[Excerpts from an email Q&A I did with the writer Rahul Mehta for The Hindu Literary Review. Mehta’s short-story collection Quarantine is about young gay men and their relationships with their families and lovers. It’s a tender, insightful book and represents a coming out of sorts for Mehta, a US-based lecturer whose relatives in India don’t yet know that he is homosexual]
When did you first develop an interest in writing, and specifically creative writing?
I’ve always been a writer. Even when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I was telling people that I was going to be a writer. In ninth grade we had to do a research project on a career that we were interested in and we had to shadow an individual who was working in that career. When we had to submit our proposals, I chose “writer” and my teacher wrote back, “That’s not a career. Choose something else.” So I shadowed an advertising executive.
To be fair to my teacher, I don’t think she was necessarily trying to discourage me. I think she was just trying to get me to be practical, to save me from a difficult path. She herself was a writer, so she knew how difficult it is. Much later, in grad school, one of my professors said she always tells her students who want to become writers, “If you can do something else: do it. If you can’t: God help you, and welcome.”
At risk of sounding reductive, was there a connection between your initial realisation that you were gay and your taking up writing? Was there ever a period of confusion and uncertainty, where writing helped you come to terms with your sexuality?
I do think that there is a connection. Being gay forced me early on to question one of the most fundamental aspects of who I am. Naturally that sense of inquiry extended to other areas as well. I think it led me to ask bigger questions about everything around me. I once had this boss who, ticking items off on her fingers, said, “Gay, Indian, raised in West Virginia...of course you ended up a writer!” I think what she meant was that it was only natural for me to turn to writing as a way to try to make sense of these various experiences and these various selves.
Were these stories written partly to “come out”, to announce your sexual identity in a public space? Or was the sexual orientation of the characters incidental to the whole?
I would definitely say the latter. My intent, always, first and foremost, is to tell a compelling story. Sure, I’m drawn to certain types of narratives and characters, but I never set out writing a story with a specific purpose other than to craft a compelling narrative. In fact, I rarely even know what a story is going to be about when I sit down to write it. The seed for a story is usually a first line that I find interesting in some way, that has some tension, perhaps in the sounds of the words or in the relationship between characters. Then I let whatever tension is inherent in that sentence lead me to what should come next. At least with first drafts, I’m very much a sentence-to-sentence writer.
A writer I admire named Gary Lutz once described a similar process. He said when writing a sentence he generally puts down a word and then he tries to figure out what word that first word yearns for. That’s the word he used: “yearns.” I love that.
Over how many years were the stories in Quarantine written? Which is the earliest and which the most recent?
I’m a pretty slow writer. Not only that, I’m pretty demanding of myself, so I end up throwing out much of what I write. For that reason, the nine stories that finally made it into the collection span a pretty long period of time: almost nine years. The earliest story is “The Better Person”; the most recent is “A Better Life.” It’s funny because when I was editing “The Better Person” for the collection I felt very critical toward it. It felt very far away from who I am as a writer now, since it’s been almost nine years since I wrote the first draft. I thought to myself, That’s not the story I would write today; it would be totally different. But at the same time, there are things I love about the story that I think come from my being much younger when I wrote it. It has a certain energy and velocity that I like, a certain unbridled passion.
One thing that struck me is your beautifully empathetic depiction of lonely, elderly people. These stories are about marginalised people in general. Are you particularly interested in themes like isolation and personal dislocation?
Yes, absolutely, I do think those are themes and characters I’m particularly drawn to. Perhaps it comes from my growing up feeling so much like an outsider—brown-skinned in a small West Virginian town that was overwhelmingly white—and witnessing so many of my relatives and Indian family friends who seemed, in some way or another, to be outside as well. I grew up with my father’s parents living in our house. I often wondered what it might have felt like to them to land in this tiny southern American town after five decades of living in Mumbai.
The tone of the stories “The Cure” and “What We Mean” is more wry and playful than the others. Were you trying to be more experimental when you wrote them?
Yes, I do think both those stories have a somewhat different feel than some of the others. They are much more language-driven than plot-driven. They are of-a-piece with a whole slew of shorter works (two to four pages long) that my editor and I eventually decided to cut from the collection because they seemed too different in tone and style than the other stories. Writing these pieces, I was very much influenced by writers like Lutz, whom I mentioned earlier, as well as Lydia Davis, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Amy Hempel — writers whose sentences have a sculptural quality and a close attention to sound.
There is a bit of sex in the book, but nothing that’s very explicit. Was that a conscious decision?
Several people have made this comment to me, that there isn’t much sex in the book and that what’s there is tasteful. I’m glad to hear it. What it says to me is that the sex doesn’t jump out or distract or hijack the narratives which, as we’ve discussed, aren’t really about sexuality at all. I think my mom would disagree with you, though. Just yesterday she was complaining to me, “Why so much sex?” But maybe, being my mother, she reads it differently than the typical reader. At any rate, I didn’t make a conscious decision one way or another about how much sex to include in the book. But I do think it’s really tough to write about sex.
What is your overall impression of attitudes towards homosexuality in India? The Supreme Court judgement legalising homosexuality last year was a welcome step, but it also caused paranoia in conservative circles. Then there was the recent case of a professor who committed suicide after being fired by his university.
I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Dr Siras, and I was shocked by the vicious harassment he endured from the students. Does this event, and the paranoia and uproar you referred to, reflect widespread attitudes toward LGBT people in India? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’ve traveled all over India with my partner, Robert, and we’ve rarely felt comfortable being truly open about our relationship. At the same time, Robert and I feel the same discomfort in non-urban areas of the U.S. as well. If we are traveling in America, we will never check into a motel in a small town and ask for a single, king-sized bed. We always take the room with two double beds without making a fuss about it.
Have many of your relatives in India read the book? How have they reacted?
I’ve been a total coward when it comes to talking to my relatives in India about the book or about my sexual orientation. I still haven’t told them about either. If they’ve seen the book or seen any of the press, they haven’t mentioned it to me. Honestly, I don’t know how they will react. I guess I’ll find out when I come to India next month. But I have faith in them. I know that they love me, and in the end I do think that that trumps everything. Whatever political and social hang-ups people may have, if they love you, they find a way to understand. I’ve seen this again and again with people in my life. And of course, this extends far beyond sexual orientation. Family members who truly love one another accept each other for who they are, whatever that might be.
Do you read much Indian writing in English? Is there anyone whose work you’re especially impressed by?
Arundhati Roy is basically a minor deity in my eyes. The God of Small Things is one of my all-time favourite novels, and her nonfiction writings and her social and political activism are tremendous inspirations to me. Her work is swelling with generosity and kindness. There are so many works by Indian writers from which I’ve taken inspiration—Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children come to mind. More recently I’ve loved Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics, Githa Hariharan’s In Times of Siege, and the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which I teach in one of my classes). As for poetry, I love Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri as well as anything by Agha Shahid Ali.
[Will post a review of Quarantine soon. Also read this fine piece by Mehta about his coming out to his parents]