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Swell talks to Anupama

Updated: Jan 13

Swell's micropodcast with Anupama Mohan, author of Where Mayflies Live Forever


In conversation with Ramya Vivek

RV: Where Mayflies Live Forever is a blistering, beautifully written testament to the human cost of sexual violence and a powerful reminder that there is a person who suffers, a body that gets broken, and when a body is violated, all of society is at risk. The book is as much a literary thriller as it is a story about one woman's self-discovery. Author Anupama Mohan's literary debut is an absorbing exploration of violence and trauma, choice and identity,and the journey of losing and finding one's connection with nature. In a perfect world, Where Mayflies Live Forever would probably be required reading for every police officer, prosecutor and judge who deals with victims of sexual assault.

The book has been on my mind ever since I read it, and I can't but think about domestic abuse,child molestation and rape cases where victims go on feeling stigmatized and victimized by a society that claims to be helping and supporting them. There are just too many questions on my mind and I'm so glad that Anupama is joining me in this conversation around her hard-hitting book that's been receiving rave reviews since its launch.

Hello Anupama. Thank you so much for joining me today. The world is a violent place and all too often women are the victims of that violence. I do not by that, mean violence defines every woman's life, but in your novel in particular, violence is a symptom of a much more profound issue: patriarchal power imbalance, male entitlement, rigid gender roles and caste-based discrimination being just some of the contributing factors. So, by highlighting a culture bias to protect perpetrators and a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, was Veni's story written with an intent to challenge and change such toxic social norms?

AM: Hi, Ramya. Thank you for that really succinct and heartfelt introduction to my novel. And thank you also for inviting me to Swell's micropodcast to discuss the book. You ask a really important question, and I wish to be honest, I wish I could answer it in the affirmative. That is, I wrote the book in order to change the world, but there was no such ambition in my mind. Long ago, my doctoral supervisor, Chelva Kanaganayakam, was asked once by some of his students, what is the goal of writing any book? And Chelva took his own time before thoughtfully offering up a single phrase that has always stayed with me, which is, to make a difference. And in some ways, this novel is about trying to make a difference. No more, but also no less.

When I first thought of the book, the very first idea that impelled the novel was just someone running out of their house looking for some quiet. In fact, even today, the entire folder of drafts of the novel is sitting in my computer under a very different title, which was the original title of the novel. It was called A Quiet Place, and that was always the first intention: of a person running out of their own home looking for some quiet. So, the question of noise then becomes really important. What is this noise? Because the noise is not simply about the noise in the world. It is also the noise inside our heads, our minds, our hearts. The noise is also inside one's own home, the ultimate sanctuary. So, the book was really impelled by this sort of restlessness. And it so happened that I had Veni come alive in my mind [at that moment] as a woman who has been wronged at so many levels. But when it all started out, and I think that was the core spirit of the novel, it was always a philosophical meditation about being human, about what it means to connect with oneself and what does it mean to even have a self in light of so many others out there in the world.So, it really was, in that sense, a philosophical book right from the very beginning. And you can see it in the bipartite structure of the book and the two kinds of time in the book as well. Yeah, the goal was not so much to change the world, but to actually register it in its minutiae and to render a single voice palpable, a single self palpable. And the moment you do that, you also see that there is no one self at all. There is no one single body. That body is tied to so many other bodies and so many other hearts and minds. There is no one person,really. No one is solitary in that sense. And the wrong against one body is a wrong against several bodies in one swoop.

And Veni herself is just an assortment of people's impressions of her. But in all the other sections that are not mediated by other people's voices about Veni, there is a different kind of person that emerges and that person has been shaped by the violence in the book but is not entirely, as you say, defined by it. And I think that is a powerful reminder. And at some point in the novel I write that no degradation is insurmountable. Perhaps the degradation of the spirit is a very powerful pain. It's very hard to emerge from pain like that. And people have various reasons for undergoing such pain. The loss of a loved one, the loss of something very dear, the loss of body parts, the loss of vision, for example. So, I can't speak for everyone's pain, but [one has] to recognize how powerful that pain is and how powerfully it shapes us and our response to it and to life.

RV: I have never read a book in recent times that so vividly paints the bewildering maze that a sexually assaulted woman faces. In each one of the testimonies shared by Veni’s family members, there are visceral descriptions of the ordeal that she faced. You haven't shied away from depicting the realities of those scenarios. Could you perhaps talk a little bit about bringing those specific scenes to life while writing the story and how it was navigating and writing through those very sensitive topics?

