There’s plenty of literature themed around the notion of quests – one could even argue that the genesis of the novel is steeped in exactly that. There’s also plenty of literature centred around form – you could spend a lifetime studying structure in fiction and still not be done (indeed some do!). But to chance upon a book that embraces both story and form in a manner that makes it a compelling read – now that is truly special.
Open Couplets follows Ira, an Indian ethnographer living in the Midwest, who is in search of a girl from a once-upon-a-time fable, an idol-maker who had defied traditions to sculpt Durga, many Durgas, in the lanes of north Kolkata’s Kumartuli. And just as you bid the goddess farewell only to welcome her once again next year, Ira too seems to be lost in a cyclical labyrinth. Perhaps she only needs to learn that loss and renewal are two sides of the same coin.
But this is not a book that pulls you down with philosophy – that is left to the reader’s interpretations – it is in fact one that mirrors all the distractions of life as we know it today, not indulging you with leisure as you once understood it. The back-and-forth emails, texts – replete with emojis – interspersed with rambling interview transcripts, which cut to flashbacks of fables from another era, ensure that you, the reader, too are circling a maze in your own mind.
It’s also what makes this a clever, quick read, incidentally – but beware! Read it too fast and you’re bound to miss meaning. Then again, you could always read it again. That’s what I’d recommend.
Open Couplets (Yoda Press, 2017) is available on Amazon here.
Process, pain, pleasure – all in a day’s work for creators of fiction! I interviewed Papercuts Associate Editor Torsa Ghosal to discuss her debut novel Open Couplets – a beautiful symphony of stories, blending the past, present, and future and told in an edgy storytelling style.
Pooja Pande (PP): What would you identify as the germ of the book, which triggered the writing impulse? What led you to know/believe that this was a book? Also, what was the ‘this’?
Torsa Ghosal (TG): For me, the “this” was “idol making” as a process in the broadest possible sense. Of course, several characters in Open Couplets are idol-makers, but even beyond that, I was fascinated by the idea of what making an idol means, given that idol not only implies the representation or image of gods but also means a person who is revered. So, the interwoven narratives are about making idols from clay, on the one hand, and making idols out of people, out of flesh-and-blood, on the other.
I began the first draft on 14th November 2014—the date on the first email in the novel and I wrote the first few paragraphs to revisit Kumartuli through memory and imagination. There was no particular reason as to why I did that as far as I can recall now other than the fact that I had not been to Kolkata and India in a while and yearned for it. At the same time, I did not want to write a desi-expat novel that does little more than indulge in nostalgia for pickles drying on terraces!
The germ for Open Couplets must have been sown sometime between 2009 and 2011. I had interviewed several idol-makers in Kumartuli, first for a research project at Jadavpur University, and then, for a feature I was writing for The Times of India’s ‘Kolkata Mirror’ website. In hindsight, my interactions with the idol-makers for these two assignments seem to be where it all started.
Or at least, that’s the starting point that is easier to locate.
There are other beginnings as well—I spent the first two years of my life and many a childhood vacation in Kumartuli, close to the idol-making community, and if the interviews are where my intellectual journey starts, the lived experiences of playing with clay in the idol-makers’ workshops set in motion the emotional journey. My personal connection with the place and the people as well as my memories ultimately shaped Open Couplets. I did not know this was a book until I had written the first draft, read it all at once, and did not dislike what I read—I’ve written novellas in the past only to delete them from my laptop and the face of the earth.
PP: Fasahat, Ira, Riz, Pratima – Which was the easiest character to flesh out, and who was the most challenging? Also, since you must have “lived” with them during the writing process, who do you miss the most now? And who are you grateful finally left!
TG: Pratima and Ira were the easiest to write. I felt I knew Pratima and could access her thoughts from the get go. Ira was also quite easy to write simply because she felt like someone I know or could’ve known. Fasahat was the most fascinating, of course, and the character I miss the most now that the world of Open Couplets is behind me.
Writing characters (apart from Pratima) in Open Couplets meant that I had to be able to write like them. After all, Ira, Fasahat, and Riz are present in the novel through the emails they write one another. Fasahat was interesting to flesh out because Ira understands him a certain way, writes about him in her emails, Riz also writes about him, and then, Fasahat also writes emails plus we know he is a writer—these bits about him needed to add up and yet, leave enough cracks in the picture. Without the cracks, the end would not make sense. Then, again, if Ira and Riz did not have some earnest means of relating with Fasahat, they would not come across as intelligent and compelling characters.
All the characters in Open Couplets want to establish some form of connection with one another, recall people they knew, record histories of places they’ve been.
Riz was also challenging but for other reasons. He had this stable value system and his journey was not as dramatic as say, Fasahat’s or Pratima’s. His ordinariness made him difficult—I could not give him the kind of self-conscious diction that Fasahat had. So, fleshing him out without having some very distinctive feature to fall back on made the process challenging and in that sense, I am glad I don’t have to write Riz or write like Riz anymore.
