Host Christopher Merrill talks with Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag about Shanbhag’s novel, Ghachar Ghochar, and the challenges of writing a story set in a rapidly changing society. They also discuss the ways memory can be built into language and the Indian writer who had an early influence on Shanbhag’s work.
Vivek SHANBHAG (fiction writer, playwright; India), engineer by training, is the author of two plays, five short-story collections and three novels. His writing has appeared in Granta, Seminar, and Indian Literature; his most recent novel, Ghachar Ghochar, appeared in English in 2016. He writes in Kannada, and is the founder of the literary magazine Desha Kaala. His participation is made possible by the William B. Quarton Fund through the Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and the U.R. Ananthamurthy Fund for Karnataka Culture through the University of Iowa.
Vivek Shanbhag Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill, and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Welcome to the very first Origins episode featuring Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag.
Merrill: Vivek SHANBHAG, a fiction writer and playwright from India, an engineer by training, is the author of two plays, five short story collections and three novels. His writing has appeared in Granta, Seminar, and Indian Literature; his most recent novel, Ghachar Ghochar appeared in English in 2016. He writes in Kannada, and is the founder of the literary magazine, Desha Kaala, which means ‘Space’ and ‘Time’. We are recording this conversation from the University of Iowa on Thursday, September 29, 2016 when we have the chance to sit down with Vivek, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Vivek, welcome.
Shanbhag: Thank you.
Merrill: You recently said about the Kannada language, “It’s a language that has so many memories.” Can you share some of your thoughts in the ways in which memory is built into language? And also in the region of India that you come from, most people speak at least three languages, your own mother tongue being Konkani, yet you write in Kannada. How did you go about making the decision to write in one language and not another, and how do those – the three languages – for you, also English, of course, shape your work and in your thinking?
Shanbhag: Thanks, Chris, for your generous introduction. See, Kannada is a language which has over a thousand years of unbroken literary history. And what I mean by unbroken is that we have literature which is from the last thousand years and all along. It means that the language has gone through so many rulers, so many religious movements, so many social movements, and absorbed all this. So today, for me, I can access what was written a thousand years ago. And when I say I can access it, it means the texts that are available, if I want to read it and understand and free it. It is not just the meaning of words, but I can also, to a large extent, access the context. So, that is what I mean by memory. To give you a specific example, the 12th Century is an important period in Karnataka’s history, because there was a social movement. There was a spiritual movement. And there were many poets who came in that period. And if I refer to a line, or a phrase, which refers to that movement, for example, there is a line, which means, “My limbs are pillars and my body is a temple.” So even if I just say “my limbs are pillars,” it evokes so many memories of going back 800 years, and that revolution, and the same poets of that time. So, this is what I mean by memory. So, because of this, a writer writing today in Kannada has so much for him to access, so much for him to express through. And it can also be a constraint, because many things can only invoke certain memories. Yeah, so you are also tied down by this. But it is an interesting – I think it is, I think it is also a great privilege for a writer to have a language like that.
Merrill: Because, in English, of course, we don’t have access to Anglo Saxon, unless we’ve had the good luck to study it in graduate school, so therefore, a line from Beowulf does not resonate in the same way.
Shanbhag: And your question about why did I choose to write in Kannada. I frankly, frankly think I did not have a choice. And what do I mean by not having a choice – for creative writing, I think one needs to go to a language through which one can feel the real depths of where he wants to, or she wants to, reach. Konkani is my mother tongue which we spoke at home. Kannada was the language which I learned in school, but literature came to me through Kannada. For example, we will not describe sunset in Konkani, because it is a language spoken at home. So, literature has a certain – it is a form of art and you have to learn it. You have to learn to describe certain things. You have to learn to, you know, understand and express yourself in a different way. It is different than what you speak at for home. For example, many people who speak Spanish at home here they may write in English. That is not because they disrespect one or the other, or they have the choice of one or the other. But the language that one chooses to write, one is destined to write, if I can use that word, is something that I think the language chooses the person, or it may be too much to say, but in my case at least, I have no choice.