AM: You know,this is a question that in some senses goes to the very heart of the method in the book. My struggle was not so much with rendering the violence and the violation as much as it was a twofold responsibility. One was to not lessen the impact of such violence, and two, was to not sensationalize it, to not render the reader into a kind of pain voyeur. I wanted to avoid at all costs – that possibility, the rendering of pain as a voyeuristic experience, because one of the things that that does is that it creates pain as a template so that people can then compare pains and then say, this is greater, this is lesser. And that, I think, is a harsh, unempathetic way to approach anyone in pain. So ,I wanted to avoid the conversion of pain into a sensationalistic or voyeuristic, modular pain or modular rendition. But at the same time, one of the things about the novel is how thick it is in its detail.But on this curious aspect [the rape and assault], it remains rather silent. And I think there is a great deal of power in the art of suggestion. And here I leave it to the reader and the reader's imaginative and critical faculties to fill in the gaps of the testimonies and fill in the gaps of what even Veni cannot articulate.

And yet some pain is visceral. Some pain is just what we feel.There is no hiding that kind of pain. And that can be sort of felt across all beings that are sentient and respond to pain. I am reminded of Shylock’s memorable words on this occasion. But really the rendition of the pain itself was not problematic or particularly sensitive. But its functional use in the novel and the purposes and goals which I wanted such portrayal always to be underwritten by, those were paramount to me. And I often revisited certain sections in order to ensure that the impact of the violence was always more pronounced than the actual acts of violence themselves. Which is why you will see that the novel’s structure is very deliberate. And while there are certain kinds of articulations of violence, as seen in particulars that I show quite vividly, there is another that I don't really talk about at all. And so, I play one kind of articulation against another kind of silence, and I leave it to the critical and imaginative faculty of the reader to make the connections and to connect one kind of pain with another kind of pain, really. And I should say that these were among the most violent passages that I have ever written in my life. And while I was writing them out, it was very hard to detach, very hard to eat, sleep, really. And I was functioning at possibly 150% of my faculties while writing and really hibernating in the phases when I was not writing. So, there was a very exact acting toll on my body and my mind while I was writing these sections in the novel.

RV: Thank you so much for sharing that, Anupama. As a reader, when I have been so profoundly touched by a book, I can only imagine the kind of exacting toll the writing would have taken on you. So yeah. How would you hope that the character of Veni and her story can add on to the conversation on what it is important to have more strong female-driven narratives?

AM: Thank you for that question, Ramya. I think about it quite a bit, because the other thing that I do in life is to teach. I'm an educator, and in my classes, we always end up sort of oscillating, I think, between two kinds of narratives, really, at the very base of things. One is strongly male- driven narratives, where male anxieties and male concerns and male goals and male desires are paramount. And they are the fuel both for the narrative and for the world-making that goes on in that narrative. And it's a very powerful sense of universalism that students walk away with, so they feel the pain of a Raskolnikov or they will feel the pain of a Meursault and all these very powerful characters whose Bildungsroman become the Bildungsroman of people across time, culture and age and gender. And in some ways, that is the latent power of literature, isn't it? And of all stories, really. But it is also sort of very interesting how gendered these visions are. And while you can't really detach these men from their anxieties and their concerns of the world, you also cannot really detach them from their maleness. In contrast, when we read women's stories, so much in those stories is driven by women's place in the world and their social identities as mother, daughter, wife, adulteress, and so on and so forth. There are very few narratives that even where the women's Bildungsroman or female Bildungsroman occur, where we follow the growth and maturation of a woman character, much becomes particular and gendered in a very specific way. So that my male students do not really connect to the female-driven narratives except as a feminist narrative, which in itself is not a bad thing at all, because feminism has very clear goals, and those goals are hard to achieve in our differently patriarchal societies. So, the recognition that a book is feminist in its drive is actually a very powerful way of connecting that book to one's own life, especially for male students. But it is sort of interesting, isn’t it, that so few women's narratives tend to not have that kind of universal acclaim across gender in ways that men's narratives don't suffer from. So that is, as a kind of background to how I think, male-driven narratives and female driven narratives function differently in our societies and in different readerships. Perhaps in societies that are less trenchantly inegalitarian or unequal, there is a very different kind of impact upon readerships. I don't know.But I've lived and grown up in India, and I have traveled to countries where the gap between being male and female is pretty pronounced from the everyday to the extraordinary in life. And glass ceilings of various orders define the lives of women in different ways. And not just women, I suppose. We remember that no one identity comes to us in purity, and it intersects with so many other different coordinates of one’s social existence. So strong, female-driven narratives tend to not have a certain kind of universal appeal. And that has always felt to me a kind of curious bind of the genre, but also of the way in which readerships have been shaped by male-driven narratives. And I have wondered what a female epic would be like. I don't know if this answers the question regarding the novel, but it's just a bunch of unconnected thoughts about the nature of female portrayal and readerships across.

