This interview was conducted by e-mail. It is about Deepti Kapoor’s novel A Bad Character, first published by Penguin Random House, 2014.
About the novel (from Goodreads)
A highly charged fiction debut about a young woman in India, and the love that both shatters and transforms her. She is twenty, restless in New Delhi. Her mother has died; her father has left for Singapore. He is a few years older, just back to India from New York. When they meet in a café one afternoon, she—lonely, hungry for experience, yearning to break free of tradition—casts aside her fears and throws herself headlong into a love affair, one that takes her where she has never been before. Told in a voice at once gritty and lyrical, mournful and frank, A Bad Character marks the arrival of an astonishingly gifted new writer. It is an unforgettable hymn to a dangerous, exhilarating city, and a portrait of desire and its consequences as timeless as it is universal.
Why a novel? Did you consider writing a memoir? (You mention to writer/moderator Manu Joseph in the Times Lit Fest 2014 panel discussion- ‘literature as a painkiller- turning tragedy to beauty’ that the book is based on a wild phase of your life.)
DK: I was thinking about my family. I wanted a certain amount of plausible deniability. But it was also the case that fiction offers something, an extra layer, or maybe it’s better to say a hidden layer. Fiction, by its very nature, is slippery, and I wanted to employ that kind of slipperiness, a shadow language to an open text, to create an artificiality and unstable quality. I was in my own world at the time of writing, I had very little contact with any literary world and I had a very narrow set of references. Now I see someone like Rachel Cusk playing with memoir and sometimes think again over my novel and how it might work another way, but it is what it is. An inward looking shadow text.
The description of cities in your book is elaborate and poetic.
(i) Was it easy to write?
DK: The description of the city was very easy. Mostly they were written without too much conscious thought, as fragments.
(ii) Why this throbbing sense of place?
DK: I had an intense relationship with Delhi for many years. And my memory works spatially.
(iii) Don’t you think by setting the story so vividly in Delhi, the universality of the theme- ‘violence against women’ is compromised?
DK: I wasn’t really interested in this universal theme. It was always the specificity of the violence of Delhi and this one woman. Besides, when a American writer writes a book so vividly in New York or London, everyone just assumes it has a universality. Why should Delhi be any different?
(iv) You lived briefly in Bahrain. How has it influenced your work?
DK: Only so far as the Gulf War made my parents send me to boarding school in India. If I hadn’t have gone, if I’d stayed with my family and hadn’t learnt to be alone, I’d be a very different person.
In the panel discussion I mentioned above, you also discuss how in the writing of an autobiographical novel you transform what ‘is’ into something else and that you include and exclude details/ persons keeping in mind what works for the story.
(i) Can you please elaborate?
DK: It’s impossible to record the facts of every moment, we’re always making decisions, erasures, insertions. Everyone sees their own truth. That’s just life. And then by writing about what was real, we’re committing another act of interpretation, removing it even further. So I’d say that life transforms what is into something else, and then literature transforms that something else again. None of it is real.
(ii) How did you train yourself to write an autobiographical novel?
DK: I have a natural inclination toward masochism.
(i) Was there fear while writing the book keeping in mind the subversive voice of Idha?
DK: Of course. Fear drove and drives the novel to a certain extent.
(ii) Did you ever think of censoring the explicit scenes for fear of an unfavourable reaction?
DK: No, never. Fear of exposure is matched equally by a desire to be exposed. The funny thing is that you find, however exposed you are, a skin always grows over it again.
You make a commentary on beauty in your book by stating that the middle class Indian upbringing teaches one to believe dark is ugly. Idha feels so. Any comments?
DK: I think it’s pretty common and not a particularly spectacular observation. I was just stating the obvious. But for me it wasn’t just a comment, it was grounded in reality. I met a dark guy in real life, in those days I was turned off from that while I was also fascinated. I was intrigued by my own disgust. If that objectified his darkness, so be it, that was life. No one lives in isolation, we’re all products of our environment.
The non-linear narrative makes the prose interesting. It must have been challenging. How did you do it so well?
DK: It started as intuition, but the editing process was very difficult. One thing works with another… you shift it, it works, the part afterwards doesn’t work, you shift it again. It’s like trying to make a jigsaw puzzle beautiful and meaningful when it’s out of order. It doesn’t work for everyone. Mostly it was intuition.
Your book was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 and The Hindu Prize 2014 in India. It was also translated into French and shortlisted for the Prix Médicis 2015 in France.
