Film, Meet Book – An Interview with Bapsi Sidhwa
This is the first part of our special feature on cross-pollination between genres of storytelling.
Scores of books have been made into films, but it’s rare for a screenplay to be adapted into a novel. We interviewed the legendary Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa at her home in Houston, Texas, to understand the process by which she novelized ‘Water’ (2005), the third film in Indian director Deepa Mehta’s famous Elements Trilogy. The second part of this feature (Book, meet Film) will include an interview with an author whose work is being adapted for the big screen.
Bapsi Sidhwa’s entire body of literature – a topic of much discussion over the decades for its nuanced portrayal of women and minority communities in the Subcontinent – is wonderfully relevant for our theme for this issue of Papercuts. ‘Water’, in particular, casts a poignant look at the marginalization of widows in Indian society. The discussion on the book also provided the perfect impetus for the writer to share some excellent tips on writing and characterization for the aspiring author.
A.A. What was it like to write a book on a movie?
B.S. Deepa Mehta sent me a rough edit of the film from Canada together with some books on Hinduism and widows to persuade me to turn the film into a novel. She wanted me to explain the harsh laws that governed the lives of the widows.
Since this was a sensitive matter, Deepa had been attacked by extremists when she first tried to shoot the film in Banaras. They destroyed her sets and equipment and said they would never allow her to make the film in India. Five years later, she quietly made the film in Sri Lanka. Her idea was that people would not believe just the film; if I could write a novel and add some research to it, it would be more believable. I found the best way of getting information was from hinduwidows.com.
A.A. There’s a hinduwidows.com?!
B.S. Yes! These are the laws of Manu, an ancient prophet. He made all these very harsh laws for the widows (especially Brahmin widows) and the achhoots (the untouchables). I studied them and wove them as information into the story.
Anyway, I had seen the film about a hundred times by the end of the book. I have never worked so hard – I would get up at dawn and get to the computer with sentences already formed in my mind and work late into the night. She wanted the book ready in three months, to time it with the release of the film.
When Deepa adapted my novel ‘Cracking India’ into the film ‘Earth (1947)’ she totally absorbed the book and then carved her cinematic vision of how she would produce the film. She used my language in the script and then I worked with her on it – we had a very strong rapport going. When she sent me ‘Water’, it was the reverse process. I had to totally absorb the film to be true to it and be able to elaborate on it. And that was how we bounced off each other in making her film into my novel and vice versa.
A.A. How important is authenticity when you’re writing this kind of book?
B.S. The setting was the Behar-Bengal border, which I don’t know at all, although I did visit Bengal afterwards. I’d read a lot of books and seen films and through these I got a much more natural feel for the lives of these poor villagers and the atmosphere in which little Chuhiya was shown growing up. I had to absorb the culture so that the action flowed naturally. Nothing kills a book as chunks of research. In all my books I read a lot, absorbed the information and then left it aside, letting the knowledge work itself out into the right words, the right scenes and the right opportunities; otherwise the research becomes so obtrusive that the book becomes boring.
A.A. Clearly that’s a product of being an observant person.
B.S. No. People keep on saying writers are observant. I’m the least observant person. I absorb information through… a silent osmosis. What is going around just gets absorbed into the subconscious and comes out when I’m writing.
A.A. So when you’re working on a story and you come up with a character and you have to flesh that character out…
B.S. Well, I don’t have to. If you feel compelled to do anything, it shows and the book becomes boring. I was totally driven to write ‘The Bride’. It was the first time I was writing. I had a strange energy pushing me to write and to write. I’d heard about this incident in the mountains and when I came back, I wanted to tell this girl’s story. It reflected the lives of so many young girls in the Third World, with no control over their lives. As I was writing, I realized this girl couldn’t have existed out of nowhere. She had to have parents. How did she get together with the old tribal? That was the creative process. In creating that, I very soon discovered I was writing a novel without meaning to.
Going back. That’s the process I find mostly happens. The story around which I wanted to fabricate it turned out at the very end, but by the time I reached that, the novel had been created.
A.A. So for you it’s about what’s coming out instinctively.
B.S. Writing never took precedence in my life… everything else did. I took out snatches of time to write. When I came to America, I found my writer friends were working diligently, working from 9 in the morning till 5 in the evening, and I thought how wonderful that they can do that. But one of them said, “Bapsi, you have no idea how much paper we throw away. And you’ve produced more books than I have.”
So I realized that I wrote only when I had the compulsion to write. And most of the time I did have the compulsion. Only once – and it startled me – I could not write. It happened for about a day. That thing that clicks in when I write wasn’t there and I couldn’t even write one sentence. I knew all the words. But the unconscious that places the sentence in the right place, with the right words, and by right words I mean ‘the’, ‘that’, ‘of’ (every little thing counts, you know)… that didn’t come. That gave me a jolt. I realized that if I try to write deliberately and rationally, I can’t. It has to be a natural process.
While you’re writing, what you read is very important. If while writing something serious, you only read something funny, it won’t work. Unconsciously, it does influence you; one does build on the shoulders of other creative people in a way. Because I didn’t go to school because of my polio, I used to read a lot. If I’d gone to regular school it would not have been so easy for me to write.
A.A. That’s one of the things I was interested in because this was a significant departure from what you were normally writing about, specifically the Parsi community, and one can tell that that material comes out of your own experiences. I’m interested in how your own life fed into your writing.
B.S. Because I was isolated as a child due to polio, I hadn’t had much experience of life. But when I wrote, I felt that some inherited knowledge or inherited memory comes out, which we call the muse or what you like, and your subconscious plays a part. I wrote things that I was surprised I knew about. Basically where you come from in your writing is what you have experienced yourself, have internally absorbed as part of your adventure of life and I think that’s the best you can do… is writing about things that you know intimately.
In the beginning of ‘Cracking India’, it’s what I went through as a child but the child is not me. I’ve given the child the circumstances of my life: the constant being with servants and adults, not going to school and so having the chance to observe what’s happening around her and hear adult conversations. It acted as a very useful ploy for the book. My gosh… a child’s mind is so curious – you can’t deprive it of knowledge by not sending it to school! That’s why I read, read, read to make up for the slack. I had an Anglo-Indian lady who taught me very light geography and light history, but no maths (because I had no aptitude for it). She gave me ‘Little Women’ when I was eleven. That was what transformed my life. I had developed the ability to read and write by that time. The story fascinated me and after that I couldn’t stop reading.
A.A. Do you think that what appealed to you in ‘Little Women’ was the inherent strength of the characters that contrasted with the limits on your mobility?
B.S. Certainly. Whatever book I read, those characters became my role models. I adopted their traits, I drew strength from them. When I read the English classics, I was totally transformed into those characters. I read a lot of Victorian novels. The stronger the character, the more I was influenced, but without realizing it. I’ve only realized it now that you’ve mentioned it.
A.A. What’s next?
B.S. Five novels is a hell of a lot of writing, so I don’t have another novel in me. I’ve written a collection of short stories and it’s with the agent right now. Let’s see what happens.