Get up and close with Shiladitya Sarkar, author of the newly released novel Clayfaces as he delves into his book, inspirations, and artistic journey in an enlightening conversation with Jyoti Babel.
A multifaceted and versatile personality, Shiladitya Sarkar is a writer, painter, and art critic based in Mumbai. His previous books include Thirst of a Minstrel, Abstract Reality, and Day’s End Stories: Life After Sundown in Small-Town India, an anthology where he is one of the featured writers. Sarkar has also served as an assistant editor for Art India and as a consulting editor for Art Journal. He has exhibited his work in a number of solo and group shows. He is an invited faculty member at the FTII, Pune, and the SRFTI, Kolkata.
Clayfaces delves into the complex relationship between Khudu, a brusque dwarf with a fiery voice, and Nayan, a controversial writer grappling with inner turmoil in the autumn of his life. Despite their unequal status as brothers, they seclude themselves in a mysterious bungalow, cutting ties with the outside world. The enigma deepens when Khudu, previously disdainful of Nayan’s legacy, invites a shrewd media personality to write Nayan’s official biography—a man rejected by Brinda, Nayan’s ex-girlfriend.
As the narrative unfolds, the spite of a spurned lover, a new approach to confrontation, and a twist of fate propel Brinda to collaborate with Rupam, a rival biographer seeking revenge. Together, they unravel the mysteries contained in Khudu’s scathing journals, exposing myths about Nayan, the literary culture surrounding him, and Khudu’s machinations to humiliate his brother.
Clayfaces explores the duality of identity through ingenuity, humor, and compassion, delving into themes of acceptance, rejection, and the intricate interplay of relationships. Raw sibling rivalry, metaphors of sports and writing, and the profound impact of care and abnegation add layers to this captivating narrative.
Against the backdrop of contemporary society, the novel poses a poignant question: Who is this little dwarf inside us all? With clutter-free language, the story subtly exposes the conflicting pulls and pressures shaping the lives of its compelling characters.
Jyoti Babel: First of all, congratulations on your new book. It is pleasure to have you on the author chat session at Learning & Creativity. Let’s begin the chat with your latest work. The title Clayfaces is evocative. Can you share the significance behind the title and how you believe it encapsulates the essence of the novel?
Shiladitya Sarkar: A title encapsulates, or is supposed to, a book’s essential fulcrum, for instance, Hundred Years of Solitude or Remembrance of Things Past. However, there are also novels with annoyingly trite titles: War and Peace by Tolstoy, or The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway.
Personally, I require at least a working title to begin any new work. It works for me as a leitmotif. The same applies for Clayfaces, too. The central theme of the novel is the mutability of a character, an ideology, or a desire. Nothing is static. To convey these transitorines, I required a representative material that articulated malleability, one that is prone to change. I thought of clay, one that can be shaped and reshaped into many forms depending on the way a potter’s fingers move. Time and situations, too, are transformative forces. Hence the title, Clayfaces.
Jyoti Babel: The dynamic between Khudu and Nayan is central to Clayfaces. What inspired you to delve into such a complex and nuanced relationship, and how it reflects broader human connections?
Shiladitya Sarkar: Some of the subtlest and yet intense conflicts occur among the members whom we know within the bounds of the family. Sibling rivalry is as old as the sun. Epics and folk tales across the world offer many examples. While the concept of brotherly love is a universal and valid concept, the antithetical quotient is also prevalent in many stories from many cultures.
In the context of Clayfaces, there are actually no rewards to gain from opposing one another. Here, the conflict isn’t apparent. It’s embedded and mostly funnels out of the dwarf brother’s (Khudu’s) hankering for being acknowledged by his brother, Nayan. Instead of any material gain, it’s Khudu’s emotional need that propels the storyline forward.
Jyoti Babel: Developing the character of Khudu, who is dwarfed by identity and seeks retribution, must have posed unique challenges. What were some of the difficulties you faced in bringing this character to life?
Shiladitya Sarkar: Comprehending the emotions of someone scrunched by birth is difficult, regardless of how empathetic the writer is. Sentimentalising is a trap when dealing with someone who is the other. From the beginning, I was sure to avoid a pitiful portrait of Khudu. I wanted to give him agency—a character that knows how to assert and yet has many shades of vulnerability.
