‘I Spend Weeks Hunting For The Perfect Word’: Dharini Bhaskar On Writing Sentences That Hold Music

‘These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light’, Bhaskar’s debut novel, has been shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature.
Dharini Bhaskar says she is especially drawn to the music of sentences—the capacity of words to sing, to convey a sound.
Dharini Bhaskar says she is especially drawn to the music of sentences—the capacity of words to sing, to convey a sound.

While reading a book, one often makes the mistake of imagining the writer as an extension of a character, a projection of the sound of their prose. When the phone rings, I expect—dazzled by the lyrical sentences and myriad stories that dot the novel shortlisted for India’s richest literary prize, The JCB Prize for Literature, this year—a quiet, Deeya-like (narrator, book lover) voice. But I am pleasantly surprised to be greeted by the bubbly, enthusiastic Dharini Bhaskar.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Bhaskar’s debut novel, is a nest where five women who are very different from one another, live together. Amamma (Sarojaa)—married at 16 to a much older man with a kind first wife, “wrestles for a childhood of tree-top-rebellion”. Upon the death of her husband, she gives herself another surname and travels. Her daughter, Vanaja, is quieter, obedient and less flighty. When Vanaja’s husband abandons her and their three daughters—Ranja, Deeya and Tasha—to pursue painting, she invents stories and writes postcards that stay unsent. Bhaskar gives her characters the benefit of doubt. They slip, find (and lose) love, and in the process, look deeper into themselves, and the women around them.

Writing the story, Bhaskar says, began with Amamma, who was easier to mould into shape. I find facets of all three daughters in the novelist—a perfectionist chasing the right word for months (like Ranja who craves a perfectly set dinner table for her husband and unborn children), a vivacious conversationalist (like the youngest, Tasha) and a lover of words (like Deeya). Bhaskar spent eight years perfecting her manuscript. An excerpt of the book also won her a “wonderful” opportunity to attend The Caravan’s Writers of India Festival in Paris (2014) where she was one among the five Indian writers chosen.

We talk about the musicality of language. While Bhaskar enjoys listening to music—she isn’t trained in it, though—she loves well-crafted sentences more. “I am especially drawn to the music of sentences—the capacity of words to sing, to convey a sound,” she says.

In the novel, all five women are pursuers of some sort, all brought to life by the narrator, the middle-child Deeya. Vanaja fabricates ‘lies’ to survive, Ranja is “ladylike”, Tasha “moth-like”—taking and leaving lovers—and Deeya becomes “an adult too soon”. Insignificant daily happenings become prominent plot stops. The three sisters come “unstitched” as they notice the winks, nods and shrugs from their father, “who knit us (the family) together”, are absent one morning when they drink milk. Vanaja gets the vision to survive when she rubs an apple. Embroidered with many myths from different sources, Bhaskar presents a swirl of lyrical beauty, motherhood, and humans damaged by a past that briefly intersects their own. That, and many lies.

Edited excerpts from a phone conversation and email exchange follow.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light owes its title to the poem Scheherazade by Richard Siken, whose lines colour the narrative at several places. The novel is also filled with stories—Greek, Biblical Hindu, Scandinavian—and trivia— origins of mysuru paaka—reminiscent of the storyteller Scheherazade of Arabian Nights.

Yes, Scheherazade is a presence in more ways than one, isn’t she?

In truth, the novel began with her. I had the word—Scheherazade—and I knew instinctively that this would be the starting point of something larger. Quite by chance, I found Richard Siken’s poem (titled Scheherazade) soon after. And the novel I wished to create found a name—a line from Siken’s poem reads ‘these, our bodies, possessed by light’.

I have been intrigued by Scheherazade for a number of reasons—not just because her name holds music, but because she makes each story a safe harbour; she talks herself back to life. Storytelling, Scheherazade reminds us, is an act of survival. It’s no different for the narrator in my book.

The myths, the stories embedded within stories, are to a large extent linked to the word ‘Scheherazade’. They also remind us that tales across time and space carry echoes of another. To view stories in isolation is to deny ourselves knowledge of their former and after lives.

Were you always a pursuer of stories?

Aren’t we all? I think each of us seeks stories—sometimes through gossip, sometimes by eavesdropping, and sometimes by sinking into books, or watching films, or standing in awe before paintings. It is what unites us—this desire to clutch on to tales.

I believe writers are simply more aware of the process—they know they’re collecting grist for the writing mill. They sense, when they overhear a stranger’s confession, that a sentence, an image, a word, or an episode, will likely slink into the world they are building.

