INTERVIEW | Smita Bhattacharya

Author Smita Bhattacharya was kind enough to take set aside some time to answer satisfy Scummy’s curiosity about her work, process and life. Recorded below is the exchange as transmitted through another of Scummy’s many minions. 

You sent us a story that’s not entirely sci-fi in character, so what is your relationship to science fiction? What are a few of your favorite sci-fi stories, if any?

I think anything bizarre is of interest to me, and I’d categorize the brand of fiction I like to read and write to be ‘slipstream’ and not strictly science fiction. This would mean books such as those by Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood or even Stephen King. Edgar Allen Poe too, if you will– he’s a remarkable writer of weird, goosebumps inducing fiction. So, actually, ‘weird’ is what I go for. For example, I found the British series Black Mirror enthralling and want to write a series of short stories just like those.

Check out The Priest’s Concubine here!

Check out The Priest’s Concubine here!

Sci-fi has often been a genre that presents alternative ways of looking at and criticizing contemporary mores and values. How do you use fiction as a lens to explore feminism or otherwise challenge the status-quo?

It’s a great question because I think sci-fi is one of the best ways to challenge status quo, somewhat like a premonition or an antecedent. Anything can happen in books, right? And easier if it’s one of your own. I can give my female characters special powers and expand on their ordinary ones. I can make them dream the impossible and have them achieve it too. It’s pretty, freaking empowering!

For this particular story, I related intimately with the protagonist—Selvi. I felt her angst, her fury and her determination to change the destiny thrust on her. She did it smartly and that is one way women can deal with situations they think they cannot change because of unshakable customs or social mores. To be honest, this feeling of helplessness is not uncommon for women in India, especially those belonging to slightly poorer or rigid cultures. But what if a smart one among them rose to be a Selvi and helped elevate the rest of her sistren alongside?

How integral is science fiction as a part of public consciousness in India? 

Very! Our local sci-fi heroes are both eclectic and adorable. We have Chacha Chaudhury (a red turbaned clever old man and his helper from Jupiter who together vanquish evil) and Nagraj (king of snakes, a local spin to the Western superheroes, bit of a cliché though) which are objects of awe when young, and cause of much mirth when older. We also have some prolific sci-fi writers: Satyajit Ray (Professor Shanku’s stories), Amitava Gosh (The Calcutta Chromosome), Salman Rushdie (Grimus) among others. There are a host of young writers and I think some interesting work is going on here.

You seem like a bit of a world traveler, where have you lived and what has brought you there?

I’ve lived all over India and now live and work in my favorite Indian city, Mumbai. I get restless every now and set off on a solo trip or if my friends are available, set off with them. I’ve been to most of Asia, Europe and America. I’m lucky that my work allows me to travel to some exotic locations where I get to learn about other cultures and people and eat their yummy food. Travel is key to leading a fulfilled life; it helps expand the mind and you realize there are other, often better, ways to live. And of course, it’s fun!

I was looking through your blog and found a post from last year with what looked like parts of the same story you sent us, was this originally part of a novel or serial story?

The Priest’s Concubine was a chapter in the novel I was writing a few years ago which some of my beta readers felt was too dark to be read. Stomach churning and gory, they said. But I loved writing and reading them. So, I concluded the world was just not ready for the book J, and I should take out pieces of the novel and make stories out of them. To be honest, I like gory and macabre, much to the dismay of my loved ones, and this is right up my alley. Also, this story is metaphorical and funny, elements I added later. To me anything macabre but with comic elements makes for great entertainment. Like American Psycho or Fight Club. Fargo and Black Mirror. Dexter. I should really read Kurt Vonnegut soon.

What makes you put down a piece and move on? What stood out to you about the section you salvaged for us? Tell us a little more about your process if you can, what kinds of things do you have in mind when starting on a piece? How much emerges as you write?

When I write, I start living the scene, the characters, the feeling; all duality disappears. As soon as I stop connecting with the piece, I discard it. I cannot bring myself to write anymore. I do give myself a break and try again, and if it comes back, I persist. If not, I focus on another idea. I strongly believe a good short story—the kind that stays in the reader’s minds for a really long time—is an idea that is dying to be written. It does not allow you to sleep, eat or chill in peace. Yes, that happens to me.

In the piece I submitted to Planet Scumm, the villainous priest is everything I detest about patriarchy: the obfuscating rules, the pompousness, the un-shakeable assurance of its leaders that everyone else will bend easily to their directives. The protagonist Selvi is the foil to all this, and through her, I raise my voice against the atrocities the helpless in the world face, especially those ruled by the hard norms of patriarchy and religion.

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Smita Bhattacharya is an award winning short story writer based out of Mumbai. She has published two books: He Knew a Firefly and Vengeful. Though, seeking to write the next big novel, she considers short stories her pièce de résistance. Her short stories have appeared in several Indian and international publications (The Statesman, DNA-Me, Fiction Magazines, Chicago Literati, Eastlit, Elsewherelit, Earthen Lamp Journal, Tall Tales, The Pomegranate Anthology).