As Ordinary as it All Appears: An Interview with Sayantani Dasgupta

Conducted by Nadia Chaney

I first met Sayantani Dasgupta seven years ago at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. She was sharp-tongued, self-assured, and kind of Cheshire-like. She had the subtle ability to appear and disappear during heated conversations about writing quandaries such as the responsibilities of memoir or the momentum of flash fiction. There were morning freewriting sessions at seven A.M. and she would show up like a panther, wide awake and hungry.  Many of the conference participants were happy to socialize, but Dasgupta was clearly devouring the opportunity to hone her writing skills. I was not surprised when I first heard about her two forthcoming books—Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & The In-Between (two sylvias press) and The House of Nails (Red Bird Chapbooks)—last spring. After reading Fire Girl, a book of personal essays that reveals her complex femininity and evolving relationship to Hinduism, I was excited to catch up with her on the phone for this interview. We chatted for a half hour before we even began to talk about the book. Dasgupta has a curiosity and a willingness to nurture relationships. These aspects not only run through her work, they made me delight in conversations about our shared Indian heritage and the tapestry of her work.

NC: So shall we dive into this amazing book you’ve written?

SD: Let’s do it. From the questions you sent me I can see that you read the book, really read it.

NC: There is a dark line that runs through these essays, but rather than spell it out for our readers I’d like to ask questions around it, kind of let people feel and experience it. Because it’s never overt in your book, and at the same time it’s always looming while I’m reading.

SD: Sounds good.

NC: First, I have to ask you about the epigraph by Jhumpa Lahiri, “Still there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” To me, bewilderment sits somewhere between confusion and wonder. Your essays ask, ask, ask so many questions. You question yourself, you question the world, and sometimes it seems you even question the reader. Could you tell me a little more about bewilderment as a guiding principle for you; where it comes from, how you relate to it in your writing and teaching, and how it relates to imagination and self-knowing?

SD: I stumbled across that sentence in 2003 when I first read The Interpreter of Maladies. I was just awed by this idea that all human life is bewildering; why we do the things we do, why we are the people we are, what lands us into situations, there is no logic to it. To me, bewilderment is the state of not understanding, but in a good way. The state of being a perpetual student. And I don’t use the word ‘student’ lightly or dismissively.  It is a word of power as far as I’m concerned. I am proud and confident of all the things I know, but I don’t think that pride, confidence, and humility cannot co-exist.  

NC: Your younger “self” comes across as very bold. She has an inner knowing and a willingness to even talk back to elders and break traditions, yet there is a humility that runs through the book right from the first story. I like how you identify this as a power.

SD: We tend to think that if you know something, you have to brag about it, be super-aggressive in order to be taken seriously. But I think humility has its own strength.  

NC: It’s an Indian characteristic, in a way. To embody that humility allows you to exist in a community.

SD: Right, and not live as an outsider, or someone too different. There is so much beauty in our ordinary stories, and so much heroism in them. That’s what I tell my students. The most rewarding thing for me is when they get that their perspective, their point of view, is as valid as that of established writers from anywhere in the world.

NC: Wow, that must make them walk in a whole different way. What makes the difference between a mundane relating of the details of my day and something worth writing? How do you help your students uncover what is bewildering and enlightening in their own stories?

SD: One of my favorite essays to teach is Cheryl Strayed’s The Love of My Life. As a writer, Strayed doesn’t shy away from the messy bits of her life. My students are initially shocked that they are allowed to say and write these things in class. At one level there is nothing extraordinary about the messy bits because we have all either lived through those ourselves or we know people who have. At another level, every point of view can be extraordinary. Your experience fits in with what has happened to humanity, but it is your insight that also makes it different.

NC: I hear you saying that each of our stories is divine and magnificent, and as humble and ordinary as anyone else’s, and that together they make a whole picture.

SD: Right. And what you do with your story, that is what matters. The purpose is to tell it. To each of us, the most original stories are perhaps the ones we first hear from the elders in our family. There needs to be a way of saving those. Even the littlest things, say, your first memory of fruit, those sorts of things. Those need to be remembered.

NC: So it’s not about becoming special, it’s about becoming yourself.  When I first met you we were at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference and I was in a class with Chris Abani where he suggested that our storytelling styles and structures are inherited. These essays have a very specific style, where multiple narratives and strains of research are braided together. Did you inherit this style?  Is this how your family tells stories?

