October 6, 2016 12:00:08 am
You work on gender issues with the UN. How did the idea of writing Tanya Tania, an epistolary novel, come about? Why did you set the plot in Mumbai and Karachi?
I’m a Bombay girl and I went to college in America; two of my closest friends there are from Karachi. I realised that they lived my life in a different country, and vice versa, to a large extent. It’s almost like Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass — I was fascinated, and through my friends I know so much about the city. This is a very patronising way of putting it, but I think Karachi is the Bombay of Pakistan; there are cultural similarities, they’re both so diverse, and both the cities are by the sea. I left home when I was 17 to go to college and I would write very long emails to my family. What I liked about that process was the editing, of memory and experience. When I was writing those letters, it was like editing a frame in a movie — you could edit out parts that you wanted, and the letter offers you room for reflection and introspection. I started writing the book in 2012, it took me four years to write three chapters; and then I finished the book in 18 days.
Did you choose female protagonists on purpose?
Gandhi’s concept of antyodaya or upliftment of all says that every time you feel uncertain about what to do, think about the most vulnerable person in the world, and whether your actions will help them. I grew up realising that the vulnerable person was almost always going to be a girl. I don’t see how you can care about equality but not gender. So I’ve written about what I know, but there was a conscious desire to have female protagonists. There is a universal obsession to police what women should wear, debate on where they should go, and it’s in every part of our public and private lives.
In hindsight, I’m pretending an agency I’m not sure I have. It felt like I was a medium through which these girls expressed themselves. But they are very real to me.
You’ve written that the Mumbai riots of 1992 were a seminal event in your life. Tanya Tania is set around that time as well. Did you want to write a book about the riots?
Yes, in a way. I grew up in a very secular and privileged home, and I was very naïve about religion. When the riots happened, I was 13, and I didn’t understand what it meant to be Hindu or Muslim. We lived on the 18th floor of a building in Breach Candy, and you could see plumes of smoke rising. You knew that things had become violent. Parts of the city were under curfew, places that were unsafe, where you knew some of your classmates lived. So I wanted to know who is not safe. I went through the register to find out who the Muslims in my class were, so that I could call them and ask them if they were safe. A high-end furniture store on the street I lived in was burnt to cinders — no other shop had been touched. I realised that it was because it was called Noor Mohammed.
The novel also addresses the issue of women’s mental health very openly. What compelled you to introduce that strand into Tanya’s life?
In 2014, 19,000 housewives committed suicide in India; and there were 5,000 farmer suicides that year. You can guess which one got mentioned more in India.
I majored in psychology and English literature in Amherst College in Massachusetts, and I’ve always been interested in what is “health” and what is “illness”. Our conceptions of these things are decided by a group of private practitioners; I find that very fascinating. I’ve always been interested in learning about depression — where do you draw the line between sadness and depression, the interaction between depression and anxiety and euphoria.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a short story now. But I’m also thinking about a non-fiction piece which will explore issues surrounding mental health. I also want to write a non-fiction piece about 10 successful girls in rural India, an anthropological survey of what shaped them.
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