Books

Gender biases do exist in how women’s writing is viewed, says author Aruna Nambiar

Aruna Nambiar

Aruna Nambiar   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The writer says both her novels revolve around the family because it plays such a crucial role in India, and even love stories can’t avoid the family angle

Moving away from her corporate career, Aruna Nambiar nurtured her flair for words and became an author in 2014. Her first book, Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth, a satire, was a coming-of-age story about a young girl’s discovery of the world around her during a vacation in her ancestral house in Kerala. Her second one, The Monsters Still Lurk, is about living, loving and dealing with loss. Covering a period of 25 years, the book, set in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai and in a small town in Kerala, punctuates milestones in the protagonist Vivek’s life with important events in India’s political, social and economic landscapes.

Aruna was in the city to attend a literary fete. In an email interview, Bengaluru-settled Aruna says though she had always been scribbling diary entries and poems, “writing was never a career I entertained seriously, and so I did the whole engineering-management-corporate career thing — an experience I am very grateful for, although I soon got tired of the rat race.” That is when writing came back into her life and soon the two novels and many short stories, published and unpublished, followed.

Edited excerpts from the interview...

The Monsters Still Lurk deals with the ups and downs of an upper-middle-class family in India, all narrated with a light touch. Even death and illness have a matter-of-fact tone about it...

My natural inclination has always been to write in a light, humorous tone. When I set out to write The Monsters Still Lurk, it was with the intention of writing a funny story about life and ageing. The subject naturally meant I would need to confront some dark themes, but I was determined that I would keep the tone light and unsentimental. To me, being able to write about dark circumstances in a light vein represents a triumph of humour, just like being able to laugh during troubled times represents the triumph of the human spirit. Part of the reason I wanted to write this book was because I wanted to capture the essence of some of the delightfully stoic, practical and upbeat people who deal with all of life’s travails with a shrug and a wink.

‘The Monsters Still Lurk’ by Aruna Nambiar

‘The Monsters Still Lurk’ by Aruna Nambiar   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Any reason why you chose a male voice to narrate the story?

I thought it would be interesting to change things up — as a writer, you want to constantly challenge yourself, and to write authentically in the first person in an almost memoir style as a male narrator would test my skills, I thought. The male voice also lends itself well to the unsentimental narration I was striving for — although men feel as deeply as women, they often tend to express themselves less emotionally.

Both your books centre around the family and its trials and tribulations.... and small-town Kerala features in both.

Family, nostalgia and humour have been common to both my novels although this was quite by accident. When I set out to write The Monsters Still Lurk, I meant to write a funny story about ageing but as I developed the story, I realised that there were so many aspects of ageing I wanted to explore, that I needed multiple characters and a longish span to tell the story — and thus the multi-generational family saga was born. I suppose it’s because family is such a central part of Indian life that even a love story seems incomplete without a family angle. And for someone who writes in a humorous tone, families are irresistible — with their quirky characters, hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies, families are ripe for satire!

Kerala is, of course, in my blood — although I’ve always been a non-resident Keralite, it has been the locale of many happy childhood vacations and more recent visits and holidays, so it definitely holds a special place in my heart. It seems inevitable that it would feature in at least some of my fiction.

A few of my favourite reads
  • This is a list that is ever-changing and always incomplete. All-time favourite authors include PG Wodehouse, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier, RK Narayan, Vikram Seth and Bill Bryson — I like almost everything they have ever written.
  • My other all-time favourite reads include: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; English August by Upamanyu Chatterjee; Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto; Evening is The Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan; Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey; We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; The Help by Kathryn Stockett; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby; On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes.

Any plans to move to a new genre?

New themes, certainly. I’m still in the very early stages of weighing new ideas, but I feel the next novel will probably be more modern and perhaps not so family-oriented. I’ve also been writing the odd short story, but publishers are lukewarm about short story collections these days – so who knows?

There is a tendency to categorise books written by women about women and families as chick lit while similar books by men haven’t been bestowed such epithets...

Labels are diminishing, sometimes dismissive (as in the case of ‘chick lit’) and they serve only to limit your readership. The Monsters Still Lurk, for instance, is a family story, certainly, but being set against the backdrop of a quarter century of post-liberalisation India, it also captures a lot of the social, economic and cultural transformation that Indian society has gone through.

It touches on many themes, as well, from social change to loneliness and depression. But it is also a humorous story – I’ve discovered that humour is something many people don’t expect women to write. But the best ‘chick lit’ is often very witty — remember Bridget Jones’s Diary? If it had been written by a man, or about men, it would probably have been hailed as a comic classic. So, gender biases do exist in how women’s writing is viewed as compared to men’s writing, and perhaps dropping labels will be the first step to levelling the field.

Do you think Indian writing in English has come of age with writers of all ages getting published and publishers making a profit as well?

It is heartening to see book stores and libraries brimming with Indian writing, and to see readers connecting with Indian themes and stories. The increasing popularity of regional works translated into English is also an encouraging sign. However, I do think that publishing is still in its teething stage – we need more professionalism, less quantity and better quality of books being published and we need to sell books in much larger numbers before it can be a sustaining, profitable business in the long term. I expect we will see much flux in the publishing industry before we can truly say it has come of age.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 10:41:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/author-aruna-nambiar-on-writing-about-families-and-her-craft/article30809370.ece

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