I often do have a sense of the beginning and the end: Anjali Joseph

I often do have a sense of the beginning and the end: Anjali Joseph
Photo courtesy of the author
Anjali Joseph, 38, is the author of three novels. Saraswati Park  (Fourth Estate, 2010), her debut novel set in Mumbai, is the story of Mohan Karekar, a pensive letter-writer living in the fictional housing complex of Saraswati Park, along with his wife, Lakshmi. Their lives change when Karekar’s gay nephew, Ashish, moves in with them. Saraswasti Park was awarded the Betty Trask Prize, Desmond Elliott Prize and the Crossword Book Award. It was also nominated for The Hindu Literary Prize. In 2010, Joseph was also listed by the The Telegraph as one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40. 

Her second novel, Another Country, published in 2012, tells the story of Leela Ghosh, a middle-class Bengali girl navigating friendship, love and betrayal as she travels through Paris, London and Mumbai. It was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Joseph’s third novel, The Living (Fourth Estate), which was published earlier this year, tells the story of Claire, a single mother working in one of England’s last remaining shoe factories in Norwich, and Arun, an elderly man in Kolhapur (Maharashtra) who still makes chappals by hand — in their voices. 

Excerpts from an interview: 

DEVAPRIYA ROY: Ever since I read Saraswati Park, I was completely besotted by your prose — its finesse, its restraint, its ability to move. In both Saraswati Park and Another Country, I found your portrayal of the inner worlds of the protagonists especially striking, how you managed to employ a peculiar economy to create these minutely drawn microcosms. That’s why I was a little surprised when I found that in your latest book, The Living, you’ve chosen to use two first-person accounts. An infinitely more difficult thing, I reckon, particularly in literary fiction, since when we think about our own pasts — whether distant or immediate — it is through the prism of our obsessions. Also, we work with fragments, with bits and pieces, we go around in circles, and more than anything else, we hardly ever notice our familiar environs. It was a brave experiment, I felt. (A successful one, of course, but you wouldn’t have known that in the beginning!) What, then, drew you to these first-person accounts in The Living? 

ANJALI JOSEPH: I really like the way, when writing in the third person, it’s possible to show a character persistently just, as the French say, next to his own life (à côté de sa vie) but not quite in it. The way that the phenomenal world is always trying to seduce us with beauty, and we’re usually distracted by something compelling yet retrospectively tedious, like a love affair or a job or a worry. Nature can be so elegant, but we are like children who choose the wrong birthday present and then are disappointed. On the other hand, I’d written two novels which partly focused on this, in the third person, and I thought it was time to try the first person. I was re-reading the short Beckett texts The Expelled, The Calmative and The End, which are the first things he wrote in French, just after the Second World War. A long time ago, I was thinking about doing some postgraduate study on Beckett in French and in English, something that wasn’t as widely explored then. These stories are a pivotal moment in his work. They’re also delightful. The End, though it’s put at the end of the informal trilogy, is of course the first one he wrote. I felt that it wasn’t only in leaving behind English that he made a sharp right turn, but in leaving behind the third person and beginning to write in the first person. That’s really when he left behind or took a different stance on the things of his past — Croker’s meadows, or the train station. They still reappear but in a different way. Later, of course, he went on to write in no-person, but that’s another story.

DEVAPRIYA ROY: I read somewhere that Henry James’ notes for The Spoils of Poynton are almost as long and as interesting as the final draft of the novel. Some writers I know prepare long CVs for their characters; Satyajit Ray used to make detailed sketches. And then again there are others who conduct all this preparation silently inside their heads. Before you formally begin a novel, what goes on?

ANJALI JOESPH: I’m not really interested in formally beginning a novel, or formally doing anything, if possible. Otherwise it would turn into another type of enterprise, one from which delight swiftly exited. Best to keep things a little illicit, accidental, distracted. That apart, maybe I envisage a completed novel as a journey of sorts, a writer inviting a reader along. The process of writing is more like being one of those land surveyors of the nineteenth century — travelling here and there about the country in order to understand it, but also realising that as soon as you see a person, a festival, an event, and make assumptions about it, you change it, for yourself, and also for the other elements involved. Nothing is going to stay still; eventually you find the happy spot at which to capture things dancing. 

