“Why fiction?” sternly asks an academic friend when I tell her about my new novel, causing a serious moment of self-doubt. Why, indeed? Perhaps because of a mother who believes children must be schooled in curiosity and the imagination, and from whom I inherited a tattered copy of a Famous Five mystery from her own childhood years. The pages were yellow and brittle; yet I remember that winter when, climbing down from the school bus and walking home along a foggy, winding road, I would quiver excitedly at the thought of the pleasures waiting inside those pages. Blyton’s landscape of islands, moors and medieval castles, seashores and smugglers’ tunnels was enchanting. It was also my first foray into the exhilarating, erotic world of travel, the known and unknown spaces that are born when latitudes shift and cultures collide.
Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair and Magic Faraway Tree series made magic an inseparable part of life. I wanted to rethink fairytales. Snow White should have married one of the dwarfs; who knows how the handsome prince would turn out, but the dwarfs, with their surpassing beauty and tender strengths, would love her forever. The exquisite brutality of The Little Mermaid still turns inside me like a knife; that fish-tailed nymph, swimming out of the blue seas into a bluer world. Then, with the giddy joys of young adulthood, of “borrowing” my mother’s lipsticks and high heels, came the Malory Tower and St. Claire’s series about all-women’s boarding schools. While not overtly feminist, they disrupted gender stereotypes through their gentle affirmation of strong women and tomboys like the horse-crazy Wilhelmina “Bill”. The idea of solid friendships between women — something patriarchal cultures discourage by setting up women as competitors rather than collaborators — took root during that time. Years later, reading feminist literary fiction by Margaret Atwood and Iris Murdoch, by the banks of the river Cherwell that flowed through my college St. Hilda’s at Oxford University, I would experience such déjà vu…
In literature as in life, India and the West have intersected in intriguing ways. As a teenager, reading The Yellow Wallpaper by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein by the Indian writer Usha Priyamvada back-to-back brought the realisation, on a visceral rather than an intellectual level, that both authors wanted their readers to reach into spaces of darkness and despair. Their craft lay in unearthing the subjugated knowledges of female psyche that remain unspoken and unheard within male-dominated milieus. Fiction nudged me to think, years before reading high theory atop the rarified ramparts of the metropolitan academy.
With passing years, one’s library has expanded. Along with a variety of Indian and South Asian literatures, South Asian diaspora writing has now become an addiction. Lyrical language continues to draw, as in the fiction of Edna O’Brien and Kiran Desai. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife are old and new favorites in magic-realism and fantasy writing. That is to say, I love magic. Not just in terms of formal genres, but also quotidian forms of magic: the first snow of the season, the smell of rain on damp earth, flowers, enduring friendships, impossible love stories. Hence my confession that, apart from literary fiction, I also like romantic and new age fiction with attractive story lines, especially those backed by facts, historical and otherwise. Literary pundits may find this appalling, but a part of me wants to blur the condescending divide between “high” and “popular” literature.
To live, we need both facts and fictions. Academese, the language of footnotes, sometimes forgets that there isn’t always a clear difference. In interpreting a multitude of facts to imaginatively construct a narrative, any representation of “truth” ultimately becomes a position, a political perspective, a story. As a fellow lover of Urdu couplets reminds me, Sunta hoo bade shauq se afsana-e hasti/kuchh khwab hai, kuchh asl hai, kuchh tarz-e ada hai. I write fiction because, in that faraway realm where earth meets sky, I can always see whorls of stories…stories of love and loss, mystery, magic. And, though they are not as visible on cloudy days, stories with happy endings.