Sharmistha Mohanty’s latest book Five Movements in Praise was published in the beginning of 2013, by Almost Island Books. I was fortunate enough to have been able to engage Sharmistha in a conversation about various things related to her book and to writing in general. Following is a transcript of our conversation.
7th May, 2013
Snehal: Let’s begin with your new book, Five Movements in Praise. Could you speak about how it evolved?
Sharmistha: I basically began the book without any kind of structure in mind at the outset. I knew that there were certain things I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about a very small town and the kind of contradictions it holds. I wanted to write about, very specifically, Pahari miniature paintings, which I’ve studied for many years. I also wanted, somewhere, to write about the Ellora and Ajanta caves. That much I knew. And I think I knew that it would be a book where these things would stand next to one another and any relation between them would not be obvious, that it would emerge slowly from the writing. I should also say that I was concerned with both extreme beauty and suffering and wanted to place these side by side as well.
SN: So you did not have a scheme or a blueprint for arranging the stories within each section of the book?
SH: No, not at all, not at all. I basically wrote them as independent ‘movements.’ I prefer to call them ‘movements’ rather than chapters. I wrote them independently and later on I put them together, at least in a certain way which made sense to me. There are other unities besides ‘narrative’ unity. In a work like Five Movements in Praise, or in my first work, Book One, the unity emerges from the consciousness that holds everything together. It is a subterranean unity, a certain tendency of the soul, if you like, a gaze, which gathers and shapes the material.
SN: Even the arrangement of the stories inside each movement was not preconceived?
SH: Yes, I didn’t really plan the arrangement. Like if you take the movement called ‘City,’ I wrote all the sections in it separately, you know, and then I worked on how one flows into the other, in order to put them together. But in the movement ‘Forest,’ I just began at the beginning, you know. For me, when I say “began at the beginning,” it’s not a narrative beginning. I began with what I knew. So it’s a journey, really, from beginning with the known and then going and discovering everything else that is there beyond it. Obviously, I had certain feelings, certain ideas about these things. I feel certain things about these miniature paintings, or I felt certain things about the small town that I wrote about, that I visited many times. So obviously, those things are in your consciousness and you know you want to write about them. But I hadn’t plotted anything or made a blueprint or anything of the sort.
SN: On the inside jacket cover of Five Movements, it says that the pleasures of the work “are not in the fulfillment of narrative expectations.” Could you elaborate on this?
SH: You know, I think, to begin with, my interest, when I was writing the book, was not primarily in the fulfillment of a narrative arc, let’s say, as in a novel. I’m much more interested in bits of narrative and gestures, bits of dialogue. So I’m also very interested in what the fragment can do, how much the fragment can achieve. So, let’s say, if I have a girl in the second movement, ‘Forest,’ I’m not interested in mapping her life from beginning to end but I’m interested in looking at that moment, and really she’s there herself only momentarily over that movement. There is no narrative growth, in that sense of the term. But there are narrative bits, you know, like when she talks about her father and mother, that maybe they left her, that maybe her father was a cripple. So there are narrative bits, and the imagination is both working at a narrative level and a poetic level. So I’m interested in the coming together of these two things.
SN: So you mean you want to leave a lot unwritten, unsaid, about the characters, about the places?
SH: Not really, Snehal. It’s not like I know but I’m not saying. I’m just going in in a different way than a novelist would. In fact I am doing the opposite of keeping back. It is because I don’t have a narrative structure or plot, that something else is allowed to emerge. I follow that emergence, as it were. I like to make a distinction between writing about something, and writing from something. I like to do the latter. The ‘from’ is what I stand on to go further. And that ‘further’ is not a linear growth but a crystalline one, where there is a process of accumulation as it were.
SN: How did these fragments come to you? For example, just after one of the paintings, there’s this sudden shift in the scene. I think the person leaves the building where he was examining the paintings. And then there’s this description of what he sees outside the window. And the weight shifts on to the person. We realise that this person has a past, that he has memories. I’m very interested in the fusion and openness that exists in the movements. Like how the traveler walks into the painting and finds the girl there. The possibility of what may enter or leave each movement is very exciting for the reader. Are you constantly taking in some things and keeping back other things?
