Picture: Author Shakti Ghosal
Excerpts from an interview
1. How difficult was weaving stories about pandemics? Would have been such a meta experience!
Well, since I wrote the book during a pandemic, there existed a heightened awareness and curiosity about the present ‘Mahamari’ as well as the one which took place a century back and for which significant details are available. To be frank, I had not been aware of the extent of illness, deaths and calamity that India had faced during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919 AD, till I read about it in preparation of writing the ‘Pandemic’ story. I have tried to depict some of that through the eyes of the protagonist Dipen. Based on what I read and some perspective of what I had heard in my childhood, I have attempted to recreate and provide snapshots of Calcutta society and mindsets a century back.
As regards the ensuing pandemic, creating the environment and delving into the societal mindsets was simpler. All it needed was for me to be in the moment, observe people and listen to them on social media. Protagonist Indranil and the others in the story are of course fictional constructs. So yes, it did require me to ‘step outside my own self and observe my own conversations, thoughts and fears at times. In that sense, it was a meta experience.
2. You have incorporated quite a few Sanskrit shlokas in the stories,was it done to create an eclectic tapestry?
As I sat writing the stories, there were those moments when part of a Sanskrit shloka or hymn which I have heard or read in the past, would pass through my mind. As and when this happened, I took the opportunity to access that particular shloka or hymn on the internet and read up on it. I explored how it might align with my story. It has been in this manner how some of them got incorporated into the stories.
A case in point is a trip I had made a few years back to Belur Math during the evening Arati time. I had been so moved by the chants of the hymn and its intonation that it had continued to resonate within me
‘khaṇḍana bhava bandhana jaga vandana vandi tomāy
nirañjana nara-rūpa-dhara nirguṇa guṇamay’
When the opportunity presented itself for me to use the hymn in one of the stories, I did so.
So yes, the shlokas and hymns do create an eclectic tapestry in the stories.
3. What are the challenges of the shorter story format?
I believe this is a great question as frankly, this is what I had to wrestle with when I was writing the stories. Further having written the stories, I kept on having doubts about whether the simple and straightforward narration employed by me would be able to hold the readers’ interest, something which I like to see as the ability of a story and its narration to be able to ‘speak to the reader’.
Let me try and explain the above some more.
For me, the main challenge that the short story format offers is the need to be able to write crisply while at the same time create the context and the needed environment. While one needs to be conscious about creating a comprehensive context which is critical for the reader to appreciate the storyline, one also needs to be brief. This, I believe, is the toughest aspect to handle.
The short story format also restricts the author from the luxury of developing multiple characters and their inter-relationships, as this requires writing space which the short story does not allow. So perforce, the needed brevity forces the author to drop all but the essential characters, thus restricting the use of the ‘colour palette’ of bringing in diverse characters, developing their personalities and proclivities and then go about exploring the fascinating world of relationships.
Thirdly, I found the short story format restricting the use of complex plots and storytelling techniques. Whenever I thought of these, I would feel unsure about whether I would be able to control the length of the story. It was only in the story, ‘Fault Lines’ that I took the risk of using a somewhat sophisticated storytelling technique. It is for my readers to tell me whether I have succeeded or not in this endeavour.
Finally, I believe the shorter format also restricts the author from using many timeline jumps in the story. I realise that this technique holds dramatic appeal for the reader. In a long story format, one does have the time and space to walk the reader through such jumps. But in a short story, this may not be possible and the effort might boomerang and confuse the reader at times.
4. The heritage of Kolkata is a character in itself on your writing canvas. What does this rich fountain of art, literature and culture inspire in you?
You have rightly articulated this particular aspect of Kolkata’s character. In his book, ‘The Bengalis’, author Sudeep Chakravarti speaks of several ‘Culture Chronicles’ unique to Kolkata. I am listing some of these below.
Ø Amader Robindranath viz. The Bengalis’ obsession with Tagore and other cultural icons.
Ø Obangali: We, Bengalis versus they, the Non-Bengalis.
Ø Dapat, Domon viz. Domination. The historical baggage that Bengal and Bengalis carry regarding emerging as the dominant class under British rule in terms of education, culture etc.
Ø Ma viz.Oedipus Hex. The veneration of the Feminine as manifested in the cultural extravaganza of the Durga Pujo festival.
Ø Sinikbewty viz. Stories of travel. The Bengalis’ irresistible urge to travel the country and the world.
Ø Khai-Khai viz. To eat, to live. The awareness and obsession with international cuisines.
