Margaret Atwood, The Stone Mattress and one fangirl

An edited version of this piece was published in the December 2014 issue of ELLE India. 

Age is supposed to mellow us, soften the rough edges, dull the sharpness. Canadian authorMargaret Atwood, 74, doesn’t subscribe to this stereotype in either real life or fiction. In her new collection of nine short stories, The Stone Mattress, two women are murderers, another is a werewolf, one man lusts after a young woman who comes to interview him even though his body is far from able to keep up with his thoughts. No one in the book, regardless of how old and wrinkled they are, is going gently into the night.

They’re just the kind of characters you expect from Atwood, who may have gained wrinkles but has lost none of the stiletto keenness of her intellect. “After a certain point, people tend to think ageing is hilarious,” Atwood said, when I asked her how it felt to grow old. “Especially hilarious is the fact that there are things that young people think you don’t know. You know, [like] sex. They think you don’t know anything about that. Or you’re not supposed to know anything about it. You’re supposed to be sort of old, wise and sweet. My older characters are not like that.”

Interviewing Atwood was unusually difficult for me. When you’ve followed an author through her books, short stories, essays, poetry, cartoons, inventions, speeches and interviews over approximately 20 years, it takes some doing to surf past the waves of fandom. It’s also a struggle to figure out what questions to ask her. I know she was born in 1939, in Ottawa, and spent her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. She went to school for the first time at the age of 12 and some of her experiences became the starting point for her luminous book about how girls bully each other, Cat’s Eye.

I know she ate her first rattlesnake in 1957 and that she wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, in exam booklets on a card table in Vancouver. The book spent two years gathering dust in a publisher’s drawer, ignored until Atwood won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award in 1966, for her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game. I know Atwood writes the first drafts of her books by hand and then has them typed up. While writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a dystopic future in which fertile women are turned into breeding machines, she noted in her journal that she had found puffballs. Atwood is the inventor of LongPen, a device that allows celebrities to sign autographs remotely. And the author may well be a prophet because the future she describes in her Maddaddam trilogy reads more like fact than speculative fantasy. Oh, and Atwood got repetitive strain injury from signing too many autographs. That’s how popular and beloved she is.

In short, I’ve spent years virtually stalking Margaret Atwood. Consequently, I also know that she is not a chatty interviewee. There are horror stories about how she has politely chewed up interviewers who have asked silly questions. Politely but crushingly, Atwood terrorised one journalist so thoroughly that she said she’d run in the opposite direction if she ever sawAtwood again.


Which is why, when I realised that we had been talking for half an hour and were now sharing stories about dead hands and phantom footprints, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief – not just that my questions hadn’t been slashed into ribbons, but also because writers can often turn out to be disappointing when you encounter them outside of their writing. As it turns out,Atwood is delightful. Her mischievous, dry wit and treasure chest of experiences make her a joy to interview because every story Atwood has written has another story behind it.

For instance, the title tale of The Stone Mattress came out of an Arctic cruise that Atwood had been on with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson. The heroine, Verna, goes on that very same cruise and sees what Atwood had seen: a field of stromatolites, 1.9 billion-year-old fossils that could be fabulous murder weapons. That, however, is where the similarities end. “I have never killed anyone in the Arctic with a piece of rock,” Atwood assured me drily. “But I have been in the Arctic and I have the very piece of rock in the kitchen.”

On the cruise, Verna encounters an old acquaintance, Bob. (There were many Bobs on the cruise that Atwood was on and they all survived the trip.) When they were in high school, Bob had raped Verna, but decades later, he doesn’t recognise Verna. She does and decides to avenge herself by killing him. Whether or not you think Verna is justified in her actions will depend on your personal sensibilities.

Verna isn’t the only murderess in The Stone Mattress, belonging as she does to an illustrious line of Atwoodian women who break both stereotype and laws. There’s almost always an anti-heroine in Atwood’s novels, usually the character who haunts the reader long after they’ve finished the book. Atwood is a feminist, but has over the years stood out as one who knows how to create realistic women (and men) who live, rather than serve agendas. The voices she’s crafted for characters like Grace Marks (in Alias Grace) and Cordelia (in Cat’s Eye) continue to mesmerize readers. They’re sharply intelligent, resisting the constraints placed upon them by society and convention in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable and always fascinating. Atwoodian heroines are disturbers of peace, for simple-minded wannabe feminists as much as chauvinists.

“I got some kickback in the ’70s for creating a female character who wasn’t virtuous,” recalled Atwood. “But since that time, after people have reflected a bit especially on their own experiences, we all know that it’s not true that all women are not angels of virtue because we’ve known a lot of women. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like men, and all degrees of meanness or pleasantness, like men.”

