After about ten years of painstaking research and experience of working as a journalist covering South Asia, Meenakshi Iyer has come up with her debut book of short stories - False Sanctuaries, stories from the troubled territories of South Asia. She talks to Jonathan Vikram Pradhan more about her first book.
Your debut book of short stories False Sanctuaries has been published. How do you feel?
'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you'. With my first book, False Sanctuaries, that agony has transformed into ecstasy. For me, the whole experience of writing a book has been therapeutic and I feel unburdened, relieved, and glad that I dared to explore a horizon that was completely new to me. Having said all that, I am still not satisfied because I have to write more and master the craft of painting with your words.
What message do you expect False Sanctuaries to convey to readers?
Never give up hope, no matter what – that’s the message ‘False Sanctuaries’ conveys. The odds will always be stacked against us, but let’s just fight and lose rather than lose without a fight. South Asia – the dark subcontinent -- has taught me to celebrate hope; and this book of mine is a tribute to the people of South Asia; to the men, women and children from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka...who fight, lose, and stand up again – after a bomb blast, a fidayeen or a drone attack, a kani jung, ethnic clashes or war. ‘False Sanctuaries’ salutes and commends their ‘never-say-die’ spirit.
Out of the five stories -- From Delhi to Derajat, When The Sun Goes Down in Srinagar, Split Wide Open, Out On A Limb in Kabul and The Teardrop Island - which one is your favourite and why?
That’s a tricky one. All are my favourites and it is difficult for me to pick one because I have lived through them all, the characters and the settings. I have lived through the helplessness and pain of Tharmambal – the hapless mother of an LTTE combatant; through the young dreams of Riyaz Wajahat, getting ready to soar above the poplar-lined valley of Kashmir, through the yearnings of partition-hit Ratan Lal Sahgal, coming to terms with life in the walled city of Delhi; and through the betrayals of Pakiasothy and Arif Wajahat.
The Northeast has also experienced some troubled times, weren't you interested in setting it as a background for your stories?
I have been covering South Asia as a journalist and have seen things/people in that part of the world from close quarters. So, it was natural for me to touch upon a subject I was aware of, subject I felt close to and subject that moved me emotionally and drove my obsession. I am not the right person to comment/write on Northeast, as of now.
Please give us an idea about the experience of coming up with a debut book of short stories.
There comes a point in everybody’s life when they want to go beyond the obvious and search for things that genuinely make them happy. My search culminated with this book. After quitting active journalism in 2008, I was at pains to know what else I could do with myself and the limited knowledge I possessed. I would sit for hours, staring at the blank wall and wondering, “Okay, that’s it? Wrap up time?” The artist in me would never let me rest in peace and realising that artist within me was like crossing a major hurdle. So, I began to paint, to sing, dance, click pictures... and then I would shut my eyes and write about them. Boring words, blank words, disjointed words...yet I wrote and I never stopped writing thereafter because it made me happy, it made me a positive person. I would get up at the dead of the night to write – just about anything/anyone. I would sleep with a torch; a pen and writing pad beneath my pillow, because I didn’t want to make my ideas wait till the next day. By the beginning of 2011, I had a collection of stories, which I tore apart and wrote again. I rewrote till my work was finally accepted for publication.
Any other projects around the bend?
I am working on my first novel, but it is at a very nascent stage. All I can say, at this juncture is that I have gone beyond the realms of South Asia, to Bordeaux in France.