SH: Okay, let me step back a little bit and actually go back to your first question. You know, as I started writing the book, the only structural element that came to me was the fact that I wanted a traveler to be part of this book, and a traveler not as character but as consciousness. I like to make this distinction because you don’t come away from the book knowing anything about the traveler. You don’t know his circumstances, or his psyche. In some places, the traveler is a man and in some, a woman. So, if at all these five movements are connected, they are connected by the presence of the traveler or rather the traveler’s consciousness. Now, when I got this idea for the traveler, I thought, well, it’s the traveler who is traveling in the small town, inside the paintings, you know, in the city, in the caves. I mean, that’s how I sort of started situating the traveler. So, in a sense, and because miniature painting was a landscape for me, the landscape into which the traveler would go and explore, I thought, well, let’s take it head on. It must have just come to me one day, I don’t really know. You know how these things are, they just come, and I said, I’m going to have him go into the painting. The thing about these miniature paintings is that they have some of the greatest landscape painting we’ve ever seen. They also give me a feeling of tremendous serenity. So I started questioning, “Where does this serenity come from?” “How does it come?” And I’ve actually gone into that, in the book, when I’m talking about how these paintings do not express suffering but try and understand it, accept it. I wanted the traveler to go inside this landscape and find out these things for himself, so to speak. And when the traveler went in, I thought—this is in the first painting with Radha and Krishna and the dark landscape—I thought, it’s night, and it’s so quietly illuminated there, and the traveler is walking and I don’t know why, but I thought probably the most unlikely person to be standing there is a child, you know. And that’s how the little girl came. These things are also hard to talk about because they bring out things in your own mind and in your own life. I’d been thinking a lot about my own childhood and what it was like for me to be a little girl and somewhere those thoughts must have been very present, you know. So they came and joined together.
SN: Okay. I wanted to read out a bit from what you write about the second Radha and Krishna painting, in the movement ‘Forest.’ You say, “It was the mistake that made him see, slowly, that brought him to a belief he never had before. That each thing in his painting was equal, as it was in the landscape in which he moved, none diminished by the other, freed from a hierarchy imposed only by the eyes.” I found this really beautiful and I think that, somewhere, you have also tried to put things next to each other so as to free them from this hierarchy in seeing. I found a relentless force juxtaposing things and placing them on the same plane: dream, painting, memories, present experiences all were brought to one common level.
SH: I’m very happy that you’re saying that. For me, one of the things I want to do in my work, that I’ve been trying to do for quite some time, is what I call the equality of the human and the non-human. To me, philosophically, and therefore also in the writing, what is important is that the inanimate and the animate are actually on the same plane. So I continue to want to make a book equally with light, architecture, human beings, gods, paintings, landscapes, because I feel them equally. So, this is, for me, something that is of primary importance when I write and incidentally, I think that that’s something I’ve learnt from a lot of poetry. Because if you look at the novelistic tradition, it’s always about the human being and everything else is backdrop. I don’t want to do that. I’m actually working against that.
SN: So do you think that ties in with not following the narrative arc through your book?
SH: Probably, yes, it probably does, though I haven’t thought about it consciously in that way. It probably does, because if I was following a narrative arc, then the human being would always be given primacy, which I don’t want to do, right. I think the reason why I’m not following a narrative arc is that all these other things the human being is surrounded by speak to me as much. I don’t need to go to the narrative because there’s already so much to look at and to understand, you know. So I would rather delve into that than go horizontally with a character. Also, I’m not any longer sure we can create characters in that way any more.
SN: How do you mean?
SH: I mean that I’m not interested in psychological characters. A lot of the novel, traditionally, has ridden on the discoveries of psychology. And I think that that’s limited, now. The conventional novel has become formulaic. You’re trying to create a character keeping to the logic of psychology. But the great character makers are those who completely step outside all logic and rationality and touch the mysteries of the human condition. Otherwise, you’re limited by that logic and it doesn’t interest me to think on those lines. I think I understand as much about a human being by seeing everything that surrounds him, like I’m trying to do here, as by following him. And maybe I’m interested in the world, not just in the character.
SN: You spoke about the importance of the non-human in your work. Throughout Five Movements, certain elements of nature like the sky, rock and light appear closely woven into the fabric of the book. Would you say that observation of nature, too, is something very important to your writing?
SH: I wouldn’t say “observation,” because observation means that there is an observer and an observed. I don’t even like that distinction. And I don’t like the distinction of nature and human, you know. There’s a place…Will you just hand me the book, Snehal? Where it says exactly what I mean. This may answer your question.
[As Sharmistha reads the following excerpt, the bells of a 19th-century Portuguese church nearby start tolling in the background, in counterpoint to her pauses.]
“Into the stone courtyard, the sun falls without a single interruption at noon. Inside the cave, only two stone feet, one crossed over the other. Meanings change as the sun moves, they contradict each other, are ploughed and overturned with the seasons. Light cleaves the surface of human intentions. At twilight, a shoulder, on which the evening will rest.”
