Complete text of the exclusive interview that Mrs.Jaishree Mishra has given me for Kannyaka Onam Special through internet.
- Jaishree, can you update us about your current life and activities there abroad? Though we know you as a writer, our readers know little about you as a person. So kind of you, if you could throw some light upon your family too. Something more about your husband, Rohini, your work etc.
At the moment, I am working as a film censor at the British Board of Film Classification. It’s a job that keeps me quite busy so I have to snatch time to write between that as well as my duties as a wife and mother. I live in London with my husband (his nickname is Dicky). Our daughter, Rohini, has moved to live in a residential college since leaving school but comes to us at the weekends. She’s now 22 and as independent as it is possible to be, given her special needs.
- How was your childhood and teenage in Kerala? Can you just enlighten us upon that.
My childhood and teenage years were spent mostly in Delhi, although we traveled down to Kerala during the holidays every year. I went to actually live in Kerala when I first got married as a nineteen year old. These days I make one or two short trips a year to see my mother and other relations in Trivandrum. She moved there after my father passed away 20 years ago.
- What made you pen ‘Ancient Promises’?
Joblessness. I’d had to leave my job at the BBC when I was put on the breakfast shift – a news reporting job that involved having to leave the house at 5am to be at the news desk for 6. Since Rohini needed help to get bathed and ready for school in the mornings, this was impossible for me to carry on with. Stuck at home and feeling utterly bored and useless, I started to write a kind of memoir that then grew into the book.
- When did you discover yourself as a writer?
I’ve always liked to write. Even as a child, the only homework I used to enjoy was essay writing and I was the only one amongst all my friends who used to write copious letters while on holiday, even if they were never replied to. My first ‘novel’ was written when I was about 10, a pompous little tragedy that was called ‘And the World Marched On’, the title almost definitely stolen from somewhere. But I guess I only took myself seriously as a writer once ‘Ancient Promises’ got published although, even now, there are days when I feel like a bit of an imposter in the literary world. Perhaps when I have a really impressive corpus of work (I count 6 as impressive, so I’m nearly there) and I have the luxury of doing it as a full-time job, I will feel more able to describe myself as a ‘writer’.
- You have a strong pedigree, a tradition to boast as a writer. How far did your relationship with the legendary Thakazhi helped you in formating/moulding you as a literary person.
I used to hero-worship Thakazhi Amavan as a kid, seeing him as the only grown-up who did the kind of job I would like to do someday. Whenever he came to Delhi for a seminar or function, the house would suddenly be full of his fans and other well-known writers, such as O.V. Vijayan. An atmosphere would prevail that was completely different to that of my parents’ normal Air Force one. Hanging around the edges of the animated literary or political conversations that always surrounded Thakazhy Amavan, I used to feel as though I were getting a glimpse into some exalted world that was a world away from my mundane one.
When a short story that I wrote as a thirteen year old was published in the Deccan Herald, my father posted a clipping to Amavan who wrote back with the first bit of literary criticism I was to receive. He was a model critic, appreciative but also constructive in his criticism. He picked out one of my descriptions to particularly praise - that of a small girl whose only clean part was the thumb that emerged from her mouth - leaving me with an early, very important lesson in how small observations can serve to present a wealth of information.
- Why did you attempt to write a Novel itself for the first time?
Possibly because novels are the genre I most enjoy reading. Perhaps one day, I will try non-fiction or some other form, who knows.
- Attempting an Autobiographical Novel-that too revealing some most personal experiences from the life-Dont you ever think of its social consequences?
When I started ‘Ancient Promises’, it was a memoir being written a bit like a long explanatory note to Dicky, my husband, who I felt had never completely understood some of the decisions I had made as a teenager that had affected his life too. It was a private endeavour and I never dreamt at that point that it would ever get published. But, when the manuscript had grown to full-length and an agent was interested in selling it, I obviously panicked at the thought of having something so personal out in the public realm. At that point, I started to ‘fictionalise’ as much of it as was possible without losing the essence of the story and the final result was ‘Ancient Promises’. Thinking about readers and ‘social consequences’ comes only when a writer is assured of being published and, even then, I believe that the best fiction emerges when authors are only trying to tell a story and do not carry any grander agendas in mind.
- How did your daughter Rohini respond or react to the novel? Did she know that she too was one of the characters in it?
