My guest this month, Abha Iyengar is an award winning, internationally published poet, author, essayist and a British Council certified creative writing mentor. She has published several books. Yearnings (Serene Woods, India, 2010); Shrayan, (Blue Pumpkin, India, 2012);Flash Bites (AuthorsPress, India, 2013); Many Fish to Fry, (Pure Slush, Australia, 2014); The Gourd Seller and Other Stories, (Kitaab, Singapore, 2015). Her work has also appeared in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Cha-An Asian Literary Journal, Arabesques Review, Litro India and others. Her story, The High Stool, was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. She is a Kota Press Poetry Anthology contest winner. She received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship for 2009-2010. She was a finalist at Flash Mob 2013, an international event. Her short story, The Marshlands, was shortlisted in the DNA-Out of Print contest 2016. Her film, Parwaaz, has won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece. Abha is a social activist who is against all forms of aggression and injustice.
SR: You write poetry, screenplays and fiction, yet your favorite form of writing is flash. What is the reason? Is it because it’s easier to convey your message through flash fiction than the other forms?
AI: I began writing flash from the time I began writing seriously, and I took to the form like a duck takes to water, to make a clichéd observance. My flash fiction has been published widely since the last 15 years. Flash Bites is a collection of some of these pieces. I am one of the few contemporary writers of flash fiction in India, where it is still a new form and not very understood here.
Flash is, as someone said, ‘deceptively complex’. It requires the writer to choose each word carefully, to convey the story well while exercising brevity. I write flash fast, and then work on it, chipping away at it and honing it till I get the required piece. It’s short and hence does not take as long as a short story to write. Yet, many fail miserably at this art form, for indeed it is one.
SR: You speak up for the downtrodden and less fortunate. This can be hard, since most people might not value your work. How do you stay focused and true to your beliefs in the face of criticism?
AI: I think every writer writes with the less fortunate in mind. I cannot think of any writer who is not an activist at heart. One may not always lay it all out in front, that’s all. The thought processes of the readers have to be awakened and made aware, and the change may be slow, but it should be long-lasting.
Readers must read between the lines to get the message. I am an author, a teller of tales, not a preacher. I do not shout out from the pulpits about what needs to be changed.
Everywhere in our country and outside as well, you come across stale and outdated ideas. Through our writing, writers can create awareness and change. I try to do that, in a subtle but more staying way.
SR: When does activism cease? Or is it an ongoing process that is part of you, like breathing? How do you incorporate this in your writing?
AI: I do not consciously incorporate activism in my writing. But when I speak of the situations in the existing social systems, where women, the poor and the marginalized are the ones who are scorned and mistreated, obviously my voice conveys the pain and the imbalances of society. Take almost any writer, and you will find that s/he speaks from the viewpoint of the vulnerable.
SR: What are your preferred topics to write about, and why?
AI: My stories are largely woman-centric. This is because I espouse the cause for women. For example, I have no idea why a woman is not paid for doing housework. That would attach some value to the mundane and soul-deadening tasks she does as a matter of expectation from others. She is always the available fall guy. Age-old expectations lie at the root of society. Women try to find their intellectual outlets in cooking, cleaning and supervising household help, if they are lucky enough to have that. Women as leaders are not accepted with grace; they are expected to be a part of the herd.
Domestic violence is often the norm. From the stories I have heard, it forms a part of many women’s ‘normal’ lives. So the sickness in society pertaining to women is great, it’s in the mindset. And this mistreatment and violence is also meted out to other vulnerable sections of society: the labourers and farmers, the lower castes, the uneducated and the poor…
SR: You are now a freelance editor. Why did you choose to freelance and not continue working with publishing houses?
AI: Freelancing has its advantages. I can make myself available as an editor to a larger section of writers and I can pick and choose my clients. I sometimes do not wish to undertake an assignment, and this gives me the freedom to refuse. And my time is my own. The drawback, as with all freelance work or business, is that I have to send a call out and make writers who need editors become aware of my existence, availability and rates.
SR: As a writer and editor, how do you create a balance in your own writing? When do you know when too much editing is happening?