DEVAPRIYA ROY: That is an almost perfect metaphor for the novelist’s job. Let me rephrase the question. How do you begin a new work? Maybe, you’ll sort of go back in time to that fuzzy period before Saraswati Park and Another Country and The Living, and walk us through the backstage?

ANJALI JOSEPH: All of them have begun with an image: in Saraswati Park I saw the letter writer at Flora Fountain buying books with marginal annotations at rush hour from a pavement bookseller; in Another Country I had the image of this young woman walking down a Parisian boulevard as the autumn leaves fell very slowly down to the pavement; in The Living I saw Claire, the English protagonist, walking in Lion Wood which is a remnant in Norwich of a very old forest, and still has an odd and distinct feeling of wildness in it; and I had a picture of an older man making Kolhapuri chappals. I don’t invite or construct these images and I often don’t feel equipped to figure them out but I do take the message seriously. Then it’s a case of spending time with this character, reading things, finding out things. For instance, writing Claire, I spent a week in a shoe factory in Norwich, watching people there work and listening to them talk. In part, I drew on things from my childhood in a small town in England. But there were many other things I had to learn about because I grew up in a different part of the country, which doesn’t have the same dialect or landscape or history, and also I didn’t grow up in a working class family or become a mother at seventeen. So I read things, I listened to people, I walked around certain places. The same was true when writing Arun, the Kolhapuri chappal maker. 

DEVAPRIYA ROY: Though there are as many kinds of writers as books, I think very, very broadly (the way humanity is divided into Type-A and Type-B personalities, for instance) there are writers who plot everything, till the very end, before they’ve even started a novel — I believe the writer Ann Patchett knows what the last sentence is going to be before she’s typed out a single word. And there are writers who begin somewhere, with a character, a moment, or a possibility, plunge into it headlong, and figure out where it all goes. So the events pan out sentence by sentence. Where are you in this continuum? 

ANJALI JOSEPH: I don’t plot in advance, but I often do have a sense of the beginning and the end, and sometimes other points in between. And those might also change. 

DEVAPRIYA ROY: Can you write anywhere or do you have a writing room — real or imaginary? Will you describe it for us?

ANJALI JOSEPH: I do have a study now, with a nice desk, the first I’ve owned. It’s more like a table and allows me to sit at it on a chair but with legs crossed, which is important. But, as with the idea of formally beginning or writing a novel, it’s usually more appealing to avoid the study and sit and write on my bed. Still, perhaps as in the case of people who are married but lead another life alongside that, it’s quite nice to have the study in order to avoid it.

DEVAPRIYA ROY: I admire desks and writing tables in every furniture store. I dream of an antique rolltop with a hundred little nooks and crannies that maybe one day I shall actually find — and be able to afford. But I never seem to be able to sit at a desk and write (maybe it’s a late reaction to school). I sit cross-legged on the floor and use low tables. Or I’m on a deadline — and conditions don’t apply. There’s an allied question to the previous one. There is such a strong sense of place in your novels that I am tempted to ask this. Did you write Saraswati Park in Bombay? Or did you have to get away from Bombay to access it as luminously as it comes across on the pages? And similarly — was the Paris of Another Country or the Kolhapur of The Living from memory (and maps) or did you actually write bits there? 

ANJALI JOSEPH: I began Saraswati Park while sitting in my bedroom in a small terraced house in Norwich, but I’d been in Bombay for the previous three years. After the year in Norwich at that time I returned to Bombay and was working there while I worked on the novel. I think missing Bombay in the first instance helped, and being back in Bombay helped me not to romanticise too much, even though as a book it is quite in love with Bombay. That is generally how I write too — by falling in love with the person or place or thing I am writing about. And falling in love is perhaps best done in the remove that follows proximity.

