Tag Archives: romance

The Next Big Thing Interview

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I was tagged by Christopher Martin, author and editor (of Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination) to participate in this blog meme. “The Next Big Thing”, is meant to find and promote new and in-progress books, by getting their authors to answer a series of questions. [I’ve seen some versions of this meme with one question fewer, but I’ve decided to answer them all]. I’m tagging: poet Monica Mody, who has a new book, Kala Pani, out soon; erotica author and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who always has an anthology in progress; and poet Anindita Sengupta, who has just completed her second collection. Looking forward to their interviews; in the meanwhile, here are my answers:

What is the working title of your book?

“The High Priestess Never Marries”. It’s a book of stories, short and long.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Literary fiction, preferably, with a distinctly feminist leaning. But if I’m realistic, some people will call it chick lit. And that’s okay.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was something I used to say to my friends, partly with rue and partly with sardonic pride: “the high priestess never marries”. After a decade of romantic complication, I had begun to see my life through the lense of the pseudo-historical notion (backed up by evidence from the devadasi tradition of South India to the oracles of Greek antiquity, among other cultures), that in order to retain her personal power, the “high priestess” – the free spirit, the maverick – had to disavow social norms expected of other women, such as the security of husband and household. In exchange, she was allowed freedoms, education and individual and political agency that most women did not receive. That was very much how it felt to me, as a woman in the early 21st century – that it was still a very either/or dichotomy, I could be an alpha female or I could be in a relationship, but not both.

So all the stories fundamentally grapple with the question of whether it is possible to both have love and be free. The story that probably best exemplifies this tussle might be “Afternoon Sex”, in which a woman is utterly devoted to her husband and the institution of marriage, believing both to have saved her life, but some primal part of her nature remains unexpressed and so she has this parallel life, another lover.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Stories of love and its consequences, underpinned by the motifs of sweetness, wildness and greed.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My women friends’ and my own experiences, and some of the cautionary tales that the men we were in love with and whom we thought we wanted to be like turned out to be. Many of us spent a great deal of time in dramatically dysfunctional relationships, often with permeable boundaries and complex power dynamics. Some of them were happy (see “Gigolo Maami”); some of them not (see “Greed and the Gandhi Quartet”). All of them were rich experiences, but what was really interesting were the aftermaths. How it could take a year to admit to oneself that what had taken place was abuse. The bizarre self-flagellation that comes with cheating on someone who claimed infidelity was negligible. The fact that one’s libertine or bohemian ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, but remain subject to the mores of the time and society in which one lives, as well as to human nature. The latent misogyny in heterosexual relationships. The fact that no amount of theory, politics or ideology can save you from being blinded by longing. The consequences, basically.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Although the stories are buoyed by female protagonists, it’s the male characters who’d be really fun to cast. What you have are these wilful, out-of-the-ordinary women who are fatally attracted to these men who are either terrible for them or with whom they are somehow unable to reconcile that love/freedom schism they perceive. So you can imagine: young or old, stupid or cunning, cruel or seemingly benign… they are very sexy men.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t have an agent or a publisher, so far. But the book is still incomplete, and until and unless it is completed I hesitate to go searching. But several of the stories have been published individually. They’ve appeared or are forthcoming in Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, Hobart, Verity La, Out of Print, Pure Slush, The Moth, Bengal Lights, Elle, Monkeybicycle, Erotique, Rose Red Review and the anthology Baker’s Dozen. One of them received an Elle Fiction Award from Elle Magazine (India) in 2012, another was a winner in this year’s Best of the Net anthology and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Most of the stories were written in about ten months, and what followed has been a fallow period of almost a year. There are only a few stories left that I want to write, but it’s impossible to say when or if that will happen. Also, my own understanding of what I want the book to be is evolving. I’ve already removed several stories from the manuscript, for example. Narrative and emotional cohesion matter to me when putting together a collection, something I’ve done only twice in the past, with a chapbook and a full-length book of poetry. The pieces must feel like they belong together, and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

What other books would you compare yours to within your genre?