RV: Oh, it absolutely does answer my question about having strong female driven narratives. So thank you so much for that. I think there's something about connecting with the earth and nature that harmonizes our internal rhythms, induces inner peace and recharges us. And this is an aspect you have brilliantly explored in the book. In fact, it is Veni’s sublime connection with nature that literally heals her from within.So, is this a philosophy that you strongly believe in?

AM: Ramya, that is an important aspect of the book that you have highlighted. The novel was always going to be an ecofiction of sorts for me because I like the idea of thinking about one's pain, both in a microscopic way, that is, we really are in tune with the pain, and so, we understand its granularity, but also from a very zoomed-out perspective, aerially, as it were,as if a bird was looking down upon us in pain and what that would look like. So, I wanted to play with those two lenses, but I wasn't really sure what to do. And that's where the narrative really took control of my pen and my thinking and took Veni's story into different aspects. One of the things that I hope my readers will see in the novel is that there is really no fantasy element in the ecological sections. Every single aspect of the doline that Veni encounters is a real aspect of our nature around us. Every natural phenomenon described, every topographical feature really exists on planet Earth. It's just that they are rare or that they seem so extraordinary and they're not anywhere near us and we haven't seen them with our own eyes, so we often find them completely unreal. And then, it seems like the whole thing is science fiction. But I was very careful to make sure that my research was right on this count and that what Veni encounters in this sort of delimited space, the various extraordinary features of nature, reminded her that, in fact, each one of us is extraordinary in our own way, and that nothing takes away from the absolute miraculousness of life. By which I don't mean a necessarily religious or spiritual reading of life, but simply recognizing that given all the permutations and combinations possible in the universe, there is this one, which means that I am alive and you're alive and we are talking, and so much else is happening simultaneously on Earth. So that aspect was very important. It's true that people, you and I and people in general, we take from nature what solace, consolation and soul-building is possible. But a lot of nature also exists as it is and not in connection with or in reference to anything that is humanly. And I think Veni’s journeys and sojourns into the cave were a reminder to her of the way in which certainly she could use nature to heal from within, but also, that a lot of nature exists outside of her own body, and that there are processes always afoot that have nothing to do with her particular sense of her very specific pain or her very specific joys or her very specific experiences. So, I wasn't very sure in my mind, at least at the time that I was creating Veni’s sojourns, I was not very clear what Veni was going to get out of them. But as the novel progressed, it became evident to me that it was possible to have a relationship with nature that respected its plenitude, but also recognized that that plenitude was not only for you and that there is no way in which you could exhaust that abundance, so you could only receive it in the small proportion that would make it meaningful to your life and then move on from it so that other beings in nature could have access to that same nimiety, to that same abundance. And ultimately the final chapter where Veni comes to a kind of recognition of what she has to do with regard to Adiban, but what she has to do with regard to herself. And those are two divergent parts that come together, and that happen only because of what she has received from nature and from that long journey to her self that she has managed on her own.

RV: I must thank you for this deep and powerful conversation, Anupama. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your insightful responses. You've given me so much food for thought and I think I'm going to be definitely revisiting parts of the book today. So, thank you so much for being a part of this interaction and I would love to have you back on for more conversations around your writing and your work. And for our listeners, I'm going to be sharing the Amazon link to the book that I would highly recommend everyone listening in to check out. Thanks again, Anupama, and more power to your words.

AM: Thank you very much, Ramya,for this opportunity and for all the probing questions that you asked and that got me to think about the novel in new ways.I hope the listeners enjoy our tete-a-tete and that they will read the novel for themselves to know more about Veni. And thank you also for the offer to join Swell's growing community of readers and listeners. I'd be very happy to feature and to listen and to participate in any way that I can. Thank you once again and happy reading to everyone and Happy New Year to Ramya and to everyone else.

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