My stories are shaped around relationships, dreams and devastations: writer Ajanta Paul
Trans World Features | @twfindia | 03 Jun 2019
My stories are shaped around relationships, dreams and devastations: writer Ajanta Paul
Academician Ajanta Paul’s debut fiction, The Elixir Maker and Other Stories, a collection of 12 short tales, is, in a single phrase, poetry in motion. She paints her metaphors and images with the ease and cadence of a poet. Each story has a distinct subject that ranges from broken marriages, gender dialectics, female foeticide, the freedom movement, travails of street children, a family lawsuit and many more. The writer in conversation with IBNS correspondent Supriyo Hazra

You are the principal of a girls’ college in Kolkata and are involved in various academic pursuits. How did the idea of expanding into writing fiction happen?


Educational administration and academics constitute the core of my professional duties. It’s something I like doing, specially meeting the challenges that come one’s way in the course of such an occupation. Writing, however, is my oxygen. It not only sustains me, it clears my mind and helps me to see things better. In a sense, writing was always there and antedates the career which came later, and now that the latter is about to close, I feel free to return to the pursuit that always drew me in the first place. So, it is not so much about ‘expanding’ as I should think about ‘returning’ to the original passion.


You also have non-fiction to your credit? If you could elaborate a bit on that?


I have a book called The Modern British Short Story: Critical Interpretations (Presto, 2008); I have also edited a book titled The Rite of Wrongs: Human Rights in India (Avenel, 2013); revised Orient Blackswan’s edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Orient Blackswan, 2014) along with a few other texts brought out by the same publisher.  As a teacher, I have naturally published papers in peer-reviewed journals over the years.


Incidentally I have an earlier work of imaginative literature. It is a book of poems and plays called The Journey Eternal published by Salesian College, Siliguri in 2013, as part of its Platinum Jubilee commemoration.


That apart, I have poems scheduled for publication in the April issue of Setu, a prestigious Bilingual Journal of Arts from Pittsburgh, USA.


Tell us a bit about your debut fiction, The Elixir Maker and Other Stories? How did the title idea come about?


Stories are important. They tell us so much about ourselves even as they tell the world about us. In a sense, stories are us! A fleeting thought, the slant of a sunbeam through an open window, the jagged edge of an image, a haunting tune, anything at all may trigger the train of associations that gather into the lineaments of a story. It’s all there, waiting to be expressed, like the mute motion in a stone, eternal in its unseen rhythms…just waiting to be drawn out.


You begin with these nascent apprehensions and sometimes it turns out very differently from what you had perhaps subliminally expected.


That, I feel, is the beauty and magic of art which surprises one with its capacity for changeful configurations which are yet truthful within the authenticity of setting and situation. The collection under discussion, The Elixir Maker and Other Stories, is a set of tales shaped around the themes of changing personal relationships, of beginnings and ends, of dreams and devastations, and loss and longings that inevitably characterise the human predicament.


If there is a predominant motif which emerges in the book as a whole, I think, it is the dissolution and forging of boundaries – geographical, social, perceptual, and even temporal – that redefines and re-orders human experience and understanding in interesting ways.


The title story, through its simultaneous collapse and conflation of life and art, and present and past, multiplies intensities, expanding the symbolic scope of the central metaphor of the elixir maker, challenging readers to make their own connections and inferences.


This is, of course, how I see the work. Its success or failure will depend on the readers’ perception of it – whether it holds together as a book or not!

Which is your favourite story in this collection and why?


Well, ‘Storm’ is a personal favourite. I like it for its mingling of the strains of the sub-continental narrative, chronicling, as it does, a cataclysmic storm in Bangladesh; the implied migrations between the two Bengals, and later between two nations along with the diasporic impetus of the twentieth century with its concomitants of anxieties peculiar to the situation.


‘Freedom’ is another favourite, not least because of its position in the larger geo-political history of the particular region evoked, and its engagement with a convulsive cartography that tore apart nations but also because such a traumatic transfer necessarily promises many untold stories.


Frankly, I was hesitant to approach such a sensitive subject; one interfused with layers of personal trauma, still resonating in the popular imagination and overlaid with pain in the palimpsest of shared experiences and conjoined histories.


Incidentally, my husband’s family had undertaken the journey from Pakistan to India in 1947 (before he was born) and I had heard anecdotes of the same from family members. So, in a sense, I felt connected to this seminal separation and the writing of ‘Freedom’ was a cathartic experience for me, in the way that it would be for any Indian or Pakistani citizen.


Do you have any favourite author?


Of course, I have several favourite authors – Ernest Hemingway, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor among the Americans; Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Ian McEwan among the British and V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy among those with sub-continental affiliations. There are several more; these names just came readily to mind.


What, according to you, makes for a good fiction?


Good fiction is that which seemingly unfolds on its own, developing organically into a credible cosmos entirely its own, engaging the reader to participate in that world, complete in itself, and be touched (even transformed?) with its truth of setting, character and action.


For me it’s that luminous quality whether it is Salman Rushdie’s evocation of Bombay in Midnight’s Children, Ernest Hemingway’s irrevocable authenticity of dialogue and situation in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ or the poignant description of the communal clash in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I know these are random examples culled offhand but they serve to illustrate (albeit in a loose sort of way) the synthesis of vision and language which gives rise to this luminescence, so difficult to define.


Could you elaborate on any narrative strategies that you have used in The Elixir Maker and Other Stories?


Well, as I mentioned earlier, in the title story I have employed a magic realist mode, if you can call it that in so far as the eponymous character enjoys a dual existence within the span of the narrative (as Alok the painter and the fruit juice seller). He is, thus both creator and character inhabiting several frames at the same time – the frame of the story, that of a painting and the chronological era depicted in the latter – thereby suggesting a telescoping of effect, and also engendering a tension between life and art, and the past and the present.


In ‘Freedom’ it’s a different technique. With oral testimony having played an important role in the entire Partition discourse, I felt that maybe, the interview mode could be used as an effective narrative tool to draw out the feelings of a survivor on the subject.


What else do you want to write about, going forward?


About things that happen, things that matter. Also, things that don’t matter. Often, the tiny, the trivial, the most overlooked of elements can harbor the synapses that hold together the circuitry of things.  It is part of the search for the meaning of life which, in a sense, is what literature is all about.


To what extent have these projects progressed?


Oh – not to a great extent! A volume of poetry is slowly taking shape. Another collection of short stories is on the anvil.

Images by Avishek Mitra/IBNS