Author Sumana Roy's Love in The Chicken's Neck has been nominated for Man Asian Award Longlist in conversation with Ashwini Muley Kulkarni, she ponders about how love has stopped being the subject of novels anymore...

Q) Why ‘love’ in the Chicken’s Neck?

A) The “Chicken’s Neck”, as you might be aware, is a nickname for Siliguri, a small town in Bengal where I live and where the novel is primarily based.

Why “love”? Will it be too lazy to say that I liked the sound of Love in the Chicken’s Neck? Why “love”? Well, this is not really a “love story” in the way we usually understand a love story. I’m bad at paraphrasing stories, so I won’t even try to tell you what the novel is about. Only one thing: have you noticed that no love stories are written these days? If you look at Indian Writing in English, you will perhaps be hard-pressed to name a few love stories. No, I don’t think that this is a deficiency of any literature, but yes, it is something that caught my attention. In my novel, Tirna, the young girl is looking for love without knowing it; does she find love at the end of the novel? I won’t tell you that. Just this: I wanted to explore how the idea of love has changed over time, in life and in literature.

Q) Your story ‘My Mother’s Lover’ touched us.
How much courage does it require of a writer to bring the archetypal mother down the pedestal and make her a human?

A) For this I didn’t require courage: this was partly because my mother, with all her fumbling and failings, never claimed a seat on the pedestal!
But seriously, what made me write this story? This was written about two years ago but I can remember two primary impulses. The first was personal: I found that I had too little time to write. The cook or the maid or the postman or the salesman or the insurance agent would always claim a share in my time, never my husband’s who, being an academic, also spent a large part of the day at home. I would be in the middle of writing a sentence and the cook would come and ask me about the seasoning for moong dal! I didn’t like that. My husband is a writer too and everyone thought that he could not be “disturbed” while it was assumed that I was available. If you ask me about the difficulty of being a woman writer, this is what it is, at least for me!

The other thing that forced itself into the idea of the story came from an interview of Anita Desai that I read at the time; there she spoke of writing almost surreptitiously, hiding her writing self behind the chopping board, as it were. I had also heard about the Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi hiding her writing from her family for a long time.

I began to feel – and this might have been because I was alone and living abroad and hiding my writing life from my family lest they thought that I was wasting time on this instead of being more responsible and writing my doctoral dissertation – that I was scared of revealing this other life to people who knew me socially. My husband would often tell his friends that I was working on a “novel” and I would immediately annotate that piece of secret information with some awkward defence. I still don’t know why I did that or continue to do that.

I also think that My Mother’s Lover comes from a different space – a space that is the writer’s own, a writer’s secret life that is energetic and pleasurable by dint of being secret. At least I like to think of it that way. So when the wonderful Rahul Soni, editor of Pratilipi, asked me for a story, I sent this one, almost like a secret. It is part of a planned collection of stories about writing and writers – lost manuscripts, translator-murderers, plagiarism, mis-readings, and more.

Q) Do you believe that writing is a political act?

A) Depends on how you define politics. All acts, and for that matter, all our gestures are political because they entail questions of choice. If I were to turn the question in a reverse direction, I think I’d be able to answer it better. Yes, politics affects my writing. But I’m not a pamphleteer-writer; in my writing, the political events that affect our lives happen elsewhere. I wouldn’t show you the reading on a Richter scale; I’ll show the black and white photograph of your parents falling to the ground because of the tremor.

Q) Co-incidentally, all our past ‘Author-of-the-month’ have been women, and I can’t help asking this question. How easy or difficult is it being a writer in India?

A) I think being a writer anywhere is not easy. You must realise that every sentence – at least for a pathologically slow writer like me – is like a stroke on the canvas. As you write, you are moving from sentence to sentence but also, at the same time, you are moving towards a structure. For me it is difficult because I am never quite satisfied with my ‘translations’, the translation of what’s in my mind into what’s on the screen in front of me. But in this aesthetic discontent, in this Platonic tussle lies the writer’s pleasure. This pleasure I wouldn’t exchange for anything in the world.
If you are asking me whether being a writer in India is more difficult than being a writer somewhere else, I’m not sure whether I’m competent enough to answer that question. I am still an unpublished writer, and every morning I look at the bookshelves in my study and hope that some day one of those spines will carry my name!

Being a woman writer: Again, I don’t know how to answer this. I’m married, I teach in a college, I write review essays, I write academic essays – I’ve been told that all these ‘activities’ subtract from “writing time”. But I’d like to believe that all these experiences add something to my writing too! I also think that the “full time writer” is a mythical beast! Or that half-belief is my consolation perhaps?!

Q) In the world of Flash Fiction, SMS poetry and Graphic Novels, where do you see the traditional novel form going?

A) I am – I must admit – a bit uncomfortable with the idea of the “traditional novel”. For that matter, I’m uncomfortable with anything that carries that glorified epithet “traditional”. The word “novel”, we seem to have forgotten, means “new”.
Your examples – flash fiction and sms poetry – seem to suggest the reign of brevity. Does that mean that the novel will lose girth? I don’t know. I think it is the subject that decides the leanness (or lack of it) of a narrative just as content decides form.

In Love in the Chicken’s Neck, one of the central protagonists is Bhaskar Sen, an Indian English writer. While talking about the “new” novel, for example, this is what he says: “…. I think the novel needs to become more accommodative. That is why I tell my friends, “Just open the backdoor and let all that you have hidden for so long come out. Open economy: that is my word for the new novel. Give everything some space in your novel but at the same time you must be a tough housekeeper.
…. Sometimes you have to talk a little more than necessary; it is like being alone in a very cold country. You have to watch your words form at your mouth, see the icy smoke develop into sounds on its outward journey to feel that you still have the child’s ability to surprise and be surprised. That is what the novelist sometimes needs to do too, to scream, to know that his ears can gather what his lips have thrown into the world.
…. If you ask me to supply you with another architectural metaphor, I would say it would be something like those medieval churches, raided repeatedly, burnt or broken by hostile neighbours and an uncompromising nature into ruins and then reconstructed, never really ‘restored’ as historians would have us believe, changing from baroque to gothic or even semi-Renaissance after a stung revolution, so that the old continues to survive within the new, and the new, often treated like an outcaste, is accepted with a sprinkling of holy water.
…. I have never really been interested in writers who use their writing with the sincerity of a vacuum cleaner; I have always been more interested in the dirt that remains trapped in its middle, like unformed stories, stories with no rights for passage in either direction, backward or forward. Writers, after all, are not cooks tweaking dough of flour into three ears and storing a mixture of their stories like a samosa.
…. I think, by now, you know what I am getting at. Yes, I am suggesting a celebration of the impure. Other genres are too strict with forms; they demand arrangements like dates on a calendar. Only the novel will encourage indiscipline and disorder but isn’t it only great art which tolerates chaos on a canvas by framing it in bronze for display in a museum? Disorderliness, Incompleteness, Fragmentariness, even wiped out pencil marks and eraser traces – this is the aesthetic for the new novel.”

I do not, necessarily, agree with everything that Bhaskar Sen asks of the “new novel” but yes, I am a bit tired of linear narratives; and manicured neatness.

Q) What next?

A) I am re-writing the first section of Love in the Chicken’s Neck and editing parts of it everyday. Also, I have been working on a collection of short stories titled SML for almost a year now. These are, as the title suggests (Small, Medium, Large), stories about clothes. At the moment, I’m working on a story called Tendulkar’s Pyjamas.

Sumana Roy's Love in the Chicken’s Neck has been nominated for the Man Asian Awards longlist. Her short story "Award-winning Writer" was selected for the anthology 21 Under 40 (Zubaan, 2007); her poems and essays have won prizes in India and British Columbia. A few of her poems have been published by Biblio and Tate Etc while her review essays have appeared in Himal Southasian, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Tehelka, Marie Claire and The Book Review. Her short essay won the second prize at the Kala Ghoda Essay Contest 2008.