A young girl, recovering from the recent death of her father, discovers some Dean Martin records in her dusty attic and falls in love with the singer, who’s long dead. A shopaholic woman gets trapped in a mall for a year, and tries desperately to locate the exit. A famed architect, nearing 80, considers a public suicide of his ideas; a beetle collector, overly possessive about his wife, wants to shrink his wife. These wonderfully dark and twisted stories are from environmental researcher and author Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s recent debut anthology, These Circuses That Sweep The Landscape (Aleph). Excerpts from an interview:
How did you decide on debuting with a collection of short stories?
I love the genre. My heroes are Roald Dahl, particularly his adult short stories, and Dorris Lessing’s short fiction. What I really admired was their ability to get to the heart of a character in a few concise words, and often, to the dark heart of a character. That fitted in with my perspective because I feel that we all have a dark part to our minds. And I try to bring that out. Many of my characters make decisions with that part of the minds. So short stories are really uniquely placed to have that kind of intense character analysis. They reflect the lived experience, unlike a novel, which has a beginning, middle and end structure.
The characters are all quite peculiar, and grapple with often unexplained emotions. What were the inspirations behind them?
Each one has had a different inspiration. The old architect, from the titular story, came to me just as I was falling asleep very late one night – an image of a man standing with a hammer waiting to bring it down on somebody else’s head. It was such a horrid, violent image that I immediately got up, turned on the light and wrote it down. And that actually turned into the first paragraph of that story.
The housewife story – where she spends time in her old house when her former husband and kids aren’t home – came out of a feeling of frustration, of women selling themselves short. They invest so much of themselves in their family that they don’t leave anything for themselves. And I had always had an idea of somebody living in somebody’s house, without that person knowing it.
The mall story stemmed out of the claustrophobia I felt in Bangkok malls. I was living there when I wrote that. I like malls that are symmetrical, which follows a rectangular or circular pattern, because you know you’ll come back to where you started. When a mall is asymmetrical, I have absolutely no clue where I’m going. And often I had this frustrating experience of being in a hurry to get out and not being able to get out. And secondly, being in a hurry to get out and stopping to see things on the way and without realising it, two hours have passed. It was about lost time, of not being in control of your own time, or the passage of time.
Tell us more about the Dean Martin story. A girl actually falling in love with a dead singer is quite unnerving.
I’m a fan of Dean, fortunately not to that extent. And often, when I listen to a singer I really admire, I listen very closely. I feel intense emotion, or admiration… a few seconds when your brain goes ‘wow’. And then that moment passes and real life ensues. I got very interested in those intense seconds because I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe that emotion. I could only call it love. And what if it sustains beyond those seconds? I wanted to create a character who experiences that emotion, but that emotion never goes away so it’s a state.
Because the real Dean is not available, the next best thing the girl wants is to be understood and not judged. I felt like that had parallels in real life also – very often, people are judged for who they love and how they love. And this story is one more strand in that larger story.
In most stories, you explore the dark spaces of your character’s minds. How did this come about?
These dark spaces are not commonly spoken about. And in the short story format, I can take an emotion to its logical extreme, rather to its logical conclusion, whether that’s jealousy, frustration or love. In a mall, you can’t find the exit for an hour. What if you can’t find the exit for a year? What would happen along the way? I don’t necessarily know where the story’s going to end, but if the characters have an internal logic, they follow it and this always leads to a very interesting juncture. And I stay true to the character’s intention.
You’ve spoken about the need to have a very open mind when it comes to reading…
Yes. That’s one of the major things that’s helped me to develop different voices, and different characters. Otherwise the danger is that they’ll all end up sounding like me. That’s why I think it’s really essential. For example, you don’t have to read literary fiction. You should, but that’s shouldn’t be the only thing. You have to deconstruct the language. It’s obvious that a celebrity interview sounds different from a politician’s interview. As a writer you need to find out what is it in their language that makes them sound different. It’s not just what they’re saying, but also how they’re saying it, and where they’re coming from. You can really pinpoint the differences and break down the dialogue, in a way.
You’ve lived in India, Serbia, Israel, Thailand and Bangladesh. How has this constant moving influenced your writing?
I went to an international school, where there were students of different nationalities. My husband and I have done seven countries in 14 years. So I’ve always felt that I’m writing for a global audience. I never felt that because my stories are set in India, I’m just writing for Indians. And people everywhere are the same. I feel the springboard for writing a story is almost never location. It’s always human dilemmas. And those are pretty much the same everywhere.
What are you working on next?
My next project is a novel, set in the early 20th century in Bombay, which I’m happy about since I’m getting to do a research on that historical period as well. Most of my research is in place so it’s now about sitting and writing it. I’m trying to be as disciplined as I can.