NAW Interview with Jaya Padmanabahan

Jaya is a Fiction Writer and Journalist. Jaya’s short stories, essays and articles have appeared in India Currents, New America Media, Talking Cranes, and Khabar Magazine. She is Editor of India Currents.

NAW-  When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

Recently, I read Thrity Umrigar’s interview where she talked about writing poems as a young girl. It brought back memories of sitting on my own verandah in the town of Asansol in West Bengal, listening to the sounds of the sky and writing poems. This was when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I remember experimenting with meters and rhymes and intonations and expressions and emotions. That was possibly the start of my literary journey. Though, 25 years went by before I picked up my writing career again. During those years I was obsessively reading and trying to find my place on the ladder of life. I believe that every job I’ve had, be it a collections agent or a software programmer, has helped prepare me for my writing career by showing me a slice of life that I would not have been privy to otherwise.

NAW- Tell us about your debut work, “Transactions of Belonging”? What made you pen down a short story collection given the limited readership for the genre? Were you focussing on a particular market when you decide to write it?

Not really. I wrote because I had stories to tell. It wasn’t a genre that I picked, per se. It was more like a genre that worked for me. I wrote my first short story, after working on it for over six months, and sent it to the Lorian Hemingway Contest in 2009, and to my surprise I received an Honorable Mention award. Then I examined the story even more closely and dissected it over and over again. The process was thrilling! So I wrote my next story and the next one and the next. The short story genre is one of the most challenging genres. It’s much like a chess game. Move and countermove, towards resolution. The plot, pacing and character development must happen within a few pages. There’s no room for expansive descriptions. Every word exists on the page because it must. These are formidable limitations and yet so utterly satisfying when you can make the characters breathe and linger on.

NAW- How did you come up with the title?

A lot of thought went into the title. If there’s one thing that connects all the stories, it’s the sense of belonging. Whether it’s belonging to a family, a lover, a friend, a club, a work group, a place or a state of mind. I picked the word “transactions” because belonging is a negotiable state and requires give and take. In each of the stories, I tried to examine the transactions we enter into, the compromises we make in order to belong.

NAW- While all stories are different, the title ‘belonging’ whether it denotes place or migration in a sense binds them together, right? 

Great question! Yes, the belonging is what binds, whether a union or this collection of short stories. So, for example, in the story “The Blue Arc” the young prostitute Shona yearns to belong to the group of people who enter the National Library without hestiation; and conversely, in “Neyyappams,” Sankar searches for the reason for his alienation.

TOB Cover

NAW- Why! Oh why did you leave “His Curls” with an ambiguous ending? I found ‘His curls’ perhaps the most intriguing of all but did you do it deliberately so that the readers can draw their own interpretation?

Yes, indeed. A dear friend recently told me indignantly that an ambiguous ending is like a sexual encounter without the grand finish. And I told her that sometimes we have to finish things for ourselves. J Jokes aside, I played around with the ending for so many months and nothing seemed to work. “His Curls” is a chilling tale of a mother who suspects her son of being a terrorist. That was the original plot. However, as I began to write, the story assumed different inflections. It could be the story of a mother who suspects her son; or it could be the story of a boy who is hobbled by his mother’s suspicions; or it could be a combination of both scenarios. If I picked one particular ending, then I’m making the choice for the reader. So I had to leave it to the reader to interpret, and I’ve encountered so many arguments about the ending, that it made me feel that I made the right decision.

NAW- Tell us about your other work life? What do you do when you are not writing books?

I’m the editor of the magazine India Currents–a 28 year-old publication issued from Northern California. So even when I’m not writing books, I’m either writing editorials or reading and editing articles and essays by some really fine writers. It’s a privilege to get up every morning to go to work and anticipate all those thought-provoking essays waiting for me in my inbox.

NAW- Did you carry out any research for the book? If yes, then how did you go about it?

Most of the research I did was by reading obsessively and maybe watching a few movies to flesh out details of locations and places. Then there’s Google! Thank God!

NAW- What are you reading right now?

I just finished Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life,” which I loved. I am now reading “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson, (Pulitzer winner for fiction) as well as Thrity Umrigar’s “The World We Found.” Both are extremely compelling. I also read a story or two from Ray Bradbury’s collection before going to bed.

NAW- Please name your favourite authors. Are there any who have influenced your writings?

I’m influenced by the wonder of words woven by many great writers. I like different authors for different reasons. V.S. Naipaul for his brilliant modulation; J.D. Salinger for the timelessness of his tale; R. K. Narayan for his simplicity; Ved Mehta for his imagination; Rohinton Mistry for his compassionate voice; Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the magic of his words; Chekhov for his shorts and Nabokov for his disruptive thinking…

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I’m working on a novel titled “The Eleventh Letter.” I’ve been working on it for a few years, but for over a year now, I’ve not looked at it. I relish the idea of revisiting my work and moving it towards completion. It’s populated by some of the characters in the “Neyyappams” story.

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