Dr Santosh Bakaya and Avijit Sarkar, the two authors of the beautiful short stories collection ‘Bring Out the Tall Tales’ speak to Lopa Banerjee, author, poet and Consulting Editor of LnC.
In the history of English literature, there have been many collaborative fictional projects, when the creative output of two or more authors have been channelized wonderfully to produce enchanting stories, novels with diverse characters, yet with a common narrative thread. This collaborative approach has brought together authors like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (Good Omens), John Green and David Levithan (Will Grayson) and many others who produced memorable fictional works collaboratively, standing the test of time. In very recent times, there have been two wonderful writers in the domain of Indian writing in English, who have enchanted the readers with their individual literary creations till now. For the first time, they have both collaborated to produce a collection of short stories titled Bring Out The Tall Tales. These stories inspire, empower and make one ponder the many inexplicable aspects of humanity. Author-poet Lopa Banerjee, who is also our Consulting Editor, talks to these two brilliant authors, Santosh Bakaya and Avijit Sarkar about their collaborative journey and the resultant book.
Lopa Banerjee: Santosh, congratulations and a cartload of wishes for your joint collaboration with yet another prolific writer, artist, musician Avijit Sarkar from Sydney to produce this bunch of refreshing short stories in the domain of contemporary Indian writing in English. At the outset, I would love to know what inspired you both to collaborate on this project. What were your expectations from this when you embarked on this project?
Avijit Sarkar: I have been doing some illustrations for Santosh much before this book was written. During our conversations, I remember exchanging some ideas about a collaborative project with her. Within a few months Santosh had convinced me to write a few funny short stories for this book.
Santosh Bakaya: Thanks a ton for this great opportunity of interacting with you about a book which is very close to my heart. Yes, Avijit has done some wonderful illustrations for my soon to be published book, Oh Hark! which was earlier part of The Significant Anthology, and had fetched me the First Reuel International Award for Literature, 2014. It will soon be published as a separate book, illustrated beautifully by Avijit. It was during this collaboration, that we got talking about a collaborative short story collection. No, we never had any expectations nor did we talk of them, but without wasting a second, got working on the book. I already had many stories lying around, and Avijit immediately produced some absolutely brilliant, rib-tickling pieces, and his sparkling illustrations have definitely enriched the book.
Lopa: What prompted the title, Bring out the Tall Tales, may I know? Considering the fact that it’s short fiction?
Avijit: The title came from Santosh and I think she can probably elaborate on this. A tall tale is usually a story with unbelievable and exaggerated characters and plots. Looking back, I think Santosh’s suggestion for the title was perfect for this collection of truly “tall tales”!
Santosh: This is a line from Dylan Thomas’ delightful, long, narrative poem, [my favourite too], A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which I almost remember by heart, and since our book is a mixed bag of sunny, funny, romantic, serious stories with some weird, characters too, Bring Out The Tall Tales was the title that immediately came to mind.
‘Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire
as the gaslight bubbled like a diver.’
The poem had so many uncles, aunts, cousins, kids talking in so many voices, creating a euphonious cacophony, and I immediately recalled this scene .
Moreover, Avijit’s stories are in a different mould altogether from mine. The long and short of it being, that all the stories are indeed ‘tall tales’.
Lopa: In the introduction to this collection of short stories, Michele Baron, the award-winning author describes the book as a “book of short stories which themselves reside in that strange and magical place where childhood fancies and adult philosophies are ribboned together in winsome and exuberant packages.” Keeping in mind the starkly different styles represented in both of your storytelling, how do you both think you have been able to strike a balance with your artistry and cumulative vision?
Avijit: Our writing styles are definitely different and that itself should be of great interest to the reader. Good collaborative works have always depended on diversity of styles of the authors because it allows a wider range of imagery to be represented in the collection and adds to the ‘balance’ of the plots. In this case, the diversity of styles is the key ingredient to the depiction of varied character representations in our stories.
Santosh: Yes, our styles are totally different, we speak in different voices, but you cannot deny, that I too have a wacky sense of humour, and some of the stories will prove that! [Ha ha] You must have noticed Avijit’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek style, his irreverent sense of humour and his absolutely lovably funny characters. Any discerning reader will at once notice the difference between our styles, but don’t you think that makes it all the more interesting? You know, Lopa, a reader, whom I have never met, called me after reading the book, and said, “from your stories and Avijit Sarkar’s stories, I have formed an idea about your personalities and since I am coming to Jaipur next week, I would like to meet you. May I?”
