Life Inspired Me To Write Stories – Madhumita Ghosh
In a candid conversation with Lopa Banerjee, Dr. Madhumita Ghosh, author, Of A Man And The Mountains talks about short stories, characterization, the process of storytelling and her inspirations in life.
Of A Man And The Mountains
Author: Madhumita Ghosh
Publisher: Rubric Publishing (8 January 2018)
Short stories, or short fiction, has come a long way in the sensitive pens of Indian writers writing in English, and over the ages, the stories of R. K. Narayan, Khushwant Singh, Vikram Seth and so on have enriched the emotional landscape of short fiction through their deft storytelling. Also, among the women writers writing about the Indian cultural ethos, we have found Jhumpa Lahiri and her award-winning debut collection of stories titled ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. Kamala Das, on the other hand, primarily a poet from Southern India, had also penned short stories much before Lahiri had emerged in the literary scene, where she wrote about the dissent of feisty women amid patriarchal social structure.
In a nutshell, these writers in the Indian English writing scene, both men and women, have portrayed the unique metaphorical truths of the human experience while also subtly documenting the socio-cultural, within the tiny windows of their stories. In our current times, short fiction writing has evolved a lot in terms of experimentation in its narrative, dialogue and other elements. However, it is still the intimate storytelling prowess of the author within that tiny window that matters to a discerning reader.
While reading the debut short story collection ‘Of Man and the Mountain’ by Dr. Madhumita Ghosh (which I obtained from the official release of the book in New Delhi in August 2018), what touched me particularly is this very intimate storytelling by the author, and also her intent in writing the achingly raw and engrossing narratives of everyday humans. Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta, Professor, Dept. of English, Calcutta University and Fulbright scholar aptly sums up the stories in the books as “…racy, immensely readable stories with their crisp and compact narrative style, sometimes linear, sometimes non-linear and experimental, the concise use of dialogue and the profound ruminations”. In an intimate conversation with the author Dr. Ghosh conducted over email, she shares her journey with the stories of this collection and her inspiration behind creating the characters, among other things.
Lopa Banerjee: Madhumita di, congratulations of the publication of your debut short story collection ‘of a man and the mountains’ and the wonderful responses it has garnered from the readers. I have known you from your short fiction published online in a few journals/e-zines over the years, and also known you as a poet, academician and editor of anthologies. How do you make the transition from critical essays to poetry and also to storytelling? Is there any special process involved in this journey?
Madhumita Ghosh: Thank you Lopa. I am glad the book is getting such great response from the readers.
It is not a transition really. And there’s no special process involved in this journey either. I have simultaneously written in all three genres all along. Literary criticism, poetry and short stories. And I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey. Being first a student of literature and then a teacher, I have had a very intimate relationship with literature. My psyche was probably shaped by the works of the masters I read and studied all my life and I attempted to read those from my perspective, trying to understand that of the authors’, resulting to my critical essays. Poetry flowed from within, without any conscious effort. Poetry has always been my most favourite genre of literature. And storytelling came from my love for reading stories. Since you love reading stories, why not write them for yourself- I told myself. I wrote for myself actually. I wrote what I would like to read. But no, jokes apart, life inspired me to write stories. See, stories are everywhere, all around us. Aren’t they? I have based my stories on people I have met, life as I have seen, on my experiences of the goings-on around me.
LB: I fondly remember Neil Gaiman’s quote about the power of short stories: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and dreams.” While reading the stories, your lyrical storytelling made me frequently peep into the psyche of the protagonists and absorb their emotional journeys. What has been the inspiration behind creating these characters?
MG: I totally agree with the contemporary much acclaimed author Neil Gaiman on that. A bit out of context, but I also so relate to what he has said on reading. “I was a reader. I loved reading. Reading things gave me pleasure.” A little younger than me, he has spoken about me here too. Also, what he has said about the school books at the beginning of a session. That’s me too. Reading all the new books before classes began.
To come to what we were talking about, in my opinion, the Short Story is the most powerful and most challenging of all the literary types. So much has to be said through so little. They are little vignettes of life.
I am so glad my stories interested you enough to wish to understand my characters’ psyche. I take this as a great reward for my endeavor at telling stories of people, real people we see in life.
Most of the characters are based on people I have met. Some are autobiographical. And others have been inspired by newspaper stories, like An Unwritten Letter, The Actress and Crops for Sale.
LB: The title story of this collection of forty-three short stories, ‘Of a Man and the Mountains’ begins with poetry in all its three sections, followed by a lyrically rich, yet simple narrative seeped in romanticism. How integral would you say the poetry is in respect to your storytelling, and how did the idea of beginning the story with poetry germinate?
MG: The Mountains should take the credit there, Lopa. The mountains have made a poet out of me. I have been in love with the mountains ever since I was a child when I was taken on annual trips to the hills, the Himalayas, by my parents. I fell in love with the mountains and am yet to outgrow the romance. Every time I visit the hills I am in awe and become emotional. I have written a countless number of poems on the mountains. There’s another story in this book on more or less the same theme. Dreams and the Hills. Sheila, in the story, you can say is me; full of love and desire for the dark silent hills.
LB: In many of the short stories in the collection, including ‘Shantiniketan’, ‘The Immersion’ (based on the happenings of Durga Puja), and even in ‘Durga’, the account of an ordinary, yet feisty housewife, your Bengali ethos has been reflected and worked in perfect sync with your lyrical style of storytelling. Was it a conscious choice to weave that ethos into your lyrical short stories or did it come effortlessly?
