KALA KRISHNAN RAMESH
C.K. Meena’s novels give readers the thrill of meeting new personalities, fully fleshed out characters whose thoughts we’d love to know more about.
Dreams for the Dying is C.K. Meena’s second book (third, if you count the non-fiction one on adoption). Like second books often tend to, this one has moved a noticeable distance from the first in terms of form and style. At the same time, it also confirms what you suspected with the first, that Meena’s greatest strength as a writer is her ability to create the most intriguing characters. These are people you want to follow, to peer through windows at and to eavesdrop on, these are people who do things and think thoughts that make you anxious to see what’s next.And this is precisely what makes Dreams for the Dying an unusual sort of murder mystery — a murder with its mystery ravelled into the characters’ inner lives and motivations, where the unravelling of events, the plot, that is, is of less importance than the opening up of the lives of the characters. “The first book was for my friends”, says C.K. Meena, adjusting herself against the wall, in the straight-backed position that she habitually slides into after a bad episode of spondylosis several years ago. During an hour-long interview, one grey and cool evening two weeks ago, on a balcony in one of Bangalore’s quieter areas, with birds — which figured later in the conversation — in the sky and a flowering creeper on the wall behind us, Meena said many things about her writing and her life, including a confession that she would have been a stand-up comic had she been living in the West. The new book is very different from Black Lentil Doughnuts, which was semi-autobiographical and written in a wild rush, in the way that first novels tend to be. With the second one, many things were different — not only did the form demand greater deliberation and planning, but also, the audience was larger and more varied. Excerpts from a conversation…Who is the reader you are writing for?
My favourite kind of reader is the one who will quote things back to me from my book; that is really thrilling; someone who ‘gets’ it, someone like us. I am not interested in ‘catering to a target audience’, that would kill my writing, but I do write for the kind of reader I would like.
You are a great conversationalist; you take pains to put in all the details when you are recounting something. What are the differences between telling a story and writing one? Are you interested in other people’s stories? Writing is so deliberate, one is working at it all the time, trying to create an effect, so there’s less spontaneity, but at the same time, one is also saying it out aloud in one’ s head, telling the story to an imaginary audience. I love telling stories, and hearing stories; I am a shameless eavesdropper, and I can be totally poker-faced; I can even hear things said in an undertone. Sometimes I wonder, does it seek me out!
So do you write down the things you hear? And how do you use the conversations you overhear?Yes, I do, because I don’t trust memory; in my twenties, I could remember whole conversations with all the details, but not now. I make notes; one never knows when something might come in useful. I wait till a character is fleshed out, because once that happens, the characters will tell you what they want to say, so it’s really like being led.
Are tour characters then people you have seen, met, known?In a sense, every character is “me” for the author, because it has to come from inside, and then the people you have seen and met and heard of, come in and turn it into something else, but not people as they are , just elements of them. Sometimes, a small facet of someone familiar could spark off an entire character, and then they take on a life of their own. I set everything out, make long lists of what a character likes, doesn’t like, traits, everything, I work in a lot of detail and then the character becomes real.
Your character delineation is the strength of your writing. Is this something you are conscious of?Yes, I’ve grown to realise that. I guess it’s my journalism background. I have always enjoyed interviewing and profiling, meeting and watching people, I enjoy trying to figure out people, to realize what their strengths and flaws are.
Influences?Everything I’ve read…but it’s people who have been influences, definitely teachers, including T.G. Vaidyanathan and my school principal, who taught us English, and my Poetry professor in college. I’ve been influenced by ideologies, definitely feminism and Marxism. If any ideology has made sense to me, it’s been these two.
Why are there no animals in your books?My, yes that’s true. Now, let me see, why aren’t there any animals in my books? There are cats in Black Lentil Doughnuts, I love cats. I keep the cows out deliberately, even if one were to come into my field of vision while I am writing, I would just shoo it away — I’m so afraid of this ‘India the land of cows’ thing. Also, I think my novels are so distinctly urban. But let me tell you, my next book will be very different.
Are you a writer who needs the company of other writers? Do you show your writing to fellow writers and that sort of thing?No actually, I am someone who may not be too comfortable in the company of writers, I keep away. I love the company of those who love writing, and no, I never mention my writing in public, I may talk it over with close friends.
Do you compare yourself with other writers and what happens when you do?Well, I know who’s better than me, who I can never match. I also know who I am better than. I’m very clear about where I stand, I know my place.What are the things you hate about writers and the things that you won’t do? I can’t stand a writer who strikes a studiedly ‘Indian’ pose. I won’t explain my Indianness — I believe I have the right to use any Indian language as part of my English, and I will do no explaining. If you don’t know what it means, go figure it out!
Was the second book easier? And will the next one — by the way, what is it? — be even easier, does it work like that? No actually, the second one took a lot more doing, not only because it was a murder mystery and thus needed more work, but also, it’s only the first book that come out like that, in a rush. With the second one, the work was immense. The third? Ah, yes, that’s happening, but that’s all I can tell you now, and that it’s not at all like the other two. And no, it’s not easier at all. But I am enjoying the work.