Tag Archives: Abha Dawesar

Bold And How!

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 PlannerThree of  UsBabyjiThat 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.

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Book Review of “That Summer In Paris” By Abha Dawesar

That Summer In Paris

By Abha Dawesar


It’s true that aspiring writers idolize successful ones. And who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity to spend time with the figure they most respect. Abha’s novel “That Summer In Paris” shows a very intricate and unexpected relationship of an aging author with a much younger budding writer who share their love and passion for art and creativity.

We have Maya – a twenty five year old, ambitious, intelligent, budding writer, passionate about art and obsessed with the novels of fictional Indian-born Nobel Prize winner author Prem Rustum who cites him in her personal ad (Worship at his altar like I do) and of course this meets Prem’s eye eventually. After undergoing a bad breakup a year ago, Maya discovers life’s completeness in Prems’ books. So much so that she doesn’t miss human company.

Prem Rustum, the seventy-fiver year old author having lived a reclusive life consumed with his writing, decides to live his remaining years differently, preferably in female company. He puts down his pen and takes to the internet only to discover Maya’s open and blatant admiration for his work.

Fascinated by her confession and charm Prem decides to meet her. Their affinity and connection is almost instant and quite stimulating, despite the fact that Prem is impotent and Maya nubile. When Maya talks about her trip to Paris for a fiction writing fellowship, Prem admits of his plans to travel to Paris to visit his French writer friend Pascal, much to his own surprise.

Maya is thrilled to be spending a whole lot of time with the person she has always admired the most. They take a three-month trip to Paris, indulge in food, art, literature, love and eventually sex. It is somewhat thrilling to see them getting turned on while passionately talking about literature and admiring art.

Though she meets a young man her heart yearns for Prems’ company. Prem too sees himself falling in love with her but is worried that he might affect their sentiments for each other.

Maya feels entranced when Prem touches her in front of a Degas painting. Prem too reflects on his mortality, desires, longings and reminisces his past.

He unfolds his past – talks about his first love –his sister Meher and then his affair at sixty –five with two sixteen year old French girls. But his love for Maya engulfs him and rekindles desires that were forgotten – morally, mentally and physically.

Abha has beautifully explored different facets of human nature, in one of the most romantic cities of the world –Paris. Her deep observation strikingly reflects in the very apt description of  various cafes, restaurants, people, food, museums, paintings, and art not only highlights the beauty and skill of Abha’s writing but also brings to light the hidden aspects of human desire, passion, achievement, literature, relationships, love and of course life! Art, love, literature and the need for companionship are the central theme of this gripping novel set in New York and Paris.

Abha has quite beautifully penned the dialogues between Prem and his writer friend Pascal. The eloquent banter is quite interesting to read. Like a fan admitted (and I agree), Abha’s melodic writing style and knack for provocative prose rarely disappoints and keeps the pages turning.

Maya is a very relatable and vibrant character. Beautiful, intellectual, kind and ambitious. Prem resembles a fine renowned author with similar taste. The sensitivity portrayed by Abha in the characters and the theme and the entire story is truly incredible. I only wish their love wasn’t unrequited.

 

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Book Review of “Babyji” By Abha Dawesar

BABYJI

By Abha Dawesar

This is a story of Anamika Sharma, (called Babyji by her maid) –a mature, responsible, fiercely intelligent teenager from a stereotypical middle class Indian family.

An ace student with a penchant for Physics, she is on the brink of adulthood exploring her sexuality and applies quantum physics in real life and indulges in three lesbian affairs, simultaneously. She charms her maid (Rani), seduces an elegant older divorcee (whom she calls India) and catches the fancy of her classmate (Sheela), who is one of the most sought-after girls of her school.

Between managing responsibilities at school (she is also the head prefect) while preparing for IIT and acing her exams, she effortlessly balances the three affairs, and also catches the eye of her best friend’s father who makes numerous advances to allure her.

At school she’s a genius – at home she sneaks off to the garage to read Kamasutra.

Anamika is our very typical teenager – who adheres to some of her traditional mores – like respecting her elders and servants; has her naivety, her tender moments, her aggressiveness, her selfish, self-absorbed behavior, her rebellion, and also her intellectual conversations that sometimes put her elders in a tight spot. She is a very relatable character, who indulges in acts of seduction and indulgence to express her rebellion. She confronts her elders with questions that have no definite “right” answers.

This is a fast paced, bold, sexy, and quite a well written novel. It is amazing how Abha Dawesar has dealt with a very controversial theme – the sexual escapades of a homosexual Indian teenager with such ease. It is only recently that the society has started talking openly about sex. It was considered a taboo to even utter the three letter word and be friends with the opposite sex. Anamika’s multiple lovers (all women) are of varied age and social standing.

Also, it is commendable how Abha has brought about the subject of the Indian Caste System and its underlying implications subtly in the story.

The story is quite honest in its portrayal of the idea of America being an educational haven and the whole notion of sex, power and glamour. It treads the fine line between moral inquiry and debauched pleasure giving the readers some food for thought.

The only grievance: the characters could’ve been developed more. There are interesting thoughts in each chapter which could be further harnessed. And yes, the sexual molestation scene was a bit disturbing. Overall, a daring, sensual, funny, intense, absorbing and coming-of-age story of a teenager.

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Book Review of “Mini Planner / Three Of Us” By Abha Dawesar

Mini Planner / Three of Us

By Abha Dawesar

The name did intrigue me into picking up the book and giving it a read. Though fast paced and easy, there was something amiss, I felt. I couldn’t trace it till the very end though.

Andre Bernard, a financial analyst, moves to Manhattan for a corporate job. He soon finds himself pleasing his boss Nathan, sexually. Complications arise when Nathan’s wife Sybil, too, indulges in sexual escapades with Andre. As the story progresses, we see Andre juggling between his sexual schedules with Nathan and Sybil with the help of his “mini planner”. He ensures that Nathan and Sybil don’t run into each other and this only gives room to more comic situations.

After a while, the sexual encounters went from fun and excitement to strategic and boring. They ended up being just like any other ordinary household chore. At some places the workplace has been overtly described, making it sound mundane. And the character of Andre seems to be enjoying extracurricular activities more than the real job.

He also ends up in bed, halfheartedly, with the office secretary, Martha (eventually getting her      pregnant). Then we have Madhu (Andre’s former lover) walk in later, faced by the dilemma of an  arranged marriage and her feelings for Andre. Madhu’s character would’ve lent more flavor to the  story had it been a bit more stronger.

It is an interesting read overall, no doubt, as the language is clear, simple and flows freely. It is  hilarious, steamy, tender and reflective –all in one. Quite engaging and impressive. If only it had a  little more character depth and strength it would have been more appreciated. But none-the-less,  Abha’s first impressive attempt of writing as a bisexual white man is quite commendable.

 

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