AI: Editing my own work is tough. But there always comes a time when you know you have done all you can. You have to stop somewhere. Also, over-editing can turn your writing into a shell of what you want to convey, so you have to be careful about where you draw the line. It is a balancing act. Publishing houses have their own in-house editors, and so the process begins again once you send your work in for publishing.
SR: What are some of the difficulties you encounter in conducting creative writing and poetry workshops? What aspects are most discussed by your participants?
AI: I do not encounter any difficulties since I enjoy these workshops. Different students have different issues, but usually it is a matter of using the language well. Students lack a command over language, which is so essential for good writing. In order to write you have to be a reader first. Many students have only a desire to write, but have not read enough. But they are enthusiastic and that is a big plus.
As far as stories are concerned, most students struggle with the ending. They don’t know how or when to complete a story. Then again, many have a psychological block about reading and writing poems. My workshops help break all kinds of blocks.
An excerpt from Chapter 13, titled ‘Butterfly, Dog, SS’, from ‘Many Fish to Fry’
Reena returned from the local market and stood waiting near the lift, two huge bags filled with provisions on either side of her. Whatever else one does, food always comes first, she thought. She wiped the sweat from her brow with her small, embroidered handkerchief. This was her latest ‘thing’.
She had been a tissue user for a long time, but now she was following her latest craze, the desire to use pretty handkerchiefs. One has small indulgences, such as tea and hankies, and these have to be a part of life, otherwise… She looked ruefully at the two bags, heavy and bulging with her purchases.
The lift was taking its sweet time coming. Someone came up to her and said, “Hell-llo, Madam.”
She looked at the man standing to her side. “Hello, Mr Banerjee,” she said.
“Why the formality with me, Madam? I’m just Harinmoy to you. These are your packets?”
“Yes, my bags,” she said.
She was tired and her feet ached. Shopping in the sun was not a joke.
“You do whole month shopping today?” he smiled. His teeth were orange against his dark lips. She was sure he had asupari tucked in somewhere, which he would chew upon as soon as he stopped talking.
She wanted to tell him that a full house meant provisions that finished fast and had to be replenished with alarming alacrity.
“You live alone, I suppose,” she said instead, wondering why she was talking with this fellow.
“Yes, Madam, I see you are SS yourself.”
“You mean Super Sleuth like you?” She smiled at the idea.
“Ah, smiling, Madam, but it is serious, is it not, dear?”
Reena stopped smiling. Oh god, she thought, this dear business, where the hell has he picked that up?
“I am alone, Madam, that is why I can flit like a butterfly from job to job. My cases are all over India, you see. And may soon happen outside India too.”
She imagined butterfly wings on this short, plump man in yellow shirt, bright blue pants and white patent leather shoes. Well, he was colourful, but she wasn’t that sure of his wing-flapping abilities.
The lift arrived, with its customary ‘ping’. Reena bent to pick up her bags.
Harinmoy said, “I am strong, Madam, please, let me…” and picked the bags up from their handles. She did not protest.
When they arrived on the 6th floor, he heaved the bags to her front door. She turned the key to the door and he brought the bags inside.
“Thank you,” she said, “that is very kind of you…”
“No problem, Madam, Prateeksha’s friend… also my friend.”
“I am more her neighbour,” she said, for she could hardly consider herself to be Prateeksha’s friend.
She did not want to be rude. After all, he had helped her with the bags.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked.
“Yes, Madam,” he said, and sat down on the sofa.
She had no choice now. Not wishing to enter her bedroom while this man sat on the drawing room sofa, she splashed some water on her face from the kitchen sink, dabbed her handkerchief over her face and put it on the counter. Then she filled the saucepan with water and placed it on the stove.
Here’s a poem that was first published in Reading Hour.
I do not find myself
Dangling from your fingertips anymore
The cigarette that you could put
Forever to your lips
One end to suck from
The other end glowing because of it,
So full I was of loving.
You drew in love
And blew out smoke.
I have curled like wisps over your head
And then you tapped the ash, drew the last drag,
Flicked me out with your nail.
The passer by, a starving old rogue
Put me to his lips and then spat
I was brown waste in his mouth.
Those wisps of smoke that hover around your eyes
Are new, but don’t forget, burnt out ghosts
Come and claim their dead. See your fingers shake
And know this. My blue-eyed lover,
My black-lipped hero,