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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

‘I allow the character to decide everything’

With Forgetting, Devashish Makhija brings together a collection of 49 stories of varying scale, texture and tonality.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Mumbai | March 31, 2015 12:17:09 am
talk759a Devashish Makhija

Your collection of stories is called Forgetting (HarperCollins, Rs 350) but you seem to be collecting memories very meticulously. How much of it is borrowed from life?

Brand Wagon Conclave

I don’t know how to tell a story unless I know the character down to his or her bare bones. So even if the events or situations are not from my own life, I either live the life of the character I write about or observe him or her from such close quarters that when you read the story, it might seem almost biographical. Some stories are based on facts and are fictionalised, so they feel like reality. While the others are fiction, they are coloured with so much fact as to not feel like fiction.

From being a karate champion to working in advertising to films, you have dabbled in a number of things. When did you discover the storyteller in you?

I’ve dabbled in so many mediums of expression primarily because I’m always confused. Perhaps the storyteller in me was always there. I remember lying a lot as a child. My parents, teachers or friends from school may find this surprising, but I used to make up much of the things I told them. My excuses and lies were realistic, believable, nearly always replacing the truth so smoothly that I myself sometimes started believing some of these ‘tales’. It took many years for me to expose myself before my own eyes. And then I went ‘Holymotherofgod! I’m a storyteller.’ See? I did it again.

You keep playing with form and length in your tales. Do the characters decide the length? Or do you first think of the form and then the story flows?

I always allow the character to decide everything — the length of the tale, its nature, form, and the flow of events. The only aspect pre-decided is if it’s prose, poem, screenplay, novel, picture book or play. A reader, viewer or audience never remembers the story in entirety; they always relate to and invest in the character(s). If they revisit the story, it is always to vicariously live the characters’ lives again.

The book is peppered with illustrations. Did you do them with the stories and the theme of the book in mind?

I didn’t do them with the stories in mind, but when these very disparate stories came together under this sweeping theme ‘forgetting’, I had to sequence them in a way that gives the book an emotional trajectory, even if not an obvious one. That’s when I realised there were ‘sections’ that needed ‘transition’ points for the readers, to help them get a sense of a slight shift of mood, but not of theme.

You are one of the writers for Terribly Tiny Tales, a website for 140-character fiction. What are your learnings from writing for them?

Terribly Tiny Tales (TTT) happened in 2013. Each of the authors in the group had different styles and approaches. My brief to myself was to tell entire stories (sometimes with a three-act structure) within the limitations of the form. Over time, I’ve learnt to be able to distill most of my ideas into compressed form, just to be able to see the larger arc of the story I’m constructing. I know it sounds frighteningly technical. But it’s been a lot of fun.

Has the experience come handy while working on scripts?

In the film industry, most people have very little time to hear you out, they demand an ‘elevator pitch’ for your story — the bare skeleton. TTT taught me to distil my stories into compelling elevator pitches, without losing the flavour. There is almost a haiku-like disciplining of my thought process because of this. I coined a term for myself (at the risk of sounding self-important): a ‘story-samurai’.

What’s most challenging, writing screenplays, short stories or tiny tales?

Given how little we earn from screenplays — and the fact that most fiction writing is done for either nearly-free, or completely free — the hardest thing to write really are those cheques. On a serious note, each one of these forms presents such different challenges. They’re all equally hard, but equally satisfying as well.

A reading and discussion of Forgetting will be held at Prithvi House at 6.30 pm on April 11.

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