SD: I think so. The elders who shared their stories with me, my grandparents and my great aunt, most of the time they spoke of their childhood and youth. I would never interrupt, but at the end of the story we would discuss, and together make sense of what had happened. That’s also what we do when we write, right? We try to make sense of what’s happened. I don’t think I set out to echo their voices, but it must be a part of my DNA. My grandfather was an excellent teacher and storyteller. I think it may be his voice that I have subconsciously absorbed.  I mean, he is who I wanted to be as a kid. I think I inherited some of his smarts, but I have a feistiness that was not necessarily him.

NC: That’s how it seemed in the red chair story. Like that sassiness was what your grandfather was really enjoying about you. He must have been so amazed to meet a character like you. You talk about the change in urban India. It is so profound and for so many complex reasons. I think our grandparents must have looked at us and just thought, wow, just look at this girl.

SD: Yes, things are changing so rapidly now. That is kind of the point. Every time I go back I’m amazed not only at the development of infrastructure like bridges and roads, but of people’s attitudes. There are so many things girls can do there now that even ten years ago I could never have done. An example of that would be the kind of fearless writing I see in blogs these days.

NC: One of the two most important themes in this book is Indian femininity and violence against women, or how the female body is positioned in India. You know, I didn’t grow up in India, I was born and raised in Canada. For me, it is hard to reconcile being a strong woman with the way women’s bodies are treated in India. It seems like femininity is always under attack there.

SD: But it is also under attack here in the US where I have lived for ten years.  Before coming here, I thought that America was this very wealthy, very just society. Glistening, shining. But then I came here.  And it still glistens, but look at the way the media writes about powerful women like Hillary Clinton. I mean if she can be talked about so disrespectfully, what is the status of us ordinary women?  When I was growing up in New Delhi, I couldn’t go read a book in a park. Not without someone harassing me or worse. Here in Moscow, Idaho, I can do that. It’s a safe community. But there are still unfair expectations because I am a woman. I’m expected to smile, to play nice. I remember back in 2008 how Sarah Palin’s body was discussed in the media—right from her clothes to her supposed boob enhancement. We don’t talk about female politicians’ bodies like that at home. So in that sense, which society is more progressive? We have had many female heads of state in South Asia; in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. But here in the U.S., even in 2016, there are people saying things like, “Women don’t have the temperament to lead.”  In my part of the world, we always look toward the West for progressiveness, but in many ways we probably shouldn’t.

NC: Certainly not.  I guess that is what Fire Girl is working against? In the book the character’s body is very vulnerable, right from the very first page with the snake charmer. But she is protected by her mind and her ability to tell her story. Her mind is her protection throughout, even when the book gets to the essay Fire Girl, which is the chilling heart of the book, she still gets to choose. The snake charmer is able to hold and control her vulnerability and it’s only later in another essay when the whole thing gets unpacked.  

SD: Yes.

NC: But if we look at the vulnerability of the body and the construction of the feminine, it also brings us to the question of the construction of the image, perhaps the false image, of the nation. In one of your interviews you call it “the namaste of it all.” This India that never existed, that maybe came to California with Yogananda and Osho and kind of interbred with the California of the time.

SD: I have had someone come up to me and say, “Oh! I spent two weeks in San Francisco studying Hinduism and I gave myself a Hindu name.  I just know I am a Hindu.” I just wanted to hug her and say, “Darling, that’s not how it works.”

NC: That’s a very generous reaction.

SD: I mean you might feel that you belong to another faith or another identity or whatever, but two weeks just isn’t enough immersion into anything. Especially not one of the most complex belief systems in the world. Even born and raised Hindu I’m still learning about it. If I ever meet that person again, I will say, “Go back to that ashram, live there a few years and then get back to me.”

NC: Even just the conflation of Hinduism and India, I mean, how could anyone see India as a monolith of any kind? You need individual stories like you have written here to even approach that complexity, but then the yoga of it all makes it seem like a uniform thing. It’s connected in a way to your first story of the snake charmer.

SD: The reptilian brain, right.

NC: The image of an India that is a commodity, not a place, not a being in itself. I’m curious about how you positioned these essays. I mean what do you hope they will do in terms of the namaste of it all? Who is the intended audience of these essays? Sometimes it feels like you are offering India and Indianness to a white audience, but then other times the rawness and forthrightness could only, it seems to me, be intended for other Indians. Were you imagining any one in particular when you wrote these? You seem to refer very gently to whiteness and colonialism in a way that makes me think your intended audience is white. The snow-white essay sets this up. The comparison between tanning and skin-lightening is facile and doesn’t account for power, and I’m curious as to why, when so many other of your theories and arguments are so nuanced?

