Why I Set My Book In Small-Town India
September 11, 2019
What do some prolific writers like Ruskin Bond, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, Chitra B. Divakaruni, Amitabh Bagchi all have in common besides a rich literary heritage that shines through barriers of time and language? It is their love for creating compelling stories against the backdrop of small towns and cities that binds them together.
There is something charming and dramatic about weaving tales on lesser-known landscapes. My earliest memories of one such story are Nauka Doobi (The Boat-wreck) by Rabindranath Tagore. It wasn’t just the lucidity of the narrative, the intensely emotional yet disarmingly pure and simple love stories that intertwined with each other and arrested me as a reader, but also the setting that was so important. For me, the story really took off when the main characters left the city and embarked on different voyages that took them from Bankipur to Kashi to other small towns that dotted their journey, collecting experiences and memories as they unravelled the intersecting threads of their lives.
Garhwal, Kasauli, Mussoorie, Devlali- why do Bond’s stories gravitate towards such Indian burrows? Is there some magic in capturing the diversity, the muted subcultures beneath the surface, the drama and character in such places? When the noise ceases, you find more meaning and structure in everything around.
For some, life here is monotonous and slow. I personally find a degree of predictability soothing, something you will find in large doses in smaller cities. The army of breadwallahs, doodhwallahs, bhaajiwallahs, paperwallahs are more reliable than the hands on the wall clock and double up as the loaded and indulgent fruits of the local grapevine. Tea time is not meant to be a small restorative break; it is a daylong activity that accommodates a small amount of work whenever possible. The neighbours aren’t the truculent city lot who are ready to rebuff any small invasion of privacy but the kind that will often be found inside your home, eating your food and advising your children against your wishes. Information to share, mysterious behaviour to unravel at every street corner, endless discussions. Even every neighbourhood is woven into the next seamlessly, each with its own emblems of familiarity. What’s not to love?
Sometimes the location can even dominate the story. When I was reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, the Sunderbans were not just the stage where the story was set. They had as much whimsical attitude and personality as a regular person and I felt the backdrop was an important character in the book. It wove the plot, the characters and their lives around it, not the other way around.
In such a world, where small rituals are important, every act has meaning, everything is personal, opinions are exchanged and shared as freely as peanuts, and you don’t need to go looking for stories. Stories find you.
But herein lies the glitch. While it makes for a great muse, writing about a place and time that is unfamiliar to a variety of readers is a big challenge. If the impact of words is primarily felt through relatability and relevance, how do you draw in someone who has never felt what you have felt or seen what you have seen, and make them empathise with the lives of people who speak another language and who act from different motivations? For example, in Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt. Ltd, my new book, which is a story based in a small locality called Gwaltoli, I was constantly trying to strike a balance between representing regional nuances to a largely English-speaking readership. It’s easy to get carried away, but you have to say enough to spark the reader’s imagination and let your words do the rest. The other tricky landmine is the curse of myopia that is unique to city dwellers.
When you are writing about a place, familiar or otherwise, you carry a responsibility on your shoulders. You become a 60,000 word-bound tourism ad for where the story is set. Its fate is in your hands. It is for you to deify or destroy with your words, especially when it comes to humour. How much is too much? What is acceptable and what is offensive? This is when a writer must dig deep and fight the impulse to act like an annoying news anchor mongering opinions, and instead opt for donning the hat of a graceful master chef who knows just how to whisk in the right ingredients and garnish with the right amount of nuance to hook readers and leave them wanting more!
Over the last few years, an interesting trend has emerged. There are more translated works on bookshelves and regional content is getting more airtime. Movies showcasing stories from the heartlands that used to waste away in small seedy single screen theatres are now a thing of the past. Is it that we are finally accepting that popular literature represents what might be a wonderful but tiny part of this eclectic milieu that is our country? Between continuous migration to bigger cities for jobs and the counter-trend of finding sustenance in their own hometowns through better government schemes, there are enough people who would like to read about life from their part of the world, something warm and familiar. The curious others are drawn to the unfamiliar yet intriguing stories from the remotest corners of the country that are entertaining, honest, and grounded in reality. Fads come and go, but the need for good and endearing content trumps everything else. Hence, there are more such voices and many such stories rising above the din now.
As I sit staring out of my window, I can see a hyper dog trying to reach a disdainful cat perched on a high branch, an auto-rickshaw driver digging for endless treasures in his nasal cavity, an ATM guard flipping his hat in the air, and an endless caravan of queued cars, honking at the sheer futility of transport. Now you see why inspiration sometimes is hard to come by in this concrete jungle? Of course, I belong here and must endure the fate of conjuring tales from what surrounds me, but every once in a while, I know my heart and pen will take me down a dusty road that snakes its way to a quaint little town, filled with raconteurs of all ages, bubbling with their unique stories.
Do you think more novels should be set in small towns? What are some of your favourite stories set in small-town India? Share with us in the comments below.
Richa S. Mukherjee
After finishing her MBA, chasing around a few criminals and their lawyers as a journalist, and spending years in advertising, selling shampoos and juices to unsuspecting housewives, Richa finally decided to write a book of soul-searing poetry on her maternity break. She is a celebrated blogger and writes for several online platforms. Her first novel, I Didn’t Expect to Be Expecting, was a humorous take on the roller coaster ride of pregnancy. She now lives in Mumbai juggling work, writing, and often, her 5-year-old daughter as well. This is her second novel.
Read her articles here.