologies were not afraid of eroticism’

There’s much to be said about an author when people come out of her session at the Zee Jaipur Literature festival saying, “That was an amazing talk”. More so when the said author is better known in the Mauritian and French literary circuits and not Indian ones. Ananda Devi is that rare author.

Devi was born in Mauritius, which forms the basis for most of her works. She is considered to be one of the best writers from the country, even though she largely writes in French. She wrote her first story at 13. “My mother was a great storyteller. Not only did she have a story for almost every situation in life, but she also added her own comments and observations to these stories, thus imbuing her daughters with a world view that was always perceptive and questioning,” she says.

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