He came and we met, later he called me and told me that he found me exactly as he had imagined me, and now would love to meet Avijit Sarkar too. [Are you listening Avijit?] So, you see, the different styles of writing also stokes the curiosity of readers.
Lopa: Santosh, many of your stories in this collection are replete with rich imagery, stunning metaphors, depicting everyday life and humanity around us in its profound shades and hues which is reminiscent of the Dickensian school of fiction. To my understanding, your poetic persona is very much at work while delineating these stories, these characters. Do you agree?
Santosh: Well, I don’t know what to say to that, having dabbled in poetry right from school days, one might say, it has become an integral part of me, but I love writing prose too and having been greatly influenced by Dickens. Some of that influence inadvertently does creep in, but then Jerome K Jerome, Edgar Allen Poe, Gerald Durrell, PG Wodehouse have also influenced me a lot. Hence, there is also a lot of humour and satire in my writings. In fact, one of my forthcoming novels is a satire on higher education.
Lopa: Avijit your stories and illustrations, on the other hand, carry an easy charm and your interplay of wit and humor depicting the lives of people of the Asian diaspora is quite reminiscent of Jerome K Jerome, Roald Dahl and writers of their ilk. Do you think humor writing comes to you naturally?
Avijit: I am a cartoonist and it is second nature to me to observe and listen to people. Many of my observations and people’s idiosyncrasies also filter into my humorous stories and plays. However, I find that writing humour is not an easy task and it takes a lot of effort to get a giggle or a guffaw out of the reader. I have been a lifelong fan of PG Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Mark Twain and other great writers of this genre and along the way, I guess, I have picked up certain tools and techniques from these immortal authors.
Lopa: Santosh, you bring out the beautiful essence of vernacular Hindi in some very significant dialogues of your protagonists in the stories; while the settings, the plots of the stories are very composed, structured, following the western style of storytelling. How do you end up synchronizing the ethnic sensibilities and the classic western elements of narration so effortlessly?
Santosh: Well, some of the scenes that I describe are straight lifts from everyday life which I have witnessed near the railway track, bus stand and even in my classes, where some of my students are also from the village. Can you believe it, I have written some of these stories right where the scene has happened and have lifted dialogues from there. As a result, the vernacular Hindi very effortlessly creeps into my writings. Well, as to how ‘I end up synchronizing the ethnic sensibilities and the classic western elements of narration so effortlessly’, that is for the readers to decide.
Lopa: I have noticed both Kashmir and Jaipur being your muses in the stories of these collection. How much do physical settings or backdrops of your stories matter to you, and do you think you would have written somewhat similar stories, had you been associated with other cities?
Santosh: The physical settings of my stories matter a lot to me, and Kashmir, being my home, has always been close to my heart. I have never lived there, but always visited it during summer and winter breaks, because all our relatives were there and later my brother was also posted there. So, I write about Kashmir with a sense of loving warmth and possessiveness that I cannot feel about other places. It is my home and the very mention of Kashmir makes me feel fuzzy all over.
I must have written more than a hundred poems on River Lidder and a handful of stories in the backdrop of Kashmir. I don’t think I would have written in the same heartwarming manner about places other than Kashmir, but Kolkata also fascinates me a lot, and the first draft of the story, The Old Man and the Ghat was written right there at Prinsep Ghat a couple of years back, when I saw an old man sitting all alone on a bench, lost in thought. It is in Jaipur, Rajasthan, that I have lived all along, and hence Jaipur also forms the backdrop in many of my stories.
Lopa: Also, in your stories like The Boulder, and The Silhouette, you bring out the eerie, macabre elements of human life with your classic storytelling style, which often reminds me of the Gothic narrative style of Emily Bronte or the ghost stories of Edgar Allen Poe. In Only a False Step too, there are elements of mystery and suspense bordering on the sinister presentation of a human. What influenced you towards this style of writing and what are the metaphorical truths of human life which inspired you to pen these stories?
