‘What I like about being a writer is that I have no control over the reader’

Author Manjula Padmanabhan speaks to Anil Menon on speculative fiction, humour as resistance and his woman-positive narratives.

Written by Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated: October 2, 2016 1:35:48 am
Anil Menon, Anil Menon books, Anil Menon parsi writings, Anil Menon women books, Anil Menon women characters, speculative fiction, latest books, books, latest fictions, latest news, books news, sunday eye, Everything we do, it’s either with friends or with family. As for material, it’s the usual mulligatawny soup of real and imagined experiences, says Menon.

Menon was born in Alwaye, Kerala, did most of his schooling in Mumbai and earned a degree in electrical engineering from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, before leaving to pursue graduate studies in computer science from Syracuse University in the US in 1989. Currently, he divides his time between India and the US.

Did you always want to write science fiction — or, to use the variation of the term that you prefer, speculative fiction (SF)?

I didn’t encounter SF until I’d started my degree in engineering. In the US, I hung out with technology types, who were also into SF. So when I began writing, I began writing science fiction. Around the time I finished The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, however, I found that the stories I’d become interested in telling didn’t particularly need technology or the future. Settings that are of absorbing interest to American SF readers such as future societies or apocalyptic crises no longer interest me. My stories are still speculative, but not in the science-fictional manner. These days, I try to place my stories mostly outside the genre.

What is it about being an author that attracts you – given that you’ve known success as a computer scientist ?

I made a conscious decision to shift to writing fiction. I’d worked in software for a long while and it began to feel a bit too easy. When the choice came down to more of the same at higher pay or turning into a “suit”, I took a break and went to the Clarion West writing workshop. I now think of my life as project-driven rather than career-driven. I do some things that are writerly and other things that aren’t so writerly. Some projects generate money, others generate thank-you notes. Both are welcome.

What I like about being a writer is that I have no control over the reader. The reader’s response cannot entirely be subdued by technique. It is more like, say, love-making than road-kill taxidermy. I find that fact — that I do not control the reader — fascinating. And also very frustrating. And then again, if I ever could control the reader’s response, I would cease writing that minute.

Did your novel Half of What I Say start off as a complete narrative? Or did it develop as you went along? Is there any particular significance to your choice of characters’ names? I was also interested in your inclusion of Parsi characters.

The novel grew out of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in India. Many of my Indian friends were in favour of it, but the more I learned about Hazare, the more convinced I became that the proposed cures were worse than the disease. I remember telling a close friend something to the effect of “all modern tyrannies are mass movements gone terribly wrong.” And mass movements get started because people are so easily led by stories. Just exactly what is this thing we call the story? After several false starts, these two ideas—tyranny and the sheer oddness of stories—came together. Style-wise, I was interested in exploring the idea of “literary pulp”; that is, writing that has the energy of pulp fiction but could also be savoured for its literary qualities. It seemed a good fit for what I was trying to do. I’ve described it as Rang De Basanti meets The Name of The Rose.

About the names: there’s no symbolism, but, perhaps, for Indian readers, they will resonate with half-remembered stories. When I thought of the names, they felt right. From my notes, I see that I only had difficulty with one character’s name. Everything was there, but not her name. Then, my hands typed out a sentence and I learned that she had jamun-black eyes. So she became Sabari.

About the Parsis: I worked for a year in Godrej at the Vikhroli plant. I was surrounded by a lot of Parsis. It was like being in a Rohinton Mistry novel, but one written by Sukumar Ray. I grew to respect them. I like their compassionate contempt for non-Parsis, their sense of fraternity, their ability to get things done, and their ability to laugh at themselves. I think we should hand over the country to Parsis; they would do a great job of running it. Jokes aside, Kafka had his Chinamen and I have the Parsis. I can imagine being a Parsi in a way that I can’t imagine being a Nair.

Even though it’s not a comic novel, there’s an element of humour running along just under the surface. Particularly in the way people talk. Is that something you look for in books — an element of wry self-awareness on the part of the author? What books/authors do you like/have you liked?

The self-awareness was deliberate. This will sound strange but I wanted readers to love the story but also resist that love. Don’t we love our addictions in that manner? For instance, I loved to smoke but regretted that love every day. Humour is part of that resistance. I hope readers will resist what the story is trying to say — but I’ll also be disappointed if they do. Who likes failure? Humour is the perfect double-faced emotion for this double-faced attitude. When we laugh a lot, there sometimes is a strange moment when we become slightly uneasy. What are we chuckling about? Who are we chuckling at? What do we do with those who aren’t chuckling? This story seeks to bring the reader to the same point regarding their pleasure in stories.

I admire a lot of writers and there is almost always something to be appreciated in any story. No act of creativity can ever be entirely rotten, can it? When I was starting out as an author, there were writers I wanted to imitate. But not these days. As for books I love: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen will always be in the list. Ditto for the Hindu epics. The Mahabharata was Shakespeare before Shakespeare became Shakespeare. I also love Urdu stories in translation, especially Naiyer Masud, Surendra Prasad, Hasan Manzar and Khalida Asghar. I love the ordinariness of their settings, their simplicity.

Out of the 10 of your short stories that I read, eight were family-centric. Does that reflect the focus of your own life?

It reflects Indian life, doesn’t it? Everything we do, it’s either with friends or with family. As for material, it’s the usual mulligatawny soup of real and imagined experiences.

Your work is, in my opinion, unusually woman-positive: your female characters take the lead, are comfortable with themselves and their bodies, are bold and three-dimensional. Would you say that’s a reflection, in some way, of the Malayali world you belong to?

The Nair matrilineal system has completely broken down, thank God. Otherwise, I would have been en route to an early death defending some twit’s honour. I grew up in a regular nuclear family with the typical large-blast radius of relatives. Fact is, I love south Asian women, even the ones I can’t stand. They fascinate me; and since I write about whatever I find fascinating, I write about them. I’m glad you think the work is woman-positive. Our South Asian aesthetic places more emphasis on tenderness than on accuracy. I hope we’ll never entirely let go of that approach to the arts.


Manjula Padmanabhan, is a fiction writer, artist, playwright and India’s first woman cartoonist. Her most recent book is The Island of Lost Girls, a science-fiction novel about gender conflict.

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