The recipient of the RK Narayan award (2019), Gayathri Prabhu always wanted to be a writer. She wrote poems and short stories, but when her father passed away, the only way in which she could speak her emotional truth was to write a memoir, If I Had to Tell It Again. Her other novels are The Untitled, Birdswim Fishfly and Maya. Here she tells SheThePeople.TV Books Editor Archana Pai Kulkarni about her latest book, Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead, a playful retelling of one of India’s most celebrated cycles of stories.

You read the stories of Vikram and Vetaal in storybooks like the Chandamama. Tell us briefly about how and when it took the shape of a dissertation and what transpired during the near decade that it took to roost this project.

The stories of the Vetaal are such an integral part of our collective imagination that one is encountering them in different ways through the years without quite being aware of their source. Indeed, the source should not even matter, for these stories are meant to give us pleasure. My retelling project germinated when I chanced upon Richard Francis Burton‟s nineteenth-century translation (more of an adaptation) in a Delhi bookstore over a decade ago. It was titled Vikram and the Vampire: Tales of Hindu Devilry. Even though one tried to get past the annoyance about this superimposition of vampires and devilry, the innards of Burton‟s book made me restless for a rematch. I decided to retell the eleven stories that Burton chose from the Vetaal collection, but to cast it in a more contemporary voice, one that is more sensitive to the interplay of gender and sexuality.

You have picked up the threads of a narrative that goes back in time to Lord Shiva who told Parvati his best story, and become its latest Sutradhar. What got you interested in the riddles of the undead?

Who knows why some stories haunt us and others don’t? There is a storytelling genealogy embedded in the Kathasaritsagara, the eleventh-century Sanskrit frame narrative to which we can trace the Vikram-Vetaal stories. Several storytellers have felt compelled (often thanks to the threat of a curse) to repackage or retell these stories. None of these storytellers were women, so that was one starting point. And then I fell in love with the Vetaal’s imaginative terrain and the idea of the riddle, where the story ends with a question so that the listener can complete the story and become a part of the storytelling. To my mind, the riddles of the Vetaal are not really about resolving the plot or moral dilemmas, but finding collective joy in floating in a sea of the stories. The stories are irreverently worldly, relatable and fun – they were very hard to resist!

As the new Sutradhar, how faithful did you want to be to the original narrative? Did you impose certain restrictions on yourself to keep some things unchanged or do you think that every narrative must evolve and reflect the zeitgeist? How did you figure out how to retell the story?

I must admit that it took a while, nearly a decade, for me to feel entirely comfortable with these questions of fidelity, because this is after all the key that unlocks the heart of any retelling project. I had two versions to contend with– Somadeva (from the eleventh century) and Burton (from the nineteenth century) – and I resolved it by going with Burton’s selection of stories, and by returning to Somadeva for the spirit (and overall shape) of the story. I don’t want to explain exactly what has been changed in each story, because that would be like making someone read the chemistry formulations that brewed their whisky while they are savouring its delights. But I do think that voice, tone and design are key with projects like this, and I am content with what I finally settled into.

To my mind, the riddles of the Vetaal are not really about resolving the plot or moral dilemmas, but finding collective joy in floating in a sea of the stories.

You sought to go back to the skeleton to clothe it again, to unremedy what had supposedly been ‘remedied’ by Burton, but which you found cringe-worthy. Could you mention a couple of distortions that were unpalatable or discomforting?

It is perhaps not fair to flog Burton too much for his Victorian and gothic sensibilities. Some readers will probably not like my feminist and queer affinities either. What is the heart of the adventure in one storytelling (say, the “devilry” of tantric practices of the “natives” for Burton) becomes offensive to another storyteller. If there is one thing this text has taught me, it is this – who we are as listeners deeply matters. More often than not, this becomes the starting point for a new telling.

