Abha Dawesar, an internationally-acclaimed award-winning novelist, is amongst the finest contemporary writers of the country. I first saw her during the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, during a session named “Migritude” (click here to see the session) where she was amongst the panelists.
And when I heard her speak about the attitude of migrants, their thoughts, their creative balance, her demure appearance immediately took a back seat and she came across as this young girl (yes, she looks like a 25 year old!) with absolute clear thought process, great determination and undeterred focus. Her speech was soft but strong, her appearance was coy but captivating and her writing, well, that definitely speaks volumes of her creativity.
I was ecstatic when asked to conduct an interview with her – so what if it was online!
But before I share the exclusive interview with the young and promising author, how about a little peep into her background!
Abha was born in New Delhi. She left for US when she was sixteen. She graduated with a degree in Political Philosophy from Harvard University after writing an honors thesis examining the conception of human greatness in “Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals”.
She currently works in Business Development for a software company in New York but loves visiting Paris as often as she can – it is after all her Muse!
Abha, a self-taught visual artist and video-maker, has written four books: Mini Planner / Three of Us, Babyji, That Summer In Paris and Family Values. All her books follow a different theme. And they definitely deserve a space on your bookshelf. Her work is translated into several languages.
Oh, and her accolades include:
The Fiction Fellowship (in 2000) by The New York Foundation of the Arts; the Lambda Literary Award (2005); an ALA (American Library Association) Stonewall Award(2006); she was named the “Fun Fearless Female” of the month by Cosmopolitan India (2003); she was listed as one of “25 People who will make their mark in 2005” by New York’s weekly magazine ‘Time Out’; one of India’s leading national English language newspapers, The Hindustan Times, included her with a list of eleven other authors in its “Next Big Things for 2005”; India Today included her amongst the list of “One of India’s 25 Young Achievers” (2007).
Her debut novel Miniplanner (2000) was chosen as a “Season’s best pick” by the NY publication LGNY. It was also published in India by Penguin Books under the title The Three of Us (2003) and hailed as “a coming-of-age of Indian diaspora writers.”
Babyji (2005) her second novel, the winner of the American Library Association’s Stonewall Award for 2006, was also named one of the ten best books of fiction for 2005 by the Boston Phoenix. It was reviewed nationally and internationally in the US media, India, Italy, Germany, and Spain.
Her novel Family Values (2009) was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword award, the Prix Médicis Roman Etranger, the Prix Bel Ami in France.
Phew! Now that’s proof enough about her writing skills. Let’s get on with the interview.
Miniplanner was your first book. What brought about the ideation of such a setting [of a bisexual man (or a man exploring his sexuality) juggling between an intricate work schedule and sexual escapades]?
I actually set out to write a short story. I knew that men in accounting firms sometimes took their colleagues visiting from out-of-town to strip clubs in New York. This became an early scene in the book. I’d written around 30 pages when I realized that I had a character but not (yet) a plot that could reach fruition quickly. It made sense, given the beginning of the book, to set it in the workplace. It worked well with the rhythm of the book itself.
How difficult (or easy) was it getting into the skin of a bisexual white man?
It was not hard. Though after I’d written the first draft I did doubt myself and had to send it along to some white male friends to read. I asked them to catch errors; after all what do I know about being a man? Funnily enough I got feedback on other aspects of the novel but not what I had asked for. It turns out there was no problem with imagining the male experience.
Babyji is a surprisingly bold narration of a homosexual Indian teenager. Were there any aversions from the critics or society?
Babyji hasn’t fully defined herself yet. I think what’s of interest is that she’s trying to figure herself out not just in terms of her romantic entanglements but also where her whole life should go. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how the book was accepted. I remember attending a reunion for my school a while back; a retired teacher came up to me and started speaking about my books and I thought she was going to chastise me. Instead she said she admired the boldness!! That humbled me. I was the guilty one, after all, assuming that just because a lady was in her eighties she’d be conservative.