The equanimity in this statement belies the way Atwood savages misogyny in her stories, using the women in her fiction to put men – real and fictional – in their place and expose the stupidity of ‘mansplaining’. That said, Atwood’s fiction is peopled with many fantastic male characters. Sometimes, they’re the voices of reason, like Tin from “Dark Lady” in The Stone Mattress, who sees the sadness behind the manic, shiny happiness in his twin sister and is the one standing by her side, whether or not she needs his support.

Today, there’s a host of Canadian writers who feature in people’s reading lists: Nobel prize winner Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Douglas Coupland, Carol Shields, to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine now, but when Atwood started writing, there was no such thing as a Canadian literary scene. This emptiness worked to her advantage because Canada was hungry for storytellers and the rest of the world proved to be just as eager to sample the stories told by Atwood and those who followed in her footsteps. She explains it as a confluence of coincidences: “If I’d arrived at the very same mental faculties but it had been the middle of the 19th century and it had been rural Canada, I doubt very much I would have become a writer. There wouldn’t have been a place for me to publish.”

Being born in the right era, however, doesn’t entirely explain the way Atwood put Canada on the literary map. She’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times (The Blind Assassin, not her best work, won the prize in 2000) and her novels are part of college syllabi in different parts of the English-reading world. That’s much more than time and place working in fortuitous tandem.

The charm in Atwood’s novels is similar to the stromatolites that give The Stone Mattress its name. Stromatolites, as Atwood explains, are “a fossilised cushion, formed by layer upon layer of…algae building up into a mound or dome.” Packed in these ‘stones’ are the story of our planet and life, because this fossil created oxygen on earth. In many ways, they mirrorAtwood’s style storytelling —layer is placed upon layer, with details being embedded neatly and densely within them.

stone-mattressThere are numerous references and allusions from literature, history and science in Atwood’s writing, she wears the erudition lightly. The hooks lie in the plots and characters and they reel readers in quickly: femme fatales, twisted marriages, lost fathers; a young woman who may or may not have killed the two people who showed her kindness; a republic where women are cloistered and segregated according to their childbearing potential. Most of the time, just the blurb at the back of an Atwood book is enough to make the question of ‘what happened next?’ start gnawing at you. Quickly, you discover her deadpan, cutting sense of humour surfacing unexpectedly across the terrain of her stories, like this observation from “Torching the Dusties”, a story from The Stone Mattress: “According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect. The fact that a pricey dinner out to be followed, as the night the day, by the compliant opening of their peerless legs was lost on them.”

Incidentally, “Torching the Dusties” is about a few old people in an home for the aged which is besieged by a murderous group of protestors, holding placards that read “Time to Go”. They’re a group called “Our Turn” and they want the old to vacate not just the premises, but the planet. It’s unnerving how credible the scenario is, despite Our Turn’s absurdly cruel agenda, and that credibility comes from how Atwood’s characters think and respond to their circumstances.

No matter how surreal the context, those that people Atwood’s writing always feel real. They fall in love, leave scars and tease both other characters and the reader. Every relationship is a tug of war that tenses and slackens in a power play that may be sly or obvious. “In the very, very broadest sense, interpersonal relationships require negotiations of various kinds, stated or unstated,” said Atwood when I asked if she thought love was essentially a power struggle between two people. “Sometimes these interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, are politically determined because they’re constrained by law, and laws are made by politicians. So who can do what to whom legally is a political matter. Who actually does what to whom, that can be outside the box. But it’s always playing against what is legally permissible and what society considers acceptable.”

Listening to her, I was reminded of something she’d written in Cat’s Eye: “We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.”

Atwood’s language and her gift for both sensing and articulating suffering is unmatched. Running through the heart of so much of her writing is pain that flashes like a river catching sunlight. Atwood torments her characters and then writes of their suffering with a simple, dazzling lyricism. Violence is written with a certain morbid relish and even something as over-written as heartbreak can become piercing when Atwood words it:

“Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.”

Reading Atwood’s fiction, it often feels as though it’s the flesh made word, to turn the famous phrase from the Gospel of John upon its head. Her novels often feel like a record of something that we’ve experienced or are just about to experience. The Maddaddam trilogy, for instance, was supposed to be science fiction about “things that have not been invented yet” — ranging from hybrid animals to human-like species called the Crakers — but we’re already taking steps in this direction. Genetic splicing is not speculative and these novels offer a chilling (though not entirely hopeless) vision of where we as a planet appear to be headed.

Even in The Stone Mattress, whose stories are Atwood’s take on Gothic literature and folklore, Atwood can’t quite let go of her pragmatism. In the story titled “Lusus Naturae”, for instance, Atwood’s heroine is a werewolf, but her father insists it’s a medical condition. When she’s forced to stay hidden indoors, the werewolf educates herself by reading Pushkin, Lord Byron and John Keats. This only serves to make the fact that she’s considered fearsome both absurd and a reflection of how so many patriarchal societies are made nervous by empowered women.