Merrill: So then how does Konkani and English – how do they shape your writing in Kannada? Or do they?
Shanbhag: No, they do. Because each one of these languages uses a different word. And they bring us a different way of looking at things. For example, in Konkoni, because it is a language of a certain community, the way they live, there are so many words for relations; like, you know, the mother’s sister, the elder sister has a word and the younger sister has a word, your father’s brother has a word, the little brother has a word. So, you know, there are endless words for all this in that language. And I’ll give you another example, in my childhood, we used to, there was a word which was used to say, if someone asks you, “How far is this place?” and if you want to say, “You are almost there,” there was a word that was used. And later on I found out that the word actually means, that the time taken to take a deep puff of a cigarette and exhale, yeah? So, these things are built into – it’s a different way of looking at the world. So, when I write in Kannada, it’s not that my Konkani world is lost. It is somewhere there. And things like this, what I just now have explained, they try to come into my writing. As a result, the flavor of Kannada that I use is slightly different than what a person who does not know Konkani uses, yes? People have recognized it; many critics have recognized it. Not just for me, for other people also, and I think it’s a great advantage to know more than one language.
Merrill: Yeah, exactly. Maybe one more language question. You’ve also taken, in recent years, a prominent role in helping to translate your works into English, and I wonder what you have learned from the process of recreating your work in English and has that shaped the ways in which you think about what a novel can do and who your audience might be?
Shanbhag: I think yes, because we talked about memory – language having memory. Similarly, a writer, when he writes in a particular language, takes many things for granted. Those things that he or she takes for granted have to do with this memory. It means when I write a certain sentence, it evokes a certain image, or certain things in, in the readers. If you look at translations, say from Kannada moving into English, and if you imagine a gate between the two. When a word moves from Kannada to English, it has to give up all these things at the gate – all these things that you take for granted that works in a language and has to pass the gate and it comes out bare. So, at the time of working on a translation, it is very important to see how we, you know, bring out something in another language, which is not so bare, but comes out with certain decorations, if I can use that word. So, at least in my experience, when I work with a translator, it was to understand what is it, what was my intention as a writer, so that that intention is realized. To a large extent, it will not never be fully realized, I feel so. The effort is to make sure that to a large extent, that experience is captured in another language.
Merrill: That leads me to then ask about another effort of yours on the side, which was with the founding and the editing of a quarterly literary magazine Desha Kaala, Space and Time. That’s a lot of work, and to bring other people’s writings to the page. I wonder if you can talk about what you what you learned from the process of being an editor, just as you’ve learned from the process of being a translator. And were you able to accomplish what you wanted to do with this journal – which closed down – I think in, well your part of it closed down in 2012?
Shanbhag: It was a very good period in my life because I believe I could achieve what I wanted to achieve and what I set out to do. But it is a lot of work, and one of the reasons I stopped is because I could not write during that period. And also, as an editor, one gets involved in so much in a variety of writings, so intensely and so passionately, that the desire to write itself goes away sometimes. But I feel that generally literature generally must inspire people. The writers, they must be wanting to be in those pages. And it must inspire youngsters. It must inspire people to experiment with things. And I feel I was successful in doing it. And one of the reasons I stopped is also because of my work. I had a full-time job at that time and I could not manage both beyond this. And it was seven years, and I think that it was long enough time.
Merrill: It reminds me of the American writer, William Gass, had a wonderful comment once. He said, “Literary magazines have half-lives.” So, it seems the half-life of Desha Kaala was seven years, and then it’s time to go on to the next thing. You, you mentioned your other job, in fact you worked for 25 years as an engineer. In the International Writing Program, we’ve had a fair number of engineers over the years. But you started out at a very early age, publishing stories. I wonder how choosing to be an engineer affected your creative process – what you bring from the engineering world into the writing of fiction, and why you have lately chosen to leave engineering behind and write full time.
