Q. Your novel, A Bad Character took me in as soon as I read the first page. I couldn’t stop reading. Where did the protagonist, Idha’s, voice come from?
It’s hard to say with any certainty. At first I was going to say: I don’t know, because it happened that I had a year where the voice wasn’t right and then one morning the voice was found; the moment I sat down and wrote the line “Him and me, (long dead), sitting in the café in Khan Market the day we met”, the voice was all there. Still, to say it came out of nowhere would be a lie. Things were building to that point, impressions, ideas, frustrations, a million calculations going on in the head until the code is cracked.
Really though, I think a lot of the voice comes out of film. It’s the voice of image, not narrative, and it came out of imagining the novel as a film, seeing it this way in my head. Pickpocket, La Jetee, the films of Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiaou-Hsen, Jia Zhangke, Jacques Audiard, Alain Renais, Claire Denis. They all contributed to the way I saw the novel, and I wrote it from fragments of scenes and images, always very visual. It also comes out of the two authors I was reading heavily, perhaps obsessively, at the time: Anna Kavan and Marguerite Duras. No one picks up on Kavan, presumably because not many people have heard of her, but the Duras thing has been commented on a few times, with the novel compared to The Lover. I don’t find this a compliment, I find it quite embarrassing, mostly because The Lover is incomparable. Having said that, I have to acknowledge the debt I owe to Duras for freeing me up to write the way I have done, first, just as I owe Kavan for allowing me to be strange. Kavan’s Asylum Piece was a huge inspiration.
But even before I found the voice, I wasn’t interested in a standard narrative voice; I wasn’t interested in writing properly, in the writing behaving appropriately (which is one of the points of the novel, structurally and thematically – refusing to behave). I love a good story, but I have come to realise I can’t do it myself. I read a Nicholson Baker Paris Review interview recently where he said something along those lines. He tries to write “normal” things and he just dies inside. Something like that. I’m the same. If I try to write something straightforward I’ll begin to self-sabotage. That’s what happened here. I wrote for a year, and it was conventionally, after I was given advice (third person, past tense 80,000+ words), and I was miserable. I hated it. So eventually I said to hell with it, and I destroyed it. I’d rather fail and write what I want than write a lie. Now the only thing that survives of that first year of writing now is the first page, which was the very first thing I wrote.
Q. As a debut novelist how did you know it was a good idea to pursue for your first book?
It was all I had. I don’t remember any moment where I thought, I’m going to be a writer, let me think what I should write. There was no calculation. I just had to write this.
It actually came out of my Ashtanga yoga practice. I’d left journalism and the whole scene, and moved to Mysore (home of Ashtanga) and later Goa to practice with another senior teacher in a place we could also live, because Mysore will drive you crazy after a while, it’s provincial. Anyway, the yoga was intense, four or five hours every day, early morning, 5am-9am mostly. I had the zeal of the convert. And during the practice, as my mind and body changed (I should add that I suffered from depression and was on Prozac earlier, but yoga and a stable relationship works better than Prozac) things from the past came up, and I also had a mental clarity I previously lacked. The fog lifted, I felt strong and I began to remember. I felt the compulsion to express a part of my life, but make it more than my life, make it about violence, power, desire, about India, without it being a big India book, without it being a stereotypically “important” novel, without it being a prize type novel.
And I think in a way I had to get this novel out of my system before I could really become a writer. Only when I produced it did I discover the other books I wanted to write. At the time of writing I imagined this might be the only book I’d ever do, but that was completely wrong.
Q. Tell me about the Aghori, I hadn’t heard about them before and ignorantly thought you’d made them up. How come they haven’t been featured in fiction before / or written about to a larger extent?
My understanding of the Aghori is incomplete, but essentially they are a nastika (heterodox) sect engaging in an extreme form of Shiva worship. They see Shiva as the supreme reality, and each individual soul as Shiva except with illusions attached. When those illusions are removed, and we realise the self is indistinguishable from the supreme reality, we achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth. This is similar to many Indian traditions.
But the Aghori go toward liberation in an extreme manner: embracing impurity. They do this because they see Shiva as perfect and as having created everything in the world, and so it follows that everything in the world that he has created is perfect, and so conversely nothing is sinful, nothing is impure: blood, shit, dead bodies, sex: all the things that terrify and have been restricted or imprisoned in the quest for purity and order, they see as things to embrace. So in order to remove illusion they embrace these ‘sinful’, impure things. They reject the world, they reject clothing, they live in cremation grounds, smear themselves with ash, drink liquor, drink from bowls made of human skulls, eat the flesh of the dead, sometimes meditate sitting atop a corpse. But this is not to say they are macabre. It’s quite normal to them, what they do; they’re removing their learned aversions, returning to a blissful state as in childhood when things haven’t taken on negative connotations. And they have strict rules that govern their existence. It’s not just a free-for-all of grotesquery.