ALSO READ: When Life Gives You Pain, Turn It Into Poetry, Says Ayushi Shridhar

Your book is interspersed with a narrative about Richard Burton’s life. Why was that important to you? Is it because your primary narrative demands the telling of stories within stories? Or was it an acknowledgment of Burton’s contribution to the lineage of narrators?

gayathri prabhu
Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead,by Gayathri Prabhu

True, I did decide to embrace the central literary conceit of the Kathasaritsagara (or of any frame narrative, like The Arabian Nights) – every story comes from a story and leads to another story. And yes, I wanted to draw Richard Burton into the lineage of narrators of the Vetaal-Vikram cycle of stories, to turn him (and his wife Isabel) into characters (as often happens to storytellers in frame narratives). To be honest, when I started work on this project, I struggled with my feelings about Burton –an intense love-hate that clouded my writing, and I resolved it by working him into the storytelling scape. We are on good terms now!

What liberties have you taken with the narrative? Why?

To retell is to take liberties. Perhaps any telling takes liberties, with life, with memories, with people we know, with characters we conjure. We do it because writing and reading brings us new lives, new horizons. In Vetaal and Vikram, I returned to Somadeva’s version for the unfolding of the plot (the ambience and spirit of each story), and stayed with it as much as I could – the liberties I took were sometimes with a plot detail, or with perspective, the motivation of a character, or the tonality of the telling.

Do you believe that as a living woman, there is a divergent perspective, a distinct flight of imagination, an unearthing from the cosmic nothingness that needed to be added to these stories? If so, what was the feminist verve that was missing?

Well, for instance, one of the narratives is a storytelling contest between a Tota (parakeet) and Myna (starling) about whether men or women are more wicked. Vikram and the reader will get no prizes for guessing the answer to that one – women are always more wicked, according to the traditional versions. The word ‘misogyny’ comes to mind. This is the case with most stories, not just in the placement of gender but also with any suggestion of an alternate or explicit sexuality. My intention is not to turn the stories into a polemic– it was crucial to retain their playfulness – but to bring my perspective into the telling, and my perspective will of course change the answer to the question, maybe even pose a new question. Why should women always be more wicked?

When Shiva told Parvati the story, it was meant only for their ears. Supposedly, an attendant’s eavesdropping on their private conversation led to its public narration. What, according to you, is the anatomy of any story? What kind of life do you think it should live?

A story lives equally with storyteller and storylistener. I love the Kathasaritsagara because it erases any hierarchy between the two. The listener is equally agential and has to contribute to the story. The levelling continues when both teller and listener are also characters in the story. A story, like a human being, is certainly anatomy (and we do discuss it at great lengths in creative writing workshops or literature classes) but it is also personality, spirit, aspiration. Like all of us, a story must have the breathing space to live its own life, to be whatever it wants to be.

A story lives equally with storyteller and storylistener. I love the Kathasaritsagara because it erases any hierarchy between the two. The listener is equally agential and has to contribute to the story.

You have written a searing memoir, ‘If I Had to Tell It Again’. You disagree with the contention that writing the memoir was an act of courage, for you aver that it is the job of every artist to speak the emotional truth. But, does it not require intrepidity to expose one’s intensely personal landscape to a mostly uncaring world? What gave you the gumption to allow yourself to become vulnerable?

I write because I feel safe at my writing table, and something about a world-that-makes-little-make-sense starts to feel a little more habitable when I write. To write, to me, is to be vulnerable. There is no other state.

ALSO READ: Why I Write: To describe the lower-case ‘h’ in History and Herstory

By addressing your need to forgive your father, by coming to terms with a childhood that almost stole your life, by seeking therapy for depression, and talking about it, you have empowered similarly afflicted people to speak up. Do you believe that such symbiosis between reader and writer is a necessity today?

There is always a symbiosis between reader and writer, if a book speaks to the reader’s aesthetics, experiences, expectations. Memoirs are often able to do that with a little more immediacy. But yes, one hopes for this symbiosis, always. It is what keeps us reading books, writing books.

While writing the memoir, were there moments when there was a compulsive urge to tell it the way it transpired, but the fingers paused, and the fears of social or familial censure surfaced? There is always so much at stake when a memoir is written – the collateral damage that may occur. How did you prepare yourself for it and overcome the editing that may have presented itself?

