‘An engaging story can transcend any medium’
Author Piyush Jha on his latest novel Girls of Mumbaistan, and the state of readership in India
There’s only so much one can do when it comes to exploring the city of Mumbai. But for filmmaker and author Piyush Jha, there’s always something new that it has to offer. “Maybe that’s because I’ve grown up in Mumbai. Call me a Bombay boy or a Mumbaikar,” he says. His fifth novel, Girls of Mumbaistan, is a triad of novellas, of which two are shouldered by women and the third by a transgender cop. We caught up with him to talk about his latest work and how his writings are a commentary on the evolution of the city.
What was your research process like?
This one has taken a little longer than my previous ones. Because I read a lot of news from newspapers, so the research was an ongoing process. What I do is, if I decide on a topic, I keep reading about it and keep collating information and then maybe, a year or two down the line, I write a story about it. So, there was no research as such, except for Inspector Hijra. That is essentially about a transgender character. He’s the first transgender police officer in Mumbai. It is fictional because there’s no one like that in Mumbai yet, but there are two in the country that I know of. One is in Rajasthan, who’s a constable, and the other is in Tamil Nadu, who’s a sub inspector. I’ve researched on this and I have been researching the Hijra community for a long time now.
Your previous novels, too, were set in Mumbai. Why does this city keep calling you back?
I am a Bombay boy or Mumbaikar. I’ve grown up in this city. I have experienced all the ups and downs of the city. I am someone who has loved every part of the city in different ways. I’ve seen the changes that have happened and how the city has evolved. Through my writings, I have tried to always preserve some beauty of the city. What’s special is that even in its grunginess, there is a certain charm. I have always tried to present it to people, for them to experience it too. I always use that canvas because it comes so naturally to me. The city has been my muse, in a way.
Did writing about the city become a way to revisit your childhood?
In various ways, I visit various parts of me in different ages. In Mumbaistan, I talk about the ’90s and now, I am talking about the contemporary city through my eyes. In Girls of Mumbaistan, I have set one story in Navi Mumbai, one in Juhu and the other in the southern, central part of the city. So, they all have different flavours. The Mumbai in A Simple Girl is different from the Mumbai in Inspector Hijra. And the characters’ responses come from these flavours of the city. That way, it automatically becomes organic. Through these, I have tried to capture the larger tapestry of Mumbaistan – the darker side to the city.
You’re a filmmaker, too. Was it freeing to write a novel because the creative freedom, one imagines, is much more here?
Yes, of course, it is. Filmmakers, too, are allowed a certain amount of latitude and creative freedom otherwise every film would look the same. But a film also has so many commercial requirements, and then there are finances etc which makes it a bit restrictive. Whereas in a book, your imagination can fly free and you can create whatever you want. At the end of the day, if you are prone to flight a fantasy, writing is the best way.
In one of your columns, you’d written about how you enjoyed audiobooks and how they seem to be the next big thing. Since this is a novel, are the other mediums in mind?
At this point, video is the first focus. There are video adaptations that are happening. I am working on a series based on Inspecter Hijra, the novella from Girls of Mumbaistan. There’s a film adaptation of A Simple Girl which is also happening. And, in the second phase, audio adaptations are in the pipeline as well. These are of my previous books.
What do you make of the Indian readership?
In India, unfortunately, books are mostly looked at as a source of learning. Because books are associated with school and reading. But there is a strong body of readers that exist. If you see, the publishing industry has grown.
Does the intend to monetise a book, restrict imagination?
A writer has to get his/her due. There are two kinds of writings that exist. One is pure literary which is basically dependent on turn of phrase. Even there, there is a lot of imagery. I am saying that every person would like to have a wider readership and a larger engagement. Today, the times have changed. Earlier, the medium was defining what the author’s creating, which were printed as paperbacks. They are no longer a medium. Today, you have your e-books, video books etc. this is the time for the storyteller. And if it is a good engaging story, it can transcend any medium. I think that is what is happening now. The time is for storytellers rather than pure wordsmiths.