The boyfriend is a kind of Aghori, but a wannabe Aghori, one who has the surface interest and pays lip service to the image, but who lives in the modern, digital world, who doesn’t want or feel the need to put the effort in, to have discipline. He adopts the surface persona without the rigour. He is into the idea of breaking taboos without any of the rules or rituals that give these acts meaning. He’s lost. Yet at the same time, he is of that tradition, he is genuine, but only in the sense of a modern incarnation. And whatever you think, his commitment to breaking boundaries is sincere and absolute. I like the possibility, or rather, the fact, of him being genuine and a fraud, simultaneously. I like the existence of many positions at once.
For me the Aghori are an idea. I don’t care to represent them as real, only as I imagine them, I use their image. They are an idea and a powerful ingredient. The smallest pinch of this particular ingredient changes the composition of the novel. It brings in questions of religion, transgression, authority, feminism, masculinity, despair, but it provides no answers. It just codes the novel a little more.
I’ve coded other things into the novel that will only be picked up by certain people at certain times. I like the idea of a text or manual with multiple meanings. All texts have multiple meanings of course, but I like the idea of a text that has an occult meaning, which unlocks something else if only you can decipher it.
I haven’t encountered them in fiction before, but I’m sure they feature in vernacular texts, in folk tales, in religious texts etc. Even in more literary novels. I’m sure they are there. At the same time, I think that there’s an inherent problem of representation. They live secretive ritualized lives, so it would be hard to characterize them, perhaps. I can only use them as an image with an echo. They only feature in one paragraph in the entire novel, but that image reverberates.
Q. This is your first published novel. Tell us more about your writing journey, and how you started out to the present day?
I studied journalism, worked at various papers, drove around the city, lived in Delhi very much day to day, without much craft to writing or thoughts that way. I lived a lot of what’s in the novel in those years. It’s me but it’s not me. I suffered trauma, went a little crazy, reached the end of my rope, then met my husband, did the aforementioned escape to yoga, got myself sorted, and began to think of writing. I changed myself during this time, forcefully. My appearance, my personality and my writing style. Or rather, I become comfortable being who I always felt I was anyway. Marriage liberated me a great deal. Jokingly, my mother tells me husband, “She’s your problem now.”
Q. So lots has been made about the dark, sexual aspects of the book. Here is a young Indian woman discovering sex and drugs (for the first time?) and growing up in an ever-changing landscape. Have readers come to read the book differently depending on their own misconceptions of Indian women??
I’m wary of speaking for anyone else, but anecdotally I believe so, yes.
I’d say there are some ‘India lovers’ who have an exotic and romanticized view of the country, and extend this to the women. There are some who just think of Indian women as a homogenous mass and are a little shocked at this behaviour, even surprised she exists at all. It’s funny, I live here every day, it’s just home, but India holds a fascination in the western world. A global fascination, really. I don’t know what some people think happens here. But everyone seems to have an opinion on it, and many people seem to think that they’re experts. In England it’s quite funny and quite annoying sometimes, because you have people who spent maybe a couple of months backpacking, and you sit down with them and they start to tell you about the country, and a lot of the time it’s way off, but they’re so certain, and they see themselves as hardened travelers who have seen things others haven’t. Like travelling to India is a badge of honour, a rite of passage, and you’re never the same again. And their photos are of kids and cows and holy men.
But yeah, you have people with preconceptions. I’ve had people express disappointment toward me personally, rather than the novel, because I’m not perceived to be Indian enough. In the yoga world this happened sometimes. When I taught, I would have foreign students a little disappointed, expecting a ‘real Indian’, whatever that is. Someone who is just like them isn’t what they want to see when they’re looking to find themselves across the world. I suppose India still provides a magical space for many. One can make a lot of money exploiting this yearning.
Back to the novel, I had one guy in England chastise me for not writing it in Hindi, as if were betraying my country. He couldn’t seem to comprehend that English is one of India’s languages, and it’s been my language since birth. He thought only a novel in Hindi would be truly authentic.