Shanbhag: It is very difficult for me to put my finger and say, “This is what has made a difference – being an engineer.” But it has certainly made a difference. Because of course, literature is my passion, was my passion, always. I started writing very early. But going through my course in engineering has certain made certain impacts on the way I look at things. It is like for a person who becomes a physicist, or who studies physics, or studies philosophy, the outcome at the end of the five years, one has acquired certain skills and whether you like it or not, the mind thinks in a certain way.
Merrill: A mindset.
Shanbhag: Yes, a mindset. And I have found it beneficial, though I can’t say exactly how. But I feel many times, that the structure of my work and the way I think in organizing my fiction probably has an impact which I feel has roots in my engineering.
Merrill: In the same way that Robert Musil was an engineer, and we imagine that any time an engineer writes fiction, it will be well constructed.
Shanbhag: And coming to, responding to your other question about why did I you know leave, I think the advantage of being an engineer was I could take up a job, and it was not possible – even today it was not possible for someone to be a full time writer in Kannada and make a living out of it. So, I have to take up a job, and which I did. Fortunately for me, that was a very satisfying job. It took me all over the world I traveled to many countries, so it was a job which helped me in a way as a writer. And now I feel I need more time to read, more time to write, so that’s the reason why I’ve decided to give up.
Merrill: So in 2014, your book Ghachar Ghochar won the Masti Award for Best Book. And we can look forward to reading this book in America when it comes out in February 2017. It’s also being published in the UK by Faber & Faber. Can you tell us a little bit about the family of characters in this novel and the meaning that ‘ants’ play in it? And let us know what that title actually means.
Shanbhag: It is very difficult for me to explain what ‘ant’ means. Because I mean, you are a poet, so you know. It is difficult for one to explain his own poem – it is similarly. But the family that you see in Ghachar Ghochar is what you see in India today. And in a way it reflects what India has gone through in the last 25 years. Because it is not that there are thousands of families like this, maybe there are millions. In relative terms, it is a huge difference that the family has undergone. So as a result, there are many families you will see, you can see in India, and I feel that the family that is there in this work is one of those families who are struggling to come to terms with the change, changing society, and uh the wealth, if I can use the word. I don’t just mean money, but in many other senses – the change that globalization and capitalism has brought to India.
So, the word Ghachar Ghochar, it is a nonsense word. It was created by me, and it is also to suggest that the experience that I tried to capture in this work, is something that can’t be explained with what we already know, which is why I had to create something new. And it is important for me because after I came to a point where I found this word in the novel that I could see the end of the novel. So in a way, it is it is important for me in a way I cannot directly explain why, but there is a relationship I believe.
Merrill: What are the hazards of trying to write about a society that has changed so dramatically in this in a relatively short period of time?
Shanbhag: One of the biggest challenges is that you don’t get images or metaphors that resonate very well. Because it is only in the, you know, when the time passes by that one can articulate those things and create those images. When you are living it, you don’t know what’s happening to you. This is the biggest challenge for a writer. I can articulate, I can create metaphors and images of something that has happened 50 years ago. But as I’m going through, to find something one has to be extremely talented or lucky to find something which captured — because it is changing, people are living it, so everyone has an opinion about it. So, it is very difficult to evoke you know something that you shared with one or two images or a metaphor.
Merrill: And the novel is narrated by a male, but it is very much a novel about women, isn’t it? So, I wonder how the characters Amma, Malati, and Anita conform to or break out of male defined norms, and how does the embodiment of language reveal their own singular desires?
Shanbhag: See India was a very agriculturally based society, as you know. Women played an important role in that society. The families were joint families, so the generations lived together and it was necessary for an agricultural based society. And now it is changing, and the role of women are also changing. Now they are more educated. They earn more money, women earn. And when I say earn, I mean they, they get money directly, as against what was…
Merrill: In the old days.
Shanbhag: In the old days, yeah. So they are also struggling to come to terms with their role in the family, and I believe that what I was trying to understand through this story is this changing phase in the life of the families in India, for the women in India, and the money that brings in, the power that it gives…And, so they don’t know – When I say they, it includes me as well – we don’t know what we have earned as a result of this change, and what we have lost as a result of this change. So, this work tries to capture that confusion.
Merrill: Yeah, that fleeting change, yeah. You dedicated this novel to Yashwant Chittal, another writer who wrote from and about a small coastal village similar to the one that you grew up in. I know you met him early in your writing life, and I wonder if you could talk a little about how he influenced your own sense of writing and if you could talk about other influences on your work, literary or otherwise.
Shanbhag: Yashwant Chittal was a great influence on me. He is from a place, which is very close to my native place, from where I come from. And I had different ideas about literature when I was sixteen, seventeen years old. I thought one has to go around the world, gather experience, and only then one can write. And when I came across his stories, which were all about the places which were around me, and the small little things, it changed my view about stories. And so, I was very much influenced, and I thought that I just couldn’t imagine that things that I can see every day can become stories like this. And then I wrote to him and it so happened that he was to visit his native place, which was very close by. And he said, “I am visiting on such and such a day, and you can come and meet me.” I was very thrilled.
Merrill: And how old were you?
Shanbhag: I was sixteen years old.
Merrill: Sixteen, yeah.
Shanbhag: And he has, in all his writing, all his novels and stories, the location is his village; it is called Hanehalli and it is the center of his writing. It is how like Faulkner has Yoknapataupha, or something like that. So, I went to meet him, and at that time I was very much impressed by two of his stories. One was called “Aboleen,” that is the name of a girl, and it means flower. And the story is like this: The girl is very innocent, she doesn’t have a mother, and she is so innocent that a crook in the village finds an opportunity to kiss her and tells her that, “Now that I have kissed you, you will become pregnant.” And the girl believes it and this crook goes to a church and confesses to the priest saying, “This girl is pregnant and now and you know I have done I have committed this sin.” And the priest, you know, it was such a big thing in a small village, and the priest asks the father of this girl to come and meet him, and so on and so forth. So finally, she is married to this crook and they don’t have children even after two years. Then he starts thinking that, you know, “I was cheated.” Finally, this girl committed suicide. It was a tragic story. Anyway, there is a scene in this story where the father comes out of the church, and with a heavy heart he walks down the steps. And I could imagine that scene, there was a big church and so many steps, and he walks down.
Similarly, there is another story where an old man goes from one end of the village to another end of the village, and the story is about death, and it happens in the evening. The whole story describes the walk from one end of the village to the other end of the village, and it is raining, and it is – you know so, and the light is only the light from the lightning. It is a dark evening. He took me and showed me the church. It was such a small little building and there were only three steps. And he took me and showed me where the old man had walked in the other story, from one end of the village to the other end of the village, and it was not even half a mile. It looked like an endless walk. And I think it taught me something that I cannot explain how deep it was, that what reality is, and what literature is. And how life becomes something else in literature. I am not talking about just the description of reality or things, but something that was told to a boy of sixteen years old, an aspiring writer. I think that was the biggest lesson that I learned from Chittal.
Merrill: What a great lesson! So, before we wrap up our conversation I wonder if you could tell us about what you are working on now, what you’re reading, any recommendations for our listeners to read – any books you would like to recommend?
Shanbhag: I am working on a play, and also on a novel. So, I hope I will do some progress when I’m here. And it is, it is a great opportunity for me to spend some time with myself, and work on these things. I’ve been reading a lot of things while I’m here. Of course, I had read Flannery O’Conner many, many years ago, and had published a translation in Desha Kaala also. I read her again because she has some link with Iowa. She studied here.
Shanbhag: Again, I must say I was very blessed by her stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People.” I think are wonderful stories. I really recommend people, you know, to read her again. And because I am there are so many other people other writers with me here, and in conversation, it is something that often comes up and Kenzaburō Ōe of Japan, he is another favorite writer of mine, whom I have not read in quite some time. So, I’ve been reading his stories. I have not read his latest Death by Water, and that is something that I am really looking forward to read.
Merrill: Well, we are looking forward to reading the English translation of your novel. Thank you so much, Vivek.
Shanbhag: Thank you, Chris.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available February 15, 2017 where I talk with Sri Lankan writer Ameena Hussein.