In the ordinary, I find a diminished epic: Sumana Roy

Writer Sumana Roy on her new novel, why she rejects all that is readymade and the subversion in her writing.

Your first book, How I Became a Tree, was set to ‘tree time’. And there is a deliberate slowness built into your new novel, Missing. Is it an aesthetic as well as personal choice?

I suppose it might be both. When I was writing How I Became a Tree, I began to realise that one of the reasons I wanted to become a tree was to reject the idea of calendar time and the speed of time imposed on us. Because we spend such a lot of time living on social media and in the contagion of the news cycle, and because I realised how this breathless speed affected the way we live, I also began to ask myself whether it was possible to restore time in a literary text — novel, poem, essay — to lived time.

The reason for what you called the deliberate slowing of time was also the conceit of the Ramayana in my head. So, the epic’s shaat kando (saat kanda) became seven days (in the life of a blind poet, whose wife had gone missing). It was my attempt to set up a metaphorical relationship with the epic. In my head, I wanted the reader to spend one day reading each of the seven chapters. So that the people in the novel and the person reading it are living in a similar time.

Do you think that your writing or thinking is subversive? Do you see yourself as a political writer?

Narrative poetry, particularly slam poetry, has become associated with a certain politics of resistance. But we tend to ignore that the page poem by itself is a site of resistance. Time inside a poem manages to extricate us from what is happening around us. So, a poem or any art is an act of subversion.

We tend to relate subversion almost singularly to content, to ‘What is it about?’. We have decided that it can only happen thematically. But what (Marcel) Duchamp does when he takes a urinal, changes its direction and calls it a fountain, is also subversion.

Your question gives me a very interesting way to look at what I do. Because yes, I reject the readymade. For me, literature is very close to philosophy. In our languages, philosophy is called darshan (seeing). A philosopher is one who helps me see the world in a new, subversive way. We’ve forgotten that subversion also happens through form, in living between genres, in the structure of every sentence.

In your new novel, a woman leaves home in search of another woman as riots rage in Assam in 2012. You choose not to explore her journey but the life of those she leaves behind. Why?

When I was writing this, I was going through a very difficult emotional period. And this was before I had written How I Became a Tree. The desire to become a tree was also simultaneous with the desire to leave everything and go away, to leave my human form. When I speculated on that, I thought what would happen to these people when I left? I think it came from there — to explore the afterlife of love and lovers.

Only much later was I able to see that the woman going missing had always been important to our consciousness, whether it is Sita or Helen of Troy. I wanted to explore this at different levels. There is a silence about Kobita in Missing, we don’t know whether she left willingly, whether she would come back. The silence was a metaphor for the lack of our understanding or the silencing of a woman’s voice and consciousness over centuries.

There is no protagonist in this novel, but one of my favourite characters is Bimalda. Were you afraid that he might be too politically incorrect a character?

When you spoke of subversion, this is another thing I wanted to do: a distribution of space for everyone in the novel. You are absolutely right to notice that Bimalda is as important to the novel as Nayan, Kobita and Kabir. Usually, when we say this is the protagonist of the novel, we have decided that his story is more important. Though we believe in political models of equality, when we come to writing, the spotlight is always on one person or a group.

Bimalda is as annoying in real life as he is in the novel. But he is a very good kirtan singer. We have a difficult relationship with him but he is also furiously entertaining. He does not get along with the cooks or the house help, he fights with everyone.

Somehow, when we want to write about those who work for us, there is a sense of political correctness, a self-censorship. We are very alert about not doing them any injustice in our narrative. We practise a kind of fake equality. For example, in Balram’s writing letters in The White Tiger (by Aravind Adiga). That equality — and the education necessary for it — is not the equality we allow in real life to people who work for us.

There is also a general tendency to think that they are less interesting and less intelligent than us. But Bimal-da is not any less intelligent than Nayan, perhaps he is more intelligent. Yes, my editors did make me aware that here was a person who was saying politically incorrect things and that I should be careful. But I wanted to portray him as he is. And they let me do that.

Were you always drawn to nature?

Growing up in Siliguri, I had no sense that nature was something external to me. Almost every house had a tree and some version of a kitchen garden. You could see the Kanchenjunga from almost everywhere. In Class II, a fantastic teacher taught us to grow beans and peas in Horlicks bottles. Without knowing it herself, she was teaching us about the rhythm of nature, about its time. We would be impatient and every day wanted the seed to grow but it wouldn’t.

Now, a disjunction has come to our modern life, that nature is out there. But the plants growing in our houses are also nature. You can be in proximity with nature by staring at the growing saplings in a Horlicks bottle. The desire to experience wilderness that drives tourism is killing ‘nature’.

You trust the ordinary to reveal things. Where does it come from?

Though I have a brother, I realise that I spent a lot of my childhood by myself. Partly because I didn’t have good health. I had to invent things to keep me company. I had an ‘ordinary’ upbringing. My parents are very ordinary. I grew up in a very unremarkable place. And I am grateful for that. I realised that my temperament rejects the grand, the epic, the monumental. So, my affinity for the ordinary comes from the person I am.

My father would read out Sarat Chandra (Chattopadhyay’s) Lalu stories  and the story of Apu and his sister (in Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali). I found them very close to the life I was living, or was imagining for myself. The poet HD said of the modernist poets that they were writing “diminished epics”. There is a diminished epic in the ordinary. That appeals to me.

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