Deeya’s grandmother, Amamma, is a woman who is “all verbs” when she is a young mother—steals (her child Vanaja) from school, sneaks her into buses, drags her to tempt her into “thrills” of defiance—and when older, affected by lapses in memory. Deeya’s mother, Vanaja, on the other hand, finds joy in housekeeping and nurturing even as a child. How did these wildly different personalities co-exist on the page and in your head? Where did you begin the story?

Yes, Amamma and her daughter Vanaja are remarkably different. One wishes desperately to break free from the everydayness of housekeeping. The other seeks little more than the comforts of domesticity. For me, both lives are fascinating, both desires legitimate. I must confess, it was easier to articulate Amamma’s desires. But Vanaja was the one who truly made me imagine—I could inhabit a life far removed from my own, which is one of the joys writing offers.

I did have conversations with two very different characters for the many years it took to create this book. I also lived with Vanaja’s daughters, who were unlike Amamma and Vanaja—one chased the receding horizon of perfection, another sought that will-o’-wisp thing called pleasure, a third learnt to find sustenance in words.

To live deeply is to hold contradictions. To write is to revel in them.

As for where I began the story (after I found a word I could carry for years), I guess, it started with Amamma, with the day her life turned over. This appears as one of the very early chapters in the novel, and it came to me in quick bursts. From here, I built upwards, backwards, all around; demolished; rebuilt.

Do you have a writing routine? Has it changed over the pandemic?

Once, in my mind, I commit myself to a manuscript, I do have a strict routine. I devote a certain number of hours every day to the work in progress.

More than a routine changing, I suspect the pandemic has altered the imagination. I try describing a cocktail party, but I see people, terrified, apart. I attempt picturing a stranger, but his face remains unknowable; there’s a mask. In my dreams, in reality, there are playgrounds without children. It will be a while before the things we took for granted—openness, familiarity, a face attached to a voice—become normal enough to capture without commentary.

You have explored several threads between mother-daughter relationships. When Deeya’s father abandons the family, the first thing Amamma asks her daughter is whether she has eaten. Deeya’s mother protects her daughters and herself by inventing a make-believe world and writing postcards to Norway—“a place holding lost people”. The weight of motherhood and elusiveness of love haunt the five women in different ways.

Questions about maternity preoccupy the text. Motherhood doesn’t come with a static definition. Yes, the mothers in this novel offer a roof—Amamma looks out for her only daughter; this daughter, in turn, tries securing her daughters with half-truths. But the mothers in the novel are also absent figures, withdrawn, or preoccupied, or too wounded to fully reach out. They’re both self-effacing and self-involved; nurturing and neglectful; loving and cold.

Questions about love, too, are central to the story. And to some extent, the capacity of these women to mother—to give of themselves to their children without hesitation—is linked to whether, after giving of themselves to their lovers, they’ve walked away whole.

“More than a routine changing, I suspect the pandemic has altered the imagination. I try describing a cocktail party, but I see people, terrified, apart. I attempt picturing a stranger, but his face remains unknowable; there’s a mask.”

Throughout the novel, the unreliability of the narrator adds layers—stories—to the shared past. Deeya gives us a glimpse of what could have happened by “collecting sound” or sometimes even reimagining. At the same time, Deeya’s mother “tweaks” and “adds flourishes” to their past according to her whims. This unreliability gives a dream-like quality to the story of the five women. How does memory and unreliability play in the story of familiar spaces and family contours?

Families, I believe, are paradoxes. They’re deeply conservative, yet house iconoclasts. They appear open, but guard devastating secrets. They are meant to offer succour, but often wound. How can these contradictions ever reconcile?—I believe through make-believe. What keeps a family secure and stable is myth-making.

Given that the novel explores the stories within family, it is almost inevitable that the narratives will be unreliable. As for the narrator, she has to secure her sense of self by telling and retelling magnificent lies. And memory, it is the most unreliable of all.

What do you mean by myth-making?

Every family holds onto a certain number of myths, beliefs and lies, even if they don’t call them that. This is really what keeps a family together because there’s no other way these opposing tendencies—conservative families with firebrand elements; predictable families with secret lives unfolding in them—can co-exist otherwise and also breed stability.

The changes in the outside world are subtly reflected in the family unit, be it the changes due to Indian independence or the ease of travelling abroad.

Through the narrator, I wished to explore the legacies we, as women, carry within families. I wished to look at the stories that breathed within the four walls of a house. The outside world, when I glanced at it, remained outside—external to the inner lives of characters who led somewhat cloistered lives.

Amamma could perceive the din of the freedom struggle; she had heard of India’s Partition; her daughter was vaguely aware of Film City—the characters weren’t ignorant of the goings-on of the world. But, to them, a lot of these churnings seemed far away. What remained pressing, urgent, was rooted in the house.

