Extracts from an interview with Swati Daftaur
Ashok Srinivasan made his literary debut at the age of 72 with a collection of short stories, The Book of Common Signs, which became the first collection of short stories to win the Hindu Literary Prize, awarded in 2014. This feat underlines not just the author’s mastery, but also the space for a form that’s sometimes overlooked.
Apart from a personal victory, does this also reaffirm the need and importance of short stories?
I sincerely hope so. It is only in literature that the world and the word meet. Quite apart from my personal feelings, I believe that the short story has evolved from the novel. The compact density of this form demands a controlled intensity, which makes it possible for the persona in the narrative to live out a whole lifetime or several lifetimes within the ambit of the story. It presents the reader with an autonomous reality — another world where she or he may roam even after the story has ended. Because of their brevity, short stories have, what one may call, a unity of focused impact. What the epic is to the lyric, the novel is to the short story. So potent is the short story that it has spawned novels.
Your stories seem like broad strokes, covering lifetimes and generations, but they are full of such minute details. You seem to be capturing entire lifetimes in micro.
Part of the reason is that, in writing a short story, one must examine and exhaust certain possibilities forever. For a short story to work it must necessarily be multi-layered and imply a whole world; it must resonate long after the story is told while the characters in it live on in the mind of the reader. Since a story is an imaginative construct it needs telling details that help pin down its concrete reality; as in any dream or nightmare, the story must reach out, touch and move the reader. In a recent interview, Dayanita Singh said that you must take pictures in such a way that you exclude some things, which are implied by what is in the picture. This is true for writers too. It’s something that has been said time and again by several writers that you must leave out some bits, and only imply them so that the reader is forced to infer them.
Though you have been writing from a very young age, you chose to publish only now. Do you wish that you had started earlier?
Observation and memory are a writer’s life. As an observer no writer can live his life fully – before she or he realizes it, it is too late; in some ways it is a wasted life. It would be equally true to say that a writer lives many lives incompletely in a single lifetime. What is salvaged from this waste is this: her or his fictions which assume a life of their own in the hearts and minds of some readers. An early start to writing is no guarantee that one has found one’s voice. One keeps at it till one finds one’s voice, which is original only in the sense that an authentic amalgam of other voices from other places, other times and even other languages.
Every story in the book is laced with a sort of darkness…
A short story of mine was accepted by Encounter, (but it shut down before the issue with my story appeared) and the editor wrote to me saying that he found it full of a luminous darkness. In some ways it would be true to say that one essentially writes oneself; it is like a retina scan or signature. I write because I can’t help it I write because I love the human animal with all its corruption lies and decay. You can rework, edit or cut a story, but finally you are left with a kernel you can’t throw away or change, that’s the story.
You began writing so early in life, and yet have chosen to publish only now…
It is true that I began writing at the age of 14 or so; and I am now 72. It is not that I deliberately courted obscurity; it is perhaps the result of a combination of shyness and inhibition and the fact that I am very, very slow, as a writer. Some of my stories have been published and are in the public domain; they have appeared in magazines, annuals and anthologies in India, England and Australia.
You see, a person like me has to fight all kinds of inhibitions within myself. I was and am publicity-shy and so I kept putting off the publication of my book till I could do it no more.
I still find it difficult to talk about myself and give interviews. Also I must admit that I am a plodder. I write with no felicity or facility. I ooze out my fictions word by word. As to your question about the stories in the book, the last piece in it predates all the others in this particular collection. The latest story is, perhaps, ‘Winter Solstice’.
So how have you arranged the stories in the book?
The stories in the book are arranged to reflect a growing consciousness of a young person whose self-consciousness starts in a village, matures and moves on to the city and the larger world beyond
What do you think changes with an award and the recognition that your book receives?
In my own case the award does not change much in my life except that it may throw open the doors to a larger reading public, which is no small matter
But, as you say, writing is a solitary activity and the habit and havoc of a lifetime cannot just be wished away. Whatever the flavor of the day or the views of certain arbiters of taste, time is the final judge of art.