She recognises my name on the book jackets and her own on the acknowledgements page but I don’t think she really understands what I write about. She certainly knows that I’m writing books when I sit for long boring hours in front of the computer – which really annoys her sometimes. The only bit of the whole thing she’s really interested in are the book launches – which she eagerly looks forward to, calling them ‘book lunches’ as the food served is the most important part to her!
- The Novel had in it some strong critical view points against the so called arranged marriages in India. Weren’t you worried about how the Indian/Kerala Community would react to it or accept it?
I completely disagree with that analysis. Far from setting out to rubbish the arranged marriage system, I go to great lengths in ‘Ancient Promises’ to explain how well the system worked for most people in Janu’s immediate circle – her parents, grandparents, uncles – which is why she herself succumbs to it so hopefully. The fact that it did not work for her was down to all sorts of other factors that the book attempts to explain, both on a practical and philosophical level.
Having said that, I was anxious about the reaction I thought I may get from Kerala readers in my presentation of life in its upper social circles as being sometimes not the most conducive to women’s freedom and emancipation. Consequently, I was both surprised and relieved when I received so much positive endorsement of that view from different quarters – from critics and ordinary readers. The only way a society can progress and improve is when it is willing to be self-critical, rather than hang onto false notions of its own greatness. Too often, I had heard fellow Malayalis praise our home state for its hundred percent literacy rates and the many other statistics we share with the developed world and - while I too take great pride in those facts - it seemed doubly sad that, despite them, we still allowed deep-seated conservatism and orthodoxies to keep women from achieving their full potential. Nothing could have delighted me more than suddenly realising that there were enough Malayalis (home-grown and of the diaspora) who felt the same way as me and who seemed to appreciate my honesty.
- Ancient Promises has a philosophical touch in its nomenclature. What prompted you to select such a name to your first work.
It’s not just in the name - that philosophical thread runs all through the book and was essentially Janu’s way of understanding and coming to terms with the birth of her child and her broken marriage.
- Why did you resort to a Male point of view in narrating the sequel? As against Janu, you have made the Male counterpart, the protagonist of ‘Afterwards’. Why is it so?
‘Afterwards’ is not quite a sequel but I realise that to a lot of people it felt like one. The male point of view was a deliberate effort on my part to try something different. As I said earlier, I’m still discovering and experimenting as a writer and enjoying every minute of it. My second book was a comedy of manners, the one I’m writing now is an historical novel. Heaven knows what will come next!
- Priya A.S in her forward in Janmandhara vagdanangal has referred to your college days. Who were and are your most intimate friends? Do you still have such relationships in Kerala?
Yes, Priya and I first met at Prof. Madhukar Rao’s MA tutorials. It was a time in my life when I was quite deeply unhappy but, up in that little ‘Bamboo House’ on the roof of Prof MR’s house, was a lot of laughter and fun that helped me face other things. My closest friends are still my old schoolmates in Delhi – we’ve stayed in touch over the years, through thick and thin. Obviously, my life in England has brought many new friends too but I suppose it will always be difficult to form a very deep bond with people who have not known you since you were a gawky teenager, making the same mistakes as you.
- Among the two translations, Janmandara Vagdanangal and Shesham, which is your favourite and why?
That’s a very difficult question – a bit like asking a mother to decide which of her two children she likes better! I got very lucky, both times around, to have DeeCee Books find such excellent, skilled and dedicated translators for my books and I feel absolutely terrible that my Malayalam is not good enough for me to be able to read for myself what I am told by other people are very good translations.
- Have you ever regretted being a woman?
The kind of life I lead now has no room for that kind of regret but, purely on practical grounds, it’s still a thought I might occasionally entertain, such as when I feel unsafe walking alone down a dark street.
However, when I was younger and living in Kerala, I spent considerable time dwelling on that regret, imagining that, as a boy, I would have had better opportunities to fulfil my potential and less pressure to conform. It seemed unfair somehow (as Janu says in the book too) that abstruse things like family honour have to be carried on the shoulders of daughters, rather than sons. Arundhati Roy’s ‘GoST’ also deals with that socially accepted inequality when she describes the old matriarch Mammachi’s willingness to understand and accept Chacko’s ‘male needs’ but not, of course, her daughter’s.
- What is your view point of Women empowerment and Womens liberation?
