United States of India
Abha Dawesar Tells It From All Points of View
Originally published in CURVE MAGAZINE, March 2010.
In both her native India and adopted New York, author Abha Dawesar’s subversive prose has grabbed media attention. Time Out called her one of New York’s Hot 25 while India Today named her one of India’s 25 Young Achievers. Babyji (Anchor, 2005), her second book, won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award as well as a Lambda Literary Award. Her other novels are: Miniplanner (Cleis, 2000), That Summer in Paris (Anchor, 2007), and Family Values (2009).
Nairne Holtz: Your protagonists have been variously gay and straight, male and female, white and Indian, young and old. What can you tell us about the process of creating such different characters?
Abha Dawesar: For me the fun part of writing a novel is often about the skin of the protagonist I have to inhabit. Writing in the voice of André Bernard, a gay white man living in New York, in my first novel was like making a journey into his escapades. Grappling with a main character like Prem Rustum, who is seventy-five, was sobering. Prem is coming to terms with his morality in That Summer in Paris and reflecting on his past. I used my instincts writing the book, but after the first draft was done I actually did interviews and spoke to older men to vet the character. Getting into Prem’s skin meant looking at the world through his eyes and the weight of his past. Often while I am in the throes of a novel the characters invade me so much that I cease to have my own emotional existence. When this happens it is almost spiritual since there is a real overcoming of the self.
NH: The teenage protagonist of Babyji, Anamika Sharma, uses her power as head prefect to bestow favors and manipulate people, engages in sexual activity without the full consent of her partner, and hides her sexual relationships with various women while being jealous and possessive. Do you view her as sympathetic? How have readers responded to her?
AD: I think each reader comes to the book with his or her own vision. Her character, like Prem’s in That Summer in Paris and André’s in Miniplanner, is drawn out in shades of gray rather than black and white. Sometimes she is unable to live up to her own well-meaning intentions toward her lover Rani while at other times she does. On the one hand, Anamika wishes to be utterly free of the restrictions of her society, but the weight of social reality, the economic difference between herself and Rani, and even Rani’s caste prove to weigh heavily at moments. There is also the question of power, which is at once both seductive and anti-democratic; part of Anamika’s desire to leave a hierarchical society like India comes from wanting to go to a country where everyone is equal not just in the eyes of the law but also in its social mores.
Anamika does have a dark side, one she realizes she shares with the class hooligan, Chakra Dev, an anti-hero in the book. This affinity becomes more salient as the book goes on and becomes a sort of mirror that reflects truths Anamika may not want to confront.
NH: That Summer in Paris concerns a May/December relationship between a famous male writer and an aspiring female writer. Personally, would you prefer to be desired because of your status, your intellect, or your physical appearance?
AD: I think it is almost universal that people wish to be desired for qualities they feel they have done something to deserve. In different societies those three qualities mean different things. In India, for example, status is inherited whereas in the US it can be acquired and reflect one’s own hard work and achievement. Desiring it means different things in these two societies. Intellect, even if partially inherited and partly nurtured, is then something one has to strive to shape. Physical appearance for a dancer is a very different expression than for someone who isn’t involved in a physical practice. Personally, I’d settle for my writing as the preferred factor in my life.
NH: Your first three novels explore transgressive sexual relationships. What should readers expect from your new novel, Family Values?
AD: Family Values is like a contemporary Indian Lord of the Flies. It is pretty dark and doesn’t correspond to the colorful exotic image of India that is so trendy right now. It starts as a critique of family but in concentric circles engulfs modern Indian society and its systemic corruption. I think it is the most transgressive of my novels. In India the family is a quasi-sacred institution, and the book turns this on its head exposing the greed, deception, and the will to control others that lurks beneath closeness and intimacy.