DEVAPRIYA ROY: Do you keep to a strict writing schedule — fixed number of words or hours every day? Also, are there any specific writing rituals? Or do you just tell yourself sternly to get down to the bloody pages as a deadline looms?

ANJALI JOSEPH: When I was younger I was tormented by the problem of my own laziness and the fear of drifting towards entropy — you know, just spending a decade in my pyjamas and forgetting to do anything. But that was a ghost story for children, I now realise. I’m not lazy at all. It’s a simple matter of being attentive to the next thing to do. I do write every day, pretty much. I used to write every day as a child, but in a certain dark period in my twenties it became something fraught, because associated with ambition, or failure — there’s no difference, really, between the two, is there? So I had to learn to do it again but now I don’t even think about it.

DEVAPRIYA ROY: Would you say then it has gotten easier? In the sense that it is still difficult, of course, but you are less fraught? Less afraid of that mid-book feeling?

ANJALI JOSEPH: I’m not going to be stupid enough to answer this question directly. But let’s say that everything is getting easier. I think a lot of it is to do with age. I’m one of those people who finds the idea of death really cheering. It’s like the tedium of trying to get interested in revising for your final exams in college versus the last day before one of the exams. 

DEVAPRIYA ROY: Growing up, what sort of reading did you do? Were there big readers in the family? Any specific bookish memories? I remember being very charmed by an anecdote about the writer Jamaica Kincaid. While in middle school, Kincaid would get so attached to every library book she ever borrowed and read that she could never bring herself to return the books. So she found some excuse or other and stashed the books under her bed until her fiercely Catholic Mother discovered this theft and took her to task.

ANJALI JOSEPH: Yes, everyone in the family was a big reader. In our flat in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in the evening, table lamps would go on and the adults would sit in a pool of soft light and perceptibly disappear into the rabbit hole of a book. The same thing happened in my grandparents’ flat in Bandra. I remember quite a long period of being impatient to learn to read. My mother started teaching me on my third birthday, but I was like one of those American kids who start eyeing the car when they’re five or something.

DEVAPRIYA ROY: They must be very proud that you’re a writer. Do you ever discuss specifics of your books with your parents or grandparents? 

ANJALI JOSEPH: I don’t know, actually. And no. My grandparents died a long time ago, sadly.

DEVAPRIYA ROY: What was it like being a child in TIFR? In a time of no television, I imagine?

ANJALI JOSEPH: It was a beautiful campus especially then. There’s a private beach — private because it’s near an outpost of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). There is a grove of, I think, casuarina trees near the sea. At that time there were just a couple of residential buildings and there was a huge garden, and a lot of space. I was one of the younger kids and I spent a lot of time wandering around alone, quite safely, and some time with a large feral group of the younger kids. I did get bullied a bit, probably because of being one of the smallest. And my brother and I got a lot of the, “So, are you a Hindu or a Christian? Love marriage?” type of scorn, because almost everyone else in the colony was a South Indian Brahmin and we were a random amalgam of Malayali-Bengali-Gujarati. But it was a warm place. You could walk into anyone’s house. My brother’s best friend lived across the hallway from us, and his family had a) a carpet (dark red) and b) a television. So we’d go and watch the Republic Day Parade. I remember seeing the one where one of Zail Singh’s soldiers shot himself in the foot. This was the early Eighties. The lending library in Navy Nagar was the big excitement. I used to get out five Enid Blytons on Friday evening and try to not read them all by Saturday. My brother’s class teacher sent home a note asking my parents not to let him read fiction before school because it made him vacant. He was probably sitting in his maths class and being asked about the square root of something while thinking, “I am Aragon, son of Arathorn”. I tried to describe this life to some Indian kids at the Sharjah Book Festival and one of them politely asked me about my “deprived childhood”, which turned out to mean, without television and broadband internet.

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