(i) What difference do you find in the reception of the book in India and abroad?
DK: In India, some people loved it, some hated it, some were confused as to what it was or was supposed to be, some were disappointed by their expectations. It’s almost impossible for me to gauge a reception. I have no control once it goes out and no real understanding of how it’s received, nor, I discover over time, do I really care.
Same for the French translation. It got some great reviews, it was nominated for a big award, but other than that I’ve got absolutely no idea. It’s this thing that’s just apart from me. And it’s ultimately exhausting caring or thinking about a book’s reception. The writing of it is enough, then it goes out and you have no control over it. But also, by the time it goes out, you’re usually far on to the next thing, far far away.
I found the American audience to be the most receptive. The British, with what they think they know about India, seemed to obsess about class. Americans just took the book as a book without presuppositions or prejudices, by and large, and read it at face value.
(ii) What do you think about ‘lost in translation’?
DK: I’d say the book was lost in translation even in English.
(iii) Any difficulty in the translation to French that you were consulted about?
DK: My translator lives in Delhi, she knows India very well, she travels a lot. Also, she’s very experienced. So overall it was very smooth. I left her to it. It was painless.
(iv) Has your book been translated to regional languages?
DK: No, sadly.
Idha’s lover is aware of her fear in these lines: He said everyone was afraid, because they couldn’t see anymore. But you don’t owe them anything. Why do you cling so hard?
The way Idha’s middle class upbringing (stifling of carnal desires) has bubbled into rebellion is portrayed well in the book. I made one observation. The middle class instilled fear of getting pregnant and bringing disgrace to the family is not shown here, IMHO. Did you silence her conscience on purpose?
DK: It’s a good question. I think if I’d become pregnant in real life I would have addressed it. It’s as simple as that. Because it didn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen to her. But it’s probably an oversight, it should have been addressed somewhere.
Idha’s distaste towards arranged marriage is shown through different encounters with NRI men in the book. What are your thoughts on arranged marriage? (This is to help readers know the difference/similarity in the author’s/narrator’s thoughts even in an autobiographical novel.)
DK: The concept itself is fine. Obviously there’s a distinction between forced arranged and mutually arranged and love arranged. I was always personally opposed to it, but not so vehemently. Idha’s different, she a pretty obnoxious girl sometimes.
The prose shifts between first and third person. Why did you do this?
DK: Instability and cognitive disruption. It’s also representative of the narrator’s inability to fix an idea of herself even after the events. The entire novel is an attempt at recreation and possession of a life. It’s an unstable conjuring act marked by failure, by doubt, by a lack of authority, even when trying to be brave and strong. The switching is emblematic of that.
I liked how you addressed Idha’s fear of character assassination (revenge porn) when the guy she denies threatens to leak her photos.
Do you think girls generally harbour this fear regarding a jilted lover?
DK: A brief quote by Margaret Atwood.
“’Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine.
“’They are afraid women will laugh at them’, he said, ‘undercut their world view.’
“Then I asked some women students, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ”’They are afraid of being killed,’ they said.”
Revenge porn, acid attacks, rape threats, rape, plain old fashioned gossip, beating, murder… it’s asymmetrical warfare. Of course, if we’re talking about warfare it’s not to say women don’t have weaponry against men, and both parties can and will be guilty and will suffer and cause suffering, and in the middle of that, too, it can be messy, because that’s human life, but in general the fear women have of men, and of patriarchy, is greater than men’s fear of women (though maybe not in their minds). One interesting thing, though, about revenge porn and all these, non physical acts of violence, is that they’re something to do with being laughed at too, in the sense they’re about demeaning someone, humiliating them, and Indian society is particularly good at demeaning people, especially women, with rigid notions of shame, honour, virtue.
How was your experience finding a publisher?
DK: Painless. I was spoiled. Or just lucky.
(i) Advice to young female writers
DK: Read a lot. Engage with politics, even if you don’t write about politics. And have interests outside the literary world.
(ii) Books you recommend
DK: Outline and Transit by Rachel Cusk, Lucia Berlin’s short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, anything by Lydia Davis or Joan Didion.
Also, I would like to recommend a web series called The ‘Other’ Love Story. It has an authenticity of environment you don’t get on Indian TV. Indian popular fiction writers like Nikita Singh I admire for the same reason. And another Indian web series, Ladies Room.