Then it’s not just the misconceptions about women, it’s also the misconceptions about India as a whole and about what a novel from India should do. The book has just been released in the US, and for whatever reason, the reviewers and readers seem far less hung up on things. In the UK, The Observer, for example, said the novel gave “vivid insights into middle class life”. When I heard this, alarm bells started to ring. There are no insights into middle class life, it’s not a novel about middle class life in India. You won’t learn about a typical life. There’s nothing typical about the novel. But I find it’s often the case, this stuff. That as an Indian I must be representing my country. I must be writing the big novel. In the West people just get to write novels. But I have to be writing an Indian Novel. An Indian Woman’s Novel. I have to saying profound things about my country. It can’t just be a small novel about people that happens to be from India.
The most frustrating review was in The Guardian in the UK. Not because it was negative (though it was), but because they seemed to feel the need to verify the novel with an Indian college girl rather use a reviewer to review it. They went and found a college girl from Delhi to review it, someone with zero experience. Of course she hated it. It doesn’t speak to her, it’s not representative of her life, she got offended. The real question for me was: what qualified her to review it and why did they think it was appropriate? It seemed it was only the fact that she was a Delhi college girl, and it’s disappointing to have your novel given out for review in that manner. I don’t blame the reviewer because she’s just being herself, rather I blame the paper for reducing the novel to something that only another Indian with apparently the same life (because all Delhi college girls are the same, naturally) can verify. There’s about 2 pages of the entire novel where college figures into it, and it’s set in 2000, when this reviewer was about 6 years old or something like that. So even on that level it doesn’t work. You know, it’s like someone from Manchester cooking a Michelin star dish in a competition, and the judges giving it to any old Mancunian off the street. He spits it out because he has no palate, declares it awful, and the chef fails.
Anyway, this Guardian thing brings me to the final point, which is that Indian women have reacted the most negatively to the novel. A great many Indian women love it, and what was lovely about being at the Jaipur lit fest last week was the number of young women coming up to me to say how much they loved it. But at the same time, almost all of the negative responses are from Indian women too. There’s a lot of disapproval. I suspect it’s because of the drugs and the incorrect behaviour. I think it disappoints them. It doesn’t speak to their idea of how the proper modern Indian women should be.
Q. I loved the writing. It’s unafraid and raw. It doesn’t speak to a conventional form, in fact it’s lyrical in parts, even poetic. Which writers have influenced your work and how would you describe the writing?
Anna Kavan. Margueritte Duras. It’s all in the first answer.
I’d describe the writing as discreet blocks of rhythm conscious prose formed with strong enough connections to be meaningful and loose enough connections to allow intuitive jumps, to spark connections beyond linear comprehension. It’s dense writing turned light, which rewards repeat readings and reflection.
Q. I imagine that you wrote this book before the world’s eyes were cast on Delhi when the 2012 gang rape story broke, did that change anything for you as a writer? Did it validate the opinions expressed in the book – that this isn’t a safe place for a woman? Was there more or less of a push to get this story out there??
The majority was written before the Delhi rape, yes. When it happened I was about two thirds through what would be the final draft. I stopped writing, I became the outraged social media campaigner, I couldn’t help myself. I was in Goa, but Delhi is my city, and I was living in Delhi in my head. I was posting 5 or 6 articles on Facebook every day, commenting, following every scrap of news. That happened for a while. And my writing stopped. I went dry. I couldn’t be the outraged campaigner and then go back to writing this ambiguous explicit, complicit novel. I felt like I was contributing to the ‘problem’. The problem being sexual desire. It came to the point where I was thinking that showing a sexually liberated woman might be putting women in danger because men might think that this is what women want. It’s a massive leap from having desire to inviting rape, but that’s what kind of situation the country is in. So it came to the point where I was denying all sex and desire, thinking sex is bad, sexual contact is bad, sexuality is bad. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But it’s important to open the space rather than close it. Sexuality needs to be more open.
As for the question of whether it validated things. It’s hard to say. In a way, yes, especially to those outside India. It was sometimes hard to explain the reality of the situation, especially the situation in north India, to those who still had the Incredible India vision of a benign Hindu song and dance, spices and colour country. Many were taken in by this image. The Delhi rape shattered that. It made them realise that the place isn’t all happiness and light. At the same time, I wasn’t looking for any validation, and I think feeling validated because something like that happened is pretty horrific. You take no pleasure in it, though maybe perhaps some extremely grim, dreadful, painful satisfaction that the thing you’ve known yourself to be true for as long as you remember won’t be contested, that you won’t be called an exaggerator.
It needs to be pointed out, though, that life still goes on and Delhi is a beautiful place too, and people are good, and there are wonderful men. I feel a pervasive oppression in the city, but I love it deeply too, and if one allows oneself to become callous, to detune and defocus, then it can be a very livable place. The thing for me is, I hate to live in a bubble. But if you can afford it you can construct a very successful and wonderful bubble in Delhi.
