'You're a minute in the life of a book'
'Motherhood, loss, questioning your faith, redemption, the bonds of home.... Whether you're in Swaziland or Breach Candy, these themes are going to pervade every life. You are going to find a connect with something that's so universal.'
Novelist Avan Jesia discusses her first novel, Tower, with Rediff.com's Sanaya Dalal.
My first thought as I enter Avan Jesia's home in Mumbai's Dadar Parsi Colony is, 'I've been here before.'
The truth is I haven't; and yet the 100-year-old facade of the building and the walls and the coconut trees feel familiar, because I've already been introduced to them by way of her first novel Tower.
In her fourth floor apartment, picture windows reveal the wonderful greenery that has seen real estate prices soar in this part of the city and on her coffee table sit a pair of electric blue studded Louboutins. "They're so beautiful I can't bring myself to wear them," she smiles.
Avan is in her 40s; she's attractive, she's passionate and she speaks her mind. It's easy to see that her writing reflects a lot of her personality.
Tower is not just another run-of-the-mill, mediocre work by an Indian author -- a gripping, eloquent narrative sees it unravel over the course of a century, its many inter-connected tales and characters indelibly and eternally linked to a house built in 1920s Bombay. This very house, in fact.
We sit down to an interview as she rolls herself cigarettes and tells me about herself, why she considers reading a privilege and how a reader is just a minute in the existence of a book.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a teacher. Even though I am between jobs right now, that's the way I kind of define myself.
I've lived in this house all my life. My dad, who's retired now, used to be with Air India and my mom was an airhostess too; that's how they met.
My younger sister is this very famous supermodel (Mehr Jesia Rampal) who gave it all up. I have two wonderful nieces and then there's also our lovely dog, Ryan. (Smiles.)
From English teacher to author -- how did the progression come about?
It's hardly a progression -- I don't think it's that much of a leap, you know? I've been writing on and off -- not just professionally, but also for myself -- since my very very early 20s, which were so long ago unfortunately! (Laughs.)
I started by writing a lot of poetry; I thought I'd never be able to do a novel. But being an English teacher, I think, implies that you more or less live in a world of books.
Because you want to, you choose to surround yourself by books. Reading, writing and teaching are very linked. They are very inter-connected.
There's something very magical about writing. It doesn't always come, it doesn't always happen, but when you are sitting down for two to three hours and writing, and suddenly you get this perfect paragraph or this perfect sentence or even just a little phrase that's perfect and it's there on your screen -- it wasn't there a minute ago and suddenly it's there and it works just perfectly...
How much of Tower is inspired by your life and experiences?
This is my first novel and everybody who writes only ever has one first novel. But from what I've heard and read, I think it's inescapable for moments from your own life to creep into what you are writing. Which is why I now think I have nothing to say.
I don't know if there's a second novel, I've written all the stories already. So let's say the book is fifty per cent fact and fifty per cent fiction.
There are several anecdotes from my childhood that are true, a lot of the characters are absolutely real live people -- some of them I've even given their same names, like my father has his own name in the book. My mother doesn't; she wanted me to change it.
So a lot of the characters are modelled on people you know?
Absolutely. Of course, there are some characters, which I've just picked out of the ether. Piloo Vachha is completely a figment of my imagination, there's no such person. Fancy Freny, no such person, Zorabian the baker, no such person... the teacher Miss Battiwala, the doctor, all completely imaginary people.
My great grandparents, I know very little about them except for their names. The stories that I wove around them are just from the very, very little that I knew.
Is there any one particular character that's a reflection of you?
It would be Ruby.
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Image: Avan Jesia
'Everything we write is chick lit'
Of all the characters in the book, which would you say is the most powerful?
Only one? You know, because the book spans such a long time, over a century, each of the parts has its own central protagonist.
Like in the first part and right through the book it would probably be Faram Framji, whether or not he's alive (in the course of the story).
But the character I had the most fun creating was Piloo Vachha, because I could do anything with her, there were no parameters.
She was totally imaginary, but she does have bits and pieces of a lot of Parsis! And especially writing that poem that introduces her -- it was like she's my monster and I'm Frankenstein, which was such fun.
And in the second part Deena is pretty much the backbone of the story, from the middle onward. And quite a lot of it is based on fact, because I've based her on my relationship with my mother.
Do you think the future generations of the Framji family have a story to be told in a forthcoming book?
A story that I will tell?
It would have to be imaginary, I guess. I don't know if there will be a sequel, or if I'll write another novel; like I said, I've included all the stories that I know and everything I want to say in Tower.
But perhaps if I do write another book, maybe one of inter-linked short stories, I would probably take one or more of the peripheral characters and round them a little more. But for the main protagonists, I think this is all there is to say.
Tower is a refreshing departure from the forgettable books Indian publishers are churning out lately.
What would you say you are bringing to the table as a writer in the market today?
Why should a reader be reading your book?
It's probably not a very easy book to read. I've been told it's an ambitious book.
I think there's something moving about it, and these are universal themes -- motherhood, loss, questioning your faith, redemption, the bonds of home.
