The Labyrinth of Discovery: A tête-à-tête with Sara Rai

Sara Rai
is a prolific writer, editor of anthologies, and translator of modern Hindi and Urdu fiction. Her stature is not a mathematical function of her great lineage (granddaughter of Munshi Premchand) but the outcome of her soul-searching literary voyages in dignified solitude, unmindful of awards and accolades including the prized Coburg Rückert Prize. 

Left mesmerized by her poignantly reflective essay “You will be the Katherine Mansfield of Hindi”, I was keen to establish contact with this maverick thought leader who seems to have connected several dots of geometry-defying lines and curves through her soulful writings. She graciously obliged and paved the way for a heartfelt conversation.   

 Excerpts from the Q & A...

How were your growing-up years? Who were your favourite writers as a young girl? 

 I was born in Allahabad and that is where I spent my childhood and teenage years. We lived in one of the colonial bungalows that Allahabad used to be known for. The pace of life was slow, and there was plenty of time to observe the trees and the birds. We had a limited interaction with the town since the bungalows were far apart even from the neighbours. There were a lot of books in the house, quite a few in English, Hindi and Urdu and some in Bangla. I read Enid Blyton as a young child of seven or eight but my curiosity, especially in my teenage years, soon began to extend to other books in the house, some of which I read without understanding them. I remember reading the Sartre trilogy, The Age of Reason, Reprieve and Iron in the Soul at the age of thirteen or fourteen with no idea of what was being said. I was attracted to books and a little later I enjoyed reading the Russians…Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev. I could relate easily to them. There were others: Katherine Mansfield, Francoise Sagan, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Herman Hesse, Maupassant, Kafka, who was a huge favourite in my college years. There were a lot of books in the house and since many of my relatives wrote something or the other, I was born, so to speak, into a life of literature.

 How was student life at St. Mary's, Allahabad? What were your favourite subjects? Any role models? 

 Life at St. Mary’s was not very different from other convent schools in the sixties. It was a Roman Catholic institution and most of the nuns who taught us were Germans from Bavaria. They enforced strict discipline and there was pin drop silence in all the classrooms and corridors when classes were on. It was more or less a rote education and I now see that in the mechanical exercise of memorizing the lessons, a sort of mental blindness was created in the students, which was quite an obstacle to education. In Math, the teacher solved the problems and wrote them on the blackboard from where we were supposed to copy them neatly in our exercise books. But English was taught very correctly with an emphasis on enunciation, on where the stress should fall in particular words and so on. We were not allowed to speak in Hindi during school hours and if caught doing so, you were supposed to pay a fine, though I didn’t hear of anyone actually doing so. We spoke in Hindi very often, especially during the lunch break. That this supposed ban on speaking Hindi was humiliating occurred to me only later. But it must have helped in learning English. I was fond of literature and art, though art as it was taught was again subject to rules that may have actually destroyed any artistic inclinations. But I did dabble in it a little later and made a few paintings of my own, most of which mercifully have now been lost. There were no particular role models for me at school. 

 Were there any extended family gatherings during your formative years? Did the interaction at such times shape your literary ambition in any way, or the choice of vocation?

 My uncle Amrit Rai lived right across the road from us, so there was constant interaction between us. In the summers we’d go to Ranikhet together and spend a couple of months there. It was easy to let bungalows in the hills in those days. In the family gatherings conversations often focused on language but it was all very informal. There was quite a lot of joking and chatter. My uncle was rather gregarious, just as my father was quiet, introverted and, not that he needed to, led an almost ascetic life. I remember my father telling me about the Tolstoy story “How much land does a man need?” and the story left its impact on me when I read it. These are things that shape your sensibility. In family gatherings if a puzzling word cropped up in the conversations, dictionaries were immediately brought out. There was a curiosity to find out the origins, the root, particularly of Urdu words. Of course, this was a sort of linguistic training. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to write stories of my own, though it took me a long time to get started.

 Tell us more about your parents and their published writing, likes and dislikes.

 My mother and her sister, my aunt wrote their stories first in Urdu script which they were used to writing and later transcribed the stories into Hindi, for there was a greater ease and reach of publication in Hindi. Most of their stories were published in the literary magazine Kahani, edited by my father Sripat Rai, or Kalpana, which were the reputed journals of the time. The editorials that my father wrote for Kahani as Kahani ki Baat were later published as a book with the same title by Saraswati Press. The book is now out of print. I recently put together my mother’s and aunt’s stories as a collection with the title Mahalsara ka Ek Khel aur Anya Kahaniyan by Moghal Mahmood and Zahra Rai, published by Vani Prakashan. 