Santosh: Life is not merely black and white, but grey too, right? Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde exist in all of us, and sometimes circumstances bring out the evil in us. Don’t tell this to anyone, but it’s a fact, that when I was in the sixth standard, I stood fourth in the class [not first] for the first time, and wanted to kill all the three girls who had better ranks than me! I mean, I spent many nights devising diabolic plans! So, the evil was there, lurking all along, just needed a little pampering; but thankfully, with the passage of time, I have ceased to be an evil person now, haha. The metaphorical truth is that good and evil exist side by side, a docile girl such as the girl in Only a False Step, can suddenly turn evil under different circumstances.
Lopa: You have also penned some delightful stories on human relationships in the collection, including I Am Your Man, which is a love story with a difference. The Old Man and the Ghat written in the voice of a man, situated in the backdrop of Kolkata and the idyllic Prinsep Ghat. What made you create these characters which are starkly in contrast with the sinister beings in your mystery stories?
Santosh Well, a writer is a writer, be it writing stories of the horror genre or the romantic genre, right? So I have dabbled in everything, because I love Edgar Allen Poe, Dickens, Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, and PG Wodehouse with the same passionate intensity. The Raven surreptitiously creeps into my ghost and horror stories.
My very first poem in the fourth standard was about a haunted fort and the first story happened to be a ghost story. But I am a die-hard romantic at heart, so you find me penning such stories that you mention above. You know, these stories also happen to be my favourite stories, especially, I Am Your Man and you know, many readers called me up to tell me that they really loved I Am Your Man.
Lopa: Avijit, in your stories like A Weighty Problem, you reflect on the common, everyday idiosyncrasies of humans with a pinch of satire, and the apparent disharmony between disparate lives of people are woven together in the stories to produce a lasting emotional impact. What was your inspiration in penning these tales?
Avijit: I have this odd habit of looking at the funny side even in the most serious situations (not a good habit, I assure you!). Every individual is different. They have different looks, different habits, and different priorities. And when characters of diverse natures come together, they often end up in strange situations. For a cartoonist like me, that’s perfect. All I need to do then is to create an exaggerated version of that situation and put it down in an illustration or a story. Such “inspirations” is all around…It is just a matter of observation.
Lopa: Sydney, Australia, the city where you live has been presented through deft characterization and also as an integral part of some stories, shaping the characters’ persona in some way, according to my understanding. Would you say diaspora writing in English literature influences you consciously?
Avijit: It does. The dispersion of people and their ensuing actions in a new environment gives a new shape to their lives and their lifestyles. For an author this is a treasure trove for creating new plots and interesting characters. Subconsciously, I am constantly making note of such behavioral changes in people, based on their ‘displacement’ into a new environment or society. This has helped to write stories for all types.
Lopa: You are also a very talented musician, artist, illustrator, apart from being an immensely observant, sensitive writer/essayist/storyteller. In your stories too, I have observed your penchant for artistry and paintings et al. Would you say that one art form feeds into another/inspires creating another? What has been the influence of music and art in your persona as a writer/storyteller?
Avijit: My mother used to tell her friends that I started drawing before I could talk properly! Music, theater and literature came much later. I have no doubt that each art form within me has had constant influence over the other forms. Sometimes, even before I create a character for a story, I do a quick sketch of the character. At other times, music that I compose provides the emotional content for a story that I write. I have also composed original music for all the plays that I have written and these scores were heavily influenced by the plots of the plays and the characters therein.
Lopa: Quoting my favorite Neil Gaiman about short stories and how they captivate the readers: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back for dinner.” Do you both subscribe to this observation made by Gaiman?
Avijit: I love the “short” form in literature…. Stories, poems, plays, essays. Although I have indulged in the longer forms of these styles, the shorter form always excites me. It is also a great challenge, because I need to express myself quickly in the shorter forms. I need to find words, phrases and paragraphs that can quickly take the reader on a journey into a fantasy land and be “back for dinner” as Gaiman has observed.
Santosh: Yes, I agree with Neil Gaiman. But let me be candid here, these days the readers have a short attention span, and prefer reading short stories and novellas. Allow me to digress here a little and say that the classical writers of old used to write long, descriptive paragraphs. If the present day writers were to write such long paragraphs, the reader would prefer skipping them. I know this, because in my creative writing classes, I have had students telling me that, even in the mystery novels, they read the end first. Who has the patience to wait for the end? they ask. I am reading the novels of James Patterson these days and am highly impressed by his concise and clipped language, short paragraphs and chapters. So these days, I find myself writing a lot of short stories, because, you start it at breakfast time and by dinner time, you have finished the first draft! In fact, I think, the success of my novella, A Skyful of Balloons was partly because of its short length. I wonder how my full-fledged novel of three hundred pages – a satire on higher education – will fare?