Here, I will give away, partially, a secret. A trip to the Andaman was central to crystallising Khudu. The trip was a gift from EZCC for a month-long art camp with artists across Eastern India. Among the itinerary, they had kept options for local sightseeing, one of which was to Ross Island. There I met a boy, one of the many tourists. He suffered from dwarfism. But he was so vivacious and so easy with his body while he chased after butterflies and bounced a basketball with his relatives that he drew my attention immediately. A fortuitous chance gave us a moment when he and I were alone and split from the rest. I treated him as any other boy and engaged him in the usual conversation. While he spoke, he kept bouncing the basketball. I said that in India, cricket is the religion, and football is universally loved. What has drawn him to basketball? The boy looked straight at me and said, “I don’t like basketball. My mother likes the sport, though. She thinks basketball will help increase my height, but I like table tennis. One day, I will prove her wrong.”
I am grateful to this boy. His remark opened up a vista of hidden pain and also the determination to outdo one’s limitations. Khudu’s assertiveness is deeply indebted to this kid.
Jyoti Babel: Can you share a bit about your creative process? Do you have any specific rituals or routines that you follow when working on a new project?
Shiladitya Sarkar: I don’t believe in rituals. I believe in labour. So yes, routine is something I steadfastly follow. My sight problems have slowed down the stringency of the routine. Even so, it follows a prosaic pattern: read a little, write even less, and edit profusely—a series interspersed with lone, long walks and some ‘spirited’ hours in the company of great western and eastern classical masters.
Jyoti Babel: Beyond your writing endeavours, you are also a painter and art critic. How do these additional artistic pursuits influence your approach to storytelling?
Shiladitya Sarkar: Each art form has its own freedom, its own boundaries, its own uniqueness, and its own way of bleeding into other art forms.
The three practices that you have mentioned often, in inexplicable ways, shape and reshape my approach to a particular work with which I am engaged. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint how they affect the composition, texture, tonality, etc. of a particular work in a particular medium. Frankly, I don’t prefer too much discussion on this issue, for it robs the creative process of mystery. If I know for sure where I am headed, it’s better not to venture out.
Jyoti Babel: Your previous works include Thirst of a Minstrel, Abstract Reality, and Day’s End Stories. How do you see your evolution as an artist and writer from your earlier works to Clayfaces?
Shiladitya Sarkar: I have not yet measured myself on any evolutionary scale, simply because I am not yet settled. Rather, I am journeying on to discover and rediscover myself through the tools of language and the different pathways of narratology, an ongoing process without either signposts or traffic lights to warn me to stop or reverse.
Clayfaces, therefore, is one of the outcomes of this ever-churning birthing process. But once it has seen the printer’s ink, I guess it’s time to shake the monkey off my back.
Jyoti Babel: How do you balance the diverse aspects of your creative identity – writing, painting, and art criticism – and ensure each receives the attention it deserves in your life?
Shiladitya Sarkar: There are no watertight rules. It depends on my mood and the project in hand. Criticism as a mode helps me locate the flaws in my own oeuvre. The painterly eye has made me more sensitive to the visual registers of my fiction: the milieu in which the characters operate and the interiority of their mindspace. Honestly, in times of creative crisis—there are many—I pull myself back from the project in hand and return either of the two for solutions. Sometimes, by simply reviewing my paintings or those of others, I regain a sense of balance, composition, restraint, speed, pacing, and simplicity to reassess the rush of my pen or its pitiful slowness. While writing, I might spin a turn of phrase or find a metaphor that might, in turn, help clear the confusion about the ways of dealing with the pictorial space and help invest the composition with newer angularities.
Jyoti Babel: The narrative in Clayfaces heavily relies on the use of journals to unravel the plot. What sparked your decision to incorporate this storytelling device, and were there challenges in seamlessly integrating it into the overarching narrative?
Shiladitya Sarkar: The legacy of great journals runs across centuries. In the public’s imagination, Anne Frank has the most currency. Along with her harrowing account, there is, for instance, the Diary of Lena Mukhina and the Diaries of Nella Last, and of course, the two classics: The Diary of Samuel Pepys and Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.