As fantastical creatures go, Atwood’s are rather human and relatable, which isn’t quite what you expect of a volume that Atwood has stressed is made up of “tales” rather than stories. In her author’s note, she writes,

“Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk take, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.”

The Stone Mattress has many kinds of fantasies, ranging from the apparitions that are a symptom of the Charles Bonnet’s syndrome in the chilling “Torching the Dusties” to the alternative reality of Alphinland and the aforementioned werewolf. However, while none of these are mundane, neither are they entirely fantastical. “I kind of shy at the jump,” admittedAtwood. “I didn’t go all the way to say a dead hand really is creeping about under your bed. I couldn’t quite get that far. But I’ve always wanted to write a dead hand story because I was so smitten by the beast with five fingers.”

Margaret Atwood writing The Handmaid’s Tale, in Berlin, 1984. Photo by Isolde Ohlbaum.

Considering how much she’s written – that too in long hand – and the variety in her writing, it’s not surprising that Atwood is smitten by the beast with five fingers. At present, her hand is occupied figuring out the novel she will submit to Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. A forest has been planted in Norway that will, 100 years later, provide the paper to publish an anthology of books that are being commissioned now. Authors will write works that will be sealed for the next 100 years. They’re not allowed to tell anyone what they’re writing and the work must be made up of only words, which means there will be no graphic novels in the Future Library. These will be sealed in a box and all present-day readers will know is the title and the author’s name. After a century, the manuscript will be taken out and published. Atwood is the first writer to be invited to contribute a book to Future Library.

It seems fitting that the last novel that will be published in Atwood’s name will, like her first, sit unopened for a long time. At the moment though, Atwood’s concerns are more technical than literary. “I got some special archival paper because I didn’t want them to open the box and find a lot of oxidised scraps. That would be a disappointment,” she said drily.

Unsurprisingly, she’s breaking the stereotype of ageing yet again with this project. Instead of looking back, as we expect the elderly to do, Atwood is looking forward.


In ELLE: On womanly anxieties

This was published in this month’s ELLE magazine. I’m not really sure how to describe “this”. An opinion piece, perhaps. ELLE asked me to write something on women in the context of the increased awareness of the kind of violence that is regularly inflicted upon women. I wasn’t sure about writing this. I remember thinking, when I started writing, if there was any point to writing this … stuff. There was so much being said and so little being heard. So few of us had real insight. Most of us were masquerading our despair as insight. But after dithering for a bit, I decided to sit down and write it anyway. Why? Because there’s been so much silence on all the unpleasant things that hover around women for so many years, perhaps a little noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Someone asked me the other day, in an attempt to crack a joke, “Is everything with your byline going to smack of feminism?”
I, however, was not in a particularly funny mood that day. So I replied with a earnest and growly, “I certainly hope so.”
“But why do you want to narrow-focus so much? Why can’t you go beyond women?”
“Do you go around asking male writers and journalists why they write about men?”
“Are you PMS-ing?”
“If I am, do you think it would really help to calm me down by asking that particular question?”

Marinated in exchanges like the one above, here’s the piece that I wrote for ELLE.

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Ours is a sense of social order pivoted upon women’s fear. Is it possible to not be afraid of the looming threat of violence and intimidation that almost all of us face on a daily basis? Probably not. But it is possible to not let that fear paralyse us. Our outrage at incidents of violence against women should strengthen us, rather than make us weaker and more paranoid about our surroundings. Strip rape of its terrible psychological pincers and reduce it to a series of physical, bodily injuries – it will hurt, perhaps horribly, but the body can heal. Treat the violence and harassment as something that makes you more determined to claim your space, instead of shrouding you in shame and insecurity. We are not victims. We’re women, and we’ve held on to our pride despite centuries of misogyny and violence.


My last two bits of writing for ELLE came out last month and this month. The October issue had my travel piece on Shanghai and this month, the magazine has a power list that includes artists Alexandre Singh and Yamini Nayar. I mention those two because I wrote their profiles.

Since both Alexandre and Yamini took the time to give very thoughtful answers, I’m putting up the transcripts of the two interviews. Enjoy.

Alexandre Singh

A slide from Alexandre Singh’s Assembly Instructions.

What does art mean to you?

