Lavanya – Polymorphism means the quality or state of existing in or assuming different forms. What brought you to this title?
Indira – My research work in biophysics, contributed to my thinking about the extended implications — not just physical but also existential — of polymorphism, of being in different forms.
Complex molecular entities can be understood to move between different shapes. These structural and dynamic transitions have a profound impact on their function and behaviour. For example, a very small molecule I studied, an enkephalin, floats around like a flexible thread but in certain environments it attains a specific curvature and – this is the exciting part – can make us, human beings, feel happy or sad.
The idea, then, of multiple forms feeds into the great multiplicity that life demands from one –especially as a woman, doesn’t it? — of parallel dreams and existences.
Lavanya – Death is a difficult subject as much as for science as it is for art. Polymorphism is an example of many deft, moving confrontations of bereavement, loss, illness and griefs. What brings you to these subjects in Polymorphism?
Indira – Thank you, Usawa – it is an honour to have a profound reader.
I often draw from family stories — stories that are indeed windows into loss and grief, as also into yearning and stunted realisations. These stories illustrate such a wide range of the politics and emotional landscapes of human existence. Understanding them, finding ones path through them, is like finding profundity in mythological tales. It requires commitment, thought, gestation, examination, re-examination until they are embedded in you and demand to find expression.
Another factor that contributes — most of these stories were written at my desk in the great city of Bombay/Mumbai where every sortie out of the quietness of ones writing space feeds the story-telling mind.
Lavanya – For you, the very origin of fiction, where is it? Does fiction perhaps lie somewhere between the fictionalization of the personal and the personalization of fiction. Is the personal inevitable?
Indira – That is well said — ‘fictionalization of the personal and the personalization of fiction’.
We are essentially self-centred aren’t we? Even while allowing the imagination to explore widely and wildly, there is some part of us that sees the world in the context of ourselves. Perhaps other writers will refute this, but we are, ultimately, the filters through which the story is told.
Lavanya – So many of your characters are women. Was this intentional?
Indira – It was not intentional, but I suppose I naturally relate to the sensibilities of women and the complexities and anxieties that layer our lives, as also to the overt and covert subsumation of control by patriarchy. However, rather than their oppression, it is the way women live, cleverly, and organically finding meaning, and even fun that is inspiring. There is a story by Gangadhar Gadgil, ‘Bittersweet’, translated by Keerti Ramachandra that we published in the March 2018 release of Out of Print that is illustrative.
But yes, when I begin a story, it is very often a female story. Does this natural alignment with women’s stories relate to the personalisation we talked about, above? In a larger sense, perhaps.
Lavanya – How long did you carry these stories with you? How long did it take you to write these stories?
Indira – These are long, long processes. I think I use the word gestate above. I might add the word, ferment. In other words, I rarely respond directly – the element for a story usually rests, matures and melds with other elements before it emerges. ‘The Embroyotic’, for example, I began to write at my mother’s place in a village on the outskirts of Bangalore/Bengaluru. This is a place of transition, paddy’s giving way to outcrops of housing, local farmers turning their fields into labour camps for migrant workers, bumpy paths through eucalyptus forests giving way to tarred roads and civic amenities. The house has remained a place of calm sanity and fabulous cuisine in the chaos, but is also a point where people from different parts of this bizarrely changing scape find common conversation. A source for story. ‘The Embryotic’ used characters from this world, angsts from entirely other parts of the world and took over a year or more to write and many more to refine, edit and bring to its current form.
Lavanya – By delineation, fiction is fabrication, it’s a story. The paradox of the authentic would then be that writers are writing out something that is inherently untrue but it mustn’t be fake. What then renders authenticity according to you?
Indira – Authenticity, integrity – I think they really lie at the core of a story. Authenticity is certainly not measured by fact alone. Yes, facts must be clean – Monday, July 2, 2018 cannot be a Tuesday unless your story involves slippage of time; such inaccuracies make for annoying reading — but it is authenticity of character, integrity to story that give strength and depth to the fictional.
Perhaps this example will help explain what I mean — I had to say no to a story that was submitted to Out of Print, a story I liked very much, about the complicated effect the relationship with an Indian man had on a Chinese woman in America. Although the story was told with great integrity to the complexities the woman was dealing with, the man himself seemed like a caricature out of American television. I was instantly alerted and could not bring myself to invest in the work.
Fiction lifts off from memory as much as imagination. A writer like Hilary Mantel, a historian writing historical fiction can augment a reconstruction of not just geography but also of character by delving into the most obscure records to establish every detail down to the weather. A fiction writer must often rely on the writer’s own records, on her memory, on her interpretation of tales told, on her reading of culture. Those are the sources of her autheticity, it is to those textures to which she must maintain integrity.
Elsewhere in this issue excerpt from the short story Polymorphism by Indira Chandrasekhar
Indira Chandrasekhar started writing fiction with an increasing focus on the short story upon returning to India after more than seventeen years abroad. She has a PhD in Biophysics and, prior to committing to fiction writing, studied the dynamics of biological membranes at research institutes in India, the United States and Switzerland. Links to her published work are available on her blog. She co-edited the anthology Pangea, Thames River Press, 2012. A collection of her short stories Polymorphism was published by HarperCollins in 2017.