( Italics added by ISSE)
1.The Indian Short Story in English. If books were a stage, you’ve played many parts on it. With your writing skills, you could have chosen to write novels. What made you choose the “drill sergeant”(sorry for the echoes of Paltan Tales in the question) discipline of the short story?
MM: Drill sergeant discipline – nicely put! The short story was a conscious choice for me, but also an instinctive one. My predisposition came from a rich exposure to oral storytelling at an early age. There were some remarkable storytellers in the family who, through the choice of material and the alchemy of voice, rhythm, inflection and facial expression, created sheer magic. There was something of a ritual involved in creating the story world, starting with the almost incantatory, Kisi zamaane mein ek raja hua karta tha…( Once upon a time, there used to be a king). It was inclusive, requiring not just a listening attitude, but also the appropriate audience responses. The intensity of those engagements and the emotional connection that developed with storytelling has remained till today. When I began to write, it was that magic I hoped to create for the reader. Acquiring the self control and focus, what you rightly term discipline, is what I am still learning in the process.
2.ISSE:So what would you say are the advantages of a short story over the novel?
MM: As a reader I have enjoyed both, but the reading experience is different in each case. A good novel is like a well organized cruise, offering variations in the scenery, several diversions even exotic pleasures. Your experience is connected, there are assorted memories to keep, multiple meanings to be drawn.
On the other hand, a good short story is akin to shooting the rapids. You have to be a bit of an adrenalin junkie. Time is compressed, awareness is focused, emotions are peaking and nothing else matters till you make it to the end. After that, all you know is that you’ve gone through something, some of your assumptions have been dislodged, but the experience is so embedded its basic structure – the frothing water, the spinning landscape, the roar in your ears, your own fear – that its meaning is ineffable. It works at many levels. The mood cannot be stored in memory, it has to be relived. (Just think of the opening line of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and you’ll know what I mean!)
Only the most powerful short stories manage to do this, but using the analogy of rapids, such is the suppleness of the form in terms of content, stylistic choices and meaning that even the lower grades make for a worthwhile ride.
3.ISSE. In spite of these advantages, why is the short story treated as the step child of literature, by (a) publishers, (b) book reviewers, (c) readers?
MM: Publishers tell you that short stories don’t sell. This is due to the widespread belief – among publishers, reviewers and the public – that the short story is the nursery slope of fiction writing, where you “learn the craft” before you move on to bigger challenge of the novel. I don’t share this view. However, it is true that the entry barrier is low and a talented amateur writer can pull off a brilliant short story, but it does not necessarily mean that s/he can write an entire collection that is uniformly good. A novel allows a publisher to make a more complete assessment of the author’s capability. As publishing is a business where everyone is notoriously risk averse, those in it , agents, editors, marketing, look for authors who are in for the long haul.
With reviewers it comes down to personal tastes. An anthology, whether by a single author or multiple authors, is a mixed bag: every story cannot appeal equally, but the collection is judged by the ‘dislikes’ as much as the ‘likes. Novels, in contrast, are treated more leniently.
Finally, the reader, and this is where I am forced to train my guns. It’s interesting that you use the word “step child” for the short story. To me that implies an alien/ outsider whereas the short story is celebrated in our languages. Think of all the folktales, songs, poems, aphorisms and anecdotes in all the native languages. I wonder if the problem lies with Indian Writing in English (IWE) which is, comparatively speaking, the new kid on the block. There is even now a certain formality, dare I say discomfort, with this language. Though more people are speaking it than ever before, it is unlikely that they are learning it for the pleasure of reading fiction. Given the severe competition in examinations and job interviews, English is a basic tool for survival. Brevity, clarity, unity of meaning, all of which are primary requirements of the short story, rest on articulateness way beyond this kind of functional learning that is available to the average Indian.
Another reason for the short shrift given to the short story could also be it that we discriminate without applying sense or sensibility. Given that we have other ridiculous and damaging “preferences” in our society – fair skin rather than dark, boy child rather than girl – perhaps the bias against the short story vs the novel should be reviewed in the same light. In the long run fiction is a covenant between the writer and the reader. Every society creates its own literature. By denying the short story breathing space it is society that suffers the most.
4.ISSE: With the growth in the number of readers and the mushrooming of publishers, do you think the situation will change?
I am optimistic, but I don’t expect miracles. More people are reading, which is a good sign. Another positive is the increase in online exposure; excellent short stories, from the old masters as well as newer writers, are available for free on the net. Also Twitter, FB and other social media platforms have boosted flash fiction – very difficult to write successfully, in my opinion. So, yes, there is increased exposure, awareness and sensibilities are changing. All of it augurs well.
5.ISSE:With the next few questions allow us to enter the workshop of your writer’s mind,
MM: Permision granted^-^
a)what triggers the idea of a short story in your mind?
MM: There are mainly two different types of triggers. Memory is one, social observation is the other. A news report, an overheard conversation or even an impression of a setting that stays in the head. Whatever be the trigger, I have to sense the germ of conflict in it. It’s a bit like water divining or pigs sniffing out truffles.
