Rheea Mukherjee, two of whose stories have appeared in Out of Print, has a collection, Transit for Beginners, just published by Kitaab. We are thrilled for her, and really pleased to publish a conversation that emerged after editor, Indira Chandrasekhar read her collection. Both A Larger Design and Rectification Still that appear in the collection were first published in Out of Print.
O of P: Your work is rife with stories of families coming part at the seams – something that only embeds them more deeply in the inexplicable bonds that make meaning out of that ambiguous unit called family. I think particularly of Wedding Guests, and, in an odd way, of Unspeakable. Would you care to comment on that?
RM: You know, I honestly think even the most functional families are coming apart at the seams. I am not saying this in a pessimistic manner. And I don't think it's always a bad thing. There are several individual ‘other narratives' going on even in the closest of families. Some of them are straightforward: double lives and secrets. But most of them are psychological: the private battles of interpreting life and reality. And those experiences aren't discussed (nor can they be easily translated) at the dinner table.
I had someone in mind when I created Mrs Bose [in Wedding Guests]. I wrote her character with a lot of sensitivity, which is ironic because in real life I would be blunt or uninterested having a conversation with a person like her. In comparison I was so gentle and understanding with her confusion, her cultural identity and her eroding relationship with her son. In my own family there have been times I have been so dismissive of that generation’s emotional complexity and battles. Mrs Bose allowed me to fix that. It allowed me to sit down and think through a generational gap. The story, Unspeakable, on the other hand is a doomed love story, but I think the narrative was built on the complexity of family. It let me write about the utter unfamiliarity that exists between the closest of people. The truth is, you will never know your mother’s deepest angst or private passion. You will never have a handle on how your sibling really feels about life or what emotional scars they hide. We use the phrase 'family secret' a lot, but I think it's less to do with secrets and more to do with humans attempting to simplify things that are intensely complex.
O of P: Many of your characters have a sense of honour. I find that somehow touching, and hopeful. Sai, in Hungry is an obvious candidate, but also, Rudra, in an abstruse way, in Transit for Beginners. In Cigarettes for Maya, Maya’s awareness of what is the honourable way to act and the conflict caused by social hierarchies is acute. Are these deliberate characterizations, did you want to create people with honour, or did the stories make these characters emerge this way?
RM: I always look for the good in people I least expect it from. Some of my stories have examined people who exhibit stereotypically ‘bad behaviour’. That said, I also hint at their capability for good. Subconsciously though, I want to work with a far more sinister idea – that it’s the people who are passive, mundane, the cogs-in-the-wheel, if you will, who are capable of the most dangerous behaviour, and that’s apathy. Apathy lets so much evil go on. In comparison I find the people who struggle with moral codes and reject standard protocol far more hopeful. Because they have drive and purpose. There is something deeply disturbing about a country of people following, doing, working, and consuming without any trace of inner motivation.
In Cigarettes for Maya, the cigarette wala Maya befriends does comment on inter-class relationships. However Maya and her urban flimsiness are ripe in the narrative, while the lower-middle class cigarette wala seems to be respectable and honest. In retrospect, I think I played it very safe with that story. It was a black and white narrative. It is also the first story I ever wrote, and although it’s gone through rounds of edits, you can see how that story stylistically is very different from the rest. You mentioned hope, and I am glad you find that in my work. I think a lot of this book is about finding hope in one particular moment as opposed to finding final closure. I think that represents life, we’re living and resolving things every second.
O of P: Even in the searing and often tragic conflicts in your stories, the sense of setting is layered with observation, and occasional nostalgia. As if the difficulties are only more enhanced by the affection for place that you, as a writer are conveying to the reader. How do you work on describing places – do you, for example, make notes when you are somewhere in case it will be useful for a future story? Do you retain a visual memory in your head? Do you take photographs?
