Friday, November 07, 2008

Q&A with Manjula Padmanabhan

[Excerpts from a Gmail chat with Manjula Padmanabhan, mostly about her new novel Escape. G-chat is not a forum that’s very conducive to an organised, linear discussion, so I’ve had to restructure a lot of the conversation.

A quick summary of the book: Escape is set in a land where women have been eliminated and where cloned generals maintain a smooth-functioning dictatorship. A young girl named Meiji, who has been secretly brought up on an estate, makes a perilous journey to a distant city in the company of her uncle Youngest. Along the way, she must understand her own uniqueness and deal with ideas that she was never brought up to imagine. Meanwhile, Youngest’s own internal conflict – his moral sense of his responsibility to Meiji clashing with the fact that his body is aroused by her proximity – makes the book more than a straightforward morality tale. More in this earlier post.]

Like your play Harvest – about organ-selling in an imaginary future India – Escape is a bleak dystopian tale. What does this type of story help you achieve as a writer?

I don't think I set out to write dystopia-lit. It's sort of the other way around – an idea occurs to me, e.g. the organ transplant trade in Harvest, and as I try to frame a story, it becomes necessary to reach outside the frame of current reference.

In the case of Escape, the idea presented itself originally as a newspaper "middle", which would take the form of a page from the diary of the last Indian woman left alive. It was just the fingerprint of an idea I had around the turn of the millennium, when there was talk of the Year – or Decade – of the Woman and I kept thinking that despite all the positive stuff going on, it seemed more likely that women – Indian women anyway – appeared to be on the decline.

So that was the context. I didn't get around to writing that middle, but around 2006 I began to think of turning that idea into a novel. While looking at it from that angle, the woman's age dropped down, she acquired uncles, the world changed around her... and so on.

The cover jacket suggests that the declining sex-ratio of the real world provided a starting point for the novel. What concerns you most about attitudes to women in less-developed countries?

Well, book jackets tend to say things like that, and maybe, in a certain way it's true – because after all, the idea presented itself as being about "the last Indian woman" precisely because the declining sex-ratio suggested that there might some day be an end-point. But I'm not sure I see issues in such macro terms. I mean, I don't think I entered the space of the story as a sociologist. More as an...explorer. When an idea – or a character – presents itself for exploration, my attitude is one of curiosity: I follow it to the extent that it interests me. I don't start with a series of concerns about, e.g., women's issues.

One way of putting it might be that the statistics of female infanticide and the starkness of the choices facing families and mothers-to-be of daughters created an emotional climate that brought the book into being. But you know, in the end the context is just that – like the "soup" in a petri dish, it provides an environment in which an idea can grow.

We once discussed the film Matrubhoomi, which took a similar idea – a world where women are in short supply – and made it trite, painting all men as caricatures. In Escape, the portrayal of Meiji’s uncle Youngest adds complexity to the story.

The creation of Youngest was very spontaneous ...a defining incident right in the beginning occurred, a scene between him and Meiji, and his development and his relationship with Meiji curved outward from that point in a very natural way.

I still haven’t seen Matrubhoomi, but reading your blog entry reminded me of my own response to Daayra, and I can quite imagine what the treatment was like. It seems to me that there's a genre of film which appears to be about supporting women's issues but are instead used as a method of showing women being humiliated one way or another, for entertainment.

Escape is a very adult work. In India, science-fiction has often been seen as a genre for young readers. Is this something you believe is changing?

I don’t know. I suspect this book may well be dismissed as SF, but I can't help that. I anticipate that serious readers over the age of 40 will find it hard to engage with it, because the older generation of Indian readers tend to comprise people who think of reading as a sober activity – perhaps because it used to be a medium for scholarship and study rather than for personal entertainment. When I think about people in my age-range (I'm 55) there aren't very many I know who read science-fiction or fantasy on a regular basis. That's certainly changed for younger, post-Independence-era Indians.

It’s a pity that "serious" and "entertaining" are often viewed as mutually exclusive.

Yes...I don’t know if Escape is an entertaining book, but it's not scholarly either. It requires the reader to stretch his/her imagination. It offers a type of pleasure that (I believe) is specific to literature – not funny-haha entertaining, but it tickles nerves that all of us have, but not all of us can access consciously.

For instance, I found it quite weirdly pleasurable to write it. It was like a continuous adventure, exploring this WORLD.

Given that some younger readers might pick this book up, do you ever feel self-conscious when you are writing the edgier passages – such as the bathing scene between Youngest and Meiji?

