Literary Review

Struggles with writing and dance

Radhika Jha.

Radhika Jha.

Radhika Jha’s arresting debut Smell came out in 1999, the same year as Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies . Arundhati Roy’s Booker win had put a glow on Indian writing in English, and books by a new set of writers of Indian origin were being sought by a fast-growing reader base. Smell went on to be noticed for its intense narration and fluid prose and was translated into several languages. Over the next 15 years, Jha wrote two more novels and a collection of long short stories. Her latest book, My Beautiful Shadow , is a cautionary narrative on consumerism. Excerpts from an interview:

What do you remember about Smell, its publication and the feedback?

I never thought Smell would get published in so many countries and get so noticed. I didn’t feel like a writer because I didn’t think I had lived enough, experienced enough, suffered enough. And most important, I hadn’t endured. I didn’t like the sheer solitude writing imposes on you. When it came out, everyone kept asking me if it was autobiographical. No one believed that it was not an autobiography. That upset me a lot. Smell has my feelings about the world in it but the plot was entirely fictional. I felt angry at how it was being misread. But being able to escape into a story was so exciting that I wanted to try it again.

How do you decide where to place your story?

The locale comes with the idea of the story. I don’t really know if there is a conscious pattern. In the first case, Smell , I chose Paris because I wanted to talk about the feeling of being a foreigner. The only places I knew as a foreigner were Kenya and Paris. So I chose them. As for setting a story in Japan, I waited a year before beginning it. I was so nervous but the voice in my head was Japanese and I couldn’t escape it.

Where does the sensory element in your writing come from?

I am fond of cooking but this is something I grew fond of during and after I began to write Smell . I discovered the world of smell when I was in Paris, and the book took me deeper into it. The sensory writing came out of the subject, something that is animal, uncivilised and supremely civilised (food and perfume) at the same time.

How do you feel about translations of your work? Do you worry about their authenticity? Do you connect to the people who translate the work?

I have great respect for translators and love working with them. I would have liked to be one myself. I don’t think any translation can be exact. If the translation moves readers, then it works. I don’t care if it is inexact, provided it makes sense in the context of the story. I think of all the wonderful books I have read and the authors I have discovered — Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Egyptian, Brazilian — and I feel so grateful to their translators. India is so rich in great regional literature that I feel angry that the government does not do more by way of translation between languages. I speak Malayalam and Maithili but can’t read either so am cut off from both my maternal and paternal literary cultures. I dance Odissi and can understand Oriya but can’t read the wealth of poetry in that language. It is very frustrating.

With My Beautiful Shadow you have come back to the universal woman’s story. Did you have a reason for placing the novel in Tokyo, like it being your current place of residence?

In My Beautiful Shadow , I return to the theme of invisibility. As to why Japan, it’s because in Japan I met several women who shopped like crazy and for a while became obsessed myself. I saw the main character Kayo in a dream one night and yet it took me a year-and-a-half to decide to write about her. This is because I was scared.

You are also a trained dancer. How do you connect this with writing?

It is a struggle to do both dance and writing, but I try. Sometimes I dance more and write less and vice versa. Writing a book and choreographing a dance have a lot in common.

Both begin with an emotion, a rasa in fact, which I try to give a form to through dance or through words.

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy and Manu Joseph’s Serious Men . I was very moved by both.

Is another book in the green room?

Yes. Two, actually.

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 12:47:03 pm |