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‘When we reduce everyone to nothing but given identities, we reduce the chance of humanity’

Writer Karuna Ezara Parikh on her debut novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First, writing a cross border love story and the need to engage with the past

Written by Surbhi Gupta | Updated: September 25, 2020 5:48:10 pm
Kolkata-based Parikh, a former model and television presenter, has studied journalism, film & broadcasting at Cardiff University.

Karuna Ezara Parikh had started working on her debut novel in 2007. The idea of it hasn’t changed much since, but the way she wrote it, she says, in terms of language and understanding of the world, is more “grown up” now. “I always wanted to write a love story with a political undertone, but neither the love nor the politics were deep enough,” says the 35-year-old writer. Thirteen years later, in 2020, she introduces us to an Indian girl named Daya and a Pakistani boy Aftaab, and takes us back to 2001 in Cardiff, Wales, as the two explore their relationship, respond to the changing politics of the world outside while negotiating with their own differences. During the course of the novel, we go back and forth in time and space, and also meet Daya’s parents — Gyan and Asha — who challenge societal norms in their own unconventional ways.

Kolkata-based Parikh, a former model and television presenter, has studied journalism, film & broadcasting at Cardiff University. Her timely and expansive debut novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First (Picador, Rs 699) attempts to unravel the various layers of love, friendship, family, migration and xenophobia, merging the personal with the political. It borrows the title from Emily Dickinson’s eponymous poem, and shares it with composer Michael Nyman’s famed melody for the 1993 award-winning period drama The Piano. Excerpts from an interview:

Could you decode your protagonist Daya for the readers?

Daya is essentially a metaphor for how I think so many of us feel – lonely in this vast world. More specifically, she is a dance student, in her final year at university in Wales. She’s 20 and trying to make sense of the world. I think that’s an age when we form many of our opinions for ourselves, without the influence of school teachers, parents or the environment we are born into. To meet Daya at that age is to understand why people end up choosing to hate or love specific things.

Her timely and expansive debut novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First attempts to unravel the various layers of love, friendship, family, migration and xenophobia, merging the personal with the political. (Book cover art and calligraphy by artist Shilo Shiv Suleiman)

What made you explore a cross border relationship?

I was at college in the UK from 2002 to 2006 and some of my closest friends were Pakistanis at the time. I noticed that abroad there wasn’t much distinction between Indians and Pakistanis. I guess in the ‘sea of white faces’ we were just the ‘brown’ kids. We ate the same food, hung out at the same places. My friends from Greece and France and Norway and the US couldn’t tell us apart. Most of all, we had a shared language. When I came home I found, over the years, a rising sentiment of hatred between communities. Politics were becoming more and more divisive. The two things tied up very neatly, especially in a climate where Muslims in India often hear the phrase – ‘Why don’t you go to Pakistan?’

Next year would mark 20 years since the 9/11 attack changed the world and its politics. You’ve explored the event, its participants and implications in detail. Why do you think it was the game-changer in the way people interacted with each other?

I think 2001 was a pivotal moment in history, which is why the question — where were you when the towers fell — is so relevant. It changed the way the world saw and spoke about Islam. It changed the idea of terrorism. It changed the way countries far, far away from the United States would use the fear of Islamic Terrorism in the future. September 11 and its aftermath allowed people to express themselves in ways previously considered impolite. It was such a huge event and it allowed for huge responses. There were various angles to it, conspiracies and different backlashes. I wanted to explore one of those backlashes, which was what it created or allowed in terms of both Hindu-Muslim and Indo-Pak relations.

You have studied in Cardiff. Is that the reason to set this story there?

The story had to be set on neutral grounds, or in the West, in order for it to be legitimate and fair. The only city I’ve lived in outside of India is Cardiff, so I set it there for authenticity. Aaftab is Pakistani and Daya is Indian, neither of these countries could have been used for the setting of the story. Because how would the two meet? Then how would it sustain? And wouldn’t one person be at a greater advantage than the other by being ‘local’? The West erases these problems and places the two characters in neutral territory. Away from the politics of their nations, Daya and Aaftab are allowed to meet without the burden of history.

During the course of the novel, we go back and forth in time and space. (Source: Nayantara Parikh)

Why did you feel the need to engage with some periods, places and political moments from the past?

There is a line from the book. ‘History is a river.’ I think if we don’t engage with history, continue to examine it from all points of view — those of the victor and the defeated both — we cannot understand our present, let alone predict or prevent things about the future. If we forget, we stand to learn nothing.

Why did you want to name the book after Emily Dickinson’s poem?

When I heard the track in the film The Piano, I was deeply moved by it. Further research led me to find that it was the Dickinson poem. I knew then that the opening line ‘The heart asks pleasure first…’ was such a resonant metaphor for the entire book, and the entire idea of jumping into love headfirst, without care for boundaries or rules. It made sense.

In the story, you’ve extensively explored the interaction between Hindu and Muslim communities. What sense do you make of the present socio-political environment?

It’s a tense time, and I’ve tried to explore these feelings in the book. What we’re seeing isn’t new though, and I can only hope things will at some point be better. I believe there is good in people, but when we reduce ourselves and others to nothing but given identities, we reduce the chance of humanity.

What can the youth do to bridge the gap between the two communities?

Reach out, exercise empathy, don’t believe everything you hear — especially ideas of hate. Remember your humanity, raise your voice for what is right, remember gentleness… I think to recall we are human can often be enough.

What inspired you to become a writer?

Writing for me is the only way I know how to make sense of the turmoil within me and the world around me. I can’t remember a time I was ever not writing. I grew up in a house full of books so maybe that made a difference as well. My mother is also a writer — so the idea that this was a possible career definitely existed in my home. My list of favourites is endless. Michael Ondaatje, Nadeem Aslam, Tolstoy, Arundhati Roy, Svetlana Alexeivich, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Graham Greene.

Have you started work on the second book?

I have a book of poems coming out soon, which should be an interesting shift from writing an entire novel.

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