MG: The Immersion is based on Jagadhhatri Puja. I’ll tell you a little story. This was originally a story on Kali Puja where the sculptor is so enamoured by the idol of the dark, naked Goddess he has created that he refuses to part with it for the community puja in the village. I had sent the story to The Statesman. A few stories of mine had been published in the literary section of the newspaper by then. The story was rejected on grounds of blasphemy. I rewrote the story years later.
Shantiniketan is purely autobiographical. All true, just as the names of the characters are. Durga is loosely based on someone I knew once upon a time, a political leader’s daughter.
I am a Bengali at heart and a proud one. All my stories are based in and around my city, in Bengal.
L.B: Another aspect which is notable in your debut collection of stories is the treatment of familial relationships—e.g. relationship between husband-wives, lovers, mother-daughter, that is unfolded through letters, first-person narratives, sometimes linear, sometimes non-linear storytelling. What inspired you to portray these relationships along with the epiphanies that the characters have towards the end of these stories? Do you have any particular favorite among these characters, and if so, why?
MG: Life is about relationships. And I love to study life with its many shades, dark and bright. Life is never static, never stagnant. Nor are relationships. There are the ups and downs in life, in relationships, often with a development, an outcome, a realization. When a story comes to me, it comes with the ending. Almost always I know what happens to the characters at the end.
Mrs. Sen, the protagonist of the story with the same title, is my favourite. The character has been inspired by Chapal Bhaduri, an actor I admire. The story is, in my own way, a tribute to the great actor of theatre and Jatra, the last living female impersonator in Bengali and perhaps Indian theatre. Though the two stories are totally different, it is my tribute to the extremely talented filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh. This story was also inspired by his film Arekti Premer Galpo.
LB: Also, in some stories, the element of nostalgia reigns, like in the story ‘Love Lost, and Found’, which begins with a husband’s memories of his wife on her first death anniversary. In these stories, the nostalgia is very relatable mainly because through them, the frailties, the vulnerabilities and the essential human elements are depicted. Would you say this depiction of nostalgia comes from your romantic side as a storyteller?
MG: “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday,” Janis Joplin sang. Nostalgia is always romantic. A tad foolish and impractical perhaps. But romantic nevertheless. As I am, I guess. A hopeless romantic.
LB: You also seem to draw a lot of inspiration from the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the interplay of their personal chemistry portraying their grey shades in the story ‘The Tragedy of a General’s Wife’, a moving account of a wife reminiscing the life of her husband. What would you like to say about it?
MG: Shakespearean Tragedy has intrigued me ever since my college days. And Macbeth is one which I have not only studied in great detail but have also taught to my undergraduate students for over thirty years. The play is a favourite of mine and I never tire of reading it. Critics have called Lady M the fourth witch. I beg to disagree. She is like any other woman, loving her husband with an unbridled passion and ready to go to any extreme for him; driven to insanity and death when neglected by her brave illustrious husband. I have always felt sorry for Lady M and have felt that she has been exploited and wronged. I’d rather not go on about her. It would begin to sound like a classroom lecture. I have said what I feel about her in the story. The play is no less the Tragedy of Lady Macbeth.
LB: Your stories also strike a perfect balance between the urban, semi-urban and rural. For example, in ‘Her Story’, you set the narrative in a picturesque suburban town Sonagaon, ‘Mrs. Sen’ is a tale of deception and human frailties which is very much urban, then again, ‘Crops for Sale’ and ‘The Actress’ portray underprivileged women protagonists from the fringes of society along with the underlying pathos and horrid truths intrinsic to their lives. Are these characters woven from real life or entirely fictional?
MG: Not one of the characters you mention is entirely fictional. Barring the ending, Her Story is my story. A little girl commuting every day from the suburbs to the city for her education, torn between two diametrically opposite worlds, rural and urban. That’s me.
Mrs. Sen, as I have said, is inspired Shri Chapal Bhaduri, the famous female impersonator in Bengali theatre.
Crops for Sale and The Actress are based on newspaper reports. Hapless people from the fringes of society can, and do go to any extreme, driven by poverty.
LB: Would you say you prefer the form of short fiction over novel writing? In both these forms of fiction, Junot Diaz had famously quoted: “Only one person is really allowed to speak.” It is a kind of literary dictatorship of the author that he mentions: “I too am the only one speaking, no matter how I hide behind my characters’. How much of it is true of you as an author when you pen stories?
MG: I have written a novel too. Yet unpublished. But I can say I have enjoyed writing the short stories more. You know Lopa, I am no expert, having just a single publication of fiction, but I’d like to say that it is in a short story that the author is the only one speaking. The characters in each story think, behave and say what I have envisioned them to be doing or saying. While writing the novel I felt that once created, the characters had a mind of their own and led me through situations and incidents they devised. I don’t know why, but while writing the short stories the author in me was more in control.
LB: Who are your favorite fiction writers in English and Bengali literature? Apart from the academic interest in reading their stories and novels, did they leave any emotional impact in you which might have, consciously, or unconsciously transpired in your own fiction writing?
MG: There are so very many. I’ll mention only a few. Bonophul, Balaichand Mukhopadhyay, has perhaps written the best short stories in Bengali. And Rabindranath Tagore of course. His Galpoguchha is a favourite. I still read them.
In Western Literature, there are Somerset Maugham, O’Henry, Anton Chekhov, Maupassant, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield … so many authors who I have read since young and loved forever. They all have awed me and have made an impact, of course. But I cannot say they have influenced me in my writing.
Madhumita Ghosh’s short story collection is published by Rubric Publishing, New Delhi, and is available in Amazon
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