No. I feel my responsibility as a writer is to be true to the moment. That doesn't mean that I throw in every bit of salacious detail that I can scrape up but I won't flinch away from what must be described. I don't tiptoe around those scenes as if they were different to any others but I do look for inconsistencies in language that may arise out of the very different expectations people have when thinking about or describing intimate matters.

I am not especially worried about young readers innocently wandering into this book. It doesn't look like SF and I think its pace wouldn't be inviting to teen-readers. Of course there's a constant risk of books being picked up and read by the "wrong" audience, but as an author I must hope that parents won't leave books lying around for their young children to pick up, if they feel their children might be damaged by them.

Who are your favourite authors in science fiction and fantasy? Do you follow any of the newer Indian writers in the genre?

I reviewed an early book by Priya Sarukkai many years ago, but aside from that, no I haven't read these young authors. I used to read much more science fiction than I do now (age? Hmmm) – there was a time when it was what I always sought out. But I read much less in general now. I read omnivorously and tend to graze a lot. I liked Iain Banks' The Algebraist. I was an extreme (Star) Trekkie for a while and also a total Star Wars groupie. Then there’s Doris Lessing's Shikasta quintet, which left a very deep impression, as did Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. But I don't think I especially respond to influences. I tend to be very alone with my writing.

You’ve worked as a cartoonist (the comic strip Suki), playwright, novelist, a writer of children’s books and dark science fiction. Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do in future?

I don't set out challenges for myself. I think of myself as an extremely lazy, slow-moving entity for whom the slightest effort is a chore. (I believe that I belong to a little-known branch of the evolutionary tree, descended from the Primordial Sloth.) So I never peg out a course of future activity. I wait around for ideas to come along and ride me – force me to my feet and get me to the destination they want to go to.

I don't, by the way, think that I wear different hats – I believe all my work, writing or drawing, is pretty much the same material, but presented in different forms. If you strain very hard, you can hear echoes of Suki humour in the way Youngest speaks.

I really rather adore Youngest, I have to admit.

Interesting you say that. Did you at any point feel that you had to choose between him and Meiji as your story progressed? They are both strong characters with their own internal dilemmas, and there is friction between them by the end.

No, I don't struggle over who gets to lead in a dance of characters – I wait for the logic of a situation to work itself out. The places where I paused, thought over and back-tracked were (for instance) the Swan's Nest episode, when I felt I was veering off course, following storylines that weren't relevant. But with interactions between the characters, I take the view that once I've set them up on the "board" they have a certain amount of autonomy. I give them personalities and then create mini-movies in my mind of how those characters might behave. Then I describe those scenes in words.

Have you begun work on the sequel?

*nervous grin* Err ... well ...I know what will happen, let's put it that way.

Actually, I only began to realise the potential for a sequel around the time I reached the Swan's Nest episode. I had expected to describe Meiji and Youngest's life in the City in some detail, but by the time they got to the City the book was already quite long. No way I was going to be able to complete the cycle in this book!

But there'll only be a sequel if this book does well. Whatever that means. I can't bear the thought of writing a book for which there's no market. This happened with the second of the two "Mouse" books – Macmillan Children's Books – and I absolutely do not want to repeat that experience. If this book just vanishes into the gloom, I will simply close shop (on this story) and write something else.

[Some earlier conversations with writers: Vikram Chandra, Kiran Desai, Amitava Kumar, Mohsin Hamid, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh]

[Manjula photo by Priyanka Parashar]


  1. Hi Jai

    I must admit i haven't read any books of Manjula P, but wanted your views on whether you see a similarity in themes or body of writing between some of Atwood's books like Oryx and Crake or Handmaid's Tale. Dystopian, feminism, environmentalism etc. Going by what i read in the interview and elsewhere, there seems to be a few resemblances


  2. Vamshi: unfortunately I haven't read much Atwood (only Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin among the novels), but yes, there are similarities between Escape and Handmaid's Tale. And Atwood has worked in many different genres too. But from what little I know about her, I get the feeling that she's a more political writer than Padmanabhan is - more willing to wear her concerns about issues on her sleeve. Don't know if that's an accurate impression.

  3. sounds an interesting read. ialso havent read any f her works but I must say the theme is soo soo similar to Brian Vaughan's comic Y the Last Man..which i have read completely..its unfair to compare her book with the comic but i wanna see hw she covers some themes.

  4. I just finished reading Escape and was completely rivetted. The plot was refreshing as most of the woman writers I have read do not move beyond the family and the different complexities that revolve around the same. Though I felt that the interview passages were quite abrupt and vague, the rest of the plot was weaved seamlessly.

    Joy always,