Monideepa Sahu is an Indian writer, a history aficionado and a former banker. She comes from a family of scholars who can be traced to sixteen generations from the Comilla District in Bangladesh. She has authored Riddle of the Seventh Stone and a host of short-fiction that has been published in collections such as A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Stories, Bad Moon Rising: The Puffin Book of Mystery Stories and The New Anthem: The Subcontinent in its Own Words among others.
Two of Sahu’s short stories were featured in Ripples: Short Stories by Indian Women Writers. In an exclusive interview with BookChums, she discussed her inspirations behind the two short stories, stint as a banker, her versatile writings and favorite authors and tips to aspiring authors.
Thank you for finding the time for this interview with BookChums. Where was your story Light and Shadows set?
Hi and my pleasure to connect with BookChums. My short stories are inspired by places, snatches of overheard conversation, or incidents. ‘Light and Shadows’ falls in the last category. It’s an imaginative take-off from a true incident which took place in my neighbourhood in Bangalore. While buying medicines, my packet got mixed up. On returning home, I found in my bag two small pastries and candy. I returned it to the chemist, but the owner of the pastries could not be found.
The shop is opposite a textile mill, and next to a bakery. I imagined the mystery package to belong to one of the mill workers, a poor man who wanted to surprise his children with a treat. The story took off from there.
What made you write Twinkling Grey Eyes?
The elderly doctor was inspired by a real lady doctor, who had an account in my bank. Though she was in her eighties, she was sprightly and alert. That’s the starting point, and the rest is pure fiction. The ideas in the story are things I’ve pondered upon sometimes. I tried to dramatize the plight of a vibrant, unselfish and loving person facing a slow and painful death, and the turmoil in her mind as she steeled herself to make a terrible decision.
Your writings are versatile: your short stories are different from each other and then so is your book Riddle of the Seventh Stone. How do you manage to bring various subjects to life?
I like to think of new ideas and take up fresh challenges. I wouldn’t want to get stuck in the rut of any tried and tested formula. ‘Riddle of the Seventh Stone’ is a fantasy-adventure novel for children. My short stories for adults would probably be considered literary fiction. I’ve also written mystery and paranormal stories for young people, among other things.
To bring any subject to life in fiction, one needs to fine tune the right blend of imagination and insight into human nature, to create convincing characters. As for settings, vivid details are important. They can make even fantasy worlds seem real and immediate, but one must take care not to overwhelm readers with needless clutter. Another vital element is balance; building up the right mix of atmosphere, character and action. Finally, one should try to make every word count. Tightening one’s writing and cutting flabby verbosity is a skill to be constantly refined. I’m continuing to try and learning in the process.
You studied Literature at LSR in Delhi University and then started your career in a bank. How did it happen?
I’m an incorrigible bookworm, so literature was ideal for me. And LSR was the perfect place to be. We had wonderful teachers in the English department. They combined erudition with a passion for books, and some of that rubbed on to us. We were encouraged to read a lot, and think, analyze and ask questions beyond the prescribed course.
After five years and an MA degree, I felt I should contribute to the economy and be self-reliant. So I sat for the State Bank probationary officers’ exam, got selected from among lakhs of candidates to my eternal surprise, and worked through eight years and several transfers to different parts of the country. Exploring the real world and facing varied situations was a valuable learning experience.
When did you decide to turn to fulltime writing?
I’ve never written full time. The writing is somehow squeezed out through the eternal chaos of life. I left my bank manager’s job long ago, when my son was two. It was the best thing I could have done. Today my son is my best buddy and constructive critic. The writing happened later, when articles I dashed off to magazines actually got published.
Tell us about your childhood. What were the books and authors that you grew up reading?
When I grew up, our home had ample shelves filled with books of all sorts. My family’s love for books started centuries ago, in the times of my father’s ancestors. They were a line of sixteen generations of scholars with titles like Tarka Ratna and Nyaya Alankar. The ancestral home in Comilla District of East Bengal (Now Bangladesh) housed a library of palm leaf manuscripts. It was a center of higher learning in days gone by.
When I was around five to six, my little friends in Delhi decided to have our very own library. All the children donated books, and they were stored in our house. I was the youngest and gentlest of the group, so I was elected as librarian.
When I could barely speak, my father would get me lots of picture books and colouring books, and we would read them together. Then I began independently reading Bengali stories and poems by Sukumar Ray, Upendrakishore Roy Choudhury, children’s stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Lila Majumdar and others.
By the time I was eight or nine, I went on to read Tom Sawyer, Heidi, Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, The Jungle Book, stories by James Thurber, E.B. White, and anything else I could lay my hands on. Soon, I was reading H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and then Pearl S. Buck and more. Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys filled in the gaps. I did my schooling till the age of 12 in the US, and Enid Blyton wasn’t too popular there in those days, so I read very few of her books.
Any tips for aspiring authors?
Read a lot and keep working to improve your craft. The rat-race to get published somehow, can blind us to the pleasures of writing, and stunt our growth. Enjoy the journey.