Fiction writers aren’t social commentators: Novelist

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Indian contemporary literature is benefiting from the growing tribe of journalists who are writing books of late, points out award-winning poet, dancer and novelist Tishani Doshi. At the same time, she says, a fiction writer is not a social commentator.

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“Journalists have powerful stories to narrate. They can play with the language and have a good ear for dialogue,” the Chennai-based writer told IANS in an interview in the capital.

Doshi, who won two awards for her anthologies of poetry, has explored “reverse immigration” as a theme in her new novel, “The Pleasure Seekers”, to be released in the capital Aug 5.

“Commenting on burning issues is natural for journalists-turned authors because they draw matter from their beats – subjects that they know,” said the writer, who graduated with a master’s degree in creative writing from the Johns Hopkins University.

But a fiction writer is not a social commentator though it is a mantle that contemporary writers are being increasingly expected to wear in this decade, she said.

“Writers should be allowed to tell their own story. I am wary of social commentaries because I think I am not qualified enough to talk about social issues. One can talk about it as a regular citizen, but opinions and ideas creep into the book if writers are socially and politically polarised,” the Chennai-based novelist told IANS.

“My book ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ is set in the 1960s when cross-cultural relationships were not very common,” Doshi said.

This is how the story goes. In 1968, Babo, a Gujarati boy from a traditional Jain family in Madras (now Chennai), migrates to London to further his education. He meets a Welsh woman, Sian Jones, and “falls head over heels in love with her”. Babo brings her to India.

Life unfolds for the hybrid Patel-Jones family in a little house behind the Punjab Women’s Association in Chennai through the tumultuous decades of television, assassination of Indira Gandhi and the changing politics of the land.

“I love the idea of mobility – movement across borders. The world is opening up. My mother is from a village in northern Wales. My father is a Gujarati – a Jain. It was the starting point for my book. I was struck by the relationship that started in the late 1960s. My mother did not arrive to a cosmopolitan Bengali family from Wales, but to a conservative Jain family. She made adjustments. I was in North Carolina and London.

“It is very common for young and old people to cross borders and live in multi-cultural environments. All cultures at the moment are struggling to have multi-cultural integrated communities,” she said.

With blurring cultural divides, geographical barriers are melting for writers, Doshi said. Almost all great writers like Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, T.S. Eliot and J.M. Coetzee have written about places that are far removed from their native nations, she observed.

“Coetzee, a South African writer, has written about Australia. The story is not from where you come, but it is in your imagination. If a story is strong, the locale does not matter. It transcends physicality.

“It is a pre-requisite for a writer to have a world view, to be an observer of life and to understand human conditions – to write the kind of stories that novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes.”

“Stories are about people, if a fiction writer manages to do it – he or she has done his job,” Doshi said.

The writer, a modern dancer grounded in the martial arts tradition of Kalaripayattu, has worked with acclaimed bharatanatyam exponent Chandralekha.

“Though I began late, dancing has helped me evolve as a writer. It brought a semblance of discipline into my life because switching from verse to prose required rigorous work,” said Doshi.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])