Whether you're in Swaziland or Breach Candy, these themes are going to pervade every life. You are going to find a connect with something that's so universal.
You know, I was reading the other day and I did not know this statistic -- it said the average reader is a middle-aged woman. And most of the people who have read my book so far are women, I would say 90 per cent.
And I think that most of them are really cool women -- so if these chicks think it's lit, I'm cool with that! (Laughs.)
If the average reader is a middle-aged woman, between 30 and 50 or 60, whatever, then basically everything we write is chick lit.
Do you think that the new writing boom in India has led to sub-standard writing flooding the market?
It wouldn't be fair for me to answer that because I try and read the classics. The newer Indian writers that I've read would be not-so-new -- Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie... I don't even know if some of them qualify as Indian!
You do what works for you and you write what works for you -- you can't be the arbiter of people's tastes, you know.
You can be within your own clique and your own group and very like-minded people, but otherwise it's none of your business what everyone reads.
I don't have children, but if I did -- and even when it comes to my nieces -- I'd be very concerned if they weren't reading the kind of foundational books that you should read. This is my opinion and I feel very strongly about it.
You have a distinct style of writing, but your elements of magical realism, chronicling of a family history and historic references seem influenced by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rohinton Mistry.
On Marquez, I'm just absolutely thrilled that you would say something like that!
But you know, there's really no magical realism in the book, at least in the way I see it. There is mythology, with the three Fates, but they are a distinct, separate voice in the book, almost.
Even the other, disembodied voice that occurs throughout -- I don't want to give too much away -- it's not woven in in Marquez's matter-of-fact way. I'm not discarding that; I'm not even up to it! But I haven't seen it.
As for Rohinton Mistry, I'm not saying I'm influenced by him, but I certainly think he gets the whole pathos thing so beautifully.
What is your take on the Parsi fiction genre? Do you think Tower fits into it, along with works by the likes of Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa, Firdaus Kanga etc?
I've only read Bapsi Sidhwa and Rohinton Mistry, but the culture that you're brought up in is going to form the framework (of your writing) in some way. Even giants like Tolstoy, they did write about the Russian way of life.
But I don't think anyone says 'Okay, let's try to fit into this genre.' At least for me it didn't work like that. Obviously, the people you've read influence you, but it's not a conscious decision.
So there's no plan to fit into a genre, because that would be limiting and I don't think that I could work that way.
In terms of all the externals of the dhansak and the agiary and all of that, there is a kind of blueprint -- it flavours your language, it flavours the setting. But what happens within that, what happens to the characters is different. The plot is as far from a caricatured Parsi plot as possible.
Image: Avan Jesia
'Who wants to be pigeonholed into a niche?'
You may not have started out thinking that you will write a particular kind of book, but now that Tower has been published, would you like it classified within this Parsi fiction genre or would you rather it didn't fit into any category?
I would rather not have it fit into a category and I am sure that holds true for a Rohinton Mistry or a Bapsi Sidhwa as well.
Who wants to be pigeonholed into a niche?
It's not something you are struggling against, but neither is it something that you are working towards.
How do you think Indian literature measures up against Western fiction?
I don't think I've read enough Indian fiction to make that comparison fairly. I would say works by the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy are only localised in terms of setting. That's the only place where you can brand them as 'Indian'. But in terms of worldview I think they are pretty non-localised.
Rohinton Mistry, I think, deliberately chooses to localise his settings, because he knows them so well, he knows them inside out. He can dissect their flavour so perfectly.
So it's not my place to judge. Like I said, I don't read bestsellers, international or Indian, and I don't mean that in a snobbish way, it's just that I know what I want on my reading menu.
So what makes you pick up a book then?
I have this boring reading habit -- I will read all of Jane Austen, I will read all of Charles Dickens, I will read the Russians as much as I can.
I know it sounds so cliched, but those have stood the test of time. There's a reason why they are all still read. No one's doing them a favour by reading their books, no one's doing them a favour by issuing re-editions. The fact is that they are still so fresh.
But having said that, I very happily read the first in the trilogy of Fifty Shades of Grey. I read the whole thing, but there was no way I was going to read the second or the third part!
What feedback have you received from readers?
I was very surprised by it -- in a good way. I mean your parents and your close friends are going to say they love it, but the things they have picked up on -- the way they say that a particular scene has affected them, their curiosity about the characters -- is very thrilling.
I am so happy at the way people who read it have reacted to it. I found in so many of them the perfect reader -- I thought one in maybe ten people would really see the book the way I wrote it. But most of the people who read it get it.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read.
You cannot pretend to start writing without reading. You read ten books, you can maybe write half a paragraph.
I keep telling my students this: There are so many books that should be on our bucket lists that we won't have the time for. So choose your books carefully, understand that you are passing through the life of a book.
The book has been there long before you and will continue being there long after you.
Understand the privilege that you have to read about Oliver Twist, to read about Emma.
Emma's life is way longer than yours, you are a minute in her life, but understand the privilege it is to have had an education, the ability to read, to be able to share this very strong part of what it is to be human.
Image: Tower, Avan Jesia's elegant first novel