Alka Saraogi is an eminent Hindi novelist and short story writer based in Kolkata. Her first novel Kalikatha: Via Bypass won her the Sahitya Akademi Award in the year 2001. Her works have been translated in to a number of Indian and foreign languages.
You were born and brought up in Kolkata. Please tell us about your early days in this city?
I grew up in Ballygunge. We had Bengali neighbours on one side and Biharis on the other. Bengali culture made me more curious than anything else. I was studying in a Hindi medium school surrounded mostly by Hindi speaking people. Of course we had Bengali teachers and we were doing Bratachari dance and learning Rabindra Sangeet at school, but apart from that I think we had very little exposure to what you call Bangaliana. Once I got into college, things were different as I was exposed to more of Bengali culture. This is also when I came across some kind of tensions between Bengalis and Marwaris. One became aware that there were people in the other community who look at you in a different way- probably look down upon you as moneyed people with little culture as compared to them. Ironically, you also looked at them with some kind of contempt.
When I was writing my first novel Kalikatha via bypass, tracing the history of Marwaris in Kolkata, I got to know that Marwaris were called Medos and Khotta by the Bengalis in the 20s. Writing Kalikatha was quite a revelation to me. I found that there were many Marwari families who had adopted the Bengali language and eating habits and become almost Bengali, eating in brass thalis and calling their father baba and brother dada. But for most of us, there was a divide between the local Bengalis and the Marwaris, which none tried to bridge. I must mention that Marwari community read a lot of Bengali literature which was translated into Hindi- Saratchandra, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashankar and Bimal Mitra, Shankar.
During the renaissance period, the Marwari community had been idolizing Bengali women who were singing from the stage and participating in the freedom struggle. It changed their way of thinking; the education of women became a priority under the influence of the advanced Bengali womanhood.
In your young age you must have seen a lot of turmoil in this city, in early 70s mostly. What are your memories of that time?
I was born in 1960 and I think late 60s and early 70s were the peak period of the Naxal movement. I remember the strike in the factory just opposite our house on Hazra road, a major arterial road in Kolkata. We would hear slogans being shouted. The walls were painted with graffiti against the management. There were also stray incidents in the city. Something had happened at Rabindra Sarobar. We heard our parents talking about it in hushed tones. There was a kind of fear pervading the city.
And then in 1971 of course there was the Bangladesh liberation war. We had those blackouts. I would dream of planes throwing bombs on us.
There’s a very sharp memory of refugees coming and calling out, begging. One day I saw my grandmother crying a lot because she saw an old widow in a white saree, just like her, scrounging in the garbage dump for something to eat.
Hazra road being a major artery of the city, there were lots of processions going on with various demands, with Ballygunge phari on one side and Kalighat on the other side. We practically lived amidst the political turmoil of the city. We were very much aware of it, even though I was eleven years old at that time.
It all came in two of my novels later, as I read books on the Naxal movement and met people who had participated in it. My novel ‘Kulbhushan ka nam darj kijiye’ covers the period from partition in 1947 to the formation of Bangladesh through the life of a Marwari refugee.
Did you start writing at a young age or it was much later?
I was very much interested in reading from the time I recognised alphabets. I read a lot Hindi literature from my school library. I used to write for school magazine. But that was it. I read a lot of English literature during college due to friends who read a lot.
During the making of a dictionary for children, at the age of twenty four, I met my mentor Ashoke Seksaria who actually lived a writer’s life, with no family and job. He was a voracious reader. Under his influence I read Russian literature, American literature and of course, Latin American literature. Ashok ji inspired me to write my first article that got published in a Hindi magazine from Calcutta. I did a diploma course in Journalism and started writing on different sociological issues in major Hindi newspapers from North India. Coincidentally at the age of 28, during a family vacation at a Kolkata suburb, I met my first character and wrote a story called Aap ki hansi. That was published in a major issue of Hindi magazine with all the living stalwarts of Hindi literature. The story was talked about a lot. The success made me switch to creative writing. I was nearly thirty at that time. Those were the days when readers wrote letters and postcards and I received a bagful of them.
I was doing my PhD in Hindi literature at Calcutta University., After I submitted my thesis, Ashokji suggested that I should write a novel. I had written 30 stories by then. With two small kids and living in a joint Marwari family, I found the idea of a writing a novel impossible.