Ø Probashi, Bideshi viz. At home in the world. Relates to the great scattering of Bengalis throughout the world in search of better opportunities.
My sense is that as one spends time in Kolkata and interacts with people, some if not all the above aspects of ‘Culture chronicles’ impact one’s world view and find expression in what one thinks and writes.
5. What is your opinion on the editor-author relationship?
Though I am a first-time author and my experience of the editor-author relationship is limited, I would say this.
I believe the author-editor relationship is arguably the second most important ingredient in a book’s success after the author’s own creative and visualization output. As authors, we tend to hold onto and defend all that we have written. We tend to forget the litmus test of whether our writing ‘speaks to the reader’. It is here that the editor can play the significant role of providing the ringside opinion of a reader. Apart from of course checking for plot inconsistencies and grammatical errors.
I would say that the editor-author relationship is one of the bedrock of a book’s success.
6. Which story was harder to crack for you out of the four Ashtami, Pandemic, Fault Lines and The Chronicler of the Hooghly?
This is an interesting question!
While I must say that I did not face any significant writer’s block, which many authors speak of, each of the stories had its own issues, if not challenges, which needed to be taken care of, before I could complete the writing.
Out of the four stories, the one which required a lot of care in terms of validating facts and chronology, both in terms of timeline and Geography, was’The Chronicler of the Hooghly’. In that sense, one could say that it was ‘harder to crack’ than the other stories. Having said this, I would clarify that I remain enamoured by the twists and turns of history and so the effort of doing research remained a pleasurable one.
7. Elokeshi's letter to Dipen da is heartbreakingly beautiful. Please tell us about the writing process of the same.
In all frankness, I did not think too much about the letter you allude to when I wrote it. The story needed the letter to be there and so that was that. It came as part of the flow, and as I like to say, it seemed to have written itself.
I am gratified to know that the letter, in the overall context of the story Pandemic, is showing up as heartbreakingly beautiful.
8. You have navigated through communal violence and history in the book. What are your thoughts about the depiction of such travesties in novels?
That is true. Communal violence does form a part of the story, ‘Ashtami’. My depiction of this is not to sensationalise but to try and make sense of it through the eyes of the protagonist and the people around him. I believe there should be no judgment in terms of how history plays out. To judge is to start seeing the emerging situations through coloured glasses. When we do this, the sense we make of it could be warped. I might even venture to say that it is this kind of warped sense-making that leads to communal violence and other negative fallouts of history.
I believe that there is no right or wrong, good or bad about the history and the situations that surround or emanate out of it. History is what it is. The only takeaway from History is the learning that we can get out of it and how that might support us as we negotiate the future.
In the story, Ashtami, I have therefore tried to look at history as a detached observer without any judgment. I believe this is what has made the narration both non-controversial and impartial. I believe that is the authentic way of storytelling.
9. We always love author book recommendations, please recommend some recent reads to the book nerds out there.
Since you ask, I would like to offer the following book recommendations, based on my recent reads.
(a) Non- Fiction Category: ‘The Bengalis- A portrait of a community' by Sudeep Chakravarty. I have in fact quoted from this book above.
(b) Fiction Category: ‘The PM must Die’ by Narendran.
Responses by Shakti Ghosal, Author of ‘The Chronicler of Hooghly and other stories’
Shakti is a new author of fiction on the block. He currently resides with his wife Sanchita in the city of Kolkata in India. Together, they are the proud parents of two lovely daughters. Passionate about exploring new places and cultures, Shakti has been a globetrotter. He remains elated by the thought that on this globe, his remains a unique name. Or so Google thinks. You can check this out by typing “Shakti Ghosal”. No, Seriously try it!
Shakti uses a wide angle narrative style in his writings into which he brings his rich global perspective and life experiences. He loves to explore relationships within emergent situations.
An engineer and aMBA (Faculty Gold Medal 1984) from IIM Bangalore, Shakti has lived close to four decades of corporate life in India and abroad. A professional certified Coach, Mentor and Trainer, Shakti runs Leadership Workshop cum coaching programs for organisations as part of his commitment to develop and upgrade Leadership Incubation globally. He is a visiting professor at IIM Udaipur, IIM Kashipur and IIM Nagpur. www.linkedin.com/in/Shaktighosal,https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMg92VMo3_Cw8k-cu1rYWwg
Shakti has been blogging for close to a decade ( about 800 followers, 39,000 hits from all over the globe) on Leadership incubation, performance, life experience, philosophy and trends, and more recently, on his forthcoming book.www.esgeemusings.com