By Neha Kirpal
UK-based author Anjali Joseph’s new novel Keeping in Touch (Context, 2021) is a modern tale about confused love in which the two protagonists, 37-year-old Ved meets 39-year-old Keteki at the Heathrow Airport lounge. They spend some time in Bombay, where Ved has work and Keteki is stopping to meet friends before she returns to her hometown, Guwahati. Since Ved’s client has a factory in Assam, he visits Keteki and they meet there. Later, Keteki goes to London and they meet there again.
As they navigate a complex long-distance relationship, Ved finds himself falling in love with Keteki and wants to marry her. However, the latter, who has an estranged mother coupled with a troubled childhood, is commitment-phobic. The very idea of love fills her with dread, and she is unable to understand what makes people entangle themselves in relationships.
“For a moment, she considered explaining that since she was four years old, she had trusted almost no one, that falling in love was, she had found, a dubious blessing, and that even if she did fall in love, she had no illusions it would clarify anything else in her life. On the contrary: she’d then have to deal with not only her own unwise decisions, but someone else’s too.”
The contemporary love story’s setting in Mumbai – which is also Anjali’s birthplace – takes us back to her first novel Saraswati Park (HarperCollins, 2011), which sensitively captured the life of a family in a Mumbai housing complex. An alumna of Trinity College, Cambridge, Anjali won the Desmond Elliot Prize, the Betty Trask Award, and jointly won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction in India for her debut.
Of her other books, Another Country (Fourth Estate, 2012), about a young woman seeking a sense of ‘home’ in different parts of the world, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and The Living (Fourth Estate, 2016) was shortlisted for the DSC Prize.
In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about the inspiration behind her latest book, how the cities she has lived in have shaped her sensibilities as a writer, and her thoughts on the stereotyping of people from the northeast.
You were born in Mumbai, moved to England when you were seven and later worked in Paris. How did each of these cities influence you and your writing?
The Bombay (as it was when I was born) I knew when I was growing up was a city full of readers, and that certainly influenced my sensibility. At that time, it was still a city full of writers and poets and painters too. My mother would take us to see exhibitions at the Jehangir Art Gallery; books (not just textbooks but novels and biographies and volumes of poetry) were sold secondhand on the pavements between Fort and Churchgate station.
Our life in England wasn’t in a city but in a small town, and so it was much more internal and enclosed, but books were a magic carpet out of that life. I was reading writers like Ernest Hemingway, or F Scott Fitzgerald when I was young, and Samuel Beckett and James Joyce a few years later, and wishing that I lived in Paris as they had.
Of course, when I got to Paris in 1999, it was a very different city than it had been in the 1930s or even 1950s. Is it a city that forms us or the emotions we live in it?
Your latest novel Keeping in Touch is about modern-day love with themes of commitment phobia and long-distance relationships. What was the inspiration behind the story?
It seemed to be that love in one’s 30s is a different kind of story from falling in love in one’s teens or 20s. Both people may have had a lot of experiences, and carry their past moments of pain and difficulty with them like old pictures, as well as carrying protective shells, as a hermit crab does.
That means that forming a relationship at this point in life is also about beginning to let go of those coverings, so it isn’t instantaneous. In the book, Keteki and Ved, the two protagonists, can be guarded when in each other’s company, but part of what allows them to open to the possibility of love is the intervals when they are far apart.
That kind of telepathic movement in a couple is something I think is real but not always written about.
Though shuttling between Bombay and London, much of the book is set in Assam and focuses on its geography, history, culture, customs, traditions, tribes, language and society – complete with beautiful descriptions of various cities in the state, such as Guwahati, Jorhat, Majuli and Shillong. How much of this was influenced by your own personal connection with the state?
In the novel, Ved initially goes to Assam to try to win over Keteki. But he also becomes charmed by the state – perhaps the two fuse and for him, Assam, like Keteki, is continually fascinating partly because its culture and life are so rich that it would take a visitor decades to begin to appreciate them, and partly because they share a quality of lightness and elusiveness. I certainly shared some of Ved’s experiences, including learning a little Assamese, and enjoying the beauty of quiet days in Uzan Bazar in Guwahati.
Tell us about your career path from a teacher to a chartered accountant to a journalist and an author. How did all these vocations shape your sensibilities as a writer?
I always wanted to write, even before I actually learned to read and write, but all the jobs I’ve done and experiences I had have helped in their way. When I was younger, I felt that I needed to live more before I could understand enough about people to write, and I think that’s what I spent ten years doing before I wrote Saraswati Park.
Who or what are your literary inspirations?
For Keeping in Touch, they included the French novelist Francoise Sagan who wrote slim, elegant novels that appear to be about relationships but are in many ways about solitude and happiness; Under the Glacier by Halldór Laxness, in which a young cleric in 1950s Iceland tries to understand the customs and practices in a strange, paradoxical rural village; and some of the extraordinary Assamese short stories I read with two different teachers: particularly Lakshminath Bezbarua’s story ‘Patmugi’.
Your books often centre on themes of love, friendship and belonging. What is your thought process when exploring some of these themes?
Well, the emotions literally move us to act, and they are some of the biggest drives in life. What we feel about our lives generates so much of what happens to us, and sometimes that means, as in the case of these two characters, that we have to become aware of what is driving us, which may be emotions that date from much earlier times of difficulty.
South Indians hate the fact that they are all called “Madrasis” by north Indians. What are your thoughts on the similar stereotyping of the people of the northeast?
I first began to be aware of the racism with which ‘mainland’ Indians treat people from the north east while I was a newspaper reporter in Mumbai. I remember meeting people from different states – Mizoram, Nagaland – in Mumbai who talked of how people on the local train would ask where in China they were from, or worse.
When I was living in Guwahati, every time I returned from what people in the northeast call the ‘mainland’, I would feel so relieved to be away from the noise and bad manners and back to a more sane existence.
How has the pandemic affected your writing process?
Well, writers have probably been in training for a quiet life for much longer than many people. As well as the terrible hardships and deaths of so many people, I hope some of the legacy of the pandemic will be that everyone is a little more used to spending time with themselves, and that the natural world is able to heal further from the usual aggressive interventions that we humans subject it to.
But for me the two things I spent more time doing in the pandemic were painting, something I did as a child, and reading, and I’m grateful for both of those.