There is something immensly overpowering about Kalpana Swaminathan’s richly textured stories in Venus Crossing: Twelve Stories of Transit (Penguin Books, 2009) which has won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2009 in the fiction category, beating out Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals (Picador) and Mridula Koshy’s debut collection of stories If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar Press).
The stories in the collection, as the subtitle suggests, are about people (mostly women) in transit. It is about a few fleeting moments in a few individuals’ life when they happen to be on the brink of death, disaster or some tremendous transformation; the characters wilfully, and wistfully, negotitate the transit through these life-ending, life-altering moments, leaving behind a trail of engulfing emotions, forcing you to think about the exigencies of life and death — and many imponderable things in between — afresh.
Let’s begin at the beginning: “8 June 2004”, which sets the tone and tenor of the stories that follow, is integral to the collection. On June 8, 2004, the black dot of Venus defied the sun: “A black corruption in the white. Cinder in incandescence, the mote in the all-seeing eye.”
The transit of Venus, the “renegade, wanton” Venus, crossing sun’s path in a fleeting moment of darkness and incandescence! Swaminathan says: “Think of the impossibility of that! Think of the nerve of that,” adding that the first seven pages prepare you for the book which is about “ordinary people and the nerve they summon up to counter imponderables”.
In Sister Thomas and Mister Gomes, the first story in the collection, you discover what is it like to spend a few days in the knowledge of the approaching death at a hospital and a human hand that tries its best to make that passage to death a little less painful, a little less lonely.
In A Prostitute’s Tale, you meet 42-year-old Shubhada, “who had never opened her legs to any man,” being described as a “prostitute”. Not in the literal sense of the word, though. “She is an emotional prostitute,” proclaims one of Shubhada’s friends, Kokila, while bitching behind her back. Shubhada’s fault? She is a Good Samaritan who can’ bear to see, for example, a noisy set of school children getting themselves hurt on a moving train. Despite her being watchful to help avert any such tragedy, when a boy jumps to death, it’s she who, ironically, must bear the blame. Notwithstanding the fact that the boy’s own mother was on the same train.
In Incident At Abu Ghraib, Sukhi, a young girl, must hate her mother, Sakina, for blurting out before her friends that the experience of Lynndie England — the woman who is captured in some photographs pointing at a naked, masterbating man — is closer to her own experience. Sukhi hates her own mother for this, unaware of our own Abu Ghraibs — though of a different nature — that happened at a hospital where Sakina used to work. That was many, many years ago. But it had cast its shadow on Sakina forever.
Many of the other stories in the collection have similar disturbing strands — delving into the many ways life and love destroy us. Swaminathan’s felicity with language is phenomenal and you can’t help empathise with her characters in their hour of destruction and anguish.
The fate of these characters is something Swaminathan picks from lives around her. “Most of the stories in Venus Crossing are either observed or experienced. The people are all invented, but they convey what I have absorbed of life around me,” she says about these stories
which were written over 15 years, with none of them being close to their events. “To me, each of these stories is a novel. By this I mean the thought has completed trajectory, as it must in a novel,” she says.
While writing short stories is more immediate, and often reactive, Swaminathan says all good writing defies genre, and makes a permanent space for itself in the reader’s brain. “But a book has only one purpose: it must be read. To be read, it must be visible, and Indian publishing has vast stacks of invisible books,” says the author, who believes in change.
She says there’s a growing awareness among publishers that Indians writing in India do have something to say which Indians in India might, in fact, want to read, and form their own opinions. “I like to believe that, but then, like my favourite Spaniard, I always dare to dream the impossible dream,” she says.
Venus Crossing was also longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, but couldn’t make it to the shortlist. Swaminathan says it’s always “heartening” to know someone has read your book. “The short story is a national institution, and every Indian language, including English,
has its celebrants. Sure, the Irish do it very well too, and it’s very generous of them to invite the world to participate,” she says.
Reading Venus Crossing, you get to know just how the unpredictble, the abrupt turns and bends in some people’s life prove to be their nemesis, leaving their worlds topsy-turvy. Is Swaminathan fascinated by the idea of the unexpected and the myriad ways it has an impact on an individual’s life? “Yes, because I don’t think surviving is about endurance. Talk of survivors always irritates me by the passivity it implies,” she says.