My father was as much a painter as he was an editor and publisher. For about twenty years of his life, he painted fairly obsessively and also held solo exhibitions. Some of his paintings were sent to the 7thTokyo Biennale in 1963. In the sporadic conversations I had with him about painting, he told me about some of the materials and techniques that went into making a painting. While talking of other painters, he hinted that his own preference was for impasto in which undiluted paint is applied with a palette knife so thickly onto the canvas that it stands out above the surface of the painting, causing light to be reflected in new ways. Because he had spent a fair amount of time in Calcutta, he was a fluent speaker of Bangla and was addicted to Rabindra Sangeet. He was present at the funeral of Tagore and the great outpouring of grief left a lasting impression on him. He would often speak of it.

Although your dad cited the example of Katherine Mansfield, the context of Hindi was not lost on him. So, in a way, he was consistent with his insistence that you should write in your mother tongue.

Yes. My father was fluent in several languages, but when it came to writing fiction, he thought one could best express oneself in the mother tongue, and he wanted me to write in Hindi. My relationship with language has not been straightforward. Since I lived in U.P., at home I spoke only in Hindi, but I heard Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Bangla being spoken. I constantly tuned in to the polished Urdu diction of my grandmother but did most of my reading in English. Given this backdrop, I could never have been monolingual. I have discussed the process of struggle, the groping and seeking that has gone into my experience of writing fiction in the “Katherine Mansfield” essay that has recently appeared with the title I originally wrote it under - “On Not Writing”- in The Book of Indian EssaysTwo Hundred Years of English Prose edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, published by Black Kite/Hachette.    

How was the experience of helping your dad with the Kahani journal? Did the thought ever occur to you, of taking over the editorship and keeping the journal alive and kicking?

 Helping my father sift through the piles of stories that arrived to be considered for publication in Kahani was exciting but also arduous. In my English medium school, I had studied only elementary Hindi and most of my reading had been done in English. So, this was really when I actually started reading Hindi fiction. My father published Kahani entirely on his own. He did not want the journal to carry advertisements nor was there money from any other source. He published it purely for the love of it, with a view to shaping contemporary Hindi literature and he did achieve this purpose. I was quite young then, barely out of college. There was no question of taking over the editorship. Apart from being young, I did not have the competence or the experience for the job.

How was the experience of the Charles Wallace Residency program?

I did go to Norwich, to the University of East Anglia, on a Charles Wallace Residency program for translation in 2003. I had taken along the short stories of Vinod Kumar Shukla, a writer whom I have long admired, and planned to translate the stories while I was there. I didn’t, as it turned out. I started writing my own novel and I wrote the first three chapters in English. It was the usual seesawing between the two languages that has been with me for a long time. I abandoned these chapters later and wrote the whole thing in Hindi. It was many years later, last year, in fact, that Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and I together translated the stories of Vinod Kumar Shukla and they were published by Harper Collins with the title Blue is Like Blue.

For someone who is equally at home in Hindi, Urdu, and English, is the economy of English still your best friend for articulation and first-draft expression?

I have said this before, but my relationship with language has been complex. Ideas don’t come in a particular language but may be a series of visual images or emotional responses to situations or scenes, when your mind suddenly lights up, something that I think of as ‘organic moments’ that later get shaped into a story. Often it is the atmosphere and the setting of the story that determines the language it is written in. Whichever language I choose to write in, the other languages that I am familiar with are simultaneously present in my mind, influencing the tone of the story and its texture. I don’t really make first drafts. Usually, it is the only draft and I keep working on the same draft till I feel I have got it right. I have found though, that English comes to me more easily when I am writing a critical or review essay and about the process of writing itself, whereas fiction comes more naturally in Hindi or Hindustani.

Your initial struggles to find your feet as a writer may have held you back, longer than you would have liked - but those very struggles in turn made you the writer you are. Is that right?  

The process of writing begins much before you have put anything down on the page. The impressions that eventually mutate into fiction get embedded in the memory while life is being lived when one is not thinking of a story at all. Those impressions are only remembered later when one is actually doing the writing. Writing is a constant struggle in all sorts of ways, whenever you start writing, late or early. The struggle each writer faces while starting out on a narrative or a poem can only be described as a feeling of free fall into an abyss. There is nothing around for you to hold on to, except a scrap of an idea or image that may have come to you in one of the ‘organic moments’ that I have mentioned earlier. You have to dredge something up from nothing and this is the hardest thing to do, to give coherence to what is really only a jumble of images, sounds, and broken thoughts. I have always found that the story takes shape on the page. If you try to think it up from before, it usually fails. Once you begin writing, one word follows another and may result in an image or a metaphor, and eventually a story. Or it may not. And then you are having a bad day, which is not infrequent either. It is a very mysterious business, rather difficult to understand. 

Which among your published writings is closer to your heart - forgive the cliche the question houses, but I wish to know which of those writings (your debut story Lucky Horace included) came out exactly as you wished them to?

As I said earlier, there is little preconceived idea about what the story you are writing will become. The whole process of writing is a sort of accident. So, I cannot say that some story came out exactly as I wished it to. But in the writing of it, there comes a point when you feel that the story has come to a close, and you stop. And it is only then that you assess what you have written. Each story works out differently, but if I had to choose, I would say that my story ‘Bhulbhulaiyaan’ (The Labyrinth) was one where all the elements fell together, the setting, the character, the voice, the tone, the texture. I wrote ‘Lucky Horace’ when I was eight years old and it was more like a discovery that I could write rather than a real story.

Is the evocative imagery of your stories rooted in your childhood days of freewheeling observation? I found the pressure cooker whistle in a couple of stories.

Memory plays a huge role in writing fiction. The setting of a story and the ground on which it stands needs a physical location. To describe a scene in detail, those details have to be familiar to the writer and that is where memory comes in. You don’t quite know which Sunday afternoon, which bird singing on the pine tree, which visitor who dropped by, or which sentence, forgotten till now, spoken by an acquaintance will suddenly surface when you are writing. The routine or the commonplace is often what one’s days are composed of and it is these ‘dull’ days (on which you may notice the whistle of the pressure cooker) that offer the space for thought and yield experiences that stay with you and become stories.

Between writing and translations, would you prefer one over another given a choice - or do both mingle in peaceful coexistence like how English, Hindi and Urdu do for you?

It is not really a question of preferring writing over translation, or the other way round. Both writing and translation come from the same place, which is the ground, on which you stand, of being a writer. The two activities of writing and translation belong together and keep developing and expanding each other’s range. Where the repository of words that you possess is helpful in the process of translating, the activity of translation involves an intimate engagement with a text that is not your own, but which in the process of translation becomes your own. It enriches your storehouse of words and helps you to arrive at new ways of tackling your material.



PS: In the course of writing this blogpost, I also discovered 'Lamhi' - a quarterly published and edited by Vijay Rai who mailed me special editions of Lamhi featuring Sripat Rai, Shivmurti, and Dr. Gyan Chaturvedi. He also helped me secure a copy of Amrit Rai's priceless biography of Munshiji titled "Premchand: Kalam ka Sipahi". 

Vijayji, thanks a ton for you prompt help, and I shall soon write about Lamhi and its contents in a separate blogspot. For now, I can only profusely agree with Late Doodhnath Singhji's earthy compliment "विजय ई बतावा कि लमही पत्रिका का नाम तोहरे जेहन में कैसे आयल | आज तक कोई और ई नाम से पत्रिका काहे नहीं निकाललस" 

'Lamhi' is one of the best tributes to Munshiji in contemporary times who is as relevant today as he was decades back. The more you read him, the more you miss him:

बुढ़िया का क्रोध तुरन्त स्नेह में बदल गया, और स्नेह भी वह नहीं, जो प्रगल्भ होता हे और अपनी सारी कसक शब्दों में बिखेर देता है। यह मूक स्नेह था, खूब ठोस, रस और स्वाद से भरा हुआ।

मेरा जीवन सपाट, समतल मैदान है, जिसमें कहीं-कहीं गढ़े तो हैं, पर टीलों, पर्वतों, घने जंगलों, गहरी घाटियों और खण्डहरों का स्थान नहीं है। जो सज्जन पहाड़ों की सैर के शौकीन हैं, उन्हें तो यहाँ निराशा ही होगी।

Of Rude Shocks and Ready Absorbers

The other day, I got the shock of my life in the most unusual of circumstances that are best left undescribed, given they are truly indescribable. But having absorbed the shock like a precious life lesson, I have moved on without disturbing my homegrown poise and self-imposed equanimity. 

Thanks to the sheer gravity of the stomach-churning experience, I now know better:

...that familial roots have little meaning if familial fruits hang on genetically modified trees of their choice 

...that it is futile to supply a carefully curated set of introspective questions if the maverick in question already has all the answers

...that it is sheer madness to try and wake up those who pretend to be asleep, regardless of whether they are kids, adolescents, young Turks, or old people

....that you have no right to subject your own folks to torturous sessions of mandatory confinement for the sake of folks who are no longer your 'known'

 ...that using a comma where a full stop is urgently called for can cause blunders more ghastly than what errors of punctuation imply

Before I sign-off for good, here's a humble piece of heartfelt advice to the learned souls who inadvertantly caused me great anguish: 

No disaster is as lethal as the one concerning Health. If and when possible, get your home water-proofed. Damp walls are the harbingers of disease and disorder. And embrace Pranayama with open arms. May the power of Anulom Vilom and Kapalbhati bless you with everlasting health, peace, and well being.