Everything and yet nothing. It’s part of the wonderful horror of being alive. It helps, but does it help enough? And there you have the question for another work of art.
How did your interest in art begin? Were there artists whose work inspire you to become an artist?
My maternal grandmother was an artist. She painted, she read very widely. It was through her that I first came across art house cinema. I remember quite clearly being at her house when I was only ten or eleven and popping in a videocassette of Interiors . It was a little over my head. But I really loved it. My grandmother was the only person in my family with a truly creative bent, and I’d have to say that it was through her that that whole side of life was opened up to me. I have very fond memories of the time I spent with her.
Why did you choose the idea of a discourse or lecture as your chosen medium? What, for you, is the role and purpose of a storyteller? 
A lecture is a nice medium to work within. It has its own rules and conventions. The audience has certain expectations going in. Expectations that you can either fulfill or confound. In the same way that a poet might like to work in a preconceived format like the sonnet; one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time one does a lecture. Importantly it’s also intimate and economic. One isn’t expected to reveal spectacular stage mechanics or pyrotechnics. So you can have a lot of fun using just simple words and images. ‘What is the purpose of a storyteller?’ To entertain. Perhaps to prod a little as well. To encourage people to think a little differently about the world, but never without being entertaining. That’s very important.

Is Alexandre the storyteller a persona that you’ve crafted using everything from the way you speak to the props you use?
As a persona, Alexandre the storyteller is just a more lively and engaging version of myself. Also he scrubs up pretty well. Perhaps the most important part of the process is donning the suit and tie just before I perform. It has a jolting psychological effect. I imagine it’s the same for an athlete when they put on their kit. It’s quite special. Unfortunately you can’t abuse it. If you wear the suit too often, the associated energy dissipates. That probably explains the perennial malaise one always encounters in corporate offices.

There’s the saying, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” Do you agree with that?
It’s a snappy little aphorism isn’t it? I wonder if its persuasiveness lies in its use of alliteration? Like that maxim Borges complained about: ‘traduttoretraditore.’ Translator, traitor. “Trust the tale, not the teller.” It convinces in its economy of expression. It implies some kind of binary opposition: We must either slavishly kowtow to the author’s intentions or conversely disregard everything he or she says. In reality—I hope—we can be a little more nuanced. I’m personally always curious to read about any artist’s feelings or insights into their own work. Just as I like to pour over the introduction to a book; the footnotes; the blurb on the back of the dvd. Context makes the whole thing more enjoyable. In preparation for a discussion in Paris I’m doing this October, I’ve spent the last couple of months reading a great many interviews with Woody Allen. It’s been highly enjoyable and given me many insights into aspects of his work I hadn’t fully understood or had previously thought about differently. And it’s not that he always says the same thing. Like all of us (and especially Republican politicians these days)—he’s apt to contradict himself from time to time. But we’re all free to draw whatever thoughts we like from any of his films. As they love to say in America: it’s a free country. Why should a novel or a painting be any different?

What I do find perhaps a little disingenuous about that phrase though is the word ‘trust’. It’s begging the question, don’t you think? Why should we trust either of them? When we say ‘trust’ I don’t think we mean: would you rather lend money to Marcel Proust or to your paperback copy of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu.’ The latter being a notorious philanderer and embezzler. I think we’re rather saying does a book, or sculpture, or film, have one definitive meaning set in stone? Perhaps in a high school English exam. Thankfully the rest of the time, it’s what you will.

Is a picture really worth a thousand words?
I believe it’s more like five and a half thousand no-space characters.

Do the places you’re living and/or working in impact your work?
Not as much as you might think. I’ve been working for the last six months in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. A lovely city, but not quite the same as Paris or New York, where I was last year. My routine is very similar though. I write in the day; work in the studio in the evening. In that sense I could be anywhere really. My work is a very interior experience. Both in a literal and figurative sense. I enjoy winter; short days; overcast skies. It’s quite conducive to the imagination. When I’m working, I like to shut myself in the house, draw the curtains close. Which is why I don’t think I’d like to live somewhere with a consistently balmy sunny climate. But I could be wrong! I’ll have to try it someday.

How important is an audience for a work of art? What is the role the audience? Do you feel an artist should woo an audience or is the onus upon the audience to establish a connection with a work of art?
Well I would say it’s always pleasant to be seduced. I’d rather read a book whose prose is lively and articulate than something that’s dry and obscure. But there are so many different audiences with different levels of engagement, different cultural reference points. Aristophanes in 405 BC was a hoot. Today it takes a little more work for the reader to really enjoy it. Which I think they would if they give it a go. I don’t think that it’s really this dynamic of work of art vs viewer that’s truly important. That all depends on what you want to achieve and in what context. I would say that it’s a real shame that less and less of the audience (in the largest sense of the word: all of us really) is an active participant in culture. Less people who listen to classical music play an instrument than used to be the case. The same is true of theatre, drawing, writing. It’s more a culture of consumption than participation. Of professionals rather than amateurs. Believe me, one looks at paintings very differently when you’ve actually tried doing it yourself. I think the experience of art of all kind is much richer, and more nuanced when it escapes the frame of: ‘I like this’; ‘I don’t like that’; but actually relates to one’s own experience of making. Of course one of the reasons that there’s been this transformation is that culture has become less elitist, less rarefied. Which is naturally a good thing. So there’s no easy answers. But I would like to see more people making things themselves.