In the European narrative, says the author, the Indian ethos is fatalistic and passive, enduring helplessly, existing without hope. “I’ve never met an Indian like that and I’ve lived here all my life,” she says.
Does the Indian narrative subsume the individual within her landscape? She says she disagrees with that view too. “The biological imperative is to escape pain. The individual survives by intelligent strategies to counter extinction. I’m interested in how the individual resists the pressures of the herd, peer pressures and also those of ‘tradition’, which is just a polite term for habit,” she says.
Swaminathan, based in Mumbai, is a surgeon by profession. And very often the precision with which she writes is reflective of her profession. But then, she takes writing as her profession too. “I think all professions demand the same skills, and writing is as exacting as surgery. Like most people, I too carry the joys of one job into the other,” she says.
Swaminathan is particularly happy about the Vodafone Crossword Award as it “honours English as an Indian language”. She says: “It’s also a great honour to be judged by the very people I write about, Indians in India, in the here and now.”
However, she says, it is more about reading than it is about winning. “There’s so much to celebrate in all these books, and I’m happy to see my book among them. Discovering a new writer is joyous and exciting,” says the author, who has written extensively for children too.
She finds writing for children more enjoyable. “There are no brakes. You’re writing for the most demanding and also the most indulgent readers — they will be prepared to make the most incredible leaps of faith, but they also will unerringly spot a false note,” she says.
When she and Ishrat Syed (with whom she writes with the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna) wrote Nyagrodha, a rewrite of the first text of the Panchatantra, it was a tremendous experience challenging and transforming the writing on the wall. “We’ll always write for children because we love doing it , but publishing is quite another story,” she says.
Swaminathan’s beautifully written first novel, Ambrosia for Afters, delved into the turbulence of growing up. You wonder if it had any personal parallel. How fascinated has Swaminathan been with fairytales? She says: “While the story has no personal parallel, the mileu is very familiar to me. Bandra in 1971 is as I remember it from my school days, and for added veracity, drawn heavily on the school syllabus. Fairytales, the retold version of myth, are spring-loaded with dread, a fact that children recognise. I thought it would be fun to use them to unravel the plot. The acknowledgement to the Brothers Grimm is a deep debt of gratitude.”
In Bougainvillea House, her other novel — a psychological thriller — she dealt with themes like adultery, sex and death. Did she also want to draw a doctor-detective parellel? Not quite. For Liaquat, she says, is a detective merely by chance. “He is a doctor through and through. When people talk of the doctor-patient relationship, it’s always from the patient’s perspective. Bougainvillea House explored the other side,” says Swaminathan, adding that literature demands that a doctor be either saint or monster, and she has always rebelled against that.
Swaminathan’s latest novel and the third in detective Lalli series, Monochrome Madonna, is a part psychological thriller, part mystery. Swaminathan says Lalli’s just getting started. The first chapter of the next book appears at the end of Monochrome Madonna. “This one is going to be about the case that defined Lalli’s career. It’s called I Never Knew It Was You,” she says.
The Quarantine Papers, which she wrote with Ishrat (as Kalpish Ratna), explores the corrupting effects of hate on individuals. She says the choice of a love story to do this through was absolutely crucial. “There are several love stories in the book, but the overwhelming one is our own long-standing love affair with Bombay. The Quarantine Papers explored an aspect of the city that has almost been forgotten, its integral role in creating what we recognise today as modern medicine. December 6, 1992 and its aftermath wounded the city bitterly. For 16 years, we sought the right voice for our anguish, and found it finally in a love story. The similarity between the epidemic of hate and that of disease has its parallel in the city’s own memory. And in both cases, the target was the same: the faceless citizen. The truth of event is not to be read in archived statistics, but it is always palpable in the unspoken stories of destroyed lives,” she says.
This is an email interview. But when I speak to Swaminathan, briefly, over the phone for some clarification, she asks me: “Did you read the book?”
“Yes, I did. In fact, I was reading it only last night.”
“Good. Whether you like it or not, you must read it,” she says.
“And did you sleep after that?” she wants to know.
Yes, I fell asleep as I had been up for the last 24 hours. But, to put Swaminathan’s question in perspective, if you travel with the characters of Venus Crossing through their dark moments, sharing their pain, partaking of their grief, you will be hard put to sleep. For days on end.