Bombay Posts

An interview with Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is from India. She earned her PhD from the University of New South Wales. She teaches creative writing workshops within communities, schools, and universities. Her research focuses on the arts, social media, creativity studies and postcolonial literatures. She created a series of radio documentaries entitled, On the Tip of a Billion Tongues. She received the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endevour Award. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings. She is the author of The Permanent Resident, which won 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award.

 

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Sunita De Souza goes to Sydney is a powerful set of stories that are atmospheric. Packed with detailed descriptions of Bombay/ Mumbai, Goa and Australia. “Home stays with you, in your stories” is a beautifully apt description of immigrant literature coined by by Norwegian resident, originally from Nagaland, and the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar 2018 winner, Easterine Kiralu. The comment encapsulates Roanna Gonsalves short stories very well too.

It is not clear if the principle of arrangement of the stories is chronological but there is definitely a shift in the confident writing style and evolution of the women characters from the first “Full Face” to the last “The Permanent Resident”. There is a quiet determination evident in the stories to make literature out of the most ordinary experiences such as in the search for Sichuan peppercorns to prepare Kung pa khao chicken for lunch in “Easter 2016”. This is a devastatingly sharp story beginning with the title which is so apt with its double-edged reference to the resurrection of Christ and that of the woman narrator occurring on Easter Sunday. Roanna Gonsalves captures the relationship between her husband, Ronnie, and the narrator so well especially his insistence for Sichuan peppercorns No substitution with Indian peppercorn would suffice. His steely stubbornness that he wanted a change in the menu despite the fact the Easter Sunday lunch had already been cooked. The exhausted wife (not just physically but mentally and emotionally for being stuck in domestic drudgery and childcare, reminiscing about her life back in Bombay when she could also be a professional) agrees to look for the spice even though it is the long Easter weekend and in all likelihood all provision stores would be shut. The descriptions of the people walking on the streets as she goes by in her search is as if a bird has been let out of its cage and watches in numb wonderment. The narrator observes everyone so closely; as if the boundary lines between the narrator and author are blurred at this point. When she finally finds a store open, discovers a packet of the spice, nothing prepares the reader for her defiant act of tearing open the packet of pink peppercorns that are “pink as the sky at dusk over the backwaters of the Mandovi”, munching them and leaving the open packet on the shelf and walking out for a stroll reminiscing on how the fragrance reminds her of her grandmother while the flavour is that of a combination of lavender and Tiger Balm. The story works marvellously well at so many levels!

The dark twist of “Christmas 2012” is gut wrenching. “What you understand you can control” seems so innocuous a statement at first and then comes the story’s conclusion. I found myself holding my breath and was sickened to the core when I finished reading. It is a dark secret of many households even now if one keeps track of child sexual abuse stories. The horror of it is magnified by watching the news of the shocking rape of Dec 2012 but it seems to have no impact on the father.  I cannot get over the image of the bossy Martha, fussing over the linen and cutlery and carving of the turkey, being so precise about the Turkey sauce blemish on the white tablecloth; she knows exactly what home remedy to fix the stain but is clueless on how to “fix” the moral stain on her family. The poor woman stuck in a new land as an immigrant has no one really to speak to and cannot in any way jeopardise her situation or that of her husband by reporting Martin to the police otherwise they will in all likelihood lose their PR (Permanent Resident) status. Hell truly exists on earth and it is usually of man’s own making.

 

The stories are full of very distinct characters, particularly the women. Usually in a short story collection the danger always exists of the personality of the characters blending into each other and acquiring a monotonous tone. This is not the case for Sunita de Souza. With the women characters, the author explores situations and how far can women push their limits. It’s as if they have always had an urge to explore but were boxed in by social rules of conduct back home in India. Whereas being on one’s own in a new land provides an anonymity that pushes one to the brink to discover new spaces — physically and metaphorically too. Driven to extreme situations the women unexpectedly find their voices and take a stand. It is not as if they were weaklings in the first place, they just conform and conform. Then something clicks and they take flight in a good way. They take decisions that change their lives for the better. For instance, the protagonists of “(CIA) Australia”, “Full Face” and “Teller in the Tale” or even the “bold” mother in “Soccer Mum”. All the women try, some do take action and others contemplate it and in the process provide a role model to the readers.

The strongest stories in this collection to my mind are “The Dignity of Labour”, “Easter 2016” and “The Permanent Resident”. The themes of domestic violence, fragile male egos/ patriarchal sense of entitlement that the men exhibit and assertion of the individual’s identity are not new and never will be but come together ever so stunningly in these stories. These are horrendous stories for the violence highlighted. While reading these three stories I could not help but recall the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The focus is inevitably on the first half of the commandment but increasingly I feel that women in particular should also learn to focus on the second half — self-preservation is equally critical. Don’t always give and give, but learn to maintain your dignity, self-respect, identity. The sleazy story “Up Sky Down Sky Middle Water” captures this commandment well. The girl was very sure she did not want to be a one-night stand but in that short ride she had done her calculation that having sex with the guy by the roadside would in all likelihood give her an advantage in negotiating her salary. It is a very unsettling story but in it lies quite a remarkable tale of self-preservation. She is near starvation with a very low bank balance and she has to do the quick calculation of whether using her body will give her an added advantage. It is tough to decide whether one passes moral judgement on the girl or appreciates her boldness, her quick thinking to be in some ways emotionally detached from the scene and think ahead of her future. The reader is put in quite a spot with this story.