Is there a process by which you piece together your narratives?
Scissors and glue. A lot of cutting and pasting. I take a lot of ideas from other works by other people. Not wholesale, often just a single element will spark a creative interpretation, or misinterpretation. I work quite slowly, it takes a long time for something to finally accrete into the right elements that will make it work. I’ll be pondering over an idea all the time; for days, weeks; years sometimes. Which is why deadlines are good! If it wasn’t for those, I’d probably never finish anything at all.

Are there any future projects/ ideas you’re working on now?
Indeed. I’m working at the moment on a theatre play that I’m writing and directing entitled, The Humans. It’s a re-imagining of the creation of the universe: an alternative mythological story, a little inspired by the plays of Aristophanes. It’ll debut at the Schouwburg Rotterdam in September 2013. It’ll also play at BAM in New York in November 2013 as part of the Performa Biennial. It’s very much a work in progress, so I can’t say too much about it at the moment. But I hope it will amuse, entertain and prod.

Yamini Nayar

How important was art for you as a child?
I was always tinkering and making things as a child. My mother very much encouraged a sense of creativity, she herself was a painter, as was my aunt, through in their daily lives, each was a psychologist and psychiatrist respectively. I grew up very aware of the power and impact of art. The maternal side of my family are all very expressive beings, passionate and idealistic. My grandmother was a jatra actor, a Bengali form of folk-theatre, and I remember her bringing this into even the everyday aspects of my life. Mundane activities like washing dishes and doing laundry became perfect backdrops for impromptu magical breaks.

One of my early experiences though, and still favorite places to be, is Diego Rivera’s mural Detroit Industry at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember seeing it for the first time with my mother when I was about 5 and being completely mesmerized.

What does art mean to you?
Wow, this is a huge question. Let’s see.. To me, art is something, anything, that grows my thinking about life. It infuses life with meaning in ways I couldn’t previously foreseen. It reveals the glimmers of light and depths of despair hidden beneath the folds of daily life. Art communicates and moves us to think anew and experience deeper understandings of the world around us and ourselves. It shows us where we’ve been, it carves where we are going.

How has your process changed over the years?
My process of working blends two genres, sculpture and photography, and intersects with architecture. I first began working in this way thirteen years ago while completing my BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and it stemmed from a desire to explore the ways in which photography mediates memory within our personal environments. This culminated in a series ‘Detroit 1974’, which depicted the fictional interiors of immigrant homes in the U.S.. Over the years, my work has shifted from literal spaces to environments that hover somewhere between the representational and the abstract, and how narrative integrates with form. Within architectural space, this could mean the surfaces and architectonics of a space. I am interested in the ways architecture is experienced and remembered, and when it bridges into metaphor or becomes psychologically charged. Our surroundings shape us and simultaneously, we shape them. I’m interested in the ways in which photography can imagine our spaces.

Underfoot and Overhead, 2008.

Your practice of collecting bits and pieces and then ultimately destroying the creations you photograph adds a certain poignancy to your photographs. Why do you destroy them?
I destroy them because it would be like walking through a film set after having fallen in love with the cinematic moment. My sculptures are never meant to be seen as works in themselves. Frankly, my creative life culminates in large sheets of color photographic paper. I am much more interested in bringing images into the world than actual objects. They are doorways into alternate worlds that flirt with actuality, and I find this idea extremely seductive.

What has been your greatest influence as an artist?
I’ve been deeply influenced by theorists who explore space and anything to do with migration, displacement and alternate histories. Homi Bhabha, Walter Benjamin’s Dialectic Image, Edward Soja’s Third Space, Marc Auge´’s non-places, Kobena Mercer, Svelana Boym’s Architecture of the Off Modern – have all impacted my thoughts and work in one way or another.

From a personal point, connecting psychological space with architecture emerged from an early experience of watching my childhood home being built when we first moved to Detroit. My father and I used to visit every couple days to watch the house be constructed, growing from the ground up, piece by piece. I remember feeling very aware of the moment’s significance – as if the construction of this house had a deeper and symbolic resonance for our family and future, an act of becoming. I didn’t quite necessarily understand, but did recognize this.

If you had to pinpoint the moment when you felt you’d “arrived” as an artist, what would it be?
Some years ago, my work received a tiny mention in a big newspaper and the critic had used the word ‘penumbral’ when describing my work. It was one of my first reviews, and I had to actually look up the meaning of ‘penumbral’, but I was thrilled.

How important is the camera that you use to the works you create?
Hugely important. The camera is integral to my work, the sculptures are built to be experienced through a certain point of view, a single perspective. The physical constructions are fragile, held together in odd ways, and never meant to be transported or thought of as objects in themselves. Each photograph is the punctuation of a longer process, and emerges after the sculpture is discarded. You could say the lens plays the role of a translator as well as documentarian, acting as a bridge between the three dimensional object and flattened image. In other words, what was once physical is reconciled within the photograph.