So what I’m basically trying to express is that the human and the non-human have a much deeper connection than what we are aware of in our ordinary lives. They’re already merged together and it’s really for us to see that merging, you know. So maybe in my work, part of what I’m doing is looking at that merging or teasing it out. I remember this beautiful line that I read in a conversation between Charles Simic and Tomaž Šalamun, where one of them says to the other that poets talk about the weather outside, but the weather isn’t outside, it’s inside us.
SN: When you were speaking, I coincidentally thought of Charles Simic’s poem ‘Stone.’ It’s beautiful because it talks about how the stone feels, and seems to ask if we can move beyond personification in feeling for things. But when the distinction between the observer and the observed vanishes, there is nothing truly objective. How, then, are we to agree on anything?
SH: It’s like the agreement between Charles Simic writing that poem and you understanding it. That’s an agreement, you know.
SN: A poetic agreement of things.
SN: I wanted to ask about the other arts, apart from writing, because they also figure in your work. Like the Pahari paintings and classical music, and sculpture, of course. How important are the other arts for you?
SH: I think because in my twenties, I had a lot of film-maker friends, and still do, I have musician friends, I had painter friends, I had sculptor friends and I was always learning a lot about these other things and, you know, I’m unconsciously probably taking from them, and that’s remained with me. I mean, the other arts are very important. I don’t think I know any great artist or any great writer who doesn’t have a strong relationship with one other art form, whatever it may be. Because I think they give us new ways of seeing that we then bring in to our own medium. I don’t really see a lot of contemporary painting or sculpture. I like the older Indian things very very much. So I’m drawn to the sculptures in the Ellora caves, and I’m drawn to miniature paintings and because they’ve meant a great deal to me, they’ve entered my work. It’s really like that. It’s not like I took a decision that I’m going to write about miniature paintings.
SN: Can you speak a little about your study of the paintings?
SH: I, actually, have been studying a lot of it on my own. I was introduced to miniature paintings in a particular way, by a film-maker called Mani Kaul, who I was very close to and who I worked with. With him, I started looking at miniature paintings, closely. And then I realised that I liked one school of Indian miniature painting very much. I started concentrating only on that school. It’s called the Pahari school, viz. from the hills, right.
With miniature painting, what happened in our country was, there was a tradition of palm-leaf manuscripts, which were miniature. Now, broadly speaking, that tradition merged with the Mogul tradition. When the Moguls came, they brought in the Persian miniature painting tradition. These two traditions merged and became Indian miniature painting, and what our miniature painters did was they took what they wanted from the Moguls. So it was a very rich merging of traditions, without them being colonised by any one style. So I just got very interested in this and I kept looking at these paintings. And, you know, the other kind of painting I have studied a lot is Chinese landscape painting, because again, I just feel very drawn to it. I think what was important to me was a kind of philosophy, a kind of world view that the Indian miniature paintings seem to express, that I feel very close to and which I also feel have elements of very deep Indian philosophical beliefs. So when I’m looking at them, they are not just beautiful paintings, they’re much much more than that.
SN: Since place is very important in your writing, could you speak a bit about how you see the writer and her milieu?
SH: When I was living abroad, I knew that I wanted to come back to India. Later, my living experience in Germany, at the Academie Schloss Solitude, I had already written the manuscript for my second novel New Life. But I think that place is very very important to me and I think that one of the things that I’m trying to do in this book is, actually, make landscape a kind of a character in a sense, you know. It’s very hard to express these things in speech, but I think that we’re living in times where place does not seem to be important. I think that it’s some strange sort of illusion that people are in and one day that illusion will shatter and they’ll think, oh my god, I didn’t realise where I was or where I was not. And to me, place is very very important. For me, to be in my own country is very important, not in a nationalistic sense. If I look out and I look at a certain kind of tree, or a certain kind of sky, it enables me to see into things better than when I’m abroad because abroad, I become an observer and there is the observed. Here, I’m contiguous with that tree that I’m looking at, outside. I’ve lived and am living that continuity. So that contiguousness of landscape and that continuum of human being, thing, light, architecture, is possible for me here. Because here is where those things won’t break down into their respective identities as easily. Whereas if I’m abroad, I will be only be identifying things according to their identities. Does this make any sense, Snehal, what I just said?
SN: Yes, I get what you mean. So the merging happens in many different things. Here, in your surroundings and yourself as a writer, the merging with the place is very important. And this would lead to the merging of the human and the non-human.