Lopa: Finally, do you both think such creative collaborations in short story writing as in Bring Out the Tall Tales will go a long way in promoting the real essence of literature?
Avijit: I firmly believe that collaborative projects bring immense value to literature of every form. When imaginative and creative minds get together, there is a huge amount of ‘handshaking’ between ideas, styles and content. This not only helps the collaborative authors but also allows the readers to delve into a very wide spectrum of characters, plots, styles and literary values that have been packed into one literary box. These days, it is getting hard to market literature and collaborative projects go a long way in the ‘marketing’ and promotion of publications because the pace of readership of a joint project increases by leaps and bounds.
Santosh: It goes without saying that such collaborations in short stories will indeed go a long way in boosting literature. Yes, let me echo Avijit’s words and reiterate that during this creative collaboration, there was a lot of virtual ‘handshaking’, between us, and some virtual pats on the backs too.
If he furtively whacked me on the head [virtually, of course], for my poor jokes, let me not hear of it, let him keep that ‘story’ to himself! Ha Ha. Lopa, Did I tell you that I am notorious for my wacky sense of humour, or had my notoriety preceded me?
Jokes apart, in our collaborative venture, there is a ‘wide spectrum of characters, plots, styles and literary values that have been packed into one literary box’, and the readers get to savour different flavours in one book. Honestly speaking, I am a great fan of the way Avijit writes. His humour is effortless, and, I am afraid, we have a dearth of writers who can write humour and satire in as effortlessly riveting a way as he does. And believe me, I am not saying this because he is my co-author, but because he is indeed a very good writer. Be it poetry or prose, he excels in both. He also has a cartoonist’s eye, so the idiosyncrasies of his characters are very well delineated.
I am looking forward to more such creative collaborations with him. In collaborative ventures, the readership also increases as each author involved, has his/her readership, and both readers can now read the other author too.
Lopa: Thank you both for these intellectually stimulating answers…cheers to many more creative collaborations!
Santosh Bakaya Internationally acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Ballad of Bapu (Vitasta Publishers, 2014), Dr Santosh Bakaya is an academician-poet-essayist-novelist-reviewer-Tedx speaker, whose Ted Talk on The Myth of Writer’s Block is quite popular in creative writing classes. She writes a much appreciated column in Learning and Creativity.com, Morning Meanderings, and is the recipient of the Reuel International Award for her long hundred page narrative poem, Oh Hark! (2014), The Setu International Award in recognition of her ‘stellar contribution to world literature’ 2018 (Pittsburgh, USA), The Universal Inspirational Poet Award (Ghana Government and Pentasi B 2016), the Bharat Nirman Award ‘for brilliance in the field of writing’ 2017, The First Keshav Malik Award 2018, for ‘her entire staggeringly prolific and quality conscious oeuvre’ in fiction, prose and poetry. These are some of the awards that she has received .
Her other books are, Where are the Lilacs? (Poetry, Authorspress, 2016), Under the Apple Boughs (Poetry, Authorspress, 2017), Flights from my Terrace (Essays, Authorspress, 2017), A Skyful of Balloons (novella, Authorspress, 2018), Bring Out The Tall Tales (short stories with Avijit Sarkar, Authorspress, 2019), Only in Darkness Can You See the Stars: A biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Vitasta, 2019).
Santosh writes a highly popular musings column Morning Meanderings in LnC.
Avijit Sarkar is a musician, composer, illustrator, cartoonist, writer, poet, puppeteer, philanthropist and a polymath from Sydney, Australia. He has been endorsed by the Australian Performing Rights Association as a music composer. His first book, A Turn of Events was recently published in Australia. His designs, illustrations and cartoons have appeared in many magazines and books across the world. Avijit is the Director of Natraj Academy that he established in Sydney 11 years ago. Today all proceeds from his creative pursuits are donated to medical research and charities in Australia. In a career spanning over four decades, Avijit has left his footprint in every form of creativity in Australia.
He is currently illustrating the serialized teen novel Friends Forever written by Ramendra Kumar, which is attracting a large number of kids and teens readers.
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