The Irrepressible Dipika Mukherjee

Dipika Mukherjee (credit Indian Consulate )

Your first novel, Thunder Demons, had been nominated for the Man Asian Longlist in 2011; and your second, Shambala Junction, just won this year’s Virginia Prize.The official announcement states: “The judges were unanimous in selecting this novel which they felt dealt with a serious subject in an imaginative way”. What is the ‘serious subject’ that you dealt with in this novel?

This is a story about international adoptions fuelling child trafficking.

The story opens in Shambala, India, with Aman, who feels burdened by his two daughters. When a third daughter is born, he leaves the newborn at an orphanage in a fit of rage. He soon realises his mistake and returns to claim his daughter, but the orphanage authorities deny having received the baby and throw him out. Aman meets Iris, the daughter of a wealthy Indian surgeon in Ohio, who is on her way to Delhi to meet her fiancé’s family; when Iris steps off a train in the middle of the night and is left behind, Aman takes her home. What follows is a thrilling chase involving an international cast of corrupt child-traffickers, intrepid child-right lawyers, Buddhist pilgrims, and parents who want to adopt Indian babies!

Dipika with her husband and sons

This novel’s opening chapter won second place in the Short Story Radio First Chapter Competition in UK in July 2010.

2015 saw the publication of both your collection of shorts, Rules of Desire and your second poetry collection, The Third Glass of Wine. You seem to travel effortlessly between genres – which is your favourite genre as a writer?

As a Bengali, I don’t find it at all astonishing to switch between genres…Tagore, the pathlighter and God in Bengali households,wrote in every conceivable genre and also started painting in his seventies! Seriously though, each of the creative genres I work in feed off each other; poetry resuscitates my soul when I am exhausted by a novel. Sometimes, tiring of the brevity of short fiction, I have to spend some time on a longer work, even if it is an academic paper. My days are divided into chunks of activity punctuated by a lot of dreaming and reading…I find it necessary to marinate my writing before putting anything into words.

You are a Ph.D in sociolinguistics and have taught in several countries for the past 18 years. Is there a synergy between your teaching/research and your creative writing?

Creative writing can be paved with so many rejections that the validations seem meager in comparison. It has been important to me in my life to have some financial independence and sociolinguistics, also because I love it so, has been very rewarding in my life. I can’t give up academics although I have lessened my teaching for the past three years and made more time for writing. When I work on an academic manuscript and a creative one at the same time, I find I have less burnout.

Almost a century back, Virginia Woolf had underlined the importance of a room of one’s own for a woman writer. As a wife and mother of two children, and as someone who has frequently had to shift base, did you have to struggle to create a writing space for yourself?

Women writers still don’t talk enough about how difficult it is to achieve a balance between home and writing. It may seem as if my published work is now miraculously getting accepted everywhere (as you said, two books were published last year, and two novels are coming out in 2016). When my children were pre-teen, I could not imagine publishing one book every year, let alone more, and all that is happening now is that I have the time to accumulate and process years of unpublished work and polish it well. As a writer, I need a certain amount of uninterrupted mindspace (I have always enjoyed writing late into the night) and now I can literally write for days without an ear out for a child harming himself or a hungry family to be fed many times a day. My husband travels on business so I have the kind of freedom that men have always had; a blissful solitude at home, to wake up and write without interruption, to eat when I want, to bathe and go out only if I want to. I love these mini-residencies I have within my own home; it isn’t possible to live inside your own mind in the same way when children are small, and it gets even worse during their teenage years.

When I first read about Naipaul and how he refused to entertain any visiting relatives in London it seemed to me so un-Indian, so badtameez. But now I understand that in order to write with the clarity and vision that he had, he tolerated no clutter in his daily life. Women rarely have that choice, even socioeconomic class cannot trump biology all the time.

Of course there are people who write a book a year and have been doing so for many years despite what else is going on in their lives. I think genre fiction can be written more quickly; when the template is unwavering and even the word count inflexible, it is like having a set of directions for where to go. But literary fiction requires one to imagine in new ways, to astonish with new ways of seeing, and in a sense, go where no one has gone before. That, for me, means thinking about a book for years and creating the conditions to write it.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Read widely. Read best-sellers and thrillers and the cheap books sold at sales; bad writing teaches you as much as good writing, but don’t feel you have to read all books to the end. Travel much and keep your life interesting. Join a critique group and have trusted readers give you feedback. Always submit work; even if it keeps getting rejected, revise and resubmit, that whole process is necessary to the honing of your art. Find people who love your work and be loyal to your network and true to yourself; the money, if at all, will follow. You will find the friendships within a supportive community of writers invaluable and the act of writing rewarding in ways you haven’t even started to imagine. Feed your soul every single day by being grateful for this life that you had once yearned for, and is now becoming a reality because you never gave up.

  • Written byDr Rituparna Roy

    Ritu lives in Amsterdam and teaches at Leiden University College and the Leiden Institute of Area Studies. An alumna of Presidency College and Calcutta University, she formerly taught English Literature and has been a Postdoctoral Fellow at The International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden. Author of two books, South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (2010); and a co-edited ICAS volume, Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010 (2013). Apart from regular academic work, she writes fiction, occasional columns on India for the IIAS Newsletter, and blogs about Indian Cinema and her life in Netherlands at www.royrituparna.com


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