RM: It’s funny that you mention that because I am a terrible documenter. I never take notes, and never use pictures as a reference for my work. I think my life has contributed to how a sense of place pops out in some of my stories. I take a lot of emotional cues from different environments. My life was spent between two countries quite literally. I was born in the US lived there till I was 10, then moved to India and finished my schooling here. At 18, I moved back to the US for college. I had my degree in social work so I worked as counsellor for a bit and then did my MFA in creative writing before coming back to India. Bangalore has always been home, but the amount of transition I have experienced has organically allowed me to write about place without any effort.
O of P: May we spend a moment on your writing method? As a writer, I like talking about this because writers can be so diverse in their approach to their work. Are you a systematic writer – do you write everyday? Or do words spew out of you in fits and starts? How do you begin to overlay the necessary layers of restraint?
RM: I am anything but a systematic writer. I am also a very lazy writer. I solely rely on creative bursts and caffeine. It’s very random; I’ll have an idea, a certain piece of news, or some mundane conversation with a friend, something will trigger a story, and it comes to life in my head. One thing that has been happening a lot less is creating an end in my head before I type it out. Unspeakable had an ending in my head, but that was an easy end. Bitter-sweet love and a family secret that can never resolve itself does not allow for a comprehensive ‘ending’.
When I was writing Transit for Beginners I felt a stronger sense of closure. I also think it is the only story in the book that is plot directed. The reason for this is because it was inspired by something that happened to me in Changi airport. The actual story is pure fiction, but let’s just says that there was a similar experience.
I need a purpose to write – something happening in the world that is sitting uncomfortably with me, needs to resolve itself through writing. When I wrote Doldrums it was a reflection of how my life had partly become, trapped within an urban paradigm with expectations and duties that were not motivating my imagination. Sexual abuse and depression are other themes that show up in my work a lot. I think they will always show up in my work directly or indirectly.
Creating regularity as a writer is tremendously difficult. In the last year running Write Leela Write with Kalabati Majumdar has allowed me to grow as a person and as an entrepreneur, but it has also cut into my fiction writing time. I have been writing a lot more non-fiction; these pieces are easier for me, because they are for magazines with deadlines and one thing I do really well is sticking to deadlines. With fiction it’s my own pace, and I can be tragically lazy about it. I have to finish my novel by the end of this year, and thinking about it makes my hands sweat. Because at the end of the day writing is hard work, it’s going beyond that spark of an idea and putting meat on it. It’s layering your characters and creating narrative arcs. I think writing a novel is much harder, because you can’t get your little idea out there and be done with it. In that way the short story has been indulgent, it’s the best of both worlds, it lets me create a world, get my point across and be done super quickly. One reason I have been struggling with finishing my novel is because of the amount of consistency I have to create while continuously developing the heart of the idea. I suspect it will take a moment of potent creative energy to get me on track. Let’s just say that I am waiting for it.
O of P: As an editor, I am always curious about how much writers engage with an editor before publication. Did you work with someone, or did your publishing house impose any editorial rules on your work?
RM: Well, one thing about these stories is that they read very differently from what they initially were. My book spans stories I have written over the past ten years and during that time I have sent many of them to literary magazines. That’s when the rejections started to roll in. It was a force that propelled me to revise my stories and really understand the beauty of editing. If you were to see some of my stories as first drafts you would have shaken your head with utter disappointment. For some stories I changed major plot points, for example in A Good Hostess, Asha resorts to medicating her husband for attention. For years that story did not have the medication bit in it. That crucial bit came to me only 2 years ago and the story is 8 years old. It changed the whole feel of the story.
So coming back to your question, by the time my stories got published they were in much better shape. I had dozens of literary magazine editors write me personal rejection notes about some of my work; it allowed me to flesh out my narratives a lot more. Kitaab was very permissive about how my stories read; they did not have any issues with the macro parts. I had a super copy editor from Kitaab, Shruti Rao who went through everything line by line and caught some ironic mistakes and inconsistencies. I struggle with mild dyslexia so I can’t proof anything, even if my life depended on it. When it came to final proofing at the typesetting phase, my partner Indra diligently did it for me.