Sunday, 8 March 2015

Interview with Susmita Bhattacharya

International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women's Day I interviewed debut novelist Susmita Bhattacharya whose book The Normal State of Mind is published this month. The Normal State of Mind has been described as a 'beautiful, evocative book' and 'a new taste of India from a promising new novelist'.   

Can you tell me a little bit about your writing journey?

I remember always writing something, even as a child. Poems, stories especially fan fiction (didn’t know the term then) of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and I loved illustrating them as well. I moved on to keeping journals as a teenager, and explored writing short stories. I won my school’s annual essay writing competitions a couple of times, but I never regarded being a writer as a possibility. I mean, when I was growing up, one didn’t have social media, lit fests or much interaction with writers. Mostly, the writers were English and dead, eg Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare. The Indian writers like R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond were established and favourite writers but I couldn’t imagine being like them. Writers were revered and belonged in another strata which did not include middle-class school girls with a flair for writing. So writing was consigned for my personal pleasure and I went to art college to become a graphic designer.

I started taking writing seriously when we moved to Cardiff. My husband was doing a PhD at Cardiff University and I got hold of their Lifelong Learning brochure. I was so surprised to see Creative Writing classes listed there. My first reaction was, do people need classes to learn to write? That was silly of me to think that way, because when I went to art college, quite a few people would comment, you need to go to college to learn to paint? My child is a born artist! (Or something on those lines).

But I enrolled in an evening class, and it was the best thing I ever did. I found my writing voice and the passion to write. My tutor, Bella Kemble was fantastic. She encouraged me and advised me to think about doing an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. So I did. Creative Writing courses don’t teach people to write, just like Art College. It helps to enhance your writing skills, introduces you to reading a vast array of literature and academic work, eases you into workshops and criticism of your work and puts you in touch with fellow writers and tutors. A fantastic experience I have never regretted.

It was really interesting to read about modern urban Indian women. Do you think they are under-represented in literature? Is that why you chose to set you novel in India rather than in say, Plymouth?

I do think Indian urban women living in India are under-represented in literature. There is a lot of literature about the modern Indian immigrant or women-centric stories set in historical times in India. Manju Kapur is an author I admire who writes about the modern Indian woman and their issues, mostly set in India.

I’ll tell you a funny story about my experience at the writing class. We had to describe a scene from a picture postcard and write a 500 word story based on it. I wrote a very moving story about a man who was tired of life, and decided to stop driving on the motorway and lie down in a field of daffodils... in November. While I was reading aloud about him contemplating life among the flowers, I noticed people trying to be polite and not laugh. Please note, that in India, the seasonal flowers bloom in the winter months. I juxtaposed the settings without thinking much of it, and made such a blunder. And my tutor gave me the best advice ever: Write what you know about. I have taken that very seriously.

I started this novel as a dissertation for my MA. I decided to write about the modern Indian woman because that was me. I wanted to write about issues I faced, or saw happening in front of me. I had first-hand experience of growing up in India amidst the riots, the terror attacks. I also had the experience of having close friendships with strong, independent women and we lived our lives with a lot of freedom to live as we chose to. I wanted to write about all of that.

I lived in Cardiff nearly five years, but I was never confident to write about it. I always set my stories in India. But when I moved to Plymouth, I found myself setting my stories in Cardiff. I live in Plymouth now. Perhaps I’ll have to move before I can write about it. I read an essay by Salman Rushdie, where he says:

‘…exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do so in the knowledge – which gives rise to profound uncertainties – that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.’ (Rushdie, 1983)

Maybe that’s the thing. One needs to look at a place from a distance to be able to fictionalise it. Not in all cases. But that’s how it was with me.

Moushumi talks about behaving ‘immorally’. Is Moushumi's discomfort based on a religious or a cultural belief about homosexuality? Jasmine talks about how much better things are for gay people in the west - what is it like for gay people in India?   

I think it is more of a cultural belief. The laws against homosexuality were enforced during the British rule in the 19th century as they were ‘against the order of nature’. There is evidence in the temple carvings of ancient India that homosexuality was not looked down upon or marginalised. It was celebrated in various forms, as evident in the art, sculpture and literature of India. In 2009, the Delhi High Court, overturned this 150 year old section and consequently legalised consensual homosexual activities among adults. There was a huge celebration that at last, there was progressive thinking and the LGBT community was being accepted into society. But in December 2013, all that changed and the Supreme Court of India ruled homosexuality as a criminal offence under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Yes, religious figures claimed publicly that being gay was a disease that could be cured through yoga and other means. There were massive protests and eminent people from film stars to economist Amartya Sen and writer, Vikram Seth expressed their disappointment and anger against the ruling, but this law stands firm to date.

People don’t come out for various reasons, besides the Section 377: family won’t accept them, they’d be at risk of losing their jobs, be victimised in homophobic attacks etc. Ignorance is another factor. Homosexuality is often believed to be a disease and people are often taken to ‘doctors’ to be ‘cured’.  A common belief is that marriage will cure it, and many are forced into marriage that ruins the lives of couples involved and their families. There are very few couples, especially women, who can live openly together. A lot of times, a gay person may take on a lover outside of the marriage and try to live a double life. Gay women often discover their sexuality after marriage, and want to explore their new selves, but rarely have there been divorces where the woman leaves the husband to live with her lover.