PP: Although the novel favours fragmentation in a sense – structure, storytelling, timeline – I feel there is a stable centre to it. Would you choose to (dis)agree? Also, how would you describe the centre, if you do agree?
TG: I would agree, but I would be curious to know what you thought was the centre!
I happen to feel there were multiple overlapping centres. Of course, the process of idol-making as I already mentioned was a central concern and conceit. Along with that are the fundamental desires to reach out, record, and remember. These desires prompt any form of communication, including emails, interviews, and storytelling, in general. All the characters in Open Couplets want to establish some form of connection with one another, recall people they knew, record histories of places they’ve been. So, that’s what drives them in the novel and these also prompted me to write the novel.
PP: Unfair question alert! Isn’t the play with structure intrinsically linked to the theme(s) that Open Couplets explores? Would you say the form was an organic choice? Or did one follow the other, so to speak?
TG: Yes, and that’s a fair observation. The choice of form was organic in the sense that the story did not exist independent of this fragmented form—even in my head. That is, however, not to say I had it all figured out from the beginning. I wrote what is now the first chapter and the prologue and then tried to work out a “plan” of how to bring the characters I’d set up together. This plan included the intersecting character arcs and I tried to stick to these arcs as much as possible.
But the actual process of writing the remaining chapters led to multiple discoveries and several rounds of revisions followed. One major round of revision was formal: quite a few of the emails had earlier been chat transcripts. When I turned them into emails, I noticed some ideas and moments that were coming across really well through the transcripts were not finding their place in the emails. The emails took characters to places they hadn’t been earlier. The process, in fact, convinced me that no thematic content can be independent of form and vice-versa.
PP: Several, if not all, novelists have a great feel for an art/form apart from writing – it could be film, theatre, music, art. What’s yours?
TG: Performing arts, especially dance, have always been vital to my imagination. I trained in Kathak for over a decade and have also been interested in theatre and films. Kathak exposed me to a particular kind of storytelling: I remember performing these set pieces that told sections of the same story (say, Radha’s journey in search of Krishna on a stormy night) over and over and in the longer recitals; each dancer could play multiple characters or sometimes, the same character would be played by multiple dancers. Kathak is close to poetry, given that it is full of well-chiselled images and vignettes, but these vignettes also culminate in stories we know. It is a form of storytelling that does not care for verisimilitude in the way films or theatre do. I would say that my understanding of these similarities and differences among dance, films, and theatre contribute to the way I think and the aesthetic choices I make while writing.
PP: We can’t conclude an interview on a novel without speaking of the reader’s role – especially one like yours. There are so many ways to read Open Couplets: In one reading I did, it was a city novel. In another, it was purely interested in gender dynamics and the unravelling of them, in a way. I’m curious to know who is the reader in your head? Did you imagine one?
TG: The one reader I could write for was me. I find no creative satisfaction in guessing what anyone else would like to read and fulfilling those expectations. If at all anything, I find pleasure in disrupting and disturbing expectations. So, I thought if I can enjoy reading the book I’ve written, then perhaps the book will find other readers like me—with similar interests and a taste for the disruptive.
I do not think all stories entertain us in the same way. There’s no single template to follow. A novel that requires readers to figure things out as they go offers its own kind of pleasure.
These thoughts though were still afterthoughts that occurred when I began drafting a cover letter to send my manuscript to publishers. Come to think of it, the publisher is one of the first actual readers who the story reaches. I sent my manuscript to Arpita (of Yoda Press) at a time when they hadn’t launched their fiction series because, having read several Yoda Press titles on cities, gender, and sexuality, I felt Arpita might just be the kind of reader who appreciates narratives that do not conform.
PP: And as a follow-up question to that, did you ever wonder about the lazy reader, arguably a growing population today numbed by GoT binge-watching?
TG: I wondered, around the time the book was launched. To begin with, I did not ever want Open Couplets to be the racy, pacy read of the summer. And that’s not because I look down upon the racy, pacy—I’ve binge-watched GoT and Amber and Ira in the novel do the same.
It’s just that I do not think all stories entertain us in the same way. There’s no single template to follow. A novel that requires readers to figure things out as they go offers its own kind of pleasure. Having said that, when Open Couplets had just released I would have acquaintances admit they don’t read a lot and ask me what my book is about and where they can buy it in the same breath. I would give them my spiel while wondering if I should also tell them how (intentionally) fragmented it is and that it demands something of readers.
I’m glad I didn’t because over the past few months, I’ve been thrilled and pleasantly surprised to learn how different readers have made sense of the novel and its ending. Certain readers might be more perceptive and so, able to pick up on more nuances or references than others, but readers will make meaning—however benumbed they be.
Open Couplets (Yoda Press, 2017) is available on Amazon here.
Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor for Papercuts magazine.