Great as they are, undoubtedly, these accounts, along with many others, didn’t serve as a model simply because the accent of the novel didn’t deserve any appropriation.
I was sure from the beginning that I wanted the novel to be narrated from the first-person point of view. The opening part flowed from Brinda’s perspective. When I came to the second part—to tell the story from Khudu’s viewpoint—I realised that it ran the danger of recording events in a serialised form, one that would amass too many details if I followed the date/time/location pattern.
Hence, I thought of presenting the journal as though someone is reading it—in the context of the novel, either Brinda or Rupam. I hope it released the reader from the chore of reading something akin to my ‘Dear diary.’ So, to keep to this style, I had to avoid the usual tropes of a journal: date, place, etc. It would have been an eyesore to stipple the pages with such data, a technique that is valid in other contexts, in other forms of writing.
Jyoti Babel: Being based in Mumbai, how does the city and its culture inspire or influence your creative expressions, both in writing and art?
Shiladitya Sarkar: A place—with its people, its contradictions, its hesitations and inabilities, its smells and colours, its architecture, its street food, its vibrancy and its sleepiness, its splendour and squalor, its euphoria and entropy—are the first triggers for a writer to comprehend the immediate world around her or him.
I arrived in Mumbai/Bombay after many turns in my life. Its vastness compared to Kolkata was frightening.
Calcutta/ Kolkata is a city that sleeps in its own shadow. There are zones of illumined darkness and kitschy brightness, just as in any city, but their cadence is different. Those who have lived and survived its ennui, its slowness, its veiled beauty, and its silent heartbeats know it as secret love—as Albert Camus once said, “The love we have for a city is often a secret love.’
Did Bombay/Mumbai shadow me to evolve new perspectives? The city, with its indomitable spirit, its crisscrossing network of railway tracks, its jumbled-up beauty, its capitalistic excess, its Irani restaurants, its salt-water-textured air, its exhibitionism, its maddening rush, its crippling monsoons, its burden of stories through multiple migrants’ voices, its urgings to rewrite a new one, its deceit and offer, and its acceptance and denial, is a complex and invigorating tapestry. What the city has given me in its whispers and its noise is something I would like to keep to myself like a secret love. A beguiling love that often wins, at times loses to my another secret love: Kolkata/ Calcutta.
Jyoti Babel: What advice would you give to aspiring writers and artists based on your own journey in the creative field?
Shiladitya Sarkar: Nothing. I am the one who is always struggling and needs support to stay afloat.
Jyoti Babel: Are there particular authors or artists who have significantly shaped your artistic sensibilities or writing style?
Shiladitya Sarkar: There are many signposts. I will keep to a very lean list with the disclaimer that there are innumerable others who have shaped my consciousness.
Here it goes.
Writers: Dostoevsky, Chekov, Manik Bandopadhyay, Albert Camus, Italo Calvino, V. S. Naipaul, often not for his ideas but for his craft, and Jibanananda Das.
Music: Tagore, Beethoven, and Bismillah Khan.
Painting: Paul Klee, Ganesh Pyne, Ramkinkar Baij, and Alberto Giacometti
Film Directors: Ozu, Tarkovsky, Ritwik Ghatak.
Jyoti Babel: The story in Clayfaces delves into universal themes of rejection, adoration, and the complexities of human relationships. How do you anticipate readers connecting with these themes on a personal level?
Shiladitya Sarkar: I respect the readers’ agency to respond in any manner they wish to and refrain from preempting it. Every life has its own catalogue of frustrations, rejections, individual pains, and silent tears. A book of fiction is a momentary encounter. If the readers find a connection—their moments of epiphany—in their brief time with my book, I will consider myself blessed.
Jyoti Babel: Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from Clayfaces, and how do you envision your work contributing to the broader literary landscape?
Happy reading. Critical reading. As for any contribution to the literary landscape, I am not even in the wings of any stage to step on. Hopefully, through hours of labour, I will eventually put together an acre of green grass.
Jyoti Babel: Thank you for the wonderful conversation and sharing your thoughts with our readers. Wishing you all the very best for your artistic endeavors.
Genre : Fiction
Binding : Paperback (5.5″ x 8.5″)
Pages : 244 pages
Published by: Blue Pencil, 2023
More to read in Interviews
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