Books on sex workers either take a tone of it being a crime or it being a social issue. But author Rijula Das takes a detour from the regular discussions around the red light area of Kolkata’s Shonagachhi in her book. She takes the points of sexuality and the agency of the sex workers there.
Das wrote this book from a place of nostalgia and belonging to the city. She wrote it from afar, sitting in a country that is thousands of kilometres away from where the story is unravelling.
The author who now stays in Wellington in New Zealand has done a PhD in creative writing. her book is titled A Death in Shonagachhi. She discusses her book, identity and struggles to identify the nuances of writing on gender with Deepshikha Chakravarti, senior editor at SheThePeople in a segment of Women Writers at Home and Abroad.
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Rijula Das Books: Know More About A Death In Shonagachhi
For a long time, it was considered that women are not people who should write noir. Why do you think there is so much stigma and what has been your experience with the book, A Death in Shonagachhi?
I don’t think that authors set out to write a book in this or that genre. Eventually, in the publishing journey, somebody says this is how we are going to position the book. I don’t think that the writer necessarily has a lot of say in that. I come from a long tradition of reading Bengali literature and my childhood was influenced by Russian literature translated into Bengali. In regional literature or bhasha literature of India, we have never worried over the genre of a book, we have stalwarts in Bengali literature who have defined literary taste for generations, who have had successful series of noir, thrillers, adventures and mystery. Our preoccupation with the genre is a recent phenomenon.
There is also a flip side of the books that are coming out primarily in English speaking markets where people are doing all sorts of interesting experiments around ideas of genre and it’s spilling out and sort of subverting our expectations. As a reader and a writer, I find that interesting.
Your book talked about the sexual agencies and choices made by women. What is the specific problem when it comes to writing about identity in fiction?
Agency and choice is something my novel is talking about. It is a lot more complex in people that at first glance appear oppressed. You do not have to be a sex worker against your will or having trafficked to have a lack of sexual agency. Honestly, you do not have a sexual agency if you are a wife and a mother without any financial means of sustaining yourselves, not many wives and mothers in traditional Indian societies have sexual agency. You do not have to be completely marginal to lack sexual agency. I do not think it is a black and white issue. I think we do create agency and choice every single day in very small ways that may not be very apparent to the way we understand it. For most, the words agency and choice are a sign of privilege. As a writer, I am interested in women. I do not read women authors as a manifesto but I just find what women have to say interesting a lot of time.
I am interested to understand the shades and agency that we create every day and fight against. It is a continuous fight.
As a writer, I am interested in women. I do not read women authors as a manifesto but I just find what women have to say interesting a lot of time.
You have written a lot of books sitting away from Kolkata, in terms of the writing process how does this distance help you?
I do not know if it helps. We all start from zero every time. I have only written one book and that too in exile and in at least three different countries. Our creative lens in a way is formed way before we start writing a book. It’s all sort of churning somewhere in the background.
All of us have gone away and come back home or not, but who we are as artists travel with us. I have to see what kind of books I write when I am 60 and what I am forming now in New Zealand. As novelists, we are working in a lag and I am definitely 15 years behind emotionally in my artistic lens. I cannot write about something that happened to me yesterday. In some ways, it is not very helpful like temperatures like heat and sweating, the weather and the music. I do worry that my sense of my country, which is my primary artistic space of being, is becoming fossilised. The longer I stay away. I do not want to be an author who is creating an India that does not exist book after book.
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