It is a process we drop when we get distracted, but we can pick it up again; an alternating current is the experience of living in a dualistic world.
By Nawaid Anjum
London-based author Anjali Joseph, 42, writes about ordinary people — their struggles and aspirations, their quests to find magic in the everyday. Her latest novel, Keeping in Touch (Context), is a long-distance love story that unfurls in Assam and London, and is about the central human need to dwell, to belong to a place and a person. Edited excerpts from an interview with Nawaid Anjum:
Did you conceive the novel as a modern and unconventional love story?
I knew I wanted to write about Assam, and how I experienced it—beautiful and enchanting. Keteki (the protagonist) grew out of a sense of my experience of Assam as seductive, fascinating, but never quite possible to pin down, at least for me as an outsider. I wanted to create a character who had exactly that effect on other people. Of course, she is also human, so she has her own wounds and her own reasons for her patterns of behaviour. It was the title of the novel that I had in mind long before I started it, and what it meant to me was people keeping in touch with each other, but also the process inside one person of keeping in touch with herself, her inner light if you like. It is a process we drop when we get distracted, but we can pick it up again; an alternating current is the experience of living in a dualistic world.
Both Ved and Keteki are commitment-phobic, afraid of tying their happiness to someone else’s vagaries and vicissitudes. However, even as they swing between attachment and avoidance, their feelings for each other only grow. Were you interested in exploring the transformative power of love, the various ways that love changes people?
I don’t know if romantic love transforms people, but I think it can act as a catalyst. Both Ved and Keteki are carrying old images of pain and their attraction to each other and hesitation about engaging proves to be a catalyst for exploding those old pictures of suffering that they have, illogically, but in a very human manner. I also wanted to convey the mysterious telepathic way in which a relationship can grow, even when (perhaps especially when) two people are not in the same place. At least for people who are shy of commitment. The fact of absence can allow for relaxation of the usual attempts to control, and it’s almost as though their bond exists independently of what the two of them are thinking at a given time: their affection grows.
How did you hit upon the idea of Everlasting Lucifer, a type of bulb different from CFL and LED, with which Ved is associated?
You liberate Lucifer from its dark connotation to use it as a source of incandescence.
What is this inversion aimed at? Do you think it also symbolises the bright light of the awareness of the self, the light that all of us hold within or the light that love or companionship brings?
In 2015, I underwent yoga teacher training, and that’s where I learned a little about Vedanta. Electricity is a common metaphor for universal consciousness, because neither is visible, but both power other things. As for the Everlasting Lucifer, it’s from an idea for a short story that I started writing when I was eight. I’d been reading stories by F Scott Fitzgerald, including ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’, and that mood of fancy that fuses the dreams of industrialised society and something darker (the town where the diamond is located is called Hades) must have transmitted itself to me. Even an idea as pure as a consciousness that animates everything can be co-opted in some very dark ways — Lucifer was the fallen angel, who grew so proud that he defied God. There’s a beautiful line in Paradise Lost about how he ‘Dropt from the zenith, like a falling star’. But the name ‘Lucifer’ only means light-bearer, and that light is available to everyone, as long as we don’t try to use it to cause division.
There is a great deal of Assam infused in the novel. There is also a specific chapter set in rural England where Keteki meets the Irish folk singer Neil. Places and cities are central to your novels. How do you work on the poetics of places?