SD: Well, really I wrote this book for myself. I’ve wanted to write a book since I was six. Fire Girl is the realization of the biggest dream I’ve ever had. After I got my contract I was like, okay, I’m done. I’m going to watch Netflix from now on, there’s nothing left for me to do. But beyond that I hope that whether this book is read by Indians or outsiders, they will realize this is just one person’s point of view. It is not meant to be a defense of India; it is not meant to be an attack on India. Hopefully it will make people more curious about India and make them want to explore it beyond learning about it in two weeks in San Francisco.

NC: In your Garnet News interview you talk about how you spent last year reading only female authors from countries you don’t know much about. Is that connected to the impact you want Fire Girl to have?  Igniting that kind of disciplined curiosity?

SD: Correct.

NC: The research aspect of these essays is so strong.  Are these things you already know or are you doing tons of research as part of your writing process?

SD: Research is my thing. It’s my jam. It’s what I live for. I tell this to my students, that your story is definitely significant but in order for it to make sense to the people in the world who are different from you, you need to find connections. Use a disciplined curiosity.

NC: From the essays it seems like this is also how you were raised, to think and to go looking for answers. How do you pull the strands from your personal stories? How do you know where your research wants to go?

SD: Well, there is sometimes an inherent thread. For example, with the Goddesses essay, I had been struggling to write it for a really long time. On the other hand, I also had this essay on my great grandmother that just wasn’t working. So I combined them. It automatically raised the stakes. That braided element in the essays comes from the eagerness to read and learn everything I am interested in. My go-to areas are often mythology, science, and popular culture in India.

NC: Having published these two books and realizing your childhood dream, it’s interesting to imagine where you might go next.

SD: I still go to my books from time to time and say, “You are here! You have not left me or run away or disappeared. It has not been a dream! You ARE here. I love you more than anyone in the world. No matter what critics say, you are the best books in the world and don’t you ever forget it.”

NC: That speaks a lot to who you are as a teacher. I believe that we talk to our students the way we talk to ourselves. I’ve met a lot of people who put their first book out and they are disappointed, or very hard on themselves. They are not always as grateful as you are. I guess with your new projects the question is no longer “Can I do this?”, but “What will I do?”

SD: Right, right. I’ve been at work on these books for ten years. Ten disciplined, focused years.  I have also walked away a few times. There was despondency and pessimism. But writing is the thing I love to do the most. It is what I have to do.

NC: I love the title. To me it is an incredible invocation, especially in terms of the myths of Sita and Draupadi and how fire symbolizes power in India and how it is related to the woman’s body. Once you have a title like Fire Girl you have to live up to it. It’s so bold for a memoir! I want to move on to the question of faith and belief, because I think that is the other main theme in the book. The two words of the title Fire Girl, to me, put the two themes side by side. In this book the theme of belief and faith is very brave, very exposed. It starts right away, with how you get caught up with the snake charmer, the faith monger.  But then you get into Durga and Draupadi and all these other mythological and real women, and then the atheism of your grandfather, and your own atheism. Also you have a grasp of the magic and creativity of these goddesses and that leaves us with a profound tension between rationality and belief.  I want to know how this lives inside you.

SD: I didn’t think religion played a big role in my life until I came to the US.  I loved one of the sentences you used in the questions you sent me, “In India religion is as ever-changing and ever-present as the weather.” It is such a beautiful sentence. And you are right, in India it is such a strong presence that I never really thought about it. It’s what you grow up with, right?  But in Moscow, Idaho there is no Indian restaurant, no Hindi film theater, no Hindu temple. Not that I would necessarily go to the temple, but I miss the sounds of the bells, and the Sanskrit chants, the hymns and rituals, the special foods associated with each festival. It’s only when I got here that I realized, holy shit, I’m actually a very staunch Hindu.

NC: It’s like you’re a sensory Hindu, it’s bred right into you. It’s like you’re an atheist in the flood of belief, but in the dearth of belief you are a believer.

SD: Absolutely. I am staunchly against institutions such as the caste system, and the many complicated discriminations that have sprouted and continue to in the name of Hinduism. But on the other hand there is so much beauty within it that I am still understanding and unpacking all the stories and mythology. I feel like if these stories go away I will lose parts of myself. So I think I’m a better Hindu ever since coming to Idaho. People go to India to seek themselves…

NC: You came to Idaho!