For instance, last Sunday I had gone to Lalbagh, once the city’s pride, but now in a deplorable state of neglect. I saw this majestic silk cotton tree. Its trunk and lower branches had been disfigured a long time ago. Rajeshwari loves Sridhar – that sort of thing. The tree had, in girth and stature, grown far beyond the scribbled nonsense. Given the fact that the silk cotton lives to the age of 200 years, I wondered what had happened to Rajeshwari, Sridhar and others of that ilk. Had they been college students in the 70s? Did their trysting lead to a wedding? How did the marriage turn out? A nasty voice in my head catalogued all the horrible things that could, and maybe should, happen to those who vandalize parks and monuments. I smelt the beginnings of a story.
(b) how do you flesh out the idea?
MM:It begins with a setting. As words are the foremost economy one has to practice, this means that only the telling details, ie., those absolutely relevant to understanding the character and/ or furthering the plot are included. The character comes next. I dwell a fair bit on getting this precise, at least for myself. I have to understand the character/s thoroughly so that I retain some semblance of control over the story. The germ of conflict that triggered the original impulse is considered next, expanded, detailed. But it’s all still in my head. Only when I have some premonition of how the character’s journey is going to end that I sit down to the actual writing. A sense of the ending is therefore the starting point.
6. ISSE. Can you tell us why the voice in your first collection Paltan Talesis different from that in Doppelganger. (Madhavi, please feel free to dwell on the theme, the locales, the characterization, the narratives and the humor. You have a 130 x 100 yards soccer field to dribble and weave patterns with the above elements.)
MM: It’s an insightful question: the voice and the change in it over the decade or so that separates one collection from the other. It recognizes the fact that developing a writerly voice is a struggle. However, it is extremely important for a writer to develop a distinctive voice. Authenticity is a hallmark; it comes first from knowing the milieu you are writing about very, very well.
With regard to the change in voice that you remarked upon, I would say it was largely due to the initial triggers for each collection. With Paltan Tales it was memory I relied on; with Doppelganger it was close observation of what was happening around me at that time.
To elaborate: The cantonment was my environment right from birth for several decades. I was an insider there. It was only after I’d left that life that I gained sufficient distance to see it as a backdrop or locale for fictional purposes. Also, entering civvy street gave me something to contrast it with. We don’t have conscription in our country, joining the armed forces is purely voluntary, like choosing to be a chartered accountant or a civil engineer, yet the civil-military divide does exist. (The recent OROP crisis has only underlined it.) The Why of this situation fascinated me, probably because it was one of the Whys of me as well. The self and the other has frequently been the starting point in fiction. I felt the difference between myself and my peers in school. I was an army brat who had moved from place to place, adjusted to new cities and schools because the cantonment, its vocabulary, its set ways provided me with inner stability in a changing outer environment.The belief system was fairly solid, clear-cut and permeated everything and everyone. It was only when I gained exposure to other values and beliefs, other ways of living, that I began to question and appraise what I had grown up with, to see it, as material for fiction.
The themes in Paltan Tales reflect the world view of the cantonment, through characters that are almost stereotypical to those who can recognize them. The incidents were almost entirely real, or realistic enough, and reflections on them were minimal. It wasn’t necessary for me to go too deep into the heads of characters and dig out psychological motivations that informed their actions. The psychology of an infantry officer or a fighter pilot is not terribly convoluted. I was merely describing a largely patriarchal society, not overtly commenting or criticizing it. The “gender neutral” tone that one reviewer mentioned came from this approach.
Reader always on the mind
As a writer, the reader is always on my mind. From the early responses to the stories, I understood that the general public would probably pass them up, but those who understood the world I was writing about might be entertained. It was therefore a niche audience. In a way, it freed me. Vocabulary, diction, both of which are the nuts and bolt of developing a voice, came spontaneously and so did the themes.( As I said, I was an insider.) With regard to humour, as anyone who has read and liked Catch-22 will know, irony is the best defence against the mind numbing drill, discipline and inscrutable ways of the fauj. It is perhaps the only viable response to “Theirs not to reason why.” So humour when it came was spontaneous in the situation, and not really an attempt to be funny.
The change in voice in Doppelganger
Coming to the change in voice in Doppelganger: The development of a writer’s voice is a deep internal process, also a slow one –at least in my case. Reflection is very necessary to developing a voice. You have to have a world view that you feel strongly about. You can see it in the work of the best short story writers: Premchand’s gritty social realism, Kafka’s gallows humour, Chekhov’s sublime simplicity.
In the period that followed Paltan Tales the city around me changed unrecognizably, and the dislocation anxiety deepened that sense of the self and the other. It also served as a good writing prompt. I was not an insider writing about a world I understood , but a well- adjusted, albeit slightly bemused, outsider observing the world around me becoming something else. Everything and everyone was reinventing. The changing scenario, a different cast of characters, entirely different dilemmas, now became my material. The certainties that were inherent in the world of Paltan Tales, did not exist in that of Doppelganger. There were new characters whose back stories were unknown, but the complexities of modern urban life, its deeper conflicts and all its grey areas required me to pay closer attention to how the story would “sound” in the reader’s head. Hence the careful modulation.
7.ISSE: What other works are on the anvil in your workshop?
The search for a publisher for Doppelganger was very long drawn. “ Show us your novel,” they said, and said it so many times that finally I was driven to start one. Nearly done.
8.ISSE: Great. Look forward to the novel. And thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience with us.