1. Silk Fish Opium begins in 1945 in Bombay, the characters at a nexus of multiple conflicts, both personal and political. What drew you to the historical novel? What difficulties did you find in writing it?
As a graduate student at CWRU in the 1990s, I read some of Salman Rushdie’s novels and was struck by the protean depiction of history in his work. His novels are all grand in vision and scope. What I learned from Rushdie is that politics and history matter. You can write a simple love story, but if you set it in a politically charged moment in history, it becomes more complicated, and ultimately more interesting.
The notion of conflict is integral to novels. Whether on a large scale such as the subcontinent’s Independence and Partition, or the subtler, internal struggles of a character, the depiction of conflict and its resolution generates the narrative arc of a novel. Yet, during the process of writing Silk Fish Opium, I didn’t actively think about conflict generating elements that should be inserted here and there. The main thing I was concerned with was telling the story in an efficient, imaginative way. In fact, the main difficulty arose in trying to posit varying conflicts – of class, religion, politics, history, the effects of the Raj and so on – in a true and organic manner that would continually propel the narrative forward.
Moreover, the issues surrounding a Hindu-Muslim romance are complex even in today’s India. While there has been substantial advancement in people’s thinking, the sense of the ‘other’ still prevails among many families. It has been more than fifty years since Partition, yet India and Pakistan have not reconciled their differences. While I was interested in exploring the historical dynamics of this conflict, the difficulty also lay in capturing the mood and aesthetic of the 1940s while still resonating with contemporary issues.
2. The title of your book is wonderfully evocative of the exotic, but also indicates a kind of economic continuum. Would you like to talk about that a little? Did you run through many other titles first?
Silk, fish, and opium refer to the commodities that Rohini’s business-minded family is associated with. While her father has made his mark as a silk trader, her forefathers traded in opium, a detail that is hushed up for obvious reasons. When her brother wants to start a fishing business, it is waved away for the sake of prestige. Family fortunes are projected and built on what is considered appropriate, and much of the story hinges on the notion of reputation and shame.
Of course, I tried out dozens of titles. But there are so many different elements in this novel and I found it difficult to pin down just one phrase that would hold the story. So I decided to go with evocative words that play out in large strokes throughout the narrative, and came up with Silk Fish Opium. Admittedly, even when the book cover was designed and the manuscript went to print, I wasn’t quite sure of the title. I’m still not sure of it.
3. Music seems to act as the avenue of love for Hanif and Rohini. It’s the source of their meeting and Hanif’s method of courting. Was this backdrop of creativity, of culture an important element of the novel?
Music figures prominently in the story. Hanif is a ghazal singer, and he plays the harmonium, which is a rectangular box-shaped pump organ, popular in South Asia. He meets Rohini in college, during a music session, and invites her to sing a duet with him for the college festival. The scene at the festival, with them singing on stage before a packed audience, is actually quite a steamy scene. But it’s couched in the language of music. There are other such instances through the story. I’m not a trained musician, so I spent a fair amount of time researching the traditions of Indian classical music. Creating a novel is not a pleasant experience. Most days it is drudgery. But researching the music – reading books, talking with musicians, and listening to CDs – was the highpoint of the process for me.
4. In 2004, South Asian Literature in English: An Encyclopedia was published. How did this become your project? What kind of work was involved in this massive undertaking?
I met the series editor of the Encyclopedia project at a conference in Trinidad. He introduced me to the acquisitions editor of Greenwood Press, who first published my Rushdie book, as well as a book on South Asian novelists. He then approached me about the Encyclopedia. Indeed, it was a massive project; to tell the truth, I had no idea what I was getting into. It involved reading literary analyses and primary works of literature, editing and cataloguing entries, and constructing an overarching perspective of South Asian literature. Fortunately, Greenwood assigned two assistant editors to help, so that lessened the burden.
5. Although this is your first novel, you’ve also published a number of short stories. Could you talk a little about your move from the short story to the novel? Or, your even earlier move from critical writing to fiction?
Actually, I started with the novel. When I had a fairly polished version of the manuscript, I started sending it out to literary agents. Waiting for agents to read and respond was frustrating, not to mention the slew of rejections that followed. Some of the rejections were so complimentary you almost forgot they were rejections. In any case, I began writing short stories to overcome the anxiety of waiting; also, I suppose, to avoid starting another novel.
It’s refreshing in many ways to write short stories after having tackled a novel, which is such an all consuming beast of an undertaking. Of course, writing a short story is draining, too, for you have to work on drawing large ideas in a much smaller space. The novel and the short story are both fascinating forms. Perhaps even more fascinating, I think, is the novella – that curious, neglected, in-between form. In fact, I’ve just started writing a novella, and I’m discovering its many eccentric capabilities.
Regarding my earlier move from critical writing to fiction: I began writing Silk Fish Opium about eight years ago. I attended several workshops and residencies to learn the craft of fiction. Having written academic articles and books, I thought it would be easy to make the switch to fiction. However, I soon discovered that writing fiction is much more difficult. At least, for me it is more difficult. But now, having made the turn, I’m fascinated and humbled by the creative process; I’m amazed at the stillness that I feel on those rare good days when I’m totally focused on the page and the words seem to flow.
6. Is there something about your time at CWRU that helped make this book possible?
I was a Ph.D. student at CWRU from 1992-97. Some of my early classes were with Tom Bishop, Judy Oster, and Roger Salomon. Martha Woodmansee introduced me to Postcolonial Literature. Gary Stonum encouraged me to attend The School of Criticism and Theory, which was at Dartmouth College then, and where I studied with Homi Bhabha, a prominent literary theorist. Bill Siebenschuh directed my dissertation, which focused on the novels of Salman Rushdie. I can still recall sitting in Bill’s office and the animated look on his face as we discussed Midnight’s Children, and compared Rushdie to Laurence Sterne. Bill’s exacting standards and love for stories made an impression on me. So, yes, I’m happy to say that every page of my novel bears traces of my time at CWRU.