By Neha Kirpal
“If what mathematicians say is true – if the mere flap of a butterfly’s wings can set off a torrent of atmospheric events that, weeks later, produce a tornado in a distant continent – surely, surely, the actions of our forebears and contemporaries must create a series of ripples across time that impinge upon our selves.
Each decision we take must in some way – no matter how tenuous – be linked to the revolts and trade-offs of our relations.”
That is the essence of Dharini Bhaskar’s debut novel These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light (Hachette India, 2019), which was recently shortlisted for the 2020 JCB Prize for Literature and the Valley of Words Book Awards, 2020. The novel is about three generations of women – a grandmother, a mother and her three daughters – and how incidents of each of the older generation influence the lives of those who are younger.
Former editorial director of Simon and Schuster India, Dharini was one of five young Indian writers selected for Caravan’s Writers of India Festival, Paris. Born in Bombay, she has at various points also called Britain, Greece and Delhi home. Dharini has also been published in an anthology, Day’s End Stories, and other publications.
In this exclusive interview, she talks to us about her journey from being a publisher to an author, how experiences in diverse cultures helped shape her sensibilities as a writer and how the pandemic affected her writing process.
Tell us the inspiration behind your fascinating debut book about five women across three generations, These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light.
I suppose it began with a word – Scheherazade – a storyteller, someone who talked herself back to life. From this word emerged a narrator who, through the act of weaving fictions, tried to surface from life’s deep waters. And around her, worlds clustered.
Yes, these are worlds dominated by women. This was a conscious decision. I wished to foreground the lives of ordinary women – lives that are often silenced, relegated to the margins, or dismissed as being sentimental – without letting a male voice claim ownership of the narrative or offer a hasty resolution.
How much of the novel’s story is influenced by your own life and those of your mother and grandmother?
The story isn’t autobiographical. As writers, we may draw from our experiences, or the experiences of those around us, but the beauty of fiction is that it allows us to build. Dreams, whimsy, words disconnected from our immediate lives and loves, cluster around facts and semi-facts, and a narrative emerges.
This novel has taken eight years to create. During this time, I have lived with each of their characters. Our stories have collided. Our hopes have intersected. When one resides with a book, it is hard to tell where one life begins and another ends.
You were a former editorial director of Simon and Schuster India. How did being a publisher help you become a better author?
I have been an editor for several years, and undoubtedly, my choice of profession has influenced my life, specifically my post-writing life. Once the early draft was complete, and I had time to move away from my manuscript, I returned as an editor, looking out for plot inconsistencies and structural flaws. I pruned passages that were overwritten and rewrote those that seemed to be without rhythm. So yes, I could bring both the gentleness and ruthlessness editing asks for since I had had a fair amount of practice already.
But I must hastily add that being an editor did not make the journey of getting published any easier. If anything, it made it more complicated, less straightforward.
You have lived in Britain, Greece and India. How have the diverse experiences in all these cultures shaped your sensibilities as a writer?
Travel is, for me, a move away from the commonplace, the predictable. I am estranged from my comfort zone. So I find myself, while travelling, seeking words that can anchor, sentences that can grant me security. I also find myself stumbling upon new expressions while chasing waterfalls and meadows and sunsets. In other words, travel is language waiting to be found.
Living in each of these countries has allowed me to delve deeper into words, their cadence, their subtext. When I return home – wherever home may be – I come with poetry and prose.
How has the pandemic affected your writing process?
I wish I could say that the pandemic gifted me time to engage with words. But really, my experience, especially in the later months, has been the exact opposite. The relentless presence of the disease has made time feel less elastic.
The pandemic has also shrunk the imagination. What we picture is now severely compromised, with masks and face shields and gloves dominating the visual landscape. To dream of two people is to dream of the chasm between them.
Who or what are some of your writing inspirations?
There are so many writers I worship, so many who have fed my hunger for words. A few of the writers I admire are Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, James Joyce, Stephen Dunn, Linda Gregg, Jeffrey Carson, Jack Gilbert, Arundhati Roy, Anne Enright and Anuradha Roy. What unites them, I believe, is their capacity to make music with words.
I’m also inspired by the sea, mountains, long walks, trees, secondhand bookshops, dogs, cats and conversations with my toddler.
You enjoy backpacking. Tell us more about some of your hobbies.
My primary preoccupation these days is getting parented by my toddler. Every moment with him brings me closer to the words I believe in: beauty, faith, grace, love.
Apart from this all-consuming passion, and a few obvious interests – reading, writing, travelling – press leaves and flowers, study the sky, watch.
What are you working on next?
I am chasing shadows. There are half-formed ones that engross me, but I don’t know which shadow will take form and flight. I wait.
DHARINI’S ALL-TIME FAVOURITES
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Nox, The Beauty of the Husband, Eros the Bittersweet, Plainwater aka anything by Anne Carson
- The Waves, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway aka anything by Virginia Woolf
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
- The Collected Works of Jack Gilbert
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.