In many ways, Eating Wasps (Context, Rs 599) is a return to the themes of your previous novels such as Mistress (2005), with which it shares some of its characters, but also to Ladies Coupe (2001) and even to Idris: Keeper of the Light (2014). Is that a deliberate decision to show a continuum in the way patriarchy hems women in?
I think one of the premises of my writing, right from the beginning, has been about exploring the gender equation. And how it is skewed in a certain direction, which suffocates women to such an extent that even what is a fundamental right of every living being — the right to an identity — has to be battled for. Patriarchy works in both blatant and insidious ways and it is this that I have wanted to dwell upon in each one of my literary novels. So yes, in that sense it was a conscious decision. Also, if with Ladies Coupe, I was trying to talk about the woman’s search for an identity, 17 years after it was published, I wanted to build on it and discuss the challenges a woman faces to preserve her sense of identity.
While I was reading the novel, a Supreme Court judgment decriminalised adultery. Would your characters — Sreelakshmi or Urvashi — separated as they are by time, but both battling the consequences of desire, have been happier in this world, which, legally, at least, is just a little more equal?
A law passed is just a law passed. The society we live in doesn’t acknowledge female desire and it is going to take a long while before it percolates down to small towns where you see patriarchy and misogyny at its most virulent. So, the very thought that a woman can feel desire and may choose to fulfil it is something patriarchy will resist. For female desire takes the power equation out of their hands.
When did you begin work on the novel? How long did it take for you to finish it?
The actual writing time was about a year but I have been thinking about this book for several years now and had written parts of some of the stories during that period.
This is a critical time in the history of female resistance to patriarchy. There’s the #MeToo campaign that has found resonance around the world, but we still have the president of the most powerful nation of the world mocking the testimony of a sexual assault survivor. In India, too, we have seen a recent outpouring of stories of harassment and assault. As a writer and a woman, how do you react to incidents such as these?
As a woman, it distresses me when I see how women are treated as inconsequential. It angers me when I see how women are either slut-shamed or mockingly dismissed when they raise their voice to proclaim their discomfort at unprofessional behaviour or to out a sexual predator. As a writer, I try and analyse the sequence of events to understand what happened and what could have been done to prevent it. I must confess that largely I don’t think anything would have made much of a difference. The sense of male entitlement is such that it overrides female consent with ‘She really means yes even though she is saying no. She just needs to be persuaded. And I know I can.’
There’s an interesting statement that one of the characters, Koman, makes in the book. He says, ‘Art doesn’t make anything happen except for the artist. It has no bearing on real life. To most people, it is a filler of time and space, a point of diversion and no more.’ What do you think is the role of the artist or the writer in today’s world?
It certainly is not possible for an artist to be distanced from the reality that surrounds him or her in any period of time. And even more so now. Political expression in art is how you take it down to people so they may realise the implication or consequences of a stream of thought. However, to believe art alone will suffice to bring about change is wishful thinking and this is what Koman is referring to. Therefore, while the artist should take art seriously, he or she shouldn’t take themselves too seriously as instruments of change.
Another SC judgment now makes it possible for women devotees to visit Sabarimala. While the Kerala government has declared that it will not contest the judgment, there are many women (alongside many more men) who continue to protest. How do you interpret this dichotomy?
I don’t think gender should be used to ban women from going into any place be it a religious site or a bar at a club. I don’t believe that women are not suited for some professions, sports, artistic pursuits or callings. In that sense, this is a landmark judgment in breaking a traditional male bastion sanctified by religion. In fact, the argument that female devotees at Sabarimala will erode Ayyappan’s celibacy is risible.
However, I do also think that neither male nor female pilgrims should be allowed into Sabarimala for a long time. The ecology of the place is fragile and the recent floods have only further worsened it. Lakhs of pilgrims descending onto Sabarimala and the facilities required to cater to all of them is only going to tilt it even more precariously. Let’s give Ayyappan a rest. He fled to the jungles wanting to be left alone. Let’s give him and his beloved jungles some time to recover.
You move between genres so fluidly — from writing for children to adults, from detective fiction to poetry to travel writing to screen plays. Which comes first — the story or the genre?
The story comes first and based on what the story demands of me, I locate it in its genre. And so, no genre is difficult or easier than the other. I enjoy working in multiple forms.
Do you still write poetry?
I still do write poetry. The interesting change for me is that I have become a midnight poet. By which I mean I wake up in the middle of the night with a poem almost fully formed in my head. I write it down. In the morning, I ask myself: did I dream it? But there it is, on a paper on the bedside table. Or, sometimes, in my phone.
You are also a prolific translator, with translations of classics such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen to your credit. I remember you mentioned wanting to translate Unnayi Variyar’s Nalacharitham Aattakatha. Have you started work on it?
Not yet. It is what I think about again and again. I know once I start, it will be done. But the time hasn’t come yet. I am a great believer in the fact that a book emerges when it is ready to. There is no forcing it.
Have you been impacted by writing in regional languages? How has that shaped your writing?
My first exposure to literature that set bells ringing in my head was from regional writing. While in school, I read Premchand, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Mohan Rakesh, Sumitranandan Pant in Hindi; I read translations of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, (Rabindranath) Tagore, Mali Madhavan Nair, MT Vasudevan Nair in English; I watched movie adaptations of Sujatha, Jayakanthan, Thakazhi and all of these shaped the writer I would become.
As my characters are mostly drawn from small town or rural India, the landscape and mindscape I delve into is the same as regional language writing. I am a great admirer of what is happening in the literary space occupied by writers writing in various Indian languages. The themes explored, the strength of the language and writerly insights have inspired me rather than influenced me to break barriers with how I write my books.
As someone who writes in English in India, how does one take one’s work to non-urban parts of India or represent their struggles in a bhasha that they will understand? How does, to quote you from the book, a writer ‘hear your thoughts even if you don’t tell us… read the silences and shape your stories as if they happened to us’ ?
I suppose translation is the most obvious way to take it to non-urban parts. As for representing their struggles, one needs to have an intimate understanding of a place and its customs as its people to be able to write about it with strength and conviction. The insider’s point of view is hard to beat. For which one needs to have spent time there and internalise the experience. Or it would always reek of the voyeur’s gaze — seeing just what you want to see rather than the full picture.
Your Inspector Gowda series is very different from your literary novels. Does writing detective fiction require a different kind of preparation?
Writing noir demands a different skill set. Once I zone in on the theme I am going to touch upon, I need to research it adequately before the plot is shaped. Also, I need to steer clear of suppositions, and, instead, align my thinking with what is the procedure, law, etc. It’s within this contained space that I need to wing it.
Will Gowda and Ratna return any-time soon?
Next year, hopefully. I have started research on the next Inspector Gowda. I am also working on a children’s book.