10 July 2021

Keeping in Touch by Anjali Joseph

A writer's life

Her father, Mathai Joseph, is one of India’s earliest computer scientists. Her maternal grandfather, Principal Bannerjee of Elphinstone College, was one of the most revered educationists of his time. Anjali Joseph studied English at Trinity College, and completed PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at University of East Anglia. In 2010 she was listed by The Telegraph as one of the twenty best novelists under forty. Her books detail ordinary life, delving inner lives and familiar realms.

A reader and a writer all her life, in her youth she may have experienced, as many of us do, the torturous periodic shedding and renewal of skin. The years passed – perhaps not (as she once wrote) as painlessly as that clause implies. She followed her whims and explored possibilities. Call them massive research projects, or immersion experiences, or the ashram life of renouncing this and that. And then out comes a novel, a space to lose yourself, experience new things, understand life in a different way – in the process, as she says, of becoming the person who wrote that novel. 

1.      What got you started with writing this book?

I was chatting to a friend in Norwich some time in around 2014 and she said she was terrible at keeping in touch. The phrase hovered in the air, illuminated for me, and I went home and wrote it down, convinced I’d write a book called Keeping in Touch. That was also the year I moved from Norwich to Guwahati in search of a new adventure, both at home and very much not at home, but fascinated by Assam. I had the character of Keteki in mind for a while as I was finishing The Living, and had even started writing about her, but Ved came along a little later, in 2015 when I wrote a short story that turned into the opening chapter of the book. The lightbulb called Everlasting Lucifer was a short story I’d begun writing when I was about eight years old, and not finished.

2.      And the symbolism of that lightbulb?

Maybe it’s some form of the light that’s in everybody. Maybe a sort of objective correlative of something that is much bigger. Besides, each of us wants to light up. But maybe the prospect is also a little threatening. What would really happen if that light were seen?

I don’t know where the name came from.  I was reading a lot of F Scott Fitzgerald at the time, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and several other of his stories. I must have at that time or sometime earlier learnt that Lucifer meant ‘light bearer’ or read about the story of how Lucifer was the fallen angel, but that it’s not necessarily a pejorative name. It was there as one of those ideas and half-ideas, some of which you write down and some that remain at the back of your mind.

3.      Did your characters change as you wrote?

Well, they meet at a time in their lives when they are ready for change. Their encounter is the catalyst that makes them step outside the comfortable shells they have created.

Both of them evolved as characters in the way I wanted to show them. My friend, the wonderful writer Tim Pears, was kind enough to read a draft and from his responses, I realised that the initial iteration of Ved was too off-putting, and Keteki a little too oblique.

At the opening of the book, Ved is a toxic bachelor, but he’s also in coming to the end of a time of getting over his earlier geekier self. He’s enjoying a period of his life when he feels he can be in control. But obviously he’s also still at least in a latent way open to the possibility of more. And then he falls for her. And Keteki – I had to say more about her in subsequent drafts; initially I wanted to show her mainly through the effect she had on other people.

4.      Your books have always run quite close to your own life adventures.

When a child growing up in a provincial English town I was waiting to start my life, the fiction that I read was about all sort of things and these novels almost seemed to be carrying messages, telling me, maybe your life will be like this! Or maybe it will be like that! I drank it all in. In a way, reading fiction is a way of thinking about how to live.

Now I get interested in one thing after another, and sometimes that’s what my next novel will be about. Maybe the other things that I’m learning around that time also become relevant. But I wouldn’t say most of my life goes into my novels. There are lots of things I do and read about that don’t directly feed into what I write.

I suppose for me, writing a novel is partly about finding out more about the characters and place I’ve decided are interesting. But it’s also a process of becoming the person who will have written the novel I’m writing. It’s something that gets revealed as I go along. Each individual step is in the dark, but there is a kind of feeling of what the next thing is.

5.      Why Assam?

When I went to live in Guwahati in 2014, Assam was a new place for me. I started learning Assamese, a beautiful and elliptical language. I think there might be a flavour of that in the book. After a while of studying, I realised that being able to say what you mean in Assamese hardly means you can speak it. That is not how Assamese is used. As I wrote in an essay for Unboundmost people  say something indirectly related to what they mean; the person they are talking to then responds by saying something indirectly related to the first thing.

I had two lovely teachers of Assamese, Dimpy Deka and my friend and neighbour Babu’s grandmother, Bimal Rajkhowa, herself a writer and lyricist. My Assamese remains halting but I can read and write, and some of my learning comprised reading aloud books in Assamese and asking about the phrases or words I didn’t know. It was a beautiful introduction to a sensibility as well as a language. The culture of Assam has so much depth, so many layers. There is a certain way of seeing life. It was just lovely to live there. And in Assam, everyone is a reader, it’s a place where people understand books and literature. In Bombay or Bangalore or Delhi if you say you’re a writer people will ask whether you know this writer or that writer, or if you’ve written for films, things like that. But in Assam people will want to tell you about what they’ve been reading. I’ve had conversations like that with a taxi driver, the man who works in the gas agency. Everybody is excited about reading, and for a writer that is truly special.

6.      And your book has such a strong yoga component too!

Well, I had a scientific, post-enlightenment sort of upbringing. In my family, there was not much ritual or religious observance. Still, as a child I was fascinated by religion, magic, and wonder. I’d read a storybook and hark back to the missing word in a spell, thinking, one day I’ll find out what that word is! And then I’ll be able to be invisible or do whatever the spell was for. That interest in spirituality found its expression much later, in my thirties, when I did a yoga teacher training. And there we studied Vedanta and some yoga philosophy: that was the first time I felt, here is a description of the world that makes intuitive sense to me.

Yoga training, then learning about tantra, were ways into these systems of thought. It was kind of liberating. And of course, if you are a fiction writer, you can use that fiction to offer people the idea that reality might not be quite as monolithic and quite mechanically materialist as we – certainly my generation – were told when we were young. The idea is important to me and the book is sort of soaked in that.

7.      The uses of a novel, then?

I believe in the novel as a machine that can re-configure a reader’s way of being in some way, perhaps for more lightness, or just more joy. Imagination can bring us back to ourselves, and that’s something I’m always aiming to do. Here I wanted to take the reader, while reading about Ved and Keteki, through the idea that in some ways the past is imaginary, and its weight that we have been carrying can be exploded into lightness. I don’t necessarily see ‘enlightening’ as a one-off process after which one transcends and everything is bunnies and angels. I think it’s part of human experience that there is an intermittence to keeping in touch with that real self inside, as well as with others and the way we really feel for them. It doesn’t matter that this awareness drops; we can pick it up again, and that’s the process of keeping in touch which also enables compassion, for ourselves, and for others.

8.      Your life has centred around writing since a very young age but in your books you come through as someone who has led many lives through others. Knowing what you know now, would you have chosen another path?

I didn’t really choose writing; I just always knew that was what I would do. And as you say, in a way through writing I can do anything else I like.

First appeared in the Hindustan Times books page on 10 July 2021

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