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Updated: February 1, 2014 19:58 IST

‘English is the world’s mirror’

Vasudevan Mukunth
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Illustration: P. Manivannan
The Hindu Illustration: P. Manivannan

Rukmini Bhaya Nair talks about her debut novel and her love for English as a language.

Mad Girl’s Love Song marks the breathtaking debut of Delhi-based scholar and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair as a fiction-writer. The book is a brazen display of the author’s love of the English language, but also spares no effort in disrobing post-colonial India’s inapposite obsession with it. Excerpts from an interview:

What inspired you to write Mad Girl’s Love Song?

For a long time, I’ve taught and been involved with English literature, and been talking about the psychological impact of the language on Indian minds, particularly those engaged with literary enterprises. Now, the novel is the best modern art form to explore the interiors of minds. With this, I wanted to see if I could stretch the form of the novel, and think about English in relationship with other languages.

What prompted the choice of Plath, Blake and Lawrence as your subjects?

This novel is conceived of as part of a trilogy — I wanted to spiral back in time and look at the history of colonisation to understand its psychic and cultural impact. I wanted this novel not to be set only in the present but also in past locations, in locations available to us only textually. Plath belongs to the early 20th century, Lawrence to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Blake belongs to the 18th. We are going back and forth between the early periods of colonisation. That’s one reason. Another is that all three were considered very odd as people. Plath was, well, mad. Blake would have been considered to be on the outer fringes of normalcy today. And Lawrence was challenging all the normative conventions of his time and society.

Is there anything that drew you to their madness?

There are other great writers, but they are all accessible, their traditions of literature are accessible, and that doesn’t lend emphasis to the kind of madness I have in my subjects. It was also very important that these three were poets, and Lawrence came last [in the sections of the novel] because he wrote poetry as well as prose. The condition of the central character — who is traumatised because she witnessed the death of her mother and was then alienated from her father and put in a convent — is in a way a negotiation of the individual and cultural trauma, and has to do with the articulation of psyche, which is not easy.

When you write that kind of novel you expect the reader to struggle, it’s a textual jungle with dangers available everywhere. You have to have an investment as a writer in exploring this sense that you are negotiating, and that’s something as a literary critic you face: a crisis being solved through the medium of books.

So the book was always more than a plot, intended to be an immersive reading experience while you were writing it?

That’s a good word: an immersive reading experience. In fact, I’m reminded of an interview of John Nash. He saw people when there were no people and what he said is, “I’ve learnt to deal with this”. In the same way, there are people Pari talks to, and their questions like “What is the nature of love?” are her questions, too. At the end, she is ready to see reality. The characters are all still there but they are not going to dominate. There is a sense of hope and openness, and hope can’t come without the struggle.

So, too, for the reader?

It’s not that any sentence is difficult or the language is difficult. It is that what you’re exploring is difficult. The complexity lies not in the academic aspect (which I’ve banished) but much more in the arena of fantasy, a mark of moving in and out of ‘the real’, a dialogue between the real and fantasy, love and the lack of it, within these dichotomies. In some way, you can look at the novel as having these little clearings in the midst of psychological confusion where light shines. I don’t expect thousands of readers after this but… [Laughs] I’m looking at areas of exploration. The emotions of language are central to my writing.

Is there something to take away from Pari being a girl?

Yes. Gender is central to my writing, and I chose a young child-woman to be the central character. It has a kind of vulnerability that, again, needs to be negotiated.

There are two worlds in this book — there’s English literature from three distinct eras and there’s an India yearning for a language that’s become something of an acquired taste — and you’ve tied these worlds together. Why does this union interest you?

I fear that we’re going through a revolution, two-pronged. The first is the tech. revolution, with phones and the Internet, etc. This is at the top. At the bottom, there’s another struggle: a struggle for entitlement, a struggle to occupy political space, a struggle to have a voice. And I think the intellectual revolutions are going to come from textual insertions into the canons, from new ways of approaching text, to understand the psychology of trauma and exclusion. This novel is from the top (it’s in English).

I think in India we’re seeing the dialogue between the technological elite and the non-technological ‘forces’, a transformation. Dalit writers are saying they don’t want to write in the language of the elite bhashas, that they want to bypass them and go straight to English as a language. Those to me are linguistic concerns: Dalits are talking about English as a liberating force. For me, it’s an imprisoning force. English is the world’s mirror. And in the confrontation of social realities, it’s never that affect is separate from the expression of affect. I see Mad Girl’s Love Song as looking out for myself.

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