“An Archeology of Myself: A Conversation with Novelist Nandini Bhattacharya” – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Nandini Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and has called the United States her second continent for the last thirty years. Her short stories have been published or will be in the Saturday Evening Post Best Short Stories from the Great American Fiction Contest Anthology 2021, the Good Cop/Bad Cop Anthology (Flowersong Press,  Meat for Tea: the Valley Review, Storyscape Journal, The Bangalore Review, and others. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and been accepted for residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, VONA, Centrum Writer’s Residency, and the Ragdale Artist’s Residency (forthcoming), among others. She was first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest for Prose Prize (2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019 and 2020), a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019), and a finalist for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Stories Contest, 2021. She’s currently working on a second novel about love, minorities, racism, and Hindutva politics in India and xenophobic mentalities and other mysteries in Donald Trump’s America, titled Homeland Blues. 

Kristina Marie Darling:  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into Love’s Garden?

Nandini Bhattacharya:  When I began writing Love’s Garden almost fifteen years ago — here’s looking at Wordsworth, who wrote, “To begin, begin,” but little did he know — and of course put it aside many, many times, I was undergoing a process that I would call an ‘Archaeology of myself.’ I’d like my readers to know that this writing process took me back to the nebulous records of my family history. As I was looking for answers to my own puzzles, I started remembering old family stories, many of them involving foremothers I’d never met. That’s how Love’s Garden started: in an attempt to invoke those powerful voices and figures and invite them into my felt reality, almost as soothsayers or wise guides. And this archaeology will probably always remain some part of my writing process.

I’d also tell my readers that the story takes place over more than fifty years. So unless they really like deep histories, epics and sagas, this may not be their cup of tea. However, if they consider that the origins of the novel form in fact lie in the dim past of humanity, in the multi-jointed, multi-faceted poetry of human experience called epics, annals and sagas like the Saga of the Volsungs, the Nibelungenlied, Lord of the Rings, Arthurian Romances, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Song of Roland, they might see the impulse behind my writing a novel spanning a half-century, many characters, parallel plot lines, and lots of world-building. The difference is that my heroes not men, but unsung or forgotten women.

Finally, I’d like them to know that I’m a World Wars history buff (though not a war buff!), and Love’s Garden is about dramatic, heady, and complicated times when forbidden love, strange political alliances, and cross-race liaisons were possible because of war-time mentalities. War always upturns lives, of course, but the unprecedented cross-pollination of desires and duties in a British colony where anticolonial nationalism was clashing with antifascist feelings exacerbated the unrest of the already turbulent Quit India movement.

KMD:  Love’s Garden addresses pressing political questions while at the same time offering readers mystery and subtlety.  What advice do you have for emerging writers who aspire to create politically charged texts that remain complex and mysterious?

NB:  First, research, research, research. Write what you didn’t know, and your own wonder at discoveries will show in your writing. For Love’s Garden, it’s when my reading led me to stories about soldiers of the so-named ‘Forgotten Army’ in the ‘China-Burma’ or Eastern Theatre of World War II who bravely resisted Japanese aggression with no backup, and later got little attention from war historians, a sluice of empathy opened in me unexpectedly and lifted the ship of my storytelling. Not something I would have expected.

Second, think about connections, and find story ideas in discordance. Look for dominant narratives, then find the gaps and fissures in them. I was having trouble with the plot of Love’s Garden at one point, especially because of the chronological span. And my ‘archeology of the self’ sometimes made it hard for me to see the larger canvas, the wider stakes that could make the personal meaningful as a tale of wider public appeal and meaning. So, at some point, I had to leave my navel-gazing behind for a while and look into the history of the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in which most of Love’s Garden’s events take place, especially during the Second World War. Some of my own family members had been suppliers, contractors, and builders for the British during and around wartime (and not necessarily always very patriotically!). But my personal history could become a fortress of my own, and that isn’t how I understand individual stories, or history with a capital H. Once I began reading up on Calcutta in the thirties and forties, I learned about one particular British Royal Air Force pilot who played a central role in defending Calcutta from Japanese bombing and became a beloved figure in the city despite being one of the master race, and this provided me a character in Love’s Garden who provides a hook to hang the stories of several women characters, including my central protagonist Premlata Mitter. Another character, a Japanese-American soldier, was born of accounts of the ordeals of the ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma. History is a multilayered and multi-veined tangle of public and private, structure and events. So look around at intersections as well up the long vanishing point of highway called denouement. Take detours and find yourself making unexpected discoveries that become clues, connections and templates.

Finally, read the classics and the contemporaries in equal measures.

KMD:  The current literary landscape is filled with political poems, stories, essays and more.  What makes Love’s Garden stand out from the rest is the sheer beauty of its language.  Can you say more about how lyricism and aesthetic delight can exist in the service of social change?

