I think all the best fiction does that jostling – the larger history of a place and a people is in the background somewhere, though in the most committed of the realists – say Jane Austen – it’s faint, almost invisible and in the more comic of the realists – say RK Narayan – it is cut down to size, leached of any notions of grandness. I’m trying to draw on that tradition. So there is that background history of North India in my novel put alongside history as subject matter, what Alif teaches, what he is often thinking about. History’s angel is a troubled figure – someone who doesn’t have the wherewithal to really grasp the past and who feels stuck in the present.
Maybe all culture is a fiction but it’s individually internalized and that’s what interests me, what’s going on in people’s heads, all the contradictions there behind the fronts we put on. Cultural identity is becoming so much a curated, deliberate thing that we’re forgetting the messiness and the mix. So this novel is of course read as being about Muslim lives in India but it’s as much about spaces in the head that religion does not touch and also about people who are not Muslim. It’s just a contemporary Indian moment I’m trying to capture.
It’s a way of life, a way to live, and also a responsibility to language and to what we call reality. This constant search for new ways of translating one into the other is what it’s about. We so easily give in to dead language and lazy writing, I do too often, so the question always is: how to make it new? How it make it funny? How to it make feel like a living thing?
I think about the Northeast a lot and it also feels like the best place from where to think of stuff that concerns the whole country. In fact it could have shown the rest of country a way of living with differences, the minority could have lead the majority, become an avant garde, but that didn’t happen, and now it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.
I’m not done with Shillong, maybe I will never be. Am struggling with a book on it at the moment. It’s not so much a character as a deeply frustrating, deeply fascinating place with a unique history. And for some time now, like many Indian cities with very mixed populations, it’s been veering towards what Sunil Khilnani once memorably called hyperlocal parochialism and bleached cosmopolitanism. I’m trying to study both.
Develop taste to begin with. Find out what you like. Questions to do with writing often become questions to do with technique or subject matter or career development. But who is this doing the questioning? What gives them joy? Pleasure and preferences is where we should start.
Namrata Pathak teaches in the North-Eastern Hill University, Tura, Meghalaya. Her publications include Trends in Contemporary Assamese Theatre (2015) and Women’s Writing from North-East India (2017). She regularly contributes articles in The Assam Tribune, a seminal newspaper of north-east India; Muse India; North-East Review; Café Dissensus; Setu; Indiana Voice Journal; Aneekant; Negotiations; Ruminations to name a few. Her first collection of poems, That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranade was published in 2018