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek for three reasons: its women-centricness is close to mine, its Spanglish inspired my Tanglish, and I love the easy mix of flash fiction and short stories, which The High Priestess Never Marries also has. Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, because those stories deal explicitly with that mixture of toughness and tenderness that independent, but empathic, women have. Gitanjali Kolanad’s very under-rated and graceful Sleeping With Movie Stars, which like my book is set primarily in Madras and also deals with love and lust as morally ambiguous articles. I didn’t think Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her quite fulfilled the premise he put forth in the media about the book – regarding a self-reflective masculinity and accountability in love – but the impetus is not dissimilar from my stories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Right now, I am at a philosophical crossroads. For most of my life, I really did believe that a complicated woman could not have an uncomplicated love life. I don’t feel that way anymore. I started out writing this book as a way to broach and explore questions about choice, ambiguity and consequence – but as the answers started to come, the easy-breezy, bindaas agency of my protagonists started to look far less easy and far less like agency. I’m working now from a space of doubt, not from a space of deceptively balanced equivocality. So here’s what I have to find a way of reconciling now, and it’s important to me to be able to do so, because I do not wish to write in the absence of integrity, if not clarity: what if the high priestess archetype is also only a reactionary paradigm, or if that model is in fact a way of perpetuating a system by creating a space for exclusion within it? And what if the high priestess wants to marry? Is she then not who she thought she was, or had she only always been limited by the notion?

TOI iDiva: UnValentine’s Day

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Wandering through Wonderland, the intrepid young Alice encounters a hubristic Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, wearing a beautiful cravat. The cravat, as it turns out, was an unbirthday present. An unbirthday, he explains, is every one of those other 364 days in a year on which one might also receive gifts. It is, as he says, “a knock-down argument”: by celebrating unbirthdays she can avoid getting terribly hung up on that one day, that albatross, the birthday.

Yes, we all know what Humpty Dumpty’s fate is. He, like some of us, will never get put back together again (although lots of men, and maybe some horse-like satyrs, will try). I know Valentine’s Day can be very hard for some people. Seeing as it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore it even here in Chennai, there seem to be two ways to deal: be Anti-Valentine’s, or be UnValentine’s.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to waste a fortnight, spending thirteen days feeling edgy (and not in a fashionista kind of way) in anticipation of the one that will make you bristly or downright miserable (add a margin for heartsick hungover-ness). To be UnValentine’s is to spend 365 (it’s a leap year!) eating chocolates.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to say you don’t care when you really, really do. To be UnValentine’s is to care – about yourself and how you deserve to be treated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to secretly buy expensive lingerie just in case someone notices you in your glorious misery and gives you some mercy luck. To be UnValentine’s is to hopefully get laid more than once annually.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to be discouraging of insipidly meaningless extravagance. To be UnValentine’s is to be encouraging of profoundly meaningful extravagance.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to obsessively analyse information on your exes to work out how they’re spending mid-February, and with whom. To be UnValentine’s is to already have them blocked on all your feeds, because there is no day, ever, when unsolicited news of them is welcome to upset you.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks to be alone. To be UnValentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to go on a date ironically. To be UnValentine’s is to not have to call it a date in order to feel validated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to begrudge your coupled friends their coupledness. To be UnValentine’s is to not stoop to entertaining the regrettable idea of coupling with your friends just because they’re around.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to observe Single Awareness Day (SAD). Because, you know, one is so critically unaware of one’s singledom otherwise. To be UnValentine’s is to know one’s loneliness but not be distinguished by it.

In South Korea, Black Day is observed on April 14, eating black noodles and commiserating about being single. In Chennai, this particular UnValentine’s Day happens to once again be a public holiday. You can eat black noodles if you like, but you’ll have to share it with your relatives (how’s that for misery?).

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to Valentine’s what militant atheism is to organized religion. Don’t shake your fist at something that doesn’t exist. To be UnValentine’s is to be a believer: in yourself, and your right to red roses, right-hand rings, assorted ridiculousness and loyally royal treatment. Any day you damn well please.

(“It’s a knock-down argument”.)

Here’s the truth: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what it means to be wined and dined and defined by one person’s attention on one particular day. What I would miss on that day I might miss on any other day of the year – and so, what I could celebrate on that day, I could celebrate on any other day of the year as well.

