Swara: In your collection, Woman to Woman, you bring us closer to different subjectivities – from a prostitute finding friendship and connection with a nun, to a lonely widow observing and envying a poor woman. As a writer, how do you navigate the challenges of giving sufficient authenticity to such diverse range of characters
Madhulika: That’s a result of a combination of several things. Firstly, I write only about the sort of people I will be able to portray convincingly. So, a lot of me comes through in my stories. If not in the social or economic background, then at least in the emotional and psychological. Secondly, I do a good bit of research. It could be as simple as observing people very carefully, or—as in the last story in Woman to Woman, Poppies in the Snow, actually reading up on the subject and learning more about it.
Ultimately, though, I’d say my writing (in what I hope is an authentic way!) about diverse characters, is a reflection of my own personality. I observe a lot, and I am fairly good at being able to put myself in other people’s shoes. It’s also something that comes of experience, I suppose.
Swara: In stories like “Paro”, you reflect on very real and urgent issues of bride trafficking in Delhi; your collection, in fact, takes us through different landscapes to talk about relevant social concerns of gender-based violence, poverty, privilege and deprivation, and sexual consent. When exploring these issues within a fictional space, how important is it to maintain an element of realism in your story and how do you go about achieving that? Also, how significant do you think fiction can be for commenting on socio-political issues in India?
Madhulika: I think realism is very important in storytelling of any sort: it’s what brings your characters alive, and that helps make your readers empathise with them—or at least understand them. In stories that revolve around social concerns like poverty, sexual harassment, violence and the like, it becomes even more vital that your characters come across as real. I try to do this—as far as possible—by observing, by talking to people, and by listening. Paro, for instance, came about through a day-long interaction with various women, all of them trafficked brides, when I accompanied a journalist who was researching the topic. That story, in fact, is built almost completely of real anecdotes that came my way through the course of that day: the recollections of these women shook me up so badly that I had to put them into a story.
I think fiction can be a powerful means of commenting on socio-political issues, because it can reach out to people in a way that they can connect to. Not loaded down with statistics and numbers, not aiming at the mind, but at the heart—and there, in the heart, is where change must first begin.
Swara: You have spoken extensively about the importance of research in your previous interviews, especially in context of writing historical fiction. Could you please tell us about the kind of research you do while writing a collection like Woman to Woman?
Madhulika: Most of my short stories, and that includes the ones in Woman to Woman, arise organically—I don’t tell myself that I want to write a story set in so-and-so period, or about such-and-such a topic. Instead, if I am moved by something, if I feel very strongly about a topic, the story comes to me on its own. So, as I mentioned earlier, all the ‘research’ for Paro happened on its own: I didn’t really need to do much except listen. Similarly, Poppies in the Snow occurred to me when I read Manisha Sobhrajani’s The Land I Dream Of: The Story of Kashmir’s Women: combined with my own experiences of having lived in Srinagar in the mid-80s, that story was simply waiting to happen.
That said, yes: a little research is invariably needed, just to make sure I get the facts right. It could be something as minor as checking what spices grow in the Western Ghats, to something as (relatively) major as reading a history of Delhi’s wealthy seths in the early 20th century.
Swara: In one of your interviews with The Hindu a couple of years ago, you had mentioned working on a historical detective story with a female detective. Is that something you are still interested in exploring? In light of your work in the veritably experimental genre of historical detective fiction – do you think a female detective can prove ground-breaking, especially considering the overall male-dominated space of detective fiction in India?
Madhulika: I must admit I’ve moved on a bit—at least temporarily—from detective fiction. I’ve just started writing the second book of what will be a four-novel series spread across a backdrop of 800 years of Delhi’s history. That’s going to take up at least the next five years, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to writing detective fiction. That said, I still find the idea of a female detective very appealing: I did write a short story (still unpublished) featuring one, and if I were to get around to writing a series with a female detective, she’d be the one I’d write about. I definitely agree that a good female detective is needed in Indian fiction: there are a few around already, and a historical one (which would be what I’d write) might be an interesting addition to the gang.
Swara: Having written across a range of genres – short story, the novel, travel writing – which one do you find most challenging to explore?
Madhulika: The novel, always the novel. Short stories, for me, are the easiest, because I mostly work them out in my head and then start to write them. With novels, the length of the work makes it difficult: how much to describe, what to describe, how to balance action with thought, how to control my characters (my characters tend to run away with the story, time and again!) I find short stories easier to control, and easier to manage—since I edit and re-edit my work again and again, a short story reaches, sooner than a novel does, the stage where I’m happy to submit it. Travel writing is a different ball game: I don’t find it terribly challenging, and because I love to travel, the thrill of the ‘research’ is part of the fun.
Swara: Lastly, what do you think about The Bombay Review? Any feedback, comments or advice for us?
Madhulika: I will admit that while I’d heard of The Bombay Review, I’ve never actually read any of your issues before this. But what I have read recently struck me as insightful, well thought out, and yet never stuffy or too high brow for the aam janta, so to say. This interview itself is a case in point: the questions impressed me with the obvious thought (not to mention research—hah!) which has gone into them, without being too erudite.