This is an excellent and complex question that merits a more detailed answer than I can give here. In writing a story that belongs to many people one worries constantly about stepping on feelings and the possibility of censure or unkindness. But our stories are ours to tell, important to tell, and with as much translucence as we can muster. I suppose every memoirist follows their own internal moral compass in representing slivers of their life and I did the same. Many responses to a memoir will be completely unexpected, so there is no preparing for what follows. I did the best I could, and I decided that just as I have the right/need to tell my story, others are entitled to their responses.

Which memoirs have bolstered or influenced you? What are the books that have shaped your writing? Who are your favourite authors?

I always balk at this question. There are too many favourites. We are shaped by books (or any art) we admire, and I prefer not to be overly self-conscious about this– influences must work as influences do, in subtle, if lasting ways.

ALSO READ: Nothing We Write Exists By Itself, Says Author Krishna Udayasankar

You hold a day job teaching literary studies at the Manipal Centre for Humanities. How do you manage to juggle that with a writing career? What is the most challenging aspect of being a writer? What is the most exhilarating?

Like most writers, I have struggled with balancing livelihood demands with the kind of time and dedication that writing demands. In recent years, I had some insights that helped me. I realised that finding time and energy to write is essentially about managing and protecting our mindspace which gets easily colonised by many other things. Writing is about being prepared to write and wanting to write – even as one lives a life (job, family, responsibilities) one has to protect the mindspace that is exclusively for our writing selves. We have a way of making time for things that matter to us, and if one is aching and bursting with the need to write, then one simply will. I had heard and read other writers saying this, but it took me an awfully long time to figure out how to make that work for myself. I find everything about writing and being a writer challenging, and everything about it is equally exhilarating.

I write because I need to write. During the long years of composing and revising, one hopes and dreams of a gentle empathetic reader. Someday the writing does find its way into print, but that is the moment to emotionally let go, or so I believe. The work (writing) has to be its own reward – everything else is bonus.

Two of your novels did not receive the expected response. Did that dishearten you? What inspired you to continue writing?

I write because I need to write. During the long years of composing and revising, one hopes and dreams of a gentle empathetic reader. Someday the writing does find its way into print, but that is the moment to emotionally let go, or so I believe. The work (writing) has to be its own reward – everything else is bonus.

Author Ocean Vuong was told by someone, ‘Really, you’re so lucky. You get to write about war. I’m white, I got nothing.’ Do you believe that the best stories need a kind of irregular living experience? Are the best creations churned out of pain?

My worry is that such an approach romanticises both writing and suffering. We all suffer in different ways; some of us become writers.

Do you think writing is therapy or that it can truly exorcise the ghosts of the past, that it catharsizes and liberates the author?

I strongly resist any suggestion of writing as exorcism and catharsis (although I understand this may be the case for some writers). There may be some primal moment in the process of writing when one is liberated by the breath of ghosts from the past, but that is a fleeting moment for me. I think of writing as crafting. The work begins with a long period of incubation, then the sweat of the first ungainly draft, then relentless revising and tinkering. By the time there is something I am ready to let go into the world it is entirely crafted in the shape of my aspiration (to share what deeply matters to me) and that is the best I can hope for.

What are you working on now? Could you tell us a little about your next book?

I am working on two books. The first is a book that I am co-writing with Nikhil Govind – on black and white visual aesthetics of Hindi cinema, a close reading of select films from the late forties to the early sixties. The second is a love story, a novella written in prose poems. I find myself reaching out to a different genre with each book –it keeps me on my toes, helps me grow.

What is the best writing advice you have received? What would you tell today’s aspiring writers?

I am not sure advice is helpful with writing. Each writer has to figure out what works for them. I suppose it would be best to take time to understand what practices are effective, to develop one’s temperament, habits and overall stylistic palette to support whatever works for us. Perhaps it will help to think like a long-distance runner – build and use resources prudently, for it is not just about this one book, but about all the books to come.

Image Credit: Greeshma

ALSO READ: Githa Hariharan On Writing About Caste, Dissent And Resistance

Get the best of SheThePeople delivered to your inbox - subscribe to Our Power Breakfast Newsletter. Follow us on Twitter , Instagram , Facebook and on YouTube, and stay in the know of women who are standing up, speaking out, and leading change.