The phrase “family friendly feminism” is fast becoming fashionable which is annoying for a variety of reasons but as your stories show there is so much work left to be done. Though the stories focus upon experiences of immigrants, specifically within the Goan/Bombay Catholic community, there is a universal truth embedded in every single story.

Fantastic collection!

 

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Here are excerpts of an interview with the author:

  • How long were these stories in the making?

I took about five years to write these stories, but they are standing on over two decades of writing experience.  My first job after graduating from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai was as a reporter with Screen, in India, back in the days when it was a broadsheet. Since then I have written journalism, literary nonfiction, blogs, scholarly pieces in international peer-reviewed journals, radio documentaries, including Doosra: The Life and Times of an Indian Student in Australia  and On the tip of a Billion Tongues, a four part radio documentary series on contemporary multilingual Indian writing. I’ve written for the stage and had short fiction published in different journals, and anthologised in collections. I also wrote a novel (unpublished) which was longlisted for the Vogel Awards, back when I was under 35, which is the cut-off age for that award. As they say, you have to write millions of terrible words before you get to the good words. So all of this writing needed to be done, over two decades, before I could write my book. It took this long not because I’m a lazy or slow writer but because I’ve been a single parent and have had to work in many day jobs to support my family, while writing in my “spare time”.

  • Why begin writing short stories when most publishers shun this genre, especially from a first time author? How did you achieve this stroke of genius to be known as the debut author of a fantastic and now prize-winning collection?

Thank you so much for your warm and generous words, and your fantastic, considered questions. You’re right. It’s very hard to get published, particularly with a short story collection. I felt very honoured to be published by UWAP and Speaking Tiger. I wanted to write short stories because they call forth a respect for the limitations of time and space, and enable a focus on the particular, the intimate, and the fleeting. The short story form offers a set of sharp literary tools with which to sculpt complex experiences and render them economically on the page. This form of the short story felt most suited to writing about the complexities of the immigrant experience. It allowed me to explore different facets of that experience, from the point of view of different protagonists, something which would be harder to achieve with a novel.

  • Who are the short story writers you admire and why? Did their writing influence you in any way?

I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of all kinds of writers such as Eunice De Souza, Michelle De Kretser, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ambai, Kiran Nagarkar, Jerry Pinto, Arundhati Subramaniam, A.K. Ramanujan, Chekhov, Arundhati Roy, Sampurna Chattarji, Arshia Sattar, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Jeanine Leane, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Damodar Mauzo, bell hooks, and Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve had my fair share of Rushdie-itis, where I tried to magic-realise all my characters. That phase didn’t last thankfully. But yes, I owe a huge debt to Rushdie. So many writers have fed my work. As the Australian poet Andy Kissane says, “poems are cobbled together from other poems”. So too are stories cobbled together from other stories. I’m very aware of the debt I owe to the writers who have paved the way for people like me.

  • How did you start writing about the immigrant experience in Australia?

I started writing about this a long time ago, across various media.  My first piece of fiction, published in Eureka Street, ‘Curry Muncher’, was written as a response to the violence against Indian students in Australia. Having been an Indian student in Australia myself, I felt I needed to render the experience with nuance, and I felt fiction was the best vessel to hold this nuance and complexity. Exploring this topic further, I was also commissioned to write a radio documentary called Doosra, and was a co-writer on a national award-winning play ‘Yet to ascertain the nature of the crime’. All the links to my work can be found on my website.

  • Sometimes the turn in a story like that of the husband grinding the toes of his wife in “The Dignity of Labour” is too cruel a detail to be imaginative. It is as if you heard about it. Do these stories incorporate kernels of real incidents?

That is a lovely comment. However, I have to say that this particular incident is entirely made up. I’m sure this incident has happened to someone somewhere, but in this story it is an imagined detail. Some stories are based on things I’ve read in the media, but all the stories have been filtered through my imagination, and they are all fictional. I think fiction has the power to be truthful in a way that bare facts cannot.

I filtered some details of real stories. None of my stories are entirely based on true stories reported in the media. For example, in the first story, ‘Full Face’, the story of the hairdresser who is murdered by her husband is loosely based on the horrific murder of Parwinder Kaur here in Sydney, by her husband. But the main story itself is based on a different relationship. Yes of course, there is an important place for nonfiction. But the idea that fiction must be based on fact for it to be any good is not something I’m interested in. I believe in the power of fiction, the power of the imagination to help us glimpse our better selves. I’m not saying my fiction does this. But I believe that fiction as a whole has the power to do this.

  • Do you work or are associated with a shelter/organisation for Indian women immigrants?

No, I’m not, but I do know of many amazing Indian women here who work with survivors of family violence in the Indian communities.

