Hello Ankita, thank you for being a part of IWI’s Incredible Women Writers of India 2016, and sharing your journey as a writer.
How would you define yourself?
I am a utilitarian. I am always questioning my utility, which, at different times, can create motivation, vanity and dissatisfaction.
What was your childhood like? Any incidents from your growing up years that shaped you as a person?
I had a lot of time, which I used to read, think and imagine. I was lucky enough to grow up in a joint family which can be an extremely messy space to be in but also gives you multiplicity of perspectives. When I was in primary school, I had gone to a party. I saw a girl wearing her school shoes and felt extremely guilty about my privilege, about having a special pair of shoes that I could use for outings. I felt ashamed that while she had only one pair, I had two.
I slowly started noticing inequality. I used to be dropped to school on a bicycle and on the way there were children living in huts. I started writing cynical stories about my being a silent observer to this inequality. Then I got tired of that impassive self-deprecation too. When I came to Delhi from Ranchi, the scale of inequality no loger fitted my canvas. Writing started seeming like an inadequate measure to address this injustice. I moved to activism but eventually realised that no matter what else I do, I would always wish to continue writing because even before it addresses the external world and its happenings, it is a way of articulating my existence, of answering my own questions honestly and gaining clarity.
When did your journey as a writer/poet began?
I first came up with a mini-poem on the moon, in Hindi, in an elder’s lap, looking at the night sky. Writing happened when our English teacher in the sixth grade asked us to write a poem on saving the environment. She was kind enough to appreciate and encourage my work, and I discovered the joy of writing.
My maternal grandfather used to teach me English, with special emphasis on grammar and translation. He introduced me to a library where for the first time I had access to so many books. He would say that schools today have gone to the dogs because their English syllabus no longer have translation exercises. He would ask me to write essays on different subjects, and to read newspaper articles and summarise them in my own words. Both he and my mother stressed that while it was useful to learn English, it was imperative to develop fluency in Hindi, which was my first language.
Once our English teacher asked us to write a piece on war. My maternal uncle pretty much wrote the entire piece for me when I told him about the homework. When it was praised in class I felt no joy and mumbled that I had “help”. I completed the next writing assignment on my own and when my teacher approved of it I was relieved to know that I too could write.
My grandfather had also taught me to write formal letters on A4 paper, leaving enough margin. I would write cover letters and send my writings to the local newspaper. When they started publishing, it gave me further confidence. My father noticed my interest and got me books on writing and information about journals I could send my works to.
Do you have a muse? If yes, who or what acts as a catalyst to your writing?
Reading the works of authors I love, and the beauty and pain I witness and experience lead to writing. But when writing is your profession, you do not have the luxury to wait for a muse. Often in an unromantic fashion you have to attend to it like any other task. This is actually a good thing because once you begin, this is a task you actually enjoy. So you end up being happy both about the process and the fact of the completion of the task.
Do you plan out your work or just go with the flow?
I plan to go with the flow but that doesn’t always happen. Mostly there are clots to filter.
For you, what’s the easiest thing about writing and the hardest thing? Do you have any weird/funny writing rituals?
The easiest part is that I love the painful-pleasurable process of writing. The toughest thing is to write every day. I like to write at night, when I don’t expect the doorbell or the phone to ring; the night is mine.
Do you get writer’s block? How do you battle it?
All the time. When it continues for too long, I give myself a hard shaking and a seat at my desk/bed. If I am able to write without stopping to think, it helps. Any sort of writing helps, from a letter to a mundane statement. If I am not able to focus on the piece I am supposed to write, I write something else so the mind and the fingers get oiled.
How have you evolved as a writer since you have started? If you could give one advice to yourself, what would it be? What are you working on now?
I have managed to distance myself more from my writing, to become more objective, when evaluating it for revisions. I would tell myself to learn to develop a steady hand and be able to use my notebook and pen whether I am in a pushy queue or a crowded train compartment. I am working on a poetry collection right now.
What’s your opinion about the future of writing/reading/the publishing industry in India?
Social media has brought readers and writers together. It is enabling when people can read you even if your works haven’t been formally published. This is good news for diligent, talented writers because, now, what becomes a book is decided not only by a publishing house but also by readers.
I welcome anything that makes books accessible to more and more people. Where books are expensive, people are reading more affordable or open source digital versions. Then there are places where technology hasn’t reached. I have a friend who started a library in a village in Rajasthan with a handful of books, and the adults and children there keep hungering for more. I don’t think one format is necessarily a threat to the other but we do have the responsibility of taking books, magazines, newspapers to more and more people, especially in local languages and in forms most suited to specific places, because people are waiting for stories.
Favorite food… Cake
Favorite Book… The Women’s Room
Favorite author… Toni Morrison
What are you afraid of… Losing the plot
What makes you angry… A misplaced sense of entitlement
Childhood crush… Mr Darcy
Things that you can’t leave without… A sane head on my shoulders
Any message or advice you want to share with our readers?
We hear a lot of talk about how we need to listen to our hearts in order to be happy, but we know too well how confusing that can be at times. To be able to listen to the self, which can identify what the good, the healthy, the happy is for us, we need to be in constant conversation with it. When we don’t stop to introspect, the self begins rusting and we wonder why the tap is producing murky water. But when we are in constant dialogue with ourselves, when we are first able to accept the truth ourselves despite its annoying nature, we start getting the right answers.
As writers, we need to have honesty in our writing if we want to offer anything worthwhile to our readers. I feel it is our rough edges and vulnerabilities that readers relate to, not our perfectly chiselled selves, which are unreal anyway. And as readers, we need to respect the fact that writers open up to us because they trust that we would hold a safe space for their sharing and not pronounce judgment.
Excerpt of published work
A poem which recently won the second prize in the Second Annual Singapore Poetry Contest:
Politicians double up as salons
If today you ask a city its name,
It will look into your eyes seductively
And ask, “What do you want it to be?
I could be Shanghai,
Or are you in the mood for Singapore?”
And though you know
That while the grass on your side is burnt or stunted,
None grows on the other side,
You’ll allow yourself to be coiled up and swallowed.
You’ll want to take this one decision,
To end the pretence that you’re the one taking the decisions;
You’ll wish to do away with the stressful delusion of being in control,
Knowing you were the one being kept in control.
You’ll give in gratefully
In that most vulnerable moment in the day,
When you’re shivering,
“Anywhere but here, anywhere but here.”
To read more of Ankita’s work follow her Blog: www.anandankita.blogspot.in
Please Note: This interview has been conducted online via emails by Rhiti Bose for IWI.