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New York's weekly magazine Time Out listed Dawesar as one of 25 People who will make their mark in 2005. One of India's leading national English language newspapers, The Hindustan Times, included Dawesar with a list of eleven other authors in its Next Big Things for 2005. In 2003, Dawesar was named the "Fun Fearless Female" of the month by Cosmopolitan India. The New York Foundation of the Arts awarded Dawesar a Fiction Fellowship in 2000. Abha Dawesar is the author of two novels: Babyji (Anchor Books, February 2005) and Miniplanner (Cleis Press, November 2000). Read on for an exclusive interview between Abha Dawesar and the editors of Cerebration.
Q. The title of your new novel is unique- (Babyji)—can you tell us why you chose it?
A. Anamika the narrator is called “babyji” by her maid Rani since she’s both younger than her and also at the same time of a higher caste and class. There’s an obvious paradox since “ji” is a suffix used to convey respect and I think it captures Anamika’s own peculiar position which is that of feeling ‘strangely young and strangely old at the same time’ as she puts it.
Q. Who was your imagined audience for the new novel, Babyji? When you first started writing this novel did you have a specific audience in mind?
A.I didn’t have an imagined audience in mind. However I did have an ideal reader in mind, someone who would open the book and make the journey with Anamika and follow her without pre-judging her. A reader who would ride the wave of the book all the way through.
Q. Can you talk about the setting of Babyji? Was the setting a conscious choice for you in this work?
A. The setting of the book was of course conscious. Even more important was the time period in which it was set. During the Mandal agitation in India, which serves as the backdrop for the book, a lot of changes happened at a political level. Caste based parties have ever since this time been on an ascendant. Culturally that period was fascinating. India had not yet started changing but you could see that change was inevitable. The relations between the sexes, the role of urban women, the professional options available to young people were all in a state of extreme flux.
Q. Is Babyji a ‘Bildungsroman’ for the protagonist Anamika Sharma?
A. Yes, but it’s also a novel about Delhi. And while the story is told in Anamika’s voice the reader has a different perspective than Anamika’s and can see the dynamic between Anamika and Rani and India. This allows for a window into the world of these older women and what their lives are like in Delhi circa 1990.
Q. Tell us how you ventured into writing and how you select your ideas for new novels.
A. I think the novels select me. If cognition, free will, and decision-making are somewhat mysterious to modern neuroscience then the process of creativity is even more mysterious to its proponents! There is a time when ideas and characters are floating about in a somewhat formless way but then something emerges that grips me and I run with it. In the case of Babyji and my first novel Miniplanner the principal characters gripped me. My third novel was somehow more completely graspable, all the four characters were clear to me instantly. How the ideas are selected varies from novel to novel, the process is natural and organic.
As for how I ventured into writing…that’s all I ever really did. When I was younger it was just a necessity. I started writing as a kid and my first foray into a longer piece was at the age of ten when I wrote an essay about 1984 surrounding the killing of the Sikhs in Delhi. At a very basic level writing was always my way of apprehending the world. It has since become more things, other things.
Q. What does it take to write a novel? Do you write something religiously everyday or only when something comes to mind?
A. Once I’ve entered the world of the novel I write regularly. In the phase before that when I’m not writing I’m thinking about it. But I think that regular writing is a good idea and discipline is worth cultivating. I’ve started writing other things now in the interim periods. I have a blog on my website to talk about film and books and who knows what in the future.
Q. What do you think about the new taxonomies like South Asian fiction in English, Diaspora writers, immigrant literature etc.? Is it a burden to belong to such categories?
A. It could be. There’s a subtle pressure at times to produce whatever is expected from such genres but in the end I think I’m pretty free to write whatever I want. And those looking for a constant South Asian theme or Diaspora theme or immigrant theme will just be disappointed in the long run from my work. The only label I can put up with is that of a writer. And my ideas come from everywhere. I was raised in India but I moved to the States at seventeen when I was still not intellectually an adult. My education has been somewhat Occidental but not fully. Since I was a transplant I also lack the cultural references of other thirty-year olds born in this country.
Q. Regarding Babyji, do you recall a major challenge while writing this novel?
A. The greatest challenge was probably trying to get Anamika’s adolescence right. The other was reminding myself constantly to imagine Delhi in 1990 when it was very different from the way it is now.
Q. Is there any other current project that you are working on?
A. My next novel is about writers and writing. And I’m toying around with a couple of divergent themes for the one after that.
Q. There is much talk about ‘home’ in recent ‘Diaspora writers’. In that regard, what is “home” for you?
A. That is a very complicated question. I feel equally torn between India which is in my bones, New York where I live, and Paris which in the past three years has become my inspiration, my muse, and the city I love.
Q. Do you think the Indian audience is open to exploring their sexuality now?
A. I think a sexual revolution is bubbling under the surface in metropolitan India (specially the north). I hear extraordinary stories from people every time I go back. Young people lead very different lives than they would have ten or fifteen years ago and date openly. And at least a sizeable chunk of the older set has decided to get with it and be done with the prudery and hypocrisy that characterized their youth. Not all the changes are good but they are inevitable. And they are happening so rapidly that people don’t have time to process it fully.
Q. Among authors from the Indian sub-continent, whose work has influenced you the most, if at all?
A. I read far too widely and broadly to name any influence, leave alone a sub-continental influence.
Q. How have you grown as a writer since you wrote Miniplanner?
A. I wrote my first novel over five weekends while holding a full time job. There’s no comparison between that and Babyji for which I had much more time. The novels are different and taught me different things about writing. Miniplanner is like taking a ride in a NY taxicab, it has that rhythm and reflects the concerns of someone who could easily be a typical New Yorker. Babyji is far more ambitious in the layers it tries to capture and the larger picture is a lot more important. The third novel has taught me yet other things. I am not sure that the learning curve will continue to be as steep in the future but I hope that the evolution will continue in other dimensions.
Q. We believe there has been some talk about turning “Three of Us” into a movie? Has there been any progress on this front and if so what are the changes you’ll have to make to the novel?
A. To be honest I haven’t focused much on this in the past few months because I’ve been very busy with Babyji. My own interest is definitely in writing novels and not screenplays.
Q. From your website one can tell that you are an artist and a photographer as well. Would you say anyone can do everything if they put their mind to it, or can some people do some things and some people do nothing? In other words do you need inherent talent or can it be cultivated?
A. I think we can all cultivate what we’ve got but we aren’t born blank slates and don’t all have the same natural talent. Just speaking about myself personally I paint because I enjoy it but I think there is a ceiling in terms of how far I could go with it. But that ceiling in my mind is high enough that the endeavor is not useless. On the other hand, as a writer I have an altogether different confidence and think that hard work can take me wherever I want to go with it. At the other extreme there is music for which I have very little talent and no amount of cultivation is going to get me at par even with the average person. Of course I could improve my appreciation of it and I might even eventually learn to tell one note from another but I don’t have any delusions of how objectively good my subjective best could be. Talents are not distributed justly just the way wealth is not; I recognize this but have a firm belief that your own will and effort can take you ahead of where you started. In the end it’s the distance you come from yourself and not from others that really counts.