Interview with Indira Chandrasekhar

Indira credit Mira Brunner.1

Rebecca Lloyd: Hello Indira. I’ve just been reading ‘My Kitchen, My Space‘ in r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and thinking what a good story it is. The helplessness of Mala’s situation is so exactly described. I wondered how you came to write it, I’m particularly interested in the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ saucepans in the story.

Indira Chandrasekhar: Thank you, Becca. I was interested in domestic aggression and the marking of boundaries in a relatively contemporary household that does not have an established hierarchy such as, for example, the traditional Indian joint family does. Mala is forced to move in with her mother-in-law but there is no reason why the relationship between the two women, who are in a modern context, cannot be civil. And yet, territory is paramount and feelings are brutal and violent. The story is set in the kitchen, because kitchens can so often be the sites of territorial strife in households, don’t you find?

So, indeed yes, the saucepans do end up being symbolic, and the Teflon-coated one is an easy victim, an obvious choice for the bad saucepan. That bit about the polymer debris, it came from the heart. One thing I’ve learned from discussions with many wonderful writers such as yourself is that as a story evolves you do have to let go of narrative strands however enticing they might be. Another aspect I wanted to allude to in this story is how ridiculous we can all become when we take uncompromising stances. I thought about having a feature of the conflict where, regardless of rationale and logic the old lady sticks to her opinion. As does Mala. In the end, this idea got obscured and I decided to let it go and keep the story focused on the saucepans.


RL: And can I ask you about your writerly habits? For example do you write every day, and do you carry a writer’s notebook with you when you are out and about?

IC: I do write daily. When my output is blocked, and a story simply will not emerge, I try at least to be careful about my everyday writing – emails, notes to the editors, things of that sort. When that correspondence gets sloppy I recognize that I am either tired, or, wonder of wonders, have another story coming.

Much of my inspiration comes from Indian cities. Mumbai (or Bombay as it used to be known), where I am most of the time, is intensely dense, one of the world’s most populous urban centers constricted geographically by the sea and the hills. Sights, conversations overheard, conversations had, people’s histories, the daily news – they are rich with many layers and have wonderful potential for stories. I used to carry a notebook but I find it distracting; when I am jotting things down, I cannot observe and absorb.

So I’ve taken to storing things in my head, and do my writing on the computer when I am back at my desk. Scenes – particularly sad, or disturbing or happy ones – tend to stay with me for a long time, and metamorphose, and I find myself putting them into stories that grow away from the original in strange ways. I find this is a blessing, for it helps me deal with writing about the kind of disparity one encounters daily in a city like Mumbai; it is so easy to veer into the obvious seduction of poor/rich, good/bad. The time that I find it useful to make notes, be it in a notebook or on a computer is when listening to family stories about extraordinary characters and events extending to a wide circle and going back many
generations. Good good stories.

RL: That’s interesting. And what about reading – do you get time to read, and do you believe as many writers have said in the past, that a writer when not writing should be reading?

IC: A difficult question. The simple answer to both questions would be ‘yes’ to both parts, but there isn’t a simple answer, is there?

How I read and what I read is very dependent on what I am doing. In the course of editing Pangea, when you and I were reading short stories with intense attention, just as I described that my writing was affected, so also was my reading. Fortunately with Out of Print, where I am constantly reading submissions, I have found a balance. All the same, when I am reading and editing with great engagement, either I have my editor’s lens on and find myself over critical, or my brain is simply too stretched. I am less able to immerse myself in a novel, or to lose myself in a story as I did in the past, when finishing a book would leave me with a sense of loss for the world I was leaving. The result is that I am more discerning, more selective in what I read, finding myself impatient with many of the things I loved before. I tend to seek work that is brilliant in craft. Does that make me sound pompous – what I am trying to say is that the time when I read purely for pleasure, without one part of my brain assessing what I am reading, where I am simply allowing my sense of things to go where the words take me, is precious.

To read when not writing, I think is truly important for a new or aspiring writer. Just in terms of the exposure to the craft and skill and subtlety that can be achieved. But as a universal prescription, I am not sure. I think writers have to find their own balance.

RL: … a difficult question answered very well, I’d say! So, just moving onto Out of Print, tell me a bit about that and what inspired you to set it up?

