Novelist Anuradha Marwah is no stranger to desire and its daemons. If Idol Love, her second novel, was about the suicidal sadness of unrequited love in an India that was becoming vulnerable to seductions of religious zealots, her latest novel Dirty Picture is an unflinching look at soul sickness that underlies sexual exploitation in an increasingly promiscuous society.
In this conversation with Manish Chand, Roy speaks about the creative challenges of transforming a real-life sex scandal in small-town India into the redemptive fiction of her new novel, choices faced by her in exploring themes of sexuality and pornography and the liberating impulse that animates a writer in a society awash with consumerist distractions.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q) Your latest novel Dirty Picture is based on a real-life sex scandal in Ajmer? How did you grapple with the creative challenges of transmuting real life incidents into fiction?
As it was a sex scandal that I was writing about the foremost challenge was to de-sensationalise. I knew I had to write in a way that would leave no room for titillation – otherwise the ‘real’ story, or at least the one I was attempting to tell, would get obfuscated.
I decided on a very simple and direct style – aiming at the heart of violence.
Otherwise, compared with my first two, there were few qualitative differences in the way I approached this novel. I researched but then I had researched for my second novel as well. The concerns were the same too – the story should hang together, the characters should be convincing. I think the principles of writing fiction don’t change whether you take off from facts or imagination. You have to stay up in air and make a successful landing on ground reality.
Q) Dirty Picture is quite different from your last novel Idol Love in theme and style? What provoked you to choose the theme of sexual exploitation of young women in small-town India?
Having grown up in Ajmer, I know the place rather well. When the news reports started coming out, I became Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. I wanted to tell everybody what had happened.
It was the nude picture of a young girl that crashed into my life one unsuspecting morning, which made me write Dirty Picture. Her eyes in the newspaper picture were blotted out. Fully dressed men with lascivious eyes flanked her on either side, fondling a breast each. What devastated me was her hair – it was plaited into neat braids. She was obviously a schoolgirl. Dirty Picture is the story of that girl and the eyes I created for her.
The social concerns that writing about this subject implies, came after the subject had chosen me. It isn’t as though coercion and blackmail don’t take place in big cities. Sex scandals have been reported not only from Ajmer, Jalgaon, Jaipur and Jammu, but also from Delhi. However, it cannot be denied that the claustrophobic and sexist nature of small town societies makes it easier for the exploiters to get away with sex crimes.
Q) As a writer and a woman, what choices and dilemmas you faced in handling sexual abuse and pornography in your novel?
My biggest fear was earning ‘under-the–pillow’ kind of reputation and I worked hard to overcome it. I think this novel has turned out to be my most mature and maturing work. I was also doing activist theatre focusing on child-rights and women’s rights all through the writing. I couldn’t have written it feeling weak and vulnerable.
At my book release Manju Kapur remarked that as far as dealing with sex and politics is concerned “Anuradha is not a woman”. She was talking about women’s writing and how it is falsely constructed as internal and domestic. Anyway, writing is often androgyny. While dealing with sexual abuse and pornography I was metaphorically getting under the skin of the exploiters and in the process putting them down.
Q) There is a fair amount of politics in your novel also, with dark hints of Muslim men seducing and raping Hindu girls that could lend itself to a communal twist. Treating such a potentially volatile issue requires a lot of courage and tact, which you have done with a great deal of sensitivity. How did you manage it?
The theme of communal strife is not new in my writing. Idol Love was about Hindu fundamentalism and what it did to women and minorities. In Dirty Picture it is clear that the sex scandal didn’t take place only because of a handful of criminal men – majority of who happened to be Muslim; it took place also because society imposes an unrealistic code of sexual conduct on women and allows too much leeway to privileged men. As I understand it, the real story of the Ajmer sex scandal is neither about communal prejudice nor sexual perversions; it is about gender iniquity and class exploitation.
I think one of the objectives of literature is to hold a mirror to society. A publisher I went to asked me to change the religion of the men – make the book more ‘politically correct’. I did not go along with the suggestion because I felt that it was important to reveal how communal prejudice had played a retarding role in both preventing the girls from seeking help and then later, in the selective dispensation of justice.