Is the idea of a narrative within a work important to you?
Narrative is something that drives me in my work, but not in the traditional sense. I’m interested in the ways that different narratives come together in one site, and the role the photograph plays in that situation. The photograph does many things – it documents, manipulates, translates, destroys, seals a moment. My work is quite labor intensive, and has much to do with the hand and the act itself of constructing a space. My works are often based on found images from historical archives. The act of ‘rebuilding’ the space via the architectonics of subjectivity plays with a kind of narrative that focuses on the process of starting a space, bringing it to its own fruition, and sealing this moment with a photograph.

That said, there is a photographic moment in this self-imposed narrative that I am reaching for. Like the point in Freytag’s pyramid of dramatic storytelling in which the arc reaches its climax and the narrative is both heightened and suspended, if even for a moment, but not independent from its near past or future.

Have your inspirations changed over the years?
Yes and no. An old professor once told me we have a few obsessions that will stay with us, which I find to be true. My work stems from a deep interest in architecture, memory and narrative. The motivation behind my spaces has developed from immigrant homes to ruins to American mid-century structures and public spaces. Much of the impetus in my recent work is in finding a way into this history. Lately, I’ve been spending time with the images of Julius Schulman, photographer of mid-century modernist architecture.

In Conversation with Raghu Rai

The July issue of ELLE has a little piece I wrote on Raghu Rai, who is going to have a mini-retrospective of sorts (as far as I remember).

Here are snippets from my conversation with him. I’ll put up the article once I find it in my archive.

On nostalgia

I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. You know, living in the past is not a very creative process because that pulls you back. But the fact remains that there was greater harmony and greater peace between different elements and situations than we have today. But being a creative individual, all the tensions and charge, the stress and strain, they speak of another kind of energy that needed to be captured. Also you know, every place, every time has its own value and meaning.

The best light

Early morning and late afternoons. In India the light is very strong, the bulk of the months are very hot. Usually, that strong light and sunshine create very deep shadows and you lose and it gives unnecessary contrast. Sometimes it works, according to the spirit and the mood of the place but most of the time, I’ll prefer to have gentle and soft light, where the details are clearly visible and one can capture them and share them and see the highlights without creating any unnecessary contrast.

On the decisive moment

Of course. You don’t plan, you wait for it to happen. When different elements start working together — you see, there are moments. India is such a crowded country and such chaotic and contradictory things happen in any given space and there are moments when the relevant and the irrelevant, they separate themselves for a moment and they merge again, and that’s the moment you capture.
Also the purpose of photography is to capture energy and time that we live in. Planning makes things static. Because life at any given time is not static.

On photographing India

The bulk of India lives in a timeless space. I remember long ago, I think it was early 1970s, when Muzaffar Ali used to work with Air India, and he wanted me to do a calendar for Air India or something like that, and he asked, “If you can give us some pictures where we are dealing with time and space…”. So I told him, “If you ask me, I don’t understand that, this time and space because I always try to live beyond that. So don’t ask me for ideas of time and space.”
You see, the thing is that India also has an ancient civilisation and India having all the religions living here, contrast and contradictions. So India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time. That is what is so magical about this country. This is what comes across in many of these photographs.

On making his subjects more charismatic than they actually are

How can I do that? I wish I was so powerful a man that I could create more than life has. That is precisely where the magic lies. When you capture a moment which is so potent and so dynamic that when you look at it, you wonder how can that be? You see, the problem is that the bulk of the photography being done is very happy easy relaxed, nice images. For me, they are static and they don’t evoke anything in me. For me, this human expression, the deeper reaction, that is what I seek. That has its own current and power. It raises so many questions and answers at the same time. That’s what we are dealing with. The image has to have dynamism and not be a static, pretty one. When you look at it, people wonder how can that be? How can someone capture more than what meets the eye? It’s all there. The mysteries of life and nature have to be captured. Everything else is information.

On photographing politicians

You see, I always, even when I was with a newspaper and even when I worked with India Today for ten years, I always believed — well, let’s begin like this. You know in India sycophancy is a great art. That’s why so much political junk is surviving in this country. Somebody asked me when Mrs. Gandhi was thrown out in ’77, that you know, “she gave you so much, how can you take pictures of Mrs. Gandhi when she has lost the election?” I said, only dogs can be loyal. Human beings can never be loyal. They have to be responsible to the truth of a situation. Because loyalty for me has become a very cheap word in India. My loyalty, I will not say loyalty, my commitment to the situations is as they speak to me. That’s how I will see them at any given time. So that is what really inspires me to do photography. Even if I don’t like somebody or some politician, I’ll never carry that grudge when I go take pictures. I’ll look at that person all over again in that context where he or she is. Because we all have the capacity to change and I know we can do things that we can never even imagine at another time.