I started writing ‘Kalikatha via Bypass’ as a short story, but slowly it turned out to be a multilayered novel, covering migration of the Marwari community to Calcutta, the history of the struggle for freedom in 1940s, with the city of Calcutta becoming almost a protagonist. When you start on a novel, it gives you multiple eyes to see the world and they bring in more and more stories. The joy of finding your way to write them down is incomparable. This made me became a full-time writer.
Who were the writers you were reading as a young reader?
I was reading Premchand, all the eight volumes of his collection of short stories which is called Mansarovar. There were other books also like Enid Blyton, Anne Frank, then you had your syllabus. So when I read a story in the syllabus of Somerset Maugham, I accessed in the library all his works. Then came Chekhov.
I was very fond of reading. That was the only thing which interested me in life. I could read anything and everything that came by way. So my reading was quite eclectic till I met Ashok Ji.
I read Tagore quite late, mostly in Hindi translation. But now I can read Bangla quite easily. I translated a lot of stories for Amazon audible from Bangla.
In Kolkata Bengali and the Marwari communities are living side by side since a long time. Yet there is a gap between these two communities. You have seen both of these communities very closely since your childhood. According to you what may be the reason for this distance?
I think for some reason or other all communities have a kink of contempt for the other, while not knowing them fully. I think it was my first experience when I was in class nine, my Physics teacher said something very derogatory about the Marwaris. That was a shock. Then when I went to college I heard a girl say, all Marwaries are filthy rich. I realised that ignorance made her assume that all Marwaries are the Shylock kind. Ashokji used to tell me that during his childhood In the 40s, a Bengali would hide it if he had a Marwari friend because culturally they were considered very inferior. That stereotype has somewhat percolated to this day also.
A student from the University of Berkley had come to Kolkata a few years back, to do research on Marwari women writing in Hindi. He asked his Bengali host if he knew me. The counter question was ‘Does a Marwari write books? They can only write Hundis!’
Minakshi Mukharjee, the well-known critic, had written an article on my novel Kalikatha but it was returned by the magazine Desh. They refused to publish a review, of a Hindi book, until Sunil Ganguli intervened. I think that generally people don’t have much idea about what is going on in modern literature of other languages.
This is also true that migrant communities tend to have a barricaded life. They create a kind of ghetto, if not a physical one, a mental one. That is also a reason why Bengalis never get to know much about the changes in the Marwari community and the stereotypes persist. Even Satyajit Ray had a Marwari character in one of his movies, the pagdiwala Mahajan kind of a thing, which I have not seen in my life.
Having said that I think technology, globalization, and consumerism have really bridged the gap between all communities to a large extent. The contempt might still be there but because there is so much information available, people’s minds are kind of opening up. So we definitely know more about each other now. And the brand of Marwaris is much more acceptable in the consumerist world because everyone aspires for the same things and same lifestyle. Consumerism has bridged the gulf between different communities in a negative way, making them homogenized entities I would say.
Your male protagonist in the novel Kalikatha via bypass travels a lot around the city. Did you too travel around to collect stuffs of your story?
Of course I did. I used to go to Barabazar or the Central Avenue so many times and met people who had lived there. There were innumerable stories floating around.
The history of the roads of Calcutta is so fascinating. The city was divided into White Town for the British and Black Town for the natives and the grey town in the middle, inhabited by the Chinese, Jews, Armenians, Anglo-Indians and even Greeks. Unless you stroll around you really don’t get to know the city. This is how I discovered the city in which I was born and brought up but didn’t know much about. I don’t think many people discover the city they are born in the way I did. Because I was writing a story, I’d to walk with my protagonist in my mind. I read many books on Calcutta and then saw those places.
In a city like Kolkata or in any other Indian metropolitan cities, we have the slums, children begging in streets almost naked and on the other hand BMWs running on the same streets, night parties in clubs, bars and so on. Though you addressed this binary in Sesh Kadamvari, can you elaborate on that?
Kalikatha starts from there—Kishore Babu writing a note on people squatting to eat on the pavement facing a wall. His wife is shocked to read that. People don’t want to see these things. And even if they see them, their brains don’t want to notice them and if they do, certainly want to forget about them. But if you are sensitive and if you know how cruel the world is around to so many people, you carry a deep sense of guilt with you. You notice those deprivations and you are deeply pained. That is what Kalikatha is all about. When I was writing it, India was celebrating its 50 years of independence. One wondered what kind of independence were we celebrating with so many people still under the poverty line? How many people were begging on the streets? How many people were homeless? How many rikshaw pullers were still there in the city? Kalikatha was a statement on this disparity. There was a lot of idealism in the air during the fight for independence, and now you met that generation with deep disillusionment. I was meeting people who were ex-Naxalites, people from other political movements, who wanted to change India. Some of them had participated in the 1977 win against Indira Gandhi. Reading Chomsky, P. Sainath, Amartya Sen was very politically stimulating. I had become this disillusioned man on the street and realised it was a very cruel, unjust, divided world with so many disparities. Shesh Kadamvari was a follow up on that with mostly women characters.
