Interviews

For the Smell of the Bakul

Meenakshi Gautam

Three novels, a host of short stories, collections of children stories, a book of poetry, a few translations, over 80 radio plays, recitation, stage, almost two decades of announcing on Doordarshan, a film, television serials and if you are getting out of breath and wondering who is the person, you do not have to go far. She is the frequently seen, heard and read person - Srutimala Duara. And, if you thought a person who did so many things has her hands full with space for nothing else, hold your breath once again: She is also a Professor in the English department of Handique Girls’ College. But that is not all. She is also a wife, a mother of two growing teenagers along with a great deal of travelling thrown in between. Over and above all this, she claims to be very active socially, often hitting the party circuit which means late nights. You wonder as to how one person can do so many things. The key lies in planning and organizing up to the last minute and to the last detail, says Srutimala. Of course, all this is not possible without the support of a loving, caring husband and co-operative children and in-laws.

Srutimala Duara is a person who is always in sync and in tangent with things, persons events, happenings and most important of all - style. Vibrant and always keeping herself updated with what is happening, she wisely tells you that she does not hold grudges and does not belief in being remembered by posterity. All she does believe in is living life to the fullest and remembering the happy times, and of course people and places and unraveling the mystery that surrounds them.

I sat down for a tete-a-tete with the multifaceted personality recently, trying to understand how she manages to fit in so many things in her life. The interview was also special for me as it was Srutimala Duara herself who had introduced me to the world of writing a few years back. Ever since then, it has been a roller coaster ride of people, events, deadlines and of course, changed priorities. Thanks to her, it has changed my life for the better.

The Art and Science of Writing

For me, writing has been an instinct and a need to do something I want to and also love to. Technique, I suppose, is important and matters a lot for many people. But for me, putting down my thoughts, experience and feelings are more important. I would not like to comment much on technique as I do not follow any technique. In fact if I think too much, I cannot write. When I have just allowed my writing to flow I find that I write much better. I write regularly and that helps. When something touches me, I sit down to write. I create the skeleton then I give the final touches. I revise a lot and I feel that it is only in the final touches that actual quality work gets done. The short story usually gets done in one sitting. But for a novel, a lot of research is required. My novel "Travelling with Dreams" was based on terrorism for which I needed to really get down to the roots of the problem. It had many facets, perceptions, notions, myths and was multilayered. To knit all that into a novel requires a lot of toil and sweat. As to the source of my writing, it could be life, experience, my imagination or whatever I see happening around me. Some of my work can be seen as being almost autobiographical. The structure may not be fixed and the characters develop on their own. I do not wish to be present in my writing, there is no message or communication and I leave it to the audience to make what they feel of it. When I wrote about the ULFA problem I was disturbed seeing what was happening around me, when bomb blasts had became common everyday matters. The reason why originally people joined the movement and the present scenario is very different. I also sometimes feel a writer's block but usually I try to jot it down immediately. For me more than the technique, the story needs to be told.

Art is More Perspiration than Inspiration

Many people are inspired to write but all cannot write. If you think in terms of process, labour and perspiration, you cannot create. You must enjoy it. When you enjoy, even if there is sweat and toil you do not feel it. Each writer is a different individual with different capacities, approaches and belonging to different categories. If writing was "spontaneous" for Coleridge, than for Wordsworth if was "moments recollected in tranquility".

Creating the Background

The backdrop is created as it comes to the mind. One may try to look at it from a different angle. Be it character, incident plot or backdrop - any one thing catches my fancy and I choose to concentrate on it. I choose not to go beyond that. For the novel the challenge lies in retaining the interest or holding on to the thread. The art of the short story requires a tight frame as you have very little space and time to bring out the character and incidents. The plot and character in a short story happens in a flash. In contrast, you take time to build the character and plot in a novel but again, the challenge lies in sustaining it.

No Emotional Attachment

I am not emotionally attached with my writings. Once I have finished writing, then I offer it to the public.

Of People and Places

I write a lot of travelogues. It is not about places but rather the feel of the place that fascinates me. That is one of the main reasons why I do not like guided tours. Rather, I circumnavigate or try on my own to discover and navigate places and the history behind it. I share my experiences as I find a lot of people interested and intrigued and wanting to venture out of one's own areas. The story behind people, places, building, monuments always fascinates me .When I decide to go on a tour, I read extensively about that place. I have travelled extensively through America and Europe and I have also gone to the remote villages of the Northeast. I want to know about them, and also about their practices, lifestyles, myths and culture. My father Late Bhubon Mohan Das was a well-known anthropologist and perhaps, it was he who instilled in me the love to do some kind of anthropological research.

Travelling is my passion. Another important reason for travelling is to get material for my writing. Otherwise one tends to get stagnant. If I go to the remote villages of Northeast India, it is to know about people and their way of life. Than I go the West in search of culture and history. People have commented that rural life is absent from my writing. I say that this is so because I am unfamiliar with it. If I write about it I will be writing from the periphery and that I believe will be an inappropriate representation.

My Initial Footsteps

Both my grandparents were renowned writers and both my parents were from academic backgrounds with strong literary inclinations. My mother Manjumala Das taught literature, my father taught anthropology and both wrote for the academic field and fiction. My mother inculcated in me a love for Assamese literature. I was given a lot of writings in Assamese to browse through while I was still in school. So despite the fact that I was educated in an English medium school, I did not have the usual disinterest or ignorance about my native literature. My mother constantly inspired and encouraged. Incidentally, my first writing was a short story in Assamese. Reading is very important and for me my struggle has been with myself. As a writer your struggle is with language, depth, range, metaphors and images. I am very grateful to my grandparents and to my parents from whom I have inherited a legacy. And I have tried to go forward with it. In fact, I am also lucky that even after marriage I have still been able to carry them forward; not only my writing, but also my other passions, which includes announcing on Doordarshan for the last 18 years along with my forays into television and other such related activities. As a woman, wife and mother, one has to learn to manage and plan time. I always tried do that and made serious attempts to manage time. Recently, I have started jotting down "things to do" and it has really helped. For me, every minute is important. I have also been always supported by my husband in all my endeavors - be it my writings, my travelling or the other loves of my life. He is not the kind who loves reading or watching plays but I have always been encouraged by him to pursue what I believe in.

My attempts at Poetry

From prose, short stories, articles to poetry, I have attempted everything. Poetry, I feel, demands a different kind of language. Images, metaphors, pictures - they come in a flash and I feel charged to express it. Suddenly a thought comes and I put it down. But later, I revise a lot. I recently published my first volume of poems. It is of course very dear to me but I prefer the verses I penned after that book has been published.

I also do translation but for me it is not literal translation. And I take liberties. I have translated Manju Bora's work. I have also translated my original Assamese work. So in a sense, being proficient in two languages does have its benefits. Another love of my life is children's writing. It is again a very different cup of tea. I write for the age group between 8 to 12 years. Mostly it is animals and human life that dominate my writings about children. For me, those writings are like a child talking to another child.

My Beliefs

I am nostalgic about the past. I have seen the yesteryears of Guwahati and the city growing to become the metropolitan monster of today. The old days of beautiful Assam type houses, of verandahs, of the smell of Bokul flowers and of the gardens where plants grow haphazardly and not the immaculate gardens of today filled with imported flowers. At the same time, I would not want there to be any change in the way the city has progressed. I have tried to live life to the fullest and even today my motto is to live life as if there is no tomorrow.