JBR: Makes sense then. You have probably heard stories. it is not that I am insisting on looking for links but it is so clear that you are a kind and sensitive listener who has taken some stories to heart.

RG: Thank you.

  • I like the way you keep bringing in the Catholic Associations to support the immigrants, mostly provide them a communal and cultural base. The church communities do provide refuge for newcomers and immigrants. Was this a conscious detail to incorporate in your stories or is it a part and parcel of your own life as well?

Yes, it was completely deliberate to set my stories amongst the Indian catholic communities. One reason I did this was to counter in some small way the almost universal and inaccurate conflation of Indianness with Hinduism. As we all know, there is more to India than Hinduism, however rich and wonderful it may be. I wanted to gesture towards this multiplicity by deliberately focussing on a community I knew best. Yet, as you know, in my work, I do not shy away from critiquing Catholicism or the Catholic church. Yes, the church for Christians, the temples for Hindus, the mosques for Muslims, are all ports of anchor for new immigrants who find familiarity in old religions from the homeland when they arrive in a new country with an otherwise alien culture. I write about Konkani-speaking communities, Goan and Mangalorean and Bombay Catholics, just like Jhumpa Lahiri focusses on Bengalis, and Rohinton Mistry focusses on Parsis.

  • When you observe do you keep a notebook handy to scribble points or do these details come alive when you begin to write a story?

Yes, I keep a notebook, I also type up comments on my Notes app on my phone. I’ve gone back to these notes several times and they have provided rich material for my work. For me, the catalyst for each of my stories has been clusters of words that sound and look good to me. I begin with words that fit together in a way that is pleasing to me. I don’t begin with character or theme or plot. That comes after the words for me. So the notes and scribbles I make are primarily combinations of words that I’ve overheard or imagined suddenly when I’m waiting at the bus stop etc.

  • Your women characters come across as women who make difficult choices but would they be called feminists for making those decisions or just strong women?  How would you describe yourself as – a feminist or a writer of women-centric stories?

I am unapologetically a feminist. I owe everything to the struggles of the early feminists in India and across the world. Were it not for these brave women, I would still be stuck in the kitchen cooking rice and dal for my husband while nursing baby number nineteen. Our independence as women has been won through the struggles of many brave women, and I will never forget this debt. So yes, I call myself a feminist. All my female characters are feminists, in that they are strong women who make choices and are self-aware enough to deal with the consequences, however challenging or empowering those consequences may be.

  • Have you been trained in theatre?

I wish I could act like Shabhana Azmi and the late Smita Patil. However I have no talent and no training as a performer. But I have written for the stage and hope to continue to do so.

  • What are you writing next? 

I am writing a book of historical fiction, based on the imperial networks of the British and Portuguese empires. It’s about Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his Indian servant, set in the early nineteenth century in the south of India, the west of Scotland, and the east of Australia.

Roanna Gonsalves Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney: And Other Stories Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 296

3 July 2018 

 

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 2015 

Mahesh Dattani, “Me and my plays”

Mahesh Dattani, “Me and my plays”

Mahesh DattaniI didn’t have an audience, because I didn’t have a language. The kind of text-based theatre I wanted to do could not be possible without a language. …The relationship between a playwright and an actor is a complex one. Both rely on one another for their artistic fulfilment….

Mahesh Dattani’s introduction/essay in Me and My Plays is worth reading. It is a reflection and a comment about the evolution of contemporary theatre in India, especially of original English-language plays. He talks about how he fell in love with theatre, his attempts at acting, and discovering his talent for writing plays, his observations on theatre and acting. This is a slim volume consisting of two recent plays — “Why did I leave my Purdah?” and The Big Fat City” that are powerful to read even in print. I wonder what it would be like to watch the performances.

Last week on Facebook, another noted theatrewallah, Sudhanva Deshpande wrote about Ben Rivers talk on Playback Theatre. Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre approach used in over 60 countries as a tool for community building, trauma response and cultural activism. In a Playback event, audience members share personal stories, and watch as a team of actors and musicians transform these accounts into improvised theatre pieces. Playback Theatre responds to the fundamental human need to share one’s story and have it heard and honored. Ben Rivers is a British-Australian writer, educator and drama therapist specializing in the use of applied theatre for community mobilization and cultural activism.

I could not help but mull over the “playback theatre” technique that Mahesh Dattani has applied to these two plays. Theatre performances tend to be cathartic experiences if the audience is willing. The stories about Partition or about life in Bombay/Mumbai may be scripted for a certain cast of characters but they will rake up personal stories and thoughts by those witnessing a performance. It would be fascinating to hear a live conversation on theatre between Mahesh Dattani, Sudhanva Deshpande and Ben Rivers, much along the lines of this televised conversation of Peter O’Toole, Orson Welles, Huw Wheldon (the host) and veteran actor Ernest Milton discussing Hamlet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smMa38CZCSU. One topic, renowned practitioners of the craft and much becomes evident through a good conversation.

Read Me and My Plays .

Mahesh Dattani Me and My Plays Penguin Books, Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 248. Rs. 246.