Women all over the world have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves equal partners to men. We not just lack the same opportunities that men have, we struggle to cope when we do have them because of on-going social expectations that we will be the nurturers and carers and home-makers as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, for women who do choose to make that their vocation but I know too many working women, even in the West, who - despite being equal earning members - put immense pressure on themselves to be perfect in every way. Perfect wives, perfect mothers – when all those notions of perfection have been put in place by very clever men who are the only people who benefit by it. Despite vast strides taken by generations following mine, it’s still, sadly, a man’s world but we can keep chipping away!
- Do you believe that women in Kerala are free? Do you think that women’s literacy make them independent?
Women in Kerala are relatively well off than many others elsewhere in India, our state having been blessed with its traditions of matriliny, education and, in some way, communism too. But somewhere along the way, it became convenient to simply slip into the patriarchal ways followed in most parts of the world. Strangely, it has been my observation that poorer women or those from the working classes in Kerala are more empowered than their sisters in the so-called upper classes who struggle far more against what society expects of them. Literacy alone cannot solve everything. It can go some way in widening people’s minds but there are some pretty deep-seated attitudes that must change too – both male and female. It must never be seen, for instance, as undignified or ‘infra-dig’ for a woman from a ‘good’ family to want to have a career, even if she has no monetary reason for doing so. Financial independence is one of the quickest ways to gain genuine independence and sometimes even freedom of thought.
- What according to you are the vices and strengths of Kerala women?
I don’t much like generalisations but I would like to say that, from my observations, Kerala women are generally a lot more well-informed and politically aware than their counterparts in other states.
A vice? Perhaps that we are too inhibited and self-conscious. It may be worth taking a leaf out of the book of Punjabi women who, even aged 60 or 70, would not hesitate to dance and sing uproariously as a family wedding. It may look silly but I guess they know how to have more fun than we do. I’d love to get rid of those proverbial ‘four people’ whom people in Kerala are always worrying about and who really do spoil much of life’s enjoyment.
- What do you feel about your fellow newbreed writers like Arundhathi Roy, Sunethra Gupta, Radhika Jha and the lot?
Superbly talented. I recall my editor at Penguin UK saying once that nobody uses English more imaginatively than Indian and Irish writers. I’d like to add that it’s Indian women writers who have shown themselves to be especially good at hitting the right notes. We often get criticised for dwelling too much on domestic concerns, the limited sphere of home, hearth, heart. But isn’t that where life’s biggest dramas are played out? It’s much cleverer, I believe, to be able to describe human endeavours using that ‘two-inch bit of ivory’ that Jane Austen luckily made available to us all.
- Who is your most favourite author?
I don’t have favourite writers as much as favourite books - Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ and Seth’s ‘Suitable Boy’ among Indian writers. My favourite book of all time – Harpers Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
- Do you watch Malayalam movies? If so, who is your favourite actor and actress and why?
I used to watch Mal films quite a lot when I lived in Kerala but get less opportunities now – unless one comes in to be classified for a UK release. I think the last one that I saw at work was ‘For the People’ which was quite interesting but gave us problems in terms of classification because of its bloody violence.
- What are your favourite dress and dishes?
The most comfortable and elegant item of apparel has to be a well-made salwaar kameez.
It’s hard to choose a favourite dish but one that will stay in my mind forever is the most fantastic mampazham pulisheri made by my friend Das Sreedharan (who has a chain of Kerala restaurants in London), especially since it was a dish I used to hate as a child when it appeared on the table everyday in the summer months. When Penguin UK were launching ‘Ancient Promises’, their publicist made a mad search of London to find a Kerala restaurant and that was how I first met Das – and had the luck to have him personally cook his pulisheri for us.
- What are your future projects?
At the moment, my historical novel is nearing completion. It’s based on the life of the Rani of Jhansi, has a big canvas backdrop of the uprising of 1857 and is the book that I’ve worked hardest on so far. When that is done, I’ve promised my friend Mala Dayal that I’ll write something for children. She worries that Indian children are not getting enough home-grown literature and still go for what the western market produces - eg. Harry Potter. She is, rightly, starting a campaign to get Indian writers like me, who write in English, to turn their hand to children’s writing so that urban Indian children can have Indian settings and role models to look to. I already have an idea bubbling away at the back of my mind, as always happens as one book starts drawing to a close, and now have to somehow squeeze precious time from somewhere to be able to sit down and get on with it.