SH: Because that has to be unconscious, right? It’s coming from deep within your consciousness. You’re not saying that is equal to this, you are feeling that equality somewhere. And also, one more important thing for me in this book—related to place—was that I wanted to, and I have explored, as you probably have seen here, the idea of origins and the original, or the originary. People say globalisation, but it’s actually a certain way of living and being which has come from certain areas of our world. I feel, I want to go in the opposite direction, I want to discover what India had before globalisation, before colonisation, and I’m not saying it was all good, but I’m saying can I discover the incredible achievements of this country, as in the Ellora caves, for example? If I go back to that, can I discover the spirit, can I rediscover an originary spirit that can help me also to originate? Because when I look at my culture today, I see very few things that it has generated. It has not generated the cars we drive and the bridges we cross or the cell phones we use. We’ve done nothing. And again, this is not nationalistic. But if a culture cannot originate anything, that culture to me is a dead culture. So, as far as I’m concerned, we’re just imitating things. It’s fine to imitate but not only to imitate. And sometimes, of course, we can’t help it, it’s history’s flow. For me this book is also like saying let me just stop history’s flow and let me just look at what we have been given through the caves, through the miniature paintings, through the kinds of lives we’ve lived in this country, through simple encounters. So all of that, and as you know, there are many rough and sharp and painful things in the book, so when this violence happens in the Ajanta caves, that, too, is a part of our Indian reality. I don’t want to idealise it but I’m saying can we just look at our reality and keep looking at our reality, our history and see what we can get. When you said, things standing next to each other in my work, so for me it’s like Ellora stands next to me. It doesn’t matter if it was built in the 6th Century BCE. It stands next to me so it can give me sustenance today. And I think that’s how we ought to look at things that we have, that have been given to us from the past. And I was led to this in my seeking for the original. What is originary? What are we doing? What can we reinvent?
SN: How do you see contemporary writing in India? And where would you like to see it go?
SH: You know, this is something I say when I am teaching in Hong Kong. Don’t just put on your form as if you are taking a coat off a hanger. Form comes from a necessity within yourself, it arises almost from a crisis, a breakage within. And I think what happens is, in Indian writing in English, in fiction, what is happening is people are just doing linear narratives without ever having thought about any other way of writing. Without ever even having gone into our own, maybe older Indian traditions. Without having gone into the Eastern Europeans, the Latin Americans, you know, but just sticking to a very Anglo-Saxon mode of linear narrative. And I don’t see that going anywhere, frankly. And I don’t think it will. So, I have a lot of problems with where the novel in India is going. I think I have much more hope for poetry in India. Because I think I have seen and met and heard of many more younger people who are interested in serious poetry and are writing poetry seriously, rather than laying my hopes in fiction. And I think that’s also because poets are not distracted by this whole thing of advances and launches and money and all this kind of thing, which is bullshit, because it has nothing to do with writing. I mean, you can do it, but don’t ever tell me it’s literature, because I’m going to tell you it’s not. I’m very clear on that. And you know, you see new publishing houses popping up and they say they are a literary publishing house but it’s the same old stuff.
SN: What is it about the linear narrative that doesn’t work for you?
SH: Because I think it becomes writing to a formula, in some sense. You know, whenever I read these novels, they never lead to any kind of discovery. And I feel in India, the novel has two problems. One is that they are written by the elite. Now, what that means is they don’t seem to be able to accurately explore any kind of sociological situation, other than their own upper class situation, which I don’t find interesting. The other thing is, if you don’t do that, then you have to be inward and or extremely imaginative. You have to be able to create that much depth and inwardness and people don’t seem to have that either. So, you then are left with very very superficial narratives from which I discover nothing about the world. So why should I read a novel from which I learn nothing. I’m not interested.
SN: Would you say you are positively biased towards poetry?
SH: No, no. I mean, I, for myself. I don’t know, Snehal. Somewhere, I feel, if I had to be really honest to myself, I think I wish I was a poet. I do wish that. Because, and I’ve told you this before, I think that poetry is really the highest manifestation of human language, it really is. But having said that, there are novels that will always mean a great deal to me, which I have read and re-read many times, and without which literature would be much poorer. So people like Kafka, like Proust, Hermann Broch…The great novelists and that time of late nineteenth, early twentieth century is the Golden Age of the novel. I think great work was produced then. Work which broke the boundaries of the conventional novel, and took it in different directions. Definitely. There is work that I couldn’t live without.
SN: But when one reads your books, the condensation of matter into sentences brings it very close to poetry.
SH: That condensation that poetry has is very important to me. I’m quite happy that you are saying that. So I won’t waste pages and pages saying nothing. I’d rather have five sentences that say a lot, sound a lot, mean a lot, you know, packed sentences.