‘Life is not experienced like a novel’

Mumbai-based Tejaswini Apte-Rahm on why the short story is an important literary form what it takes to be a full time writer

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: November 16, 2017 8:51 pm
Tejaswini Apte Rahm, indian authors, writer, indian express I think we experience life as a series of fragments, where loose ends don’t always get tied up, and episodes may find closure only years later, or indeed never. Short stories are uniquely placed to mirror that fragmentary experience of life: Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

The short story, frequently dismissed as mere training for the real business of writing novels, has a staunch champion in journalist-turned-writer Tejaswini Apte-Rahm. Her debut book of fiction, a collection of short stories called These Circuses That Sweep Through The Land, has won praise for its dark humour and ability to exaggerate the quirks of daily life to nightmarish proportions. It has been shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2017 as well as the Tata Nexon Literature Live! First Book Award (fiction) 2017. Excerpts from an email interview:

Writers are often told to focus on novels, not short stories, as some sort of ‘market wisdom’.

I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, ‘So you’re writing short stories? When are you going to write a novel?’ – as if short stories are merely a stepping stone to a higher art form. I think there is a misconception that short stories need less skill than writing a novel, simply because they are shorter. In fact they are two different genres of writing which call for different, though overlapping, skill sets. Short stories provide a differently textured narrative experience. Life is not experienced like a conventional novel with a ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure, though one can create this kind of narrative with hindsight. I think we experience life as a series of fragments, where, for example, loose ends don’t always get tied up, and episodes may find closure only years later, or indeed never. Short stories are uniquely placed to mirror that fragmentary experience of life.

What were your earliest attempts at writing fiction?

My first story ever was one I wrote for Target magazine as a 9 or 10 year old, about a boy stepping onto a passing cloud from his high-rise building in Bombay. He could never come home because the cloud drifted endlessly. I remember experiencing a horrified fascination as I wrote it. It frightened me, because I lived in a skyscraper myself. Unfortunately, I never posted the story to the magazine. I had no skills in practical matters at the time.

What does it take to be a full-time writer?

I was an environmental researcher for several years, which required a lot of travel, often at short notice. I had also been working intermittently on some short stories in between research projects. After my daughter was born it was not possible for me to lead that kind of lifestyle anymore. So I decided to focus on writing fiction and working from home. I am a very hands-on mom. I like to be at home with my daughter. When she was a baby I wrote in the early mornings before she woke up. Now I write when she is at school. The most important skill for a full-time writer is self-discipline. Sitting down at your desk at a set time every day, for a set number of hours, is half the battle won.

The book cover

Which was the first story you wrote that eventually went into These Circuses that Sweep Through the Landscape?

The first was Homo Coleoptera written many years ago. I made a careful plan of it before I started writing. As a beginning writer, this helped me to concentrate on the writing itself because I already had a road map to tell me where I was going. The story won a runner-up prize in a competition in the UK and was published in Himal Southasian magazine. But it was almost 10 years before I wrote fiction again because I was working full-time.

The spirit of Roald Dahl floats over the book.

Roald Dahl’s short stories are probably the reason I started writing seriously. The economical use of words, the wit, the ruthlessness with which he gets to the dark heart of a character, are all delicious to me. And the beauty of it is that he does it in the simplest language. I’ve learned a great deal from him about using language with precision and how to build up tension in a story.

As a writer, what details do you make note of in your daily interactions?

I tend to observe the cadence of speech and people’s mannerisms. Both go a long way in showing a person’s character. Deconstructing speech is important to me – why did a person use this word and not that one? Why did he pause? Is that expression on her face deliberate or unconscious? Why was she looking at that particular person when she said that sentence? Such observations feed into creating characters that look and, more importantly, sound different from each other.

You’ve written about how you were nicknamed ‘Supposing’ by a school friend and that this was the beginning of your life in fiction. What were your earliest attempts at writing fiction?

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t had an overactive imagination as a child, because I often came up with slightly ghoulish ‘supposings’. My first story ever was one I wrote for Target Magazine as a 9 or 10 year old, about a boy stepping onto a passing cloud from his high-rise building in Bombay. He could never come home because the cloud drifted on endlessly. I remember experiencing a horrified fascination as I wrote it. It frightened me, because I lived in a skyscraper myself. Unfortunately I never posted the story to the magazine. I had no skills in practical matters at the time.

You’ve lived in so many different countries. What influence has this had on the way you write and think?

I’ve been educated in three countries, and then lived in seven countries. Most importantly I’ve learned that people are the same everywhere. I know it is a cliché, but it’s one thing to know this theoretically, and another thing to experience that truth first-hand. It is possible to acknowledge this truth without oversimplifying the diverse politics, ways of living, and inequities of the world, and without a Disney-fied “It’s a small world after all” vision. But I have always felt that I am writing for a global audience, even if most of my stories are set in India, because human dilemmas and emotions are the same everywhere. This has a certain liberating effect on me when I am writing. Secondly, having lived in different countries, I’m intolerant of cultural arrogance, the kind that is on the rise all over the world, including India. There is cultural excellence everywhere, and it is foolish not to learn from the achievements of other cultures – or from our own diversity of Indian cultures and histories for that matter. It’s curious that this lazy and dangerous parochialism has arisen at a moment in history when technology has made it so easy to be exactly the opposite.

