By Mitali Chakravarty

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A versatile woman of arts and letters, acclaimed and celebrated, Aruna Chakravarti’s writing has been acknowledged by awards like Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi  Award and Sarat Puraskar. Chakravarti talks of interactions with greats like writer Sunil Gangopadhyay and actress Sharmila Tagore to discuss her books and translations in festivals. Her books are often a protest against social ills which linger beyond the past. Her first novel  The Inheritors ( 2004, Penguin)  was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko ( 2013, Harper Collins) received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Daughters of Jorasanko ( 2016), a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews.  Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta (which won her the Sahitya Akademi Award) and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days, First Light and Primal Woman: Stories. Chakravarti was the  Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is an academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books — three novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations.

22fa274f-4a0d-4c09-8935-35685fae7e7eChakravarti’s latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, published by Pan Macmillan this year, will be her fifteenth book. The launch scheduled for 25th February, 2020, in Delhi’s  India International Centre will have a panel discussion on the book by eminent academics for half-an-hour followed by a multi-media presentation of an excerpt from the book created by the author herself. In this exclusive, Chakravarti talks of why and how she writes and more.

 

Since when have you been writing? What inspires you to write?

I used to write prolifically as a child. Poems and stories would pour out of me in a joyous, unthinking stream and I loved the feeling it gave me.

Things changed when, after joining the English Honours course in college, I was introduced to the academics of literature, taught the principles of criticism and how to distinguish good writing from mediocre. I became disillusioned with my work. I found it wanting on so many counts.  I felt I was useless as a writer. Self- criticism is good but, in my case, it verged to the point of negativity.

I stopped writing altogether.

There was a gap of twenty-five years before I picked up the courage to write again.

To answer the second part of your question my juvenilia reflected whatever I was reading at the time, mostly poems and stories written by English writers, and was hugely imitative. But my adult work is derived directly from living experience. It is from the world around me that I draw inspiration.

By Aminah Sheikh

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

I write because not writing feels uncomfortable and hollow to me, like hovering in a void. I feel alive when I write. Writing a novel makes me feel as if I’m discovering the world anew. I derive enormous pleasure in engaging myself in this process. Writing is truly my most significant method in understanding things. This encounter is primarily with my own self: with the known and unknown worlds, as well as with times that I have not witnessed or lived through. Although my writing self is fairly vulnerable, still I adore that persona.

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

At the moment I’m writing on the 1940s and the 1950s. This was a very important period for South Asia. The fates of millions of people were determined without their knowledge; I’m talking about the 1947 Partition. In the twinkling of an eye, people were turned into minorities; they lost their homesteads, their known worlds. There seems to be no end to it—a process that is still ongoing. At the center of my new novel is undivided Bengal, a province of pre-Partition India. A time when the Hindu elite had grown afraid and embittered at the gradual empowerment of the majority but backward Muslims; when this region was beset by the second world war, the Bengal famine, Hindu-Muslim communal riots, the Partition and its immediate fallout. The deeper I explore these questions, the more the Partition appears as inevitable as fate. There was no way for this to not happen. I’ve forgotten what I set out to write in the novel; now I have to wait and see what this novel makes me say.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

What I can say about aesthetics? Rather let me talk about my writing style. I write at a slow pace. I enjoy experimenting with forms. These days I’m increasingly attracted to words, phrases, and idioms that I heard in childhood, or expressions which aren’t used much anymore. I can tell that this attraction is gradually turning into an obsession. I always strive not to write two novels in the same structure or style.

Who are your favorite authors?

That changes. Presently, Orhan Pamuk. Also, I adore Alice Munro’s stories. Reading her is like listening to a favorite piece music at low volume, which you can listen to all day. You never lose focus when you’re reading her stories, you never feel monotony. As if she has a divine gift.