Sunday, 10 June 2012

Dr. Amitabha Bagchi's Storytelling Approaches

As yet another Sunday dawned, I was eager to spend time with a bunch of literary aficionados and headed to Easy Library, my local library in Koramangala. There was a scheduled author meet with Dr. Amitabha Bagchi, faculty member at the IIT, Delhi and author of Above Average and more recently, The Householder. As an academic myself, I was keen to see how he balanced the two vocations - that of an academic scholar and a fiction writer.

Dr. Bagchi read out a few extremely thought-provoking excerpts from his latest book, The Householder, and the audience wasted no time in bombarding him with questions about his literary techniques. Dr. Bagchi insisted that not all storytelling was necessarily an allegory. However, the notion of storytelling does spread out from its point of origin. Readers must learn not to read the story only as a specific story or only as an allegory.

When asked by an audience member if he thinks in a specific language while writing fiction, Dr. Bagchi explained that language was what one thinks in; though his writing voice is English, the positioning of his characters and what they think was an extension of what he himself has read in Hindi Literature. Shrilal Shukla has long been one of Amitabha Bagchi's inspirations, as the author himself explains.

Another audience member enquired about whether Dr. Bagchi had carried out extensive research to draw the characters of Naresh Kumar and others in The Householder. The author elaborated on how the setting of the novel was a familiar one for him, as he was the son of a bureaucrat, and his own personal experiences and observations in his home town helped him while writing the novel. However, he had done some research into the Stenographers' Guild and other such institutions. In addition to keen observation, Dr. Bagchi also lists his intuition as an important aid to his writing endeavours. He would not write a book set in a place that he did not share a certain intimacy with, which is why Delhi was so critical as the setting of his novels. He explained how the richness of layering in memory leads to the enchantment of a novel's setting. Later, he added that the best way to write about a city was to write about specific aspects of it, and not about its entirety.

When asked about the use of humour in his novels, Dr. Bagchi insisted that though his sense of humour is considered above par, he did not normally bring it to bear on any scene! The writer was also quizzed about the issue of preserving culture. He let on that he had a tremendous suspicion of people who tried to preserve culture. Cultures also die, like human beings, so why the need, and indeed the effort, to preserve culture, he asked. It was interesting to note that he had recently started learning Arabic calligraphy, to know more about Delhi's historic monuments.

Then on, came the rather crucial issue of how much background information/description Indian writers need to give their readers. Dr. Bagchi explained that when a writer worries about how much/whether the reader would understand his work, it would not be possible to go in-depth into the various aspects of the literary work itself. This was the main reason, he says, why Hindi literature just flows - its writers are not concerned with how much background information the readers know. He also reiterated that his own intention was not to show his readers Delhi, but to link emotional interactions with physical experiences.

Dr. Bagchi also disappointed some of his readers by declaring that he would not be writing sequels to any of his works, as he considers them to be over when the first work ends. If he were to write a sequel, it would be like trying to rewrite the characters' lives, which does not happen in real life! He also shared that when he got down to starting any fictional work, he needed to have the end in mind; the last scene was very important to him as a writer. And, finally, he also divulged some statistical data with an eager audience: The Householder's manuscript runs to about 60,000 words, and took him 7 months of thinking and 11 months of writing!

I, for one, can't wait to read The Householder! We look forward to reading many more novels by Dr. Bagchi, including the one that, he said, remains unpublished...

Dr. Vijay Nagaswami's Take on Relationships

A few weeks ago, I attended an author meet at Easy Library. The writer was Dr. Vijay Nagaswami, renowned Chennai-based psychiatrist. I must admit I had been eagerly looking forward to his take on relationships, in the current Indian context, having been away from my homeland for the last few years!

The talk was well-attended, with most in the audience being couples, as was to be expected. Writer Shinie Anthony led the group in interactions with the writer, who has authored several books, including The 24X7 Marriage, The Fifty-50 Marriage and 3's A Crowd, among others. According to Dr. Nagaswami, deception was the main issue in most marriage failures. He drew heavily on his own personal experiences as a counsellor. He lamented the lack of good resources in India, since the only congregated data about marriages and divorces available for/about Indians is the national census. The data from the 2011 census is not yet available, he informed us.

Dr. Nagaswami then went on to explain the concept of Toxicity in Marriages. He described how a series of unfulfilled and unarticulated expectations formed the main cause of/reason for toxicity. It is vitally important to de-toxify the toxic elements in the marriage to make it work. He also insisted that affairs happened not just in bad or toxic marriages, but in several good marriages too! Much of it, in the Indian context, he believes, is due to liberal thought processes that have emerged in the last thirty years.

Dr. Nagaswami also detailed how "Template clash" often led to the break-down of a marriage. These templates he alluded to are nothing but the ideas and expectations that we have formed, during our early years, about the institution of marriage. Most Indians have only their parents' marriage on which to base their own individual templates. "Parents do not plan to be anything other than a parent", he declared. Not many Indian parents actually sit down and chat to their children about marriages and what make them work. Hence, to avoid any template clash, what needs to be done is both partners need to create their own "final marriage template", which would essentially mean retaining the best of both their individual templates and rejecting all that would possibly work against a good marriage.

We are a marriage-obsessed society, Dr. Nagaswami noted, which had the audience nodding their heads vigorously in agreement! To ensure that a marriage works, he stressed, boundary definitions need to be set in order to prevent unsolicited advice and intrusions not just from parents and in-laws, but from so-called well-meaning friends and neighbours too...I do personally believe that this setting of boundaries would need to be implemented not just for marriages to work, but in all other personal/private spheres too! Dr. Nagaswami also commented on how a few years at least of nuclearisation would help most marriages.

He then moved on to talk about marriage counselling. There are two types of people who approach him for counselling: the solution-seekers and the enhancement-seekers. Counselling was not just about advice, he reiterated. In India, the concept of counselling has slowly begun to catch on, but it is not yet at the levels seen in the West. The bond, says Dr. Nagaswami, is much more substantive in a live-in relationship than in a traditional marriage. He also felt that intellectual abuse (where one batters the partner intellectually) was becoming more common these days. The 4 Cs in a marriage are what keep it working and make it a "good" marriage: communication, commitment, compatibility and communion.

To finish off, Dr. Nagaswami touched on how, in the present Indian economic climate, women entering the workforce are trying to become more like men. However, the psychiatrist stressed that rejecting one's feminity was not the way to break the glass ceiling. As a final note, he declared that "never" and "always" are to be avoided to make one's marriage work...