Author and social commentator, Sinjini Sengupta speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about her debut novel, Elixir, and about the meaning of feminism in contemporary India.
Sinjini Sengupta is an erstwhile actuary whose debut novel, Elixir, published in December last year, has won a lot of appreciation. The narrative delves into philosophical questions of life, as well as issues that more immediately concern our world, like women’s emancipation.
Elixir’s draft was used for an immensely popular short film of the same name, which won numerous national and international awards, after which Sengupta authored the book in its final form. She is also a successful columnist, a TEDx speaker and has participated in global conferences as keynote speaker and panellist to speak on various socially-relevant topics.
Q. Tell us about your novel,Elixir. Why did you choose this story particular story as the foundation of your first novel?
A. Elixiris a story told in a somewhat layered narrative. On the face of it, it is the story of a modern urban marriage—a man and a woman in their 30s with the usual trysts and the usual rush that our everyday lifestyle entails, the boons and banes of the emotional solitude that is commonplace. It also reflects upon the gender politics and the social dynamics of the contemporary world. However, on another plane, it is also the story of the complexities of our minds, the conscious and the subconscious spaces inside it, of dreams and alternate realities, the truth or futility of which we cannot claim with any known assurance. We only know that much of how our mind functions, don’t we? Elixir opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, which goes: “All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.” Our very lives, our reality as we perceive it, could also well be a false awakening, a state of illusion, a waking dream. The story of Elixir is much about that, that greyness of life, human vulnerabilities and complexity of inter-personal relationships.
Q. How did the idea of parallel realities, upon which the novel’s story is based, occur to you?
A. The main idea is of “alternate realities”. It was really that kind of a proverbial flash-of-a-moment idea that had struck me out of the blue. One day I was just sitting in my office cab waiting to be taken home, at eleven in the night, utterly exhausted, eternally depressed and kind of wrung out of life juices, worrying and wondering if really this was all there was to life. I was asking myself, “Is this all, is this all I worked so hard towards all my life for?” And sooner than I could put my finger on this thought or idea or whatever, I had started to type out something that took the shape of a story. It went along these lines: what if a woman, just like me on her way back from work, suddenly discovers the road to another reality, a place which is more meaningful, more soulful, more fulfilling? I really do not know what gave me the energy to actually put it down in words that day, that time. I wrote down the whole story almost in a trance, about 2,500 words long.
Q. You’re an actuary by profession. How difficult was it for you to write and publish this novel?
A. After the story was made into a short-film, we were getting invited to a number of screenings across the country. It was at one of the screenings in Gurugram that, at the end of the movie, a gentleman walked up to me, gave me his card and said, “This story belongs to a book. I’d like to sign you up.” He turned out to be the founder-owner of a publishing house. So I wrote the manuscript and sent it to them.
However, to take a step outside your erstwhile career or professional identity… I’ve pondered over that for sure. I’ve wondered if I’d have an advantage if I studied arts. But in the matter of arts or creative expressions, you really cannot define advantages or disadvantages in such a straightforward way. You have a wealth to draw from your life. Your emotions and your worldviews are unique to you. You can learn to craft and polish [your prose] better, but to create the core content you always have enough supply from your own life, no matter where you come from.
Q. Film adaptations of books are common. But you wrote the book after the short film,Elixir,came out. How challenging was the process of converting the film into a novel?
A. This part of it was the biggest challenge for me. A lot of film critics and eminent people had watched the film and had written back to me. I had so many other voices speaking to me about Elixirthat somewhere in the process my own voice had begun to fade off. Around that time I took a step back and decided to simply scrap all that I thought I knew about the story. I was like, “Let’s begin from the beginning.” I gave myself the permission to start afresh with a blank slate and went where it took me. In the process, a lot of the story changed, the style of storytelling changed, and so on. The constant terror was that the film had done extremely well for itself, and by giving myself that freedom to depart from the track I was also risking something big-time. But I had to allow myself that risk in order to free-flow. By the end of it I had a literary fiction written in the stream-of-consciousness style, something that’d sound really far-fetched if you think along the lines of an “adaptation” from a movie screenplay. What is most humbling is that the book has managed an acclaim that has at least matched the acclaim garnered by the film.
Q. Having been conferred the Iconic Woman award last year, among many others, how do you view the issue of women’s empowerment in India?
A. When I discuss or write columns or give speeches on gender issues, I often find myself referring back to the “Pyramid of Hate” in order to understand and explain the issues from a social perspective. In brief and at the cost of oversimplification, we need to take a multi-pronged approach to make any reforms here—discussions, policies on crime-punishment or security must be coupled with preventive measures like counselling and education. We need to address problems at different levels. Discrimination is everywhere, at every breath and at every waking moment of our lives, in what we wear, what tasks we are assigned, how we are portrayed, rewarded or reprimanded. “Feminism” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the social dictionary. Every now and then a post will float up on your timeline on social media which begins or ends with “I am not a feminist” as a disclaimer, as if it’s like being infected with a contagious disease. It’d be a huge achievement if we can nail the definition of feminism into the heads of people to begin with. The change has to be inside-out and conviction through education should be developed, not enmity. We have to keep raising the questions, challenging the social standards, keep asking ourselves “why” for everything we were handed down. I’m glad the conversations have begun.
Q. What are your future plans?
A. I’m beginning with my next book, of course, but I do not want to plan anything much right now. I’ll take it as the opportunities come. I’ve only been pleasantly surprised by how things, completely unprecedented, took me over in the last couple of years. Also, in order to pursue my calling, I feel the need to free myself of plans and goals. I just want to trust my instincts, toy with my creative inspirations and follow my guts. The rest, I’ve come to believe now, will simply fall in place.