On Mother Teresa

Mother was somebody very rare, so rare that you can never come across another person like that. As a human being, as a person with a cause, and she spoke the total truth all the time. It didn’t matter who she was dealing with an ordinary person, an important person, big or small. Her energy, her connectivity with everything never fluctuated. That was something very rare for me. Her power of expression and love also never flickered. That was so magical about her as a human being. But in any given time, she was 100% there. Whether she was dealing with you, an ordinary person, or whether she was nursing an old person or a child, or being with the prime minister.

When I met her way back in 1970 when she was hardly known. When I was working at The Statesman, it used to be one of the most important newspapers, we had an editor. He was very close to Mother. He rang me up one day and said that “Raghu, I have met a great lady and you must photograph her.” And that was in 1970 when I met her for the first time.

On colour photography

Let me tell a few things about colour. Basically there’s everything in colour. You see, every colour has its physical presence. Some strong colours like red or bright orange, or bright purple, will enter your attention faster than other colours. Every colour has its physical presence, every colour has its emotional value and every colour when its put together in any given situation may not gel together.
Then, as you see and capture the reality, we can’t change reality. Like, a painter can paint the sky green and nobody will question it, but in our case, we have to capture it as it is. So the colours may not blend. So the image in any given situation, if the subject matter is serious and you have all sorts of colours peeking out, they don’t work together. But the moment you put a black and white filter, it silences the noise of colours. And then everything gels.

It is more difficult to make a real, meaningful colour photograph than in black and white. Most people are taking colour photographs, but in terms of colour and the vision for colour which speaks out, the meaning comes from its colour content as well as its emotional content. With digital technology what is good is, every colour film used to behave differently in different light and would show you different colours. Even the processing of the film used to be very, very difficult. Different labs would give you different results of the same situation, but in digital technology, you can always desaturate colours, you can control them and tell them to shut up when they make unnecessary noise. All these things are possible today. See, I’ve done many books in colour and many in black and white. Also the fact is earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s and even up to ’80s, it used to be only black and white. I started taking pictures in mid ’60s, so one of the reasons that people remember my black and white photographs is this. Then came the late ’80s when we started doing colour. But then we didn’t have as much control, like the kind we have today.

On Photoshop

It’s not manipulation. Manipulation is something which doesn’t exist and you bring it in. But a technical fault has to be controlled. You see even in black and white, when some areas go too dark, or too bright, you need to adjust that. So that is not manipulation. That is controlling your image quality. That’s the minimum right that we should have.

On Raghu Rai, photographer

You can say I’m very arrogant, but most of the time I don’t read what is written about me. I have given so many interviews on television and I hate to watch myself. I’m not fond of Raghu Rai in that sense. But criticism with understanding is precious. Criticism with lack of understanding, or off-handed nonsense is not acceptable. In any case, I am a very ruthless surgeon myself and I deal with Raghu Rai on very tough terms and similarly I deal with my friends also with that kind of honesty. Sometimes people tell me I’m very cruel, but I say photography is my dharma and I have to be totally honest about it.

On editing himself

I’ll say that 90% of what we shoot is either repetitive or just the process of evolution of a situation. So if I have taken 100 pictures to get to one or if I have taken 20 pictures to get to one, I don’t carry those 19 or 99 pictures with me. Of course the ability to edit yourself ruthlessly is very important for your next journey into situations so that you are critically and analytically dealing with every situation. Otherwise you become a happy snappy good guy, which I am not.

Interview: Mridula Koshy

This month’s ELLE has a little piece by me on Mridula Koshy, the author of the short story collection, If It Is Sweet. Koshy is one of the lovely ladies who, as the magazine’s cover puts it, “owns the future”. I interviewed Koshy over email, which can often result in a dry, boring question-and-answer session that leaves you thinking “Blah”. But Koshy’s answers were delightful and since I could only use a tiny bit of what she wrote, here’s the interview, pristine, untweaked and unedited.

Have you always been interested in writing? Was there a time during the cashier-at-KFC to reading-fairy-at-library years that felt like a turning point?

When I was ten I tried to write a story and got stuck on plot. I introduced my characters but could not figure out what came next. I tried again when I was about fifteen. I took a screen writing class and turned out a hackneyed plot – always the thing to do when you have trouble coming up with an original plot.

My plot: an Indian boy raised in America has an identity crisis, travels to the mother country, mistakes the Indian girl he meets there for one that needs rescuing from arranged marriage/her culture (a horrible conflating of the two on my part) and in the resolution of this crisis achieves enlightenment. Except that I couldn’t figure out what enlightenment would look like vis a visthe dilemma of identity.I never finished the screen play. It took me till I was in my mid-thirties to try writing again. I found myself plagued by the same problems with under-developed plots and an over-abundance of unresolved ideas.