This is an idea I wished to explore—the fact that the colossal events that grab headlines can seem distant. That the agitations of the heart can occupy centrestage. Most importantly, I wished to convey this: that foregrounding the quiet, everyday, forgotten stories of women can be as important as chronicling the larger movements of the world.

Tolstoy has famously written “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Would you agree?

There’s a tendency to believe that happiness is unchanging in pitch—flat and dull. But happiness, much like grief, is rich in intonation; it rises and falls. By holding on to Tolstoy’s opening line, not only do we overlook the complexities of joy, we reduce entire households to a single story. The fact is that every family, whether it exudes delight or doesn’t, is complicated. Each is unlike the other.

'These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light' by Dharini Bhaskar; Published by Hachette India (2019)
'These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light' by Dharini Bhaskar; Published by Hachette India (2019)

You pay a lot of attention to crafting unique adjectives and deliberate sentences. The scent of an apple is “treacle-thick”, sweethearts are “lily-livered”, eyes are “letterbox slits”, the middle child is an “oops-baby”. Can you take us through your process?

I couldn’t write if I didn’t hold words in reverence. Every word, each sentence, needs to carry not just meaning but cadence. I spend weeks, sometimes months, hunting for the perfect word, the most potent expression, a sentence that lands the way it should. There isn’t a formula I follow. I simply let my ear and my instincts lead me. I train myself in the art of patience. I pray to language. I press flowers. I watch. I don’t.

How did you ensure a poetic rhythm to your sentences? Is this something you were particular about?

For me, rhythm is vital. A sentence shouldn’t just communicate what it must—a child is born—but it should hold music—in this case, it must sing hosannas. Only then, to me, is the sentence worth writing.

I read aloud everything I write. If sound and sense aren’t aligned, I rewrite.

You have worked as the Editorial Director at Simon and Schuster, India. How did you appease the editor’s eyes as you were writing your novel? When did you feel the manuscript is ready?

The only way I could edit my manuscript was by keeping it away for several months—till such time that the rhythm of the text felt alien to me. I then began the work of tightening, restructuring, rewriting, sometimes stray words, sometimes entire chapters. Editing teaches you a lot, but it especially trains you in the value of the little things—the comma, the semicolon, the period. I laboured over the details.

A manuscript is never really ready, I suspect. There’s always more to do, another word to toil over. But there comes a point when you’re ready to step back, not from the arduous process of rewriting, but from the world you have inhabited for years. You wake up, and you know you must moult. That’s when the manuscript is done.

Your debut novel is on the shortlist for the richest literary prize in India, The JCB prize for Literature. Congratulations! How does it feel?

Unreal. For the most part, I feel like I’m watching someone else’s life. I stand outside, peering through frosted glass.

“A manuscript is never really ready, I suspect. There’s always more to do, another word to toil over. But there comes a point when you’re ready to step back, not from the arduous process of rewriting, but from the world you have inhabited for years. You wake up, and you know you must moult. That’s when the manuscript is done.”

What books have imparted joy in these times of social isolation?

Increasingly, I drift towards children’s literature, partly because I spend all day with my toddler and read with him, but also because it offers me a refuge. In these bleak times, children’s literature reminds me of magic and wonder. When the world feels uncertain, I have only to turn to the books published by Enchanted Lion—and suddenly, I’m ensconced in a blanket of leaves with Big Wolf & Little Wolf.

One of my favourite sentences occurs in the first page of the novel—“Maybe all of us are no more than Venn diagrams.” What literary influences have made an impact on you?

The influences keep shifting, but some of the writers who have endured are Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Marilynne Robinson, Tania James, Anne Enright, Dorianne Laux, Salman Rushdie, Linda Gregg, Mary Oliver, Jack Gilbert. They’ve sensitised me to the possibilities of the English language and the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. They’ve enthralled me as word-magicians.

*

I point out that Anne Carson makes several appearances and two of Carson’s quotes decorate the first page of the book. In a bookstore, Deeya is asked “Do you believe everything Anne Carson says?”

Bhaskar completes the conversation for me—“I believe everything that’s well-written.”

Can I throw the question back at you?

Yes. It is true for me. It is entirely true for me. I believe everything Anne Carson has ever written. She is one of the gods in my pantheon of writers. (Laughs)

Are you working on something new?

I’m chasing ideas at the moment. I don’t know which one I’ll commit to. But yes, the process has started—I’m daydreaming. Soon, another book will begin.

*

In our phone conversation, I ask Bhaskar if she always dreamed of being a writer. She “hesitates” calling herself a ‘writer’ because the word holds responsibility—“It is too sacred of a term, and I would have to grow into one. But I always knew I would have some relationship with words.”

“Would you call yourself a dreamer then?” I ask.

“Yes, that I would. For sure.”