Rupa Bajwa does not have the impeccable resume of the typical gifted and talked-about writer. She has not attended any ‘writers’ classes’ or moved around in the elite circle of Delhi. Yet she is on the verge of literary success with her second novel, Tell Me A Story, a moving tale that Bajwa began shaping 8 years ago while she was swapping between Delhi and Amritsar raising her baby.
Bajwa didn’t want to adhere to David Dhawan’s formula of success and write a dozen on the same line. ‘It just didn’t suit my sensibilities,’ she says. Unlike how authors go about shaping their careers following the success of their debut novel, Bajwa took a different path. Tell Me A Story is about Rani, a young, lower middle class girl who works in a beauty parlour and loves telling stories.
In an interview with Millennium Post, Bajwa talks more about her book, her journey as a writer and the ethics that are integral to her personality. Excerpts:
Why did it take you eight years to write your second novel?
Tell Me A Story is technically my third novel. After The Sari Shop, I started writing my second novel. But somewhere along the way, I felt like I was falling into the trap of a Bollywood movie. I was not convinced, so I scrapped it. The Sari Shop was angry and powerful. I was going through a lot of emotions that took its form. I know, it was highly flawed, but I believed in it. That it got appreciation was a stroke of luck. Just because my book worked, didn’t mean that I could recycle my emotions for another book of the same kind. If I had wanted, I could have cashed in on the success of The Sari Shop and belted out a novel every 2-3 years. But I wouldn’t be honest to myself, if I did that. Moreover, while I was writing, I had a baby that took a lot of my time. Earlier, I could write for 14 hours at a stretch. I don’t think, I posses that capacity now.
Your phrases are crisp and depiction of characters is effortless. How do you put yourself in your characters’ shoes?
Honestly, it comes naturally to me. I might deviate in a conversation, but when I’m writing, I don’t. If you drag an emotion for too long, uska ras chala jaata hai (loveliness of it gets lost). I like it to be compact. I’m a very instinctive writer and don’t believe in doing any sort of research before I start writing. I don’t decide my characters. For people who do, I call it ‘fireworks writing’. No offence, but it’s like blowing your crackers here and there. In all seriousness, planning doesn’t work. You should let your novel have a life of its own.
Quoting an incident, she says, ‘Before I started writing The Sari Shop, I used to visit this shop in Amritsar with my mother. I watched shopkeepers lay out saris on mattresses covered in white. And there was this boy, whose job is to take out the rolls of material and then stack them back. When talking to these people, I wasn’t thinking of writing a book about them, I was just interested in them – not as shopkeepers, but as people’.
How did you manage to never fall into the trap of a ‘celebrated author’?
Celebrity status doesn’t matter to me. I don’t think it would enrich my life in anyway.
(She makes it evident in the first few minutes of the interview that writing, for her, is a very serious business, something that she does each day. She does not sound too upbeat about the dime-a-dozen authors today).
It feels sad to see that anybody and everybody who knows English today is becoming a writer. Writing is dangerously tilting towards commercialisation. Authors these days are marketing themselves and not their work. I suggest, let it be a profession for people who don’t expect money or fame out of it.
When did you start writing? Does it make you happy?
When I was supposed to draw circuits in high school, I used to write characters at the back of my notebook. And well, that was the time when I decided that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I became a writer by default. It gives me both pain and pleasure. It’s all about challenging yourself everyday. It’s a tough job but it’s said that ‘you live till you die’. The same way I will write till I die.
Do you get a sense of satisfaction after completing the book?
No, unfortunately. I’ve been living with the characters so much that by the time I’m done with it, I want to move on with my next.
What are you working on next? Is your next novel also set in Amritsar?
My next novel is still in its nascent stages. I have the structure of the story and the outlines of the characters though I don’t know yet where I am going to set it. It’s completely different from my previous novels. Otherwise, I will wear myself to death. It should be more ‘saleable’ (she giggles).
Who are the writers you look up to?
Anton Chekhov – I have had a poster of him in my room in Amritsar since I was 17, as if he were a rockstar. Other writers I admire are Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, Mark Wells, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Ismat Chugtai, Manek Bandopadhyay, RK Narayan, Manto. I like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but I prefer Sentimental Education. PG Wodehouse is my go-to writer when things go wrong. Gerald Durrell’s My Family And Other Animals is another favourite of mine. Lately, I’ve also started enjoying Sarah Waters and Margaret Atwood.