You’ve said that Mumbai and London are part of you like none of the other cities you’ve lived in can be. Could you expand on this? How have these two cities shaped your imagination as a writer?

In Mumbai there is always a sense of possibility hanging in the air, like a mirage. What that possibility is, is hard to pin down. It’s intoxicating precisely because it is hard to pin down. The memory of that intoxication often fuels my writing. On the flipside there is a certain melancholy to Bombay that has shaped my imagination. Most of the places and people that once made Mumbai ‘home’ for me no longer exist there. If everything were still in place as it used to be, perhaps the city would not have the same hold on my imagination as it does. A part of me is forever moving about like a ghost in a Bombay that has ceased to be. London is like a second home, and in literary terms England has been a kind of mothership since I was brought up on the classic English authors. There is so much creative excellence in London that it makes me want to energetically do all kinds of creative things too.

You were once a journalist. How did you balance the demands of journalism and fiction writing?

I wasn’t doing both at the same time. But journalism taught me to use different styles of writing for different audiences, to write in concentrated chunks of time, and to write to a deadline. All are important skills for fiction writing. And of course as a journalist you interact with people from so many walks of life. In the end it is all fodder for fiction, whether or not you are conscious of it.

Could you tell me about why and how you made the transition to writing fiction full time? What does it take to be a full time writer?

I was an environmental researcher for several years, which required a lot of travel, often at short notice. I had also been working intermittently on some short stories in between research projects. After my daughter was born it was not possible for me to lead that kind of lifestyle anymore. So I decided to focus on writing fiction and working from home. I am a very hands-on mom. I like to be at home with my daughter. When she was a baby I wrote in the early mornings before she woke up. Now I write when she is at school. The most important skill for a full-time writer is self-discipline. Sitting down at your desk at a set time every day, for a set number of hours, is half the battle won.

How do you structure your days when working on a story?

As soon as my daughter goes to school, I head for my desk. I use the morning to either write or do something related to writing, such as research or making notes. Fitting in some exercise is a vital part of the writing process because it refreshes your mind. The post-lunch period is for answering emails and other routine tasks. Once my daughter comes home I am totally involved with her, followed by preparing dinner. I can’t write on weekends and school holidays so I use that time to catch up on reading, which is an essential part of a writer’s schedule. We move countries every couple of years, so during the transition period the writing routine is broken for at least three or four months. That’s also a time to focus on reading intensively.

What is your source of mental and emotional sustenance when working on a book?

I need to unwind at the end of the working day. If I can’t, it affects my work. I return to favourite books and movies. I listen to old and new film songs turned up very loud. I love the joyful exuberance of our film songs. Even the sad songs have a zest for life. The right kind of weather also acts like a tonic – grey, dreary days of autumn and winter with the wind howling outside make me feel calm and happy.

What are you reading right now?

I’m a great fan of Amit Chaudhuri. There is so much to learn from him, the way he slows time down and unpacks the nuances of every moment. He manages to articulate what you’ve felt in your bones. And so reading him feels like coming home, in a way. I often dip into Chalotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” for sustenance. I find it soothing and wise. I’ve just finished reading Charlie Chaplin’s “My Autobiography”, and rediscovered the innocence of “Anne of Green Gables”. I’m currently reading “A Child’s History of England” by Charles Dickens – I started reading it the other night thinking it would help put me to sleep. But it’s so beautifully written it kept me wide awake, and I’m now engrossed in it.

Daily life, especially when one has a fulltime job and/or family, can frequently get in the way of a writer’s discipline.

It’s difficult and there’s no easy answer. There are a dozen things every day to distract you from writing. On the one hand it is essential to have the self-discipline to sit down and write every morning. On the other hand, you also need to learn to go with the flow of the events in your life. Don’t go nuts if, for some reason, you can’t write on a particular day. Writing also involves doing ‘nothing’ – like staring out of the window, listening to the wind rustling through the trees outside, having imaginary conversations in my head with real or fictional people. That’s something which doesn’t fit into disciplined timekeeping.

You’ve kept a diary for many years. Do you find yourself going back to it to draw on memories, moments etc? What purpose does a diary serve for you?

The only purpose is to provide my year with some kind of structured narrative. I have a terrible short-term memory, so when my diary-writing lapses it disorients me because I can’t remember what I did last month. I flip through my current diary now and then to remind myself of my own story.

Apte-Rahm is participating in the panel discussion ‘Poor Cousins’ as part of Tata Literature Live! 2017, at the Little Theatre, NCPA on November 19 at 5 pm.

Apte-Rahm is participating in the panel discussion ‘Poor Cousins’ as part of Tata Literature Live! 2017, at the Little Theatre, NCPA on November 19 at 5 pm.

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