NB:  To answer this question, I must begin with the literary ideal I aspired toward when writing Love’s Garden. It was Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. As one of the most fabled and fabulous writers of all time, Roy wrote that novel in prose that was as lyrical in character- and world-building as in depictions of political and gender violence in contemporary India. How she does it is still a mystery to me, but she can blend the most sensitive, detailed, empathic and vibrant description to the most hard-hitting, razor-sharp, passion-drenched and scathing political critique. Yet she is always wry, never shrill or pedantic. One of the tropes she invented in God of Small Things is that of the ‘History House.’ It stands first for the representation of Indian history, and then for both Representation and History. The metaphor itself is intriguing enough. But when you read her description of the ‘History House,’ where ghosts of ancestors murmur and flicker at night, you say to yourself, “You, listen up. You will try to write like that.” Then you try. For years. And then you maybe get something a little close to it, as I hope I have in Love’s Garden. Language is poetry, and language is weaponry. No one combines them like Roy, except maybe Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and of course the great Russians like Tolstoy.

Another writer whom I admire deeply writes in a different prose style than the above writers but also weaves into all his prose the underlying concept of the “Spirit” of history or, if you think of the ideas of Walter Benjamin, the brilliant cultural critic hounded to death by the Nazis, the ‘Angel of History.’ This is Amitav Ghosh, whose erudite training as a cultural anthropologist and comparative linguist makes him a light-handed juggler of wide sweeps of time and place who always, always, brings us around to realizations can be called a ‘quilting points,’ namely, that the more things change the more they stay the same, that the universal and the particular are flip sides of a coin, and that history is usually written by the winners. Another talented writer in this regard is Ru Freeman, whose On Sal Mal Lane is, I believe, a contemporary classic. And last but not least — if I may give another example — everyone should read Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance. It is absolutely brilliant, a timeless classic, about the foundational fables of the American West and the loss of youth and innocence within the systemic greed, lawlessness, and violence that won it.

KMD:  Relatedly, what is the relationship between writing and activism for you as a creative practitioner?

NB:  I’m a writer and a teacher, and for me, both of these are activist endeavors as well as creative ones. But in more purely cognitive and thematic ways, all my work is ultimately in the service of the dispossessed, the silenced, the forgotten, and the meek, who won’t inherit the earth until some very ‘strong’ language accompanies actions. The pen remains mightier than the sword, is my belief.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a creative writer – which include admission to the renowned Bread Loaf Writers Conference, as well as residencies and fellowships at places like VONA and Vermont Studio Center — you are also a noted scholar and critic. What has your background in literary criticism opened up within your creative practice?

NB:   Many things. I am primarily a scholar of Women’s Studies, South Asia Studies, Postcolonial Studies and Cinema. My reading and writing on Empire and cultural contact zones — the British in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India and the Caribbean, mostly — provides a huge archive to draw upon and represent the legacy of contact, conquest, domination and the resistance to it leading to decolonization, all of which appear in Love’s Garden. My Women’s Studies scholarship informs the message of women’s historic resilience, courage, friendships, and matrilineal traditions (formal and informal) in Love’s Garden and the novel I have just finished, titled Homeland Blues. In Love’s Garden, which begins in 1898 with the story of particularly sordid mistreatment and upending of the life of a fierce young Indian woman who wouldn’t have understood the word or maybe even the concept of Feminism, we have the story of a woman warrior who stood up to patriarchal and imperial abuse even if ultimately driven mad. My work on Empire and the postcolony teaches me that there have always been transnational, migratory and diasporic people and globalized as well as regional ‘worlds.’ And Cinema Studies, especially Indian Cinema Studies, inspires me to write frequently and confidently about the power and influence of the Indian film on India’s collective consciousness and unconscious, and to derive plot elements and intrigues from that fabulous and intriguing never-never world of the silver screen.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

NB:  I’ve now finished my second novel Homeland Blues — this one in a very different setting but with themes that carry over from Love’s Garden — about one Neena Mathur, a young Indian widow in the US forced to face her own and her community’s deep-seated racism when her husband’s unexplained disappearance and presumed death test her Indian-American or ‘Desi’ community’s loyalty. Ejected overnight from diasporic ‘model minority’ privilege and colorism as she begins her descent into the hell known as illegal immigrant status in the United States, Neena finds a new identity in unexpected kinship with a bisexual African-American man as well as immigrants facing deportation in Trump’s America. As the story progresses, it also reveals itself as one about the systemic dehumanization experienced by India’s Untouchables or ‘Dalits,’ which mirrors that of people of color in America. Recently, Pulitzer prize winner Isabelle Wilkerson has written eloquently and penetratingly about the fact that Race in America is perhaps better described as “Caste,” the system of oppression that keeps minorities downtrodden in India. Homeland Blues dramatizes this insight. Ultimately, it’s about multi-tentacled hatred and fear surrounding gender and racial traumas, but also about the love we must find to empathize with the stranger we’ve always been taught to fear.