My PhotoDipali and Sunil have an arranged marriage. It's a happy marriage, how do you feel about arranged marriages?

I don’t have a problem with arranged marriage, they have been successful for generations. That was mostly the norm in my parent’s generation and before that. In India, the family structure includes the grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins etc etc. In the past, and in many cases now as well, most people lived in joint family systems –the brothers with their families, and the parents all lived under one roof. So it was very important that the woman who married into the family was of the same caste, social status, religion to fit into the family without causing disruption. It helped continuity in the lineage. This could only be done with the family arranging the marriages of their sons and daughters with other suitable families. It would be/is done to unite two businesses as well.

There was also a question of dowry. When a woman married, her family paid the groom’s family what they demanded: a car, cash, jewellery, household items, perhaps paying for the groom’s further education abroad. This could happen only when the marriage is arranged, for if the couple fall in love and want to marry, such demands could be difficult to ask for. Though dowry is a criminal offence, most of the people involved go under the radar unless the girl or her family protest and lodge a legal complaint against the perpetrators.

Things started to change in the past when the women could leave the boundaries of the house, get an education and have careers of their own. They could meet single men and fall in love. If they were lucky they got married. Things have changed now. Young people today tend to find their own partners, especially in urban India. But caste, religion and social status are criteria that cannot often be overlooked even today, because in Indian culture, you do not marry a person, you marry the entire family.

Most of my friends have had love marriages, including myself. Some had to fight for their right to be together, for some it wasn’t a problem at all. Some have had arranged marriages, and they have successful marriages as well.  Sometimes both arranged and love marriages fail. It is all very individual. You can think of arranged marriages as what a dating website is in the west. You add in your profile, tick the boxes and it matches you to a suitable person! Only here, the matchmaker could be your parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, sister-in-law...

Do you see The Normal State of Mind as a feminist novel?

I get asked this question a lot. But I don’t want to put myself or the book into a single category. But I’ve just googled the definition of feminist writing and it says ‘Feminist literature is fiction or nonfiction which supports the feminist goals of defining, establishing and defending equal civil, political, economic and social rights for women.’

So yes, it would be feminist writing, but I’d like people to read it as a story and choose what they’d like to take away from it and how they’d like to categorise it.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the first woman politician to hold a cabinet post and diplomat, whose brother happened to be the first prime minister of India, mentioned in a piece in the Ananda Bazaar Patrika (1938): ‘People tell me the modern woman is aggressive. I wonder if this is true. But if it is, she has good reason for it, and her aggression is only the natural outcome of generations of suppression. The first taste of liberty is intoxicating, and for the first time in human history, a woman is experiencing the delights of this intoxication...’ 

When I read this, I thought how true. She wrote this in 1938, we are in 2015 now, and still, the modern woman is fighting... fighting for her rights, fighting for her equal place in society. I realised that be it lesbian or a widow, as Dipali, mentions in the book, women are still identified in relation to a man, or to the lack of one.
It is important to get the struggles women face to own their identity out there in the open. I thought it was always an issue in India, but now when I look at the world, specifically the West, it isn’t much different. Women are still struggling against the ‘laws’ written down by the patriarchal society. That is why Patricia Arquette included the fight to equal pay for women in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. That is why millions of Indians gathered to protest against rape and murder of women following Jyoti Singh’s mutilation and rape, consequently death in 2012.

I believe I have much to share about these inequalities and issues that women go through, and hope that my daughters won’t have to go through it in their lives. I hate ‘pinkification’ of girls and all things to do with females, be it Barbie or breast cancer. So yes, you could say I wanted to write about women’s issues. I will not burn my bra or be against men, as you will see in the book, the men are not all bad! But I want to write about women, fairly and honestly, and talk about issues they face in this world.

What does your family think about the novel?

I haven’t let anyone except my husband read it as far as family goes.  And a couple of trusted writer friends. They gave me very relevant and good advice and criticism. I know the LGBT factor raised eyebrows, created interest and curiosity whenever I answered the inevitable question: So what’s your book about? But I never had any negative response.

My family and friends have been very supportive of the book and its subject matter.

What are you working on now?

I have a collection of short stories that I think I am ready to send out to publishers. The short stories deal with the theme of loss in many ways. A man in a city far away from his homeland, writes letters to his pregnant wife, promising her the good life in the west. A woman, whose parrot suddenly takes on the voice of her dead husband; a woman who joins her husband to a fancy business dinner but craving her simple home cooked meal at home; a couple who mourn their stillborn in very different ways.

I’m working on another novel but it’s too early to comment on it now.

Thank you for answering the questions in such detail, and the very best of luck with The Normal State of Mind

You can read more about Susmita in this lovely piece in the Plymouth Herald

My writing life

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderful interview, Susmita and Carys - I'm very much looking forward to reading The Normal State of Mind.