IC: When I started to feel more confident in my writing and felt that my stories were ready enough to try and place in literary journals (many thanks to your short story group on Writewords and to the input from Zoetrope Virtual Studios (where Mary Akers is also a member) most of the magazines that were interesting were outside India. Our rich heritage of small magazines in English (and many in local languages, although they were of academic interest since I write only in English) seemed to have disappeared.

Looking to journals outside India made me recognize that the worlds I was writing about were not always accessible to people outside the subcontinent. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Without implying that my writing is anywhere on the same level, reading Achebe and Soyinka, Mishima and Murakami, Dickens and Woolf, Twain and Carver, opened new worlds for me. I began to wonder if contemporary subcontinental writing, with its vastly different regional and linguistic influences has a cultural commonality and what that looks like. It seemed worth opening a magazine to find out.


RL: I imagine it must have been a bit like opening a treasure trove; I’ve read some extraordinary stories on Out of Print. Do you feel that your own story writing is moving in a particular direction that you can recognize, or do the stories appear to simply pop up to be claimed by you, and with no obvious links to each other?

IC: Indeed, yes. We come across some wonderful work. Very diverse, written from different perspectives, with strong interesting voices. So, instead of providing a simple answer to the question about common threads to subcontinental writing, Out of Print seems only to have opened up new ones. Which is fine and exciting.

Speaking of wonderful work, may I say thank you, once more, for your terrifying ‘Finger
Buffet.’ That you were able to write about that incident by making the characters into people the reader could see was quite remarkable.

My own writing is shifting and growing, I can feel it. So although the stories do appear, just like that, to be ‘claimed’ by me (what a lovely way of putting it), and although my principal focus remains the complex, nuanced dynamic between people, I find myself occasionally trying to direct stories in specific ways. More often than not, however, what I am thinking about – the injustice, the power games, the greed, the politics, the gamut of things that affect life – ferments and waits to spew over into the stories. The challenge is to control and hone all those seething concerns so the story moves forward.

One way I am able to do this, is through setting the story, placing the characters in a situation where the issue that is pushing to the forefront of my mind, fits fairly naturally. Which makes it sound as if my writing is deliberate and intellectual. In fact, most of the time it is a choppy back and forth between getting the words out and dealing with something that the story is allowing me to address and stepping back to look at how it is all getting crafted. A bit messy, really. It’s in the editing that it usually comes together.


RL: Thank you for your thoughts about Finger Buffet, I was glad to see it print. My next question is what percentage of the stories submitted to Out of Print are good enough for publication, and of those, apart from good writing, what other qualities are you personally looking for, I know you work with two? other editors.

IC: Yes, I work with two other editors – who happen to be my niece and my daughter. Wonderful young women, and really smart readers.

We tend to publish less than ten percent of the stories that are submitted per issue. The thing that I look for in a story is engagement. When I begin a story, do I want to find out more? Do the characters, or the story have appeal? I am not talking about a first sentence that is crafted to grab the reader, I am speaking of something deeper, more essential than that. Perhaps it’s the honesty of the writer as regards the story, perhaps it’s the desire of the writer to explore the subject, perhaps it’s the approach the writer has taken to tell the story. I can’t pinpoint it precisely. But it is tangible. That is the thing, really, the author’s attitude to the story is tangible. And even if the work is derivative, or poorly written, or is telling a story that ultimately we don’t like or is unusable in Out of Print for other reasons, that genuineness comes through.

Well, you have made me think about my writing, Becca. I know there were other things we talked about discussing regarding my own work and writing in general. But, you are right. This seems a good place to stop. Thank you for taking the time to ask me such thoughtful questions. I really appreciate it.


Rebecca Lloyd is a novelist, short story writer and creative writing tutor. Her short stories have been published in Canada , USA , New Zealand, and the UK. She won the Bristol Short Story Prize 2008 for The River. Her novel Under the Exquisite Gaze was shortlisted in the Dundee International Book Prize 2010. She was a semi-finalist for her short story collection Don’t Drink the Water in the Hudson Prize 2010. Her first children’s novel Halfling was published by Walker Books in January 2011. She is co-editor, with Indira Chandrasekhar of Pangea, an Anthology of Stories from Around the Globe, published by Thames River Press in 2012 and developmental editor of The Female Ward by Debalina Haldar, due for publication by Thames River Press this year.