Some years ago, I read Saraswati Park, Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, aloud to a friend, once a librarian but no longer able to read. We both admired its literary skill, and did not feel it needed more action. This is relevant because critical reviews at the time complained that nothing exciting happened in the book and it, therefore, was not a good one. We wondered what these people would have said about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, and congratulated ourselves smugly when Saraswati Park went on to win the Betty Trask Prize, the Desmond Eliot Prize, and in time, the Vodafone Crossword Prize too.
With The Living, Anjali Joseph has surpassed her skill of saying so very much with so very few words. During the course of this interview, I also realised, with growing horror, that I’m the long-suffering mother of the person with whom Ms Joseph was accosting young men outside a bakery to find out more about haathbhatti. A coincidence, I promise, but in the interest of full disclosure and all.
Why footwear, why these particular cities?
For me, the impetus to write a novel comes in two forms. The primary one is an image; the secondary is an idea or a question. For Saraswati Park I had an image of a man at a secondhand book stall in Flora Fountain in Mumbai, looking for books with marginal notations just before evening rush hour. And I knew I wanted to write about the daydreaming, book-reading, middle-class Bombay where I’d spent my early years and where my parents and grandparents had lived. For this book, I had the image of a man making a pair of chappals. I’ve been wearing Kolhapuris since I was a child. The first pair I had was brought for me by my grandfather from a work trip to Kolhapur when I was three or four. I still wear Kolhapuris all the time, and find them both beautiful and practical, and I knew I wanted to write about the idea of daily work, of craft, and of some of the parts of life with which fiction deals less frequently: routine, habit, and ruptures in both. I also had an image of a woman in Norwich, originally in a place called Lion Wood, which appears in the novel. I realized she worked in a shoe factory, a profession that’s now anachronistic but which used to be one of the main trades in Norwich, where I was living when I started writing this novel.
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Could you describe the reader you were writing for?
I don’t really know, but I did want to write a book that plausibly might carry the voices of these two people – the kind of working class people who don’t consider themselves especially interesting and wouldn’t see their lives as the stuff of fiction. I am more interested in those lives than in the apparently exceptional or heroic, and I suppose my larger project is to illuminate the beauty of all of our lives, even (especially?) in their humdrum moments: everyday magic.
Then you’re not writing for a particular reader as some writers say they do?
I don’t think about anything other than the writing while I am writing. The reader-writer connection does matter to me – as a reader to begin with, and also as a writer. It’s a small miraculous thing, the possibility of connecting with someone you may never meet. It’s a real connection.
I enjoyed your poetic translation of Akashvani. Any examples I may have missed because I didn’t have the context?
I did use a few bits of Norwich speech, though Claire, the first narrator doesn’t talk in full Norfolk dialect, since she’s grown up in the city. ‘There was weather’, for example, means ‘The weather was bad’. I was also inspired by some of the things I’d seen when growing up in England in the mid and late 1980s: canned Alphabetti Spaghetti, for example, or corner shops. Those things are part of the furniture of the novel.
Did you find your characters changing as you wrote, or did they stay true to your early conception of them?
Arun was initially more sarcastic, less tender, less nagging; Claire’s relationship with her son is something that became much warmer than I’d initially predicated. The process of writing a novel involves getting to know characters: their facades and what’s inside.
Any interesting stories about the research you did to get all this together?
I spent a week in a shoe factory in Norwich, in January a few years ago. The people who worked there were generous with their time and attention and let me watch them work, and chat to them as they did; I found out the things I would rather not make up, like what it feels like when the bells go for breaks, or how the light falls at different times of day; how the shop floor, as it’s called, smells when the roughing machines come on in the morning. I also visited Kolhapur and nearby Miraj twice. Once I met chappal makers, thanks to the kindness of Vinayak Kadam of Adarsh Charmodyog Centre in Kolhapur. Most of the chappal makers work at home so I went around their houses with him and watched them work a little, and talked to them. The second time I visited, I wanted particularly to do two things. One was visit a country liquor bar in the area where the chappal makers live and work, because I knew Arun, the second narrator, had been an alcoholic for many years.
The other was to find a small temple in a field that I’d dreamt of his visiting as a child. It was good that I went to Kolhapur because I realized that unlike Bombay it doesn’t have that many country liquor bars; government authorized country liquor is sold by certain people in certain areas, and then illegal, much cheaper and stronger haathbhatti is sold as home brew. A kind young man, a non-drinker himself, helped me find some haathbhatti when I accosted him outside a bakery one evening and asked where the country liquor bars were. He was worried my friend and I would get into trouble so he chivalrously escorted us to buy haathbhatti, then pleaded with me not to make a regular habit of drinking it. And the next day, while we were aimlessly driving around in the morning, we found the temple in the fields, basically as a gift.
I was going to say, ‘Hmm why so much sexual activity!’ but also wanted to note my appreciation of your female interpretations of the sexual act.
Sex is a big part of life, isn’t it? For Claire I think it represents a new opening out of her life after a long period of essentially mourning the teenage relationship that resulted in and ended with the birth of her son. For Arun I think it represents one of the few unregimented parts of his life. Everything else – work, marriage, eating, sleeping – is somehow inevitable. He loves his wife; he loves his family. But the randomness of unplanned extramarital sex creates a rupture in that, and brings both a sense of freedom and sadness and guilt. I’m not sure what to say about a female experience of sex in general. I think for Claire there’s an experimental quality to the relationships she has. In her youth love was simple, but it ended. In her thirties, it’s not so simple for a while, but she also has a few transgressive encounters with a much younger man, her son’s friend, and there are no repercussions from that. That idea, which somehow seems normal for a male character, is something I found interesting. Part of the matter-of-factness of these characters and the lives they lead, in which time is parceled out in units that they make, is expressed in this experience that at times sex is just sex. At other times, of course, it brings emotions: wonder, surprise, grief.
Sexual acts in the public domain invariably describe men as experiencing mindless enjoyment whereas Claire does seem capable of thought during the process, could that be a feminine statement?
I don’t know. Now that you say it I seem to remember Molly Bloom doesn’t stop chatting to herself during sex either. Perhaps it is a type of mind, not a gender-based difference?
Amit Chaudhuri gave The Living a rave review in The Guardian and a disgruntled reader wrote in to say that, as your former teacher and mentor, he must be biased.
I was glad and grateful to read the review – it was written by one of my favourite writers. I hadn’t asked for it to be written, or tried to influence what it said. Huffington Post wrote about the incident and asked for my response, but I didn’t see why I should engage with accusations levied in anonymous emails. In any case, it’s for a reader to flip through the book and decide if it seems to speak to him, or her.
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Saaz Aggarwal is the author of Sindh — Stories from a Vanished Homeland