Interview: Dharini Bhaskar, author, These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light
There is constant negotiation between free will and predestination in the stories of the female characters. The idea of choice is presented alongside the reality of its negation for these women. Was that a central concern you wished to explore through the novel?
Yes, the question of women’s agency preoccupies me. What of our lives do we choose as women, and how much is chosen for us? Can we break free of our personal histories, or do we find ourselves carrying forward past inheritances?
In Mad Men — a show I love deeply — Peggy Olsen is told by her retreating lover that one day she’ll be glad he made this decision. And Peggy shoots back: ‘Well, aren’t you lucky. To have decisions.’ This was the 1960s. More than half a century later, can we say with confidence that the narrative has shifted? Do we, as women, have the luxury to choose?
I wished to analyse this more closely through my novel.
This nuanced representation of childhood trauma and familial strife, of mother-daughter relationships, did that come from a personal space?
One of the joys of writing fiction is that we get to live other lives. For eight years, I got to borrow the body and soul of a young girl, abandoned by her father, perhaps neglected by her mother. I got to witness her inner life and articulate her loss. I still carry something of her in me.
So, to answer your question, this is personal in that the narrator’s life is now entwined with my own. But the story isn’t autobiographical.
Language and literature have a consistent presence in the narrative. Was that conscious?
Yes, most definitely. The novel began for me with a word — Scheherazade — a storyteller, someone who managed to survive by piling tale upon tale. The narrator is, in her own way, a modern-day Scheherazade. To safeguard herself, she clutches on to stories, half-stories, dreams, and magnificent lies; she finds an anchor in words and literature.
Different ways of storytelling are central to the poetic prose of your book. The literary space of the letter, in particular, is portrayed as a space of hope and possibility. Was that something you wanted to highlight?
I am of the belief that words can steady us when all else around crumbles. The music of a well-crafted sentence can soothe us when we find ourselves bereft. So, yes, language can and does offer sustenance, hope, possibility.
Deeya, as a narrator, constantly refers to the unreliability of memory. Are you fascinated by the subjective nature of memory?
The unreliability of memory is, of course, something that intrigues me. How much of what we recall is authentic — and how much is fantasy, a lie repeated so often that it becomes almost true?
Equally, the subjectivity of memory was a theme I could not ignore given that the novel revolved around a family. Families are paradoxes — they advertise openness but harbour dark secrets; they promise shelter but can (and do) expose us to deep traumas; they appear conservative but house iconoclasts. How can these opposing forces ever get reconciled so the institution remains stable? I believe it is through make-believe. And if make belief is what holds a family together, memory ceases to be a reliable thing.
Has your experience in the publishing world helped in your journey as a debut novelist?
It has certainly influenced my craft, specifically my post-writing life, when I re-read every sentence, hammer away at it till it feels correct, obsess over every comma and semi-colon. Writing is all about rewriting — and experience as an editor proves invaluable at such times.
But that’s where it ends. Belonging to the publishing world does not make it any easier to find a publisher or secure a remarkable book deal. In any case, this is when an agent often takes over — so the author simply watches on.
How has the pandemic impacted your writing or reading schedules?
The pandemic has changed everything. At an obvious level, it has denied us a village — so, where earlier, there were people to offer succour, we now confront the practicalities of life alone. Time, far from expanding, has shrunk.
At a more profound level, though, it has impacted the imagination. What I once took for granted — children playing in the park; lovers holding hands by the sea, each couple an island — no longer exists. I try picturing what should be a normal scene — a conversation over coffee — and suddenly, it feels alien. To dream of people now is to see creatures behind masks.
What are you working on next?
It has taken me a while to leave my novel’s world, to even conceive stepping into a new one. I am, at last, ready to welcome new words; I play with ideas. I don’t know which one I will commit to. But soon. Soon.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.