What kind of research did this novel (Babyji) demand?
I had to go back to some of the political details that form the backdrop of Babyji. I’ve read very widely since I was a child and I didn’t have too many issues imagining the lives or personal/psychological details of either André in Miniplanner or Anamika in Babyji. There was more work involved in getting the balance between the different characters right.
Coming to– That Summer In Paris, you wrote about a very intriguing subject – Art and how it influences Love. What influenced and motivated you to write on such a deep subject?
After Miniplanner and Babyji I began asking myself what the writing life was really about. Just what did a lifetime spent on creating sentences and correcting them mean? Writing a novel is a strange way to live; one inhabits the imaginary world day after day and takes it seriously. I had to imagine an older writer, someone who had already lived, to examine this question. Hence Prem. In looking at his life and his history the questions on art and love, women and books became inevitable.
Were there any instances taken from real life (in That Summer In Paris)?
I was living in Paris while I wrote the book and I maintained a photographic journal as a way of taking notes for the book. All the scenes in the museums, the streets, the country home where Prem meets Julie and Valérie grew out of the photographs I collected. In a sense, by making the details true I intended to breathe life into my characters. That said, none of the characters exist, all four are writers and either friends or lovers; they embody some of the themes of the book.
Family Values shows the world as seen by a small boy. We notice a lot many (real) scandals fictionalized a bit and mentioned. What brought about the ideation of such a satire that shows corruption and a middle class family’s dilemma in our country?
Well the family is only the kernel of the concentric circles that make up the narrative. As the boy’s world expands from the ‘multi-purpose room’ of his ‘hospital ward home’ to his grandfather’s house and then beyond to the rest of the world the same patterns of greed and vice seem to repeat. Let’s not forget we’re a very dynastic culture. Once upon a time we had a caste system and now we have the sons and daughters of businessmen, doctors, and politicians following in the professional paths of their fathers. The implicit connection between the structure of our society and family as India modernizes seemed to me worth exploring. The underlying principles have much in common with those from another era but the superficialities have been upgraded.
Was it a conscious effort to not identify the family members by their names but by their deformities (or nicknames)?
The book is written from the child’s height, so to speak. It was natural therefore to strip the characters down to the bare essentials and speak about them this way. The boy sees many of the adults in his world as his parents see them; he overhears people talking about each other and draws conclusions about their characters.
There is substantial focus on the use of the family toilet. Was it a metaphor for something that you, as an author, wanted to bring to light?
The cramped quarters, the perpetual presence of illness, and, to an extent, the toilet, are metaphors for a larger malaise. But there is also something very literal about the toilet. As middle class Indians we tend to buy into some of the hype we are fed about India’s growth stories and often believe Indian cities are actually world class. The blunt truth is that a significant percentage of Indians don’t have even the most basic facilities like fresh drinking water and toilets. When you enter Delhi on National Highway 1, for example, there is an open mountain of garbage to the left; we’ve not made adequate arrangements for sanitation in India’s capital or enforced hygienic ways of composting.
Also, Family Values comes across as a very conventional theme. (The family members scheming individually against each other sometimes, and sometimes standing strong and being the much needed support system for each other.) Was this a deliberate attempt to write something more conventional, given that your previous books have been bold and radically modern?
Actually, I think this is the most radical of my books. At one level it is a family saga. In both form—the flat tone and the barebones nature of the characters, and content—the inevitable corruption that results from the love of one’s own, it is diametrically opposed to such sagas.
READER’s QUESTION (Submitted by Amit Kumar Gupta)
Do you face a writer’s block and if yes, what you do to overcome it?
Time is uneven in texture so no two of my days are alike. And yes, some days the writing flows a lot more smoothly. I try not to force it and I accept both the feast and the famine of words. I’ve found that looking at art or listening to live music are both very good ways to get unstuck. I’m also a believer in walking a lot; often just getting off a chair and walking through New York City will revive my flagging mind.