Q) There are many sexually explicit passages in your novel. Did you feel self-conscious writing them? How do you see the larger problem writers face in evoking acts of intimacy?
Frankly, deciding to tell the story of a sex scandal is to leave notions of ‘sharam’ (shame!) behind. Any censorship – especially self-censorship – would have falsified the story.
Of course, it is not easy to write about sex. There are also obvious discouragements. For instance, in England there is bad sex award’ – awarded annually by ‘Literary Review’ – that is given ‘on the most pretentious, tasteless, embarrassing, otiose, self-infatuated or redundant description of the sexual act’. There may not be a similar award in India but the literary establishment doesn’t take too kindly to sexual themes.
Q) In all your novels, you explore desire and its daemons. What other themes and obsessions haunt you every time you sit down to write?
To quote Ghalib’s famous lines: “Hazaaron khwaishein aisi ki har khwaish pe dum nikle; bahut nikle merein armaan lekin phir bhi kam nikle.” In my idiosyncratic translation, “ My desires are immense and so powerful that I could die for each one of them; some of my wishes were fulfilled but alas, too few.”
Desire and its manifestations is a theme enough for several lifetimes. Another obsession that brings me to writing is language and its many possibilities.
Q) You teach English literature at a college in New Delhi. How do you see the relationship between academia and creative writing? Do you think literary theory and criticism can help you become a better writer?
I believe we write with what we are and each facet of the writer’s identity feeds into the writing. Literary theory and criticism make one more self-conscious about ones style and subject matter. It is how the writer uses the self-knowledge that would determine the success or failure of the writing. Also, care has to be taken to not let the academic vocabulary obstruct the natural flow of creativity.
No, I don’t think literary theory and criticism help automatically in creative writing. David Lodge – to give one example – has used them as his subject matter in his campus novels. But an academic theme is certainly not creative by definition.
Q) You are writing a book on creative writing? There aren’t too many creative writing courses or workshops in India. Do you think creative writing courses and workshops really help?
Creative writing workshops or courses cannot create a writer. They are intended to identify and hone creative talent and they are successful sometimes. However, as they are introspective as contrasted with information-heavy courses, they can act as a corrective to our syllabi. They convey a ‘feel of creativity’ to the students and make them sensitive to language and form.
I think it is a good time for Indian Universities to introduce Creative Writing. Delhi University already has – our book is for DU – and NCERT too is planning a book for senior school. Indian writing in English is taking off. There are a lot of young people who want to write. It would help if published writers become their mentors and guide them. Also, creative writing courses might ultimately lead to increased professionalism by raising editing and publishing standards.
Q) Do you write every day? How do you plan your day in terms of writing? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
When I am in the throes of creativity I write every minute I can spare. Otherwise, I do make it a point to touch base every day – even if it occasionally means only rereading previous work. Because of various roles – writer, lecturer, mother, theatre activist, cook – that I play, it is difficult to plan the day in any reasonable manner.
When I write I want to reach out – so the imagined audience is large and diverse.
Q) Do you see Indian society becoming more promiscuous?
I do perceive a weakening of ethical standards in sexual matters but this decline is in piece with the opportunism evident in – say – the economic sphere. Our society is in transition and often the globe whirls too fast for us. We’re definitely more confused now than we were before. The Mumbai portions of Dirty Picture where a CEO makes false promises to a young woman who works for him are indicative of hypocrisy and what is made to pass in the name of liberalism.
Q) How do you see the role of a writer in an increasingly consumerist society?
In an increasingly consumerist society I think it is the role of literature to draw attention to what is essential and important. Too much of life – especially in the middle classes – is devoted to fluff. The concern of the writer should be to restore gravitas.
Q) Finally, why do you write? How does the process of writing transform you as an individual?
I believe fiction can play an important therapeutic role. D.H. Lawrence famously observed, “We shed our sickness in our books.” It is also true of societies. They diagnose and cure themselves in and through their fictions. I write about things that disturb me deeply; I write with an urge to bring about a change.
Yes, I think I am constantly growing and changing through my writing.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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