Q. I really enjoyed the fine line of Idha being a young naive woman, on the cusp of adulthood and not really knowing her true self, to being someone who kind of goes out looking for trouble and knowingly follows an alternative path. What parts of her character resonated with you the most?
It’s hard for me to say because I don’t feel so much distance from her. To a large extent she is I and I am she. I’m sure if I were a reader I could say certain things resonated, or if I were writing a character from the outside, if I were a third person writer creating a character, I could more easily identify things. But I’m so involved with her that I don’t have any great insight this way.
Still, off the top of my head, what resonated? Willfulness; strangeness; her solitary nature; her curiosity; anger; lack of judgement; desire; aversion to ritual; attraction to self-destruction; attraction to things considered repulsive.
I suppose I felt that line you mention too. I felt that tension and I walked that line myself in Delhi for many years.
One of the reasons I wrote in discreet paragraph blocks rather than chapters was because I didn’t want to own a traditionally coherent narrative, I didn’t want to portray that kind of authority or certainty. Idha is coming from a kind of powerlessness, an absence of authority, but turning this into a virtue. This virtue means that she can be both naïve and knowingly following an alternative path at the same time. In this way there’s no need to show direct causation, which I find to be straight-jacketing and not reflective of the reality. The entire novel is against authority. For this reason I always prefer the paperback version. I find hardback has too much of the authority that this novel detests, hardback gives it too much importance. The novel, ideally, should be read in a paperback edition, passed around, dog-eared, the cover battered and worn. It shouldn’t be treated with too much respect.
Q. The title of the book, A Bad Character – does it reference Idha, or her lover? Or is that for readers to decide?
Sometimes I say “it’s for the reader, it’s left open”, but really, it’s her. She’s the bad character. And then she’s not. She laughs at the absurdity of the label while embracing it wholeheartedly. ‘Yeah, I’m a bad character, but the very idea of a bad character is bullshit.’
It all depends what value you attach to the term. Yes, she’s bad. She’s the one with the power in the end, she’s the anti-heroine, she’s the one taking the real risks. And no, she’s not bad at all, there’s no defect in her character, she’s just a girl trying to live and make sense of things. She’s making a mockery of the term. There’s also a kind of melancholy to it. It can be read with anger, defiance or sadness.
A key part of the novel is that nothing happens to her. Yes, lots of things happen to her in the course of the novel, she suffers, she feels, she loves, she has pleasure and pain, but in the frame of the novel, which is to say in terms of the novel’s end, nothing happens to her. She is neither punished nor redeemed.
Many times in film and literature, a woman might break away from society, but she’ll have to be punished by the end of it. Even when the artist is on her side, condemning society, they’ll condemn society by showing the woman destroyed. I wanted to get right inside this and show it to be hollow. There are women out there who behave badly, and nothing happens to them. There’s a difficulty inherent in this, though, of anti-climax. Destruction is always a great climax, it is satisfying. For nothing to happen has the potential to be dramatically unsatisfying. So it’s a gamble, but it had to happen. This was one reason to split the narrative, so there could be a climax and no climax at the same time.
Back to the bad character thing: it’s really important that she owns the term. Especially in a country where only last week a schoolgirl in Bangalore committed suicide because she was suspended for associating with a boy (http://www.firstpost.com/living/suspended-for-befriending-boy-bangalore-teen-kills-herself-why-schools-shouldnt-be-moral-police-2057021.html). Priorities are seriously messed up when something like this happens. So yes, she is the bad character, he is the bad character, Delhi is the bad character, none of them are bad characters.
Q. What’s on your writing agenda for 2015? Have you made any writing resolutions – and if so what are they?
I want to finish another novel very quickly, and start a third by the end of the year. I have 20k words of one. I wrote these while waiting for this novel to be published. For the last eight months or so I haven’t been able to look at it, due to festivals, publication days, interviews, articles, short stories and smaller pieces. But I’m doing one more festival in Feb and after that I’m retreating back to a full-time writing schedule. It will be a very different novel.
Q. Finally what advice would you give to writers, writing in an experimental way with a difficult or unsettling subject matter?
Be vigilant, be honest with yourself, constantly interrogate yourself, ask why you are doing this and what for. There is an audience, there are people who will respond. But don’t write with the expectation of making lots of money.
Deepti Kapoor was born in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, and grew up in Bombay, Bahrain and Dehradun. In 1997 she went to the University of Delhi to study journalism and later completed an MA in Social Psychology. She spent the next decade working for various publications, driving around the city, finding stories and learning its streets. She now lives in Goa.