At that time did you meet Mahashweta Devi?
Yes of course. We went together for the Paris Book fair in 2002. Afterwards also we met at many book fairs abroad. I’ve been translated into French, German and Italian. Mostly it was outside India that we met. I too translated one of her stories into Hindi. she was taking out this magazine called Bhashabandhan, my stories appeared there.
You have written both from a woman’s and a man’s point of view. How do you shift between these perceptions?
Actually it is the call of the story that you choose to write. Say if I was writing Kalikatha from Kishore babu’s wife’s point of view then I couldn’t have written about all these I was telling earlier. It’s been called ‘Writing the Nation’, it couldn’t be told through any woman’s eyes. I think the story decides the point of view. But even if Kalikatha was written through the eyes of a male protagonist, it still imbibes the female point of view. Maybe not apparently, but undercurrents are there. This is what I feel.
Sesh Kadambari is not only the story of a woman, it’s also the story of a city and the Marwari community and the various political upheavals of the last century. There are actually two novels in one novel imbibing two protagonist’s point of view. My writing is ambitious about telling the story through several narrative voices. Reality is so complex, only one narrative voice either male or female won’t do. So it has to be told by many narrating voices. I think you can’t call it a male or female point of view, rather the story’s point of view.
Your stories and novels have been translated not only in different Indian languages but also in foreign languages. What feedback do you receive from your global audience?
The Italian version of Kalikatha did very well. Three editions came out one after the other and they are large editions like three thousand, five thousand copies. It was quite surprising. I wondered which Italians would be interested in a Marwari protagonist, migrated from Rajasthan to eastern India, roaming the streets of Calcutta. What is that universal thing that appeals to people of a totally different culture? Then slowly I realised that probably the theme of fall from idealism was common in all countries. In Italy people were very disillusioned by the political system. So my protagonist had an appeal for them.
I will like to share a very interesting incident which happened at Edinburgh Bookmark. I was reading from the English translation of Kalikatha. The chapter talked about the Marwaries who had shifted from North Calcutta to the posh South and wanted to hide that they ever lived in the North. I saw the audience were in splits. I wondered what’s the matter. Later on, my Scottish friend told me, it’s the same story in Edinburgh. That’s why people were laughing. I suppose when it comes to human predilections and failings, it’s all the same world over.
Your new book is on Gandhi and Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. What made you chose this subject to work on?
I read a book on the correspondence between Gandhi and Sarala Devi by Geraldine Forbes, who teaches history in New York. She told me that there is a novel in Sarladevi’s life, which as a historian, was not her to discover. I started reading Jiboner jhora pata, Sarala Devi’s autobiography and later Gandhi’s autobiography. I was quite surprised to see that they hardly mention each other despite the intimacy that was evident in the letters. My novel begins from what Sarladevi’ had written in Jiboner jhara pata, what Gandhi told her, ‘your laughter is a national treasure’.
Gandhi was 50 when he met Sarladevi at Lahore after Jallianwala. He had taken brahmacharya thirteen years ago. When Gandhi tells Sarala Devi at the doorsteps of her house at Lahore, how he still remembers her singing at the Congress session nineteen years back, Sarala Devi laughs. Gandhi is surprised to see an Indian woman laugh like that and he calls it a national treasure.
I think this incident tells a lot about Gandhi, it tells a lot about Indian women of those days vs. Sarala Devi. This incident generated so much interest in me about both the characters that I decided to write about them. As a novelist, I tried to fill the gaps of the intimacy and love that blossomed between Gandhi and Sarladevi.
Do you think it is easy to figure out a particular structure called Indian Literature out of these diverse forms of literature that prevail and are being written?
If Indian literature encompasses the complex reality of an old civilisation grappling with myriad issues of poverty, development, dilemmas of secular vs. religious society as well as the struggle to keep on being a democracy while facing the undying caste system, then I suppose different and vast strands of literature in Indian languages can be called Indian literature.
Also, read On Translation and Culture— In Conversation with Damodar Mauzo , interviewed by Subhadrakalyan and published in The Antonym: