Manjul Bajaj Interview
Tell us something about yourself, Manjul Bajaj. Where did you grow up, where and what did you study and where do you live now?
Manjul Bajaj: I grew up in Lucknow. My extended family lives in a series of large, rambling bungalows in the Cantonment. We were quite feudal and clannish but it was a charmed childhood. There were multiple gardens, scores of different fruit trees. My grandmother kept a few buffaloes, somebody would be growing sugar cane or corn or a gladiola farm even. And there was plenty of wilderness around to explore. A couple of abandoned wells, outhouses, and servants’ quarters with a vast promise of playmates. My cousins and I used to cycle, walk, play all kinds of games from badminton and table tennis to Kabaddi, Pithu, and Guli-Danda.
One summer break we built a playhouse with real bricks and cement. Another we staged a play – we had enough family to provide director, scriptwriter, cast, and audience all. And there were so many varied literary influences. My father was obsessive-compulsive about Ghalib. One aunt was a Hindi and Sanskrit teacher with an evangelistic zeal for her subjects, another wrote lovely poetry. An older cousin had this delightful stash of Georgette Heyers, another of Somerset Maugham’s.
Lovely as it was I spent my teenage years seething to get away from the limitations of Lucknow. I studied Economics at LSR in Delhi and rural management at IRMA in Anand. Somewhere along the way I also did an MSc in Environmental Management from the University of London. I currently live in Gurgaon with my husband and two sons.
When did you start writing? What pulled you into writing?
As far as I can remember I’ve always been writing – from kindergarten well into my college years. I think I must have edited a magazine at every place I’ve studied at. Where none existed I would start one. For a long while though after I started working the only writing I was doing was field reports and project documents. But every place I worked at sooner or later I’d end up doing the writing part. But writing in the sense of becoming an author only began as I began approaching forty. Suddenly I could hear the clock ticking very loudly in my ears. So I sort of dropped everything else and began to focus on my writing.
What do you read and any favorites that you would recommend?
I grew up reading pretty much everything I could lay my hands on. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and Iris Murdoch were the staple of my growing years. I’m a die-hard fiction reader. I only read the occasional nonfiction title which is making huge waves or whose premise interests me… for the rest, it’s fiction all the way. So much wonderful writing is happening that I’m constantly in a state of awe.
It’s difficult to name favorites but Nadeem Aslam and Tan Twan Eng are definitely right up there in my good books. Wisdom, beauty, depth, and grace – their writing has everything I aspire to. Among Indian authors if you pushed me to name one (though there are so many I admire) I think it would be Amitav Ghosh – he has an incredible range. And I love how he delves into his material and carefully lays it bare for the reader.
How do you manage to capture the nuances of so many communities in India, from Goa to Gujarat to Delhi to Murshidabad and of course your home town Lucknow? Have you spent time in these places or you draw a lot from what you read or people who may hail from these places?
As a rule, I try not to write about places I haven’t stayed in for a bit at least. One doesn’t want to get the look and feel of it entirely wrong. But beyond that, I allow myself a lot of leeways. I follow whichever community or story that captures my fancy. A fair amount of research goes into it. And I usually ask people who know or belong to the area to comb the draft for any obvious errors. Writing to me is about walking a few steps in another person’s shoes – it helps me shine a light on the things that interest or intrigue me about life and the world we live in.
Also, I spent the first ten-fifteen years of my career as a rural development professional. Traveling the length and breadth of the country and interacting with different communities. Those experiences are where I draw my stories from.
Your first book Come Before Evening Falls tells a story 100 years back in time, one of the very few love stories based in rural Haryana. How was the seed of that story born?
That’s a tough question to answer. Come, Before Evening Falls was born out of my need to explore the subjects of love and honor. And the dynamics of gender equations within families. It’s a character-driven story. The setting came later. I chose rural Haryana partly because I live in Haryana now and wanted to understand it better. But mostly because it has this flagrantly patriarchal society. Yet, its women are not weak and self-effacing. They are stubborn, resilient, and outspoken. There was a certain fit with the characters in my head. As I was researching the story I came across fascinating material on the region’s military history and the time period chose itself based on that.
In your second book Another Man’s Wife, you explored equations in human relationships and how they may not always be the same above and beneath the surface. Manjul Bajaj Your comments.
The stories in Another Man’s Wife were written over seven-eight years. They are primarily about relationships and about the many dimensions of what we call love – romantic love, desire, lust, obsession, infatuation. I have often thought that we give many names to the attraction between human beings depending on our social conditioning – yet in its chemistry, all love is pretty much the same. You might call it true love if it ends in a marriage. And an infatuation if it doesn’t. But in terms of what it does to your brain, heartbeat, and the blood racing in your veins at the moment that it is happening it’s the same, isn’t it? As it is also in its essentially transient nature. Whether you build a life around it or a few indelible memories is a matter of character, circumstances, and social conditioning.
The other major theme underlying my stories is that we are strangers to ourselves – our life’s events reveal us to ourselves. I think this is what you are alluding to when you say things are not always the ‘same above and beneath the surface’ in my stories.
You also looked backward at a series of events in stories and wondered if a certain small incident had not happened inadvertently, the life would have been different for all those in the story. Where does the genesis of this lie?
To my understanding all of us go through life only vaguely knowing ourselves, making up a picture of a self in our heads on the basis of assumptions, theories, and what other people tell us we’re supposed to be. So much of what makes us up – desires, biases, prejudices, insecurities, fears – lie buried deep beneath the surface and it takes a small but critical life event to bring it all bubbling to the top. We are what we do in a crisis, in the moment of choice or irrevocable decision. Life shines a random beam upon us and our morality, our vulnerability, how little or big we are as humans – it all suddenly plays out under that spotlight. This is what I’m trying to get at in some of the stories in Another Man’s Wife.
You know I admire your lyrical language, and we know that you write poetry as well – are you thinking poetically even when you are writing prose? Else, what gives this poetic quality to your writing?
I feel very relieved to hear you describe my language as lyrical and poetic. Thank you. To me, it seems very prosaic and wanting. And I can’t tell you how many productive woman-hours I have wasted wishing I was a better writer. However, to answer your question. When I begin writing a story, I’m entirely focused on getting the plot and characters right. It’s only in subsequent drafts that I focus on the language and try and tease a bit of beauty out of it.
Do we see a poetry book coming from you sometime?
I don’t think so. The little poetry I write is on impulse. And while it gives me great pleasure to share it on blogs and social media and to read or perform it before an audience. I don’t think there is scope for taking it any further than that. Some things should just be allowed to flow as they will – simply and without strain.
Tell us about your just launched book Elbie’s Quest and the Rangeeli Duniya series?
Manjul Bajaj: Elbie’s Quest (and the Rangeeli Duniya series) is in a sense my first book. And both my simplest and most ambitious work. I began writing it some twelve years ago. It’s been through many different versions and avatars. It started as a dark, tragic, multi-layered fantasy novel… I’ve been paring it down over the years. And what we have now is a light, whimsical and funny series for middle-grade readers.
The first book is about Elbie the Little Big Tree, who runs a café called The Soul Kitchen in Rangeeli Duniya and who is obsessed with her own little-bigness and yearns to be a lofty tree. The yearning takes her on an adventure that embroils her with the forces that rule Rangeeli Duniya namely Roshni Rani, the Princess of Light, and her evil twin Benoor Badshah.
There’s a lot of intricate wordplay and an I-spy game hidden inside the illustrations. I hope to both challenge and engage young readers with it. There is a blog site where young readers will find cool games and contests they can enter after they are done reading the book – http://elbiepage.blogspot.in/. I’m looking forward to having a lot of fun with this series over the next 3-4 years.