SD: Right.

NC: Do you think the stories of the goddesses help you in daily life, or protect you when things happen like in the Oscillations story in the book?

SD: They don’t influence my decisions or what I do every day. But they are like family. There is great comfort in that. When my students question Durga my instinct is, “Hey, don’t do that! She’s like my mom. You can’t say stuff about her and get away.”

NC: Fascinating. In a way they are our ancestors. Our mythologies are the stories of our ancestors.

SD: Yes, and so is the land, in a way. You mentioned in your questions about how I write about India and Bangladesh as real presences but that Idaho is like an outline. I’ve been thinking it over deeply since I got your email. I think that in my head, India is like a mom, a mom with whom I have a complicated relationship, and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, but I still have to learn to live with her because it’s mom, and that’s what you do. Bangladesh is an echo of that. Idaho is more like a remote, beautiful aunt in my head. India lives inside me. I think that’s why the descriptions come out the way they do.  Because it’s so personal. In Idaho I’m a visitor.

NC: Do you think you’ll ever write about Moscow the way you write about Delhi?

SD: I don’t think so. I’m homesick every day of my life. But at the same time I don’t see myself going back and being completely happy in New Delhi.

NC: That’s the tension, isn’t it? That’s how we change.

SD: Yeah. I’ve gotten used to some of the freedoms here. I like being with the remote, beautiful aunt.

NC: For me it is the opposite, being raised in Canada. I never feel I can write about India, really. To me I can’t get more than an outline. Though with India it isn’t really like an outline. More like a Jackson Pollock painting.

SD: That is the best and most apt description of India.  A Jackson Pollack painting. Absolutely correct.

NC: Let me ask you about Arjuna and Captain Nemo. You mention them both in the book. They are the main male heroic archetypes, I think.  They both straddle two worlds, and are forced to make hard choices. How does this struggle show up for you?

SD: I associate myself with the goddesses. I haven’t consciously thought of myself as Arjuna. Sure, he is the one of the greatest archers in the world but he is also kind of a disappointing character as well. I mean, is being a great archer really enough?

NC: To make one of the biggest moral decisions of all time.

SD: Right, whereas Draupadi is juggling the egos of five husbands. And you can’t beat someone who steps out of fire. I mean, sure, you can be a great archer, but it’s really not the same.

NC: It’s not the same.

SD: Whereas, Nemo is so interesting because he is torn between what is right and what he thinks his duty should be. I’m fascinated by this. You can see in the novel (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) that he is haunted by what he has done. He wants to be a good leader, he will not listen to voices of dissent. And yet, he will risk his own life to save his crew.  At the age of nine he was the most complicated character I had ever read. He opened my eyes to how you can be so many different things at the same time. I struggle myself with what I think are my duties as a daughter versus what is right for myself. But my parents have never forced anything upon me. That kind of support is humbling especially when I read my students’ stories and realize how many of them come from places of heartbreak, from complicated families where there are no supportive voices.

NC: What did your parents think when they read your book?

SD: My mother finds it uncomfortable to read the essays where I am in dangerous situations with men. But the others, she and my father both, enjoyed and liked. To me, they are the only audience I want to please. I’ve written the book I’d want to read. But I also want my parents’ approval. My only regret with this whole process is that my grandfather isn’t here for me to actually show him the book. I hope he is still reading it somewhere.

NC: What do you think is his dream for you?

SD: I think it is whatever makes me happy. Again, it is such an honor to have had that kind of support. My grandfather was the first person I told that I wanted to be a writer. I was six or seven years old at the time. He always listened to everyone, irrespective of their age, with respect. So he heard me and he said, “Great plan, but here is a practical problem. Most writers cannot live off of writing alone. What else will you do to support yourself?” I said I would teach, because my teachers are awesome and they are tall.  He did not laugh.  He said, “Okay, writing and teaching. That’s a good plan.” And here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that.

NC: Wow, how amazing to have someone see you like that. Reading this book, it really feels like you honored him and your ancestors in such an authentic way.

SD: That means a lot. Thank you.

NC: Well, I just really want to thank you for taking your time for this today.  It has been incredible to dig a little deeper with you to understand Fire Girl more. I love what you did with it.

SD: Thank you, it has been so rewarding to talk with you.  It feels like a conversation with a friend, it’s had such a natural flow.

NC: I’m so glad. Thanks again.  

SD: Thank you.