The difference was at thirty-five I knew what ailed me and so could grapple with my mess. And I had discipline so that I went at it longer. Perhaps I needed writing like I never had in the past. When I was a child I thought writing was something that just comes to you, a visitation, a miracle, proof of ones genius, a necessarily easy achievement. This is of course a frightening understanding of writing and I am glad I have left it behind me.

Sometime after my third child I found that many of the questions I had been raising with myself, questions of justice and of motherhood – the two are hugely related – could not be answered as I had answered them in the past. It was no longer enough to read other people’s thinking about these questions or to throw myself into activism to see if some internal resolution couldn’t be achieved through working for external change. I turned to writing because it is a purely internal process, one that requires silencing all the noise and chatter till all that is left is my own voice.

Nicked via Google Image Search.

How did “If It Is Sweet” come about? Did you have any expectations when it was published?

When the noise and chatter gave way I wrote. That took about three plus years. But after I wrote I needed my writing to enter the noise and chatter. For me a conversation with the self is valuable only if it can result in a conversation with others. I expected the book would open the door to my entering the on-going conversation in India, that conversation in which we struggle to understand who we are. I have been more than amply rewarded in this respect although distribution of the book sucks and more people fan me on face book than read my book and oh so many other grouses.

Do you think being ambitious is important?

My oldest son, Saleem is fourteen, and wishes these days to be a writer. I talk to him about the importance of ambition. By ambition I don’t mean the ambition to become famous, which is only marginally related to the ambition to finding ones audience, and not at all related except antithetically to the ambition to find oneself. Writing is on the verge of becoming a disgraced profession because of the increasing emphasis on writing as a means to celebrity. On the other hand there is hardly any activity from cooking to sex that isn’t a means to achieving celebrity. So there are no honourable professions left. This is America’s rather nasty contribution to global culture. Our acquiescence is of course our own. And back to ambition: yes, of course it important to be ambitious about writing from your deepest discomfort with yourself. When I was anunion organizer my mentor in the movement taught me,“if you’re comfortable, you aren’t organizing.”

Do you have any rituals related to writing?

I like to write where I can see people. When I wrote in my barsati office in Delhi I would get up from my seat and go peer over the parapet to make certain the world, or rather people, were still there. Again, there is nothing like spending time with myself to make me realize how much I long for the company of others.

Do personal experiences impact your storytelling?

Yes, I am afraid it is all autobiographical. I have fallen in love with koodawallahs, lost my babies in many different ways, in child birth, in car wrecks, I have also lost my sister and just about everyone else I have ever loved. I have been afraid to love because of the hideously long string of losses.

And I lost a payal in the bushes once because it is so much more romantic to lose a payal than an Anne Klein watch given to me by my mother. And I whispered to a boy in those same bushes and then I never saw him again, well after first seeing him for a couple more years, and later I was an old woman hauled to Bhutan by my monkey companion.

Yes, really.

The koodawallah, yes.Once he was French. And many other times, many others besides.

Are there any downsides to being an author?

Sometimes I am tense from needing life to go away. So I can write. My life is of course my children. Thus: “If you would only make your bed and put away the dishes and hang up your pyjamas instead of draping them on the sofa and clip your fingernails because your tabla teacher told you only a week ago that your fingernails were too long. And if he wasn’t being polite he would have told you how disgustingly dirty they are. And I was so embarrassed for you. For me. And it’s been a whole week since. And have you clipped them? And if you would only…then I could go write.”

This doesn’t make me a good mother. Then I get depressed about my failure to be a good mother. Usually by then a good two weeks have elapsed and I have managed to write something.And I can tell myself to start over again.

Why do you think fiction is important?

It makes life worth living, even a shitty life; it hints at the truth there is something greater out there.

Do all the doomsday commentaries about people reading less worry you?

I haven’t been tuning in. I need to. There is so much to worry about and so little time in which to do it. Mostly I worry about how little I read these days.

Can you tell us a little bit about the novel you’re working on?

I have a novel forthcoming from Harper Collins India. I wish I could come up with less painfully awkward titles. But if you look at the course I have taken, from If It Is Sweet to Not Only The Things That Have Happened, you’d have to conclude I am nothing if not painfully awkward. And not necessarily lovable for it.

But the title is warranted. It is a painful story: a woman relinquishes her four year old son to a tourist couple passing through her town. Thirty six years later, in the thirty six hours that is the present tense of the novel, she dies having never set eyes on him again, and he lives, a forty-year old man at odds with the fragments of his past he remembers, or mis-remembers, he is not sure which. I suppose the only thing more painful than a mother losing her child is a society that wrests a child from its mother.I am curious about the two societies I write about in Not Only The Things That Have Happened – Kerala and the Midwestern United States.