The chapter in the fictional country pub, the Rushcutters, in England grew out of my love of a certain mode of fiction that I think of not as magic realism, but ‘stretched realism’ — simply taking the usual orthodoxies of cause and effect and stretching them a little, to allow for some enchantment. I noticed this in the extraordinary Assamese short story ‘Patmugi’ by Lakshminath Bezbarua, and also find it in some comic novels I love, including Halldór Laxness’ Under the Glacier. Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is another novel I think of, and also plays like Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I find stories with the trope of a stranger in a new place, trying to understand the system, very appealing. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August is a great exemplar, or Natsume Soseki’s Botchan. There’s something very familiar about finding one’s surroundings strange, and trying to figure out how people work — in some ways it’s the experience of a child in the world of grown-ups. I like writing about place, and I’m sensitive to my surroundings and how my experiences interact with different places. In this novel, I thoroughly enjoyed making up the eccentric pub in Suffolk, the Rushcutters. It fit in with a mood for the book, in which magic is the everyday. This is not necessarily a theatrical magic, more the same force that makes plants grow or people fall in love, and which we like to pretend is not magic at all.
Your characters move in and out of cultures and places, both familiar and strange, and navigate their in-between worlds and their social and sexual conventions with ease. Where does this fluidity spring from? Does it have to do with your own experiences?
I wanted the experience to happen in a seamless way without continual set-up from the point of view of the reader. Also, both Ved and Keteki have long experience of being in contexts where they are not like those who surround them. Keteki was sent to boarding school, and Ved in his job is always in a new place, always an outsider. They don’t have the same expectations of being at home as people who have a more unbroken relationship with the place where they were born, and where their family has always lived. As for living in different cultures myself, I think that has been a common thing in different areas of society for a while. Just in Mumbai, think of migrants from the Konkan doing domestic work or factory work in, or migrants from Karnataka who transport small loads for the shipping industry. Once you leave home, your world is not really the same.
The novel is bold and uninhibited when it comes to the depiction of sex. How do you work on the elements of desire, especially considering it can be quite tricky in a novel meant primarily for Indian readers?
Desire drives everything, whether romantic love, creativity, or a yearning for liberation, and sex is a part of that, so it seemed important to include it. But it appears in different variants: some awkward, some less awkward, some passionate, some more routine. I tried not to worry what people would think when they read. The novel has an underlying sense of sadness at its heart; the shadows of Keteki’s difficult childhood keep haunting her throughout the novel. But it also bristles with moments of playfulness, wit and humour.
How did you balance the two seemingly contradictory veins? Was it more fun writing this novel than your previous three?
I really did have fun writing Keeping in Touch. I wanted it to be playful, and I think it is a comedy in the old sense. I also read aloud various parts of it at events while it was in progress, and it was nice to see that other people laughed too. But are sadness and laughter really contradictory? Through the journey of the novel, I wanted a reader to experience both the weight of the burdens that the characters carry in their past traumas, but also the sudden lightness from releasing those pictures of old pain. Laughter is part of that release. Under the gaze of eternity, nothing is that serious: think of the story of Krishna asking Narada to fetch him a glass of water.
As a novelist, you don’t seem to be interested in big global ideas or macro themes, but instead focus on the minute minutiae of the everyday life of ordinary individuals. How deliberate is this focus on lives being lived in the moment?
Nothing is bigger than finding contentment and peace of mind in your own life. Just look around to see some of the things that the dissatisfied do. I like dialogue, and I always wanted this to be a very talky book. Also, I love the way that people in Assam talk, so having a lot of speech in the book is a small tribute to this everyday art. I don’t see the ontology of the self as a separate internal part that one connects with; it feels more like a space or a mode that isn’t so involved with the business of having a personality. It’s not that difficult to connect with this quieter self; it’s just a matter of stopping doing other things for a few minutes and settling down.
Your characters are often discontented with life. Do you see yourself invested in your characters’ discontentment and in what they eventually make of themselves?
Perhaps these moments of drama and discontent make for better reading than an unbroken stretch of equanimity, though that’s an intriguing thought. I wonder what a novel about such a character would be like. Maybe like the film Lucky with Harry Dean Stanton in it. But also, perhaps, these dramas are something the body creates to reflect its rhythms? In all seriousness, I do think some of the drama online comes from how little exercise most of us city dwellers get. Something has to happen to trigger the release of adrenaline.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based independent culture journalist
Keeping in Touch
Pp 221, R599