Romance is sweet. Revenge is sweeter. But nothing is as sweet as self-respect.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

Book Review: The Cousins by Prema Raghunath

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Marriage, as an institution and an instrument of hegemony, can only delineate desire. It cannot expunge it. In a post-feminist world, and we cannot overestimate the role of feminism here, it is an institution confronted with either a complete collapse or a deliberate and measured dismantling and refashioning. To live, love, court and couple in such a time is often bewildering, but not so bewildering that the contrasting lack of agency of only a few decades or generations ago has vanished out of sight. The characters of Prema Raghunath’s The Cousins exist in a space of arranged marriages and filial duty, the norms and expectations of their early 20th century upper caste Tamil milieu determining the courses of their lives. They do not have agency as we now assume it. They do, of course, have desire and personal volition – and by extension, must endure consequences and repercussions both of their own making and because of the inextricability of questions of public morality, custodianship and duty from their own choices and the choices made on their behalves.

The book’s titular cousins, Goutami and Krishnanand, spend their entire lives as ships passing in the night. Goutami is the product of an unhappy childhood – she loses her mother as a toddler, loses her sister as a teenager and is raised as little more than a servant maid by her aunt. Krishnanand is the archetypal playboy – he deflowers his female cousins in the days before their weddings, is above reproach on account of his superior charm and the fact of his gender, and squanders opportunities at home and abroad in carefree sprees. She falls in love with him while still little more than a child, her older brother Achyutan (who loses himself in drink and mourning) discourages the match, and Goutami is married off to the dependable and conscientious Seshadri. Krishnanand also marries briefly, to a haughty woman who essentially puts him in his place and leaves him repentant in a number of ways.

Goutami and Krishnanand share only one kiss, that too in their youth, and remain consumed by longing well into old age. Their paths cross often, and sometimes improbably, such as in a distant Himalayan town where both Seshadri and Krishnanand are coincidentally posted. Goutami is unfaithful to her husband, a matter which both her own father and Seshadri himself handle with little emotion. “You were a bad girl,” says her father to her, many years after an affair, as though this is how a woman’s infidelity has ever been dealt with. Oddly enough, Raghunath’s curious and somewhat unrealistic handling of the nature of desire and its corollaries is the one thing that ultimately makes the book interesting. Unsatisfied by the way this novel explores love, commitment and sexuality, one is left pondering the question of articulation – how did people in less permissive eras express desire? The concept of sin intrinsically lends itself to binaries; how were liminal spaces negotiated? In what ways is our understanding of romance in generations past coloured by our own misperceptions?

The Cousins’ chief problem is in its structure: it shifts constantly between speakers when it could just as easily and probably far more successfully have been told in a single narrative voice.  One moment Goutami is speaking to her granddaughters, relating the story of her life. In the next, Achyutan reflects on how many people’s ashes in urns he has set into rivers. If the star-crossed love between the cousins is the fulcrum on which the novel pivots, this is certainly lost in the cacophony. Instead, all sympathy goes toward an unlikely hero: Seshadri. That he stays by his wife despite her straying is irrelevant, because loyalty is a far more complex subject than this novel chooses to grapple with. What makes him likable is that he chooses to educate his daughters, first defers the default option of marrying them off and then allows them to marry to their own liking, and even arranges at one point for Goutami to spend time living and working in England while he remains in India. He emerges as far more progressive in his thinking and actions than the self-involved and fairly insipid duo the novel is ostensibly about. In contrast, it’s difficult to feel much for Krishnanand and Goutami, who have no qualms about running roughshod over other people in general but lack the courage to find a way to be together.

It’s not clear what Raghunath attempts with this novel: to tell a love story, to present a portrait of a bygone era, or to explore the ambiguities of lived experience. In the first two regards it does not fare well. In the last, however, it does in some way inspire thoughts and questions. An otherwise completely mediocre work, The Cousins is salvaged, ironically, by the fact it does not satisfy, and in doing so prompts the reader to turn those questions elsewhere: to the self, to other people, and to better-written books.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.