On page 111 of Open Couplets (2017), a character mysteriously observes – “Stories have holes in them for you to enter and change their course.” A little later, on page 122, we find the following line – “The essential thing about this story, or any story, is not how it ends but what becomes possible while it lasts.” Open Couplets itself is a narrative with plenty of holes, that is, there’s much here that remains unexplained. It is also an account that is more focussed on the process, the energy of the journey. It concludes and closes in silence, incompletely, amid a crowd, in the evening – with a protagonist who is still hungry…for even more stories.
At the heart of the novel is the uncanny tale of a three-century-old labyrinth – a bhul bhulaiya, as it is known in Hindi – with concentric circles and myriad passageways, ramifying and diverging paths, thousands of steep stairs and identical doors, a central vault, a well. Within the dark and stifling monument, unusual interactions take place, unimaginable transformations occur (a woman has a man’s name, a man develops the features of a woman). This Borgesian ingredient of the maze is, in a way, symbolic of the entire book. Multiple, varied themes, places, cultures and beliefs run through it – mythology, festivity, poetry, the relationship between economics and aesthetics, academia, sexism in art, the tension between creative freedom and politics, Hinduism, Islam, India, America, LGBTQI experiences. A reader can easily lose their way.
Open Couplets – the strangest novel that I have read since Wyl Menmuir’s Booker-longlisted The Many (2016) – is published by Yoda Press of New Delhi and is authored by Torsa Ghosal (@TorsaG) – originally from Kolkata, currently a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University specializing in media theory and post-1945s Anglophone literature from the US, the UK, and Canada. Ghosal is the Associate Editor of the bi-annual South Asian literary magazine, Papercuts. Her short stories, articles, and poems have appeared in venues such as Aaduna, Poydras Review, and Unsplendid in the US and Muse India, Himal Southasian and The Hindu BLink in South Asia. In the past, she has also been a freelance reporter for The Times of India’s Kolkata Mirror.
Part epistolary, part (fictional) interviews, and part regular third-person narration, the plot of Open Couplets revolves around Ira Chatterjee — a breezy, jet-setting ethnographer pursuing a doctorate in the “Midwestern La-La Land” of America. Her chosen subject of research is the idol-making community of Kumartuli (“potter’s quarter”) in north Kolkata. In those dingy lanes, Ira goes about looking for a young girl born to a family of idol-makers, who learnt and practised the art that had been reserved for her brother. This particular quest clashes with another adventure. Ira’s close friend Fasahat Zaidi – a gender-non-conforming poet and raconteur hailing from the city of Lucknow – who had been living with her in the US, suddenly goes missing.
Other figures are Rizwan, an LGBTQ activist, with whom Zaidi “has managed to fall in love”, and Fatima Ali, a controversial award-winning rising star of Urdu literature. She – the object of Rizwan’s obsession – exists only in descriptions. But who exactly is Fasahat? And who was Fatima? How do they connect with Rizwan? Furthermore, what is the relationship between Ira and Fasahat? Identities shift, the true nature of associations is difficult to unpack. As Ira finds herself deeper and deeper in the messy alleys filled with artisans and lifeless statues, she “dreams of walking amid mirrors”, hoping for clarity, perhaps wanting to see herself and everyone who has touched her life for what and who they really are.
At times confusing and abrupt, Open Couplets is a thought-provoking effort that announces the arrival of a notable literary talent. While the book celebrates unconventional lifestyles, it also pokes fun at them, and reveals to us their many pains, complexities and challenges.
I personally would like to see Torsa Ghosal capitalise on her significant ability to create Borgesian situations and produce a whole new novel or a collection of short stories full of more mazes, mirrors, dreams, and maybe libraries?
Read two excerpts –
A scene from the life of the female idol-maker of Kumartuli, Kolkata:
The dew settles on the rusty grill of the window. She was standing right there, holding the window’s grills, when a man – a foreigner as far as she could tell, having seen too many of them in these lanes around puja – clicked her photographer. They come to see how the artisans craft such huge models in these small and dirty workshops of Kumartuli.
Of course, there must be great artists in their far off countries but they have the space and time to sculpt. Here Baba sculpts models that reach up to the ceiling of the room in which he works. Even with his eyes closed Baba can draw the eyes of goddess. She ran downstairs to ask the photographer the name of the paper in which her photo will appear. But by the time she reached, the man was clicking children who were playing with marbles on the street. Talking to him would be awkward. Maybe her photo was printed somewhere, in some other country. Maybe not.
Ira Chatterjee mentions Fatima Ali in an email to Fasahat Zaidi:
I hadn’t watched the 24/7 News show when it was first aired but learned of it when a newspaper picked up something said on the show as a headline for its front page. In the collection of poems that had won Gutzwiller, Ali had apparently compared the formless Allah with eunuchs (though, as Riz would later explain to me, if one read past the enjambment, one would realize that Ali had actually written that eunuchs had Allah’s grace or something like that).
The experts on 24/7 News were two carefully curated politicians: one from the right-wing Hindu party, which was the primary political opposition in the Madhuban district at the time, and the other, the elected MP of the region, who did not spare opportunities to remind his audience that he was a staunch Sunni Muslim, who abided by the words of Allah and Allah alone. The host of the show summed up the gist of the poems and then asked the experts’ opinions. The host’s summary was the source of next day’s newspaper headline. The MP decided that the international recognition was actually an American conspiracy in the aftermath of 9/11. It was no coincidence that America applauded such anti-Islam poems. In the coverage that followed, we learned bits and pieces of information about Fatima Ali.
I had the opportunity of discussing the novel and its themes with the author. Here is our Q and A:
ME: Firstly, I would love to know your literary influences (both Indian and otherwise). Are you inspired by other forms of art? I loved your use of architectural details, labyrinths, doors, stairs, also the overall ambiguity in your work. Is there a certain literary tradition from where you derive such a way of storytelling?
TG: As a student of literature, I have been exposed to a variety of literary traditions in English and other European languages as well as in my vernacular, Bengali. This makes it difficult to pinpoint specific influences. In general, I’m drawn to postmodernist aesthetic strategies in literature and that perhaps accounts for the ambiguities you find in the novel. I like to read stories that demand something of their readers–that flaunt the awareness that readers will make sense of the story using their experiences–and as a writer I tried writing the kind of story I like to read.
Now labyrinths and mazes have existed in fables and myths (e.g: the Minotaur lives in a labyrinth in the Greek myth) but authors writing in the twentieth century have turned to these and other spaces, not only as setting for their stories but as templates for structuring their stories. Many postmodernist authors also use procedural forms for shaping their novels. I am thinking of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Jorges Luis Borges’ short fictions [already mentioned above], and so on. What I’ve taken away from reading these authors and also the poets I admire is the importance of form–not simply at the level of choosing genre or deciding on specific words and phrases but the need to attain an overall symmetry through writing.
At the same time, I did not want to write a novel that was merely exhibiting self-consciousness about being a work of art–you know, writing that is only about writing and nothing else can make for tiresome reading. And, the impulse for writing the novel actually did not come from any literary work I was reading at the time but from my long-standing relations with the community of the idol-makers in Kolkata, on the one hand, and my social circle that often comprised authors and artists within college and university settings, on the other. So, in that sense, my desire for writing the novel was prompted by my need to understand the lives around me rather than my interest in engaging with any particular literary tradition.
ME: What are your thoughts on the LGBTQI community in India? How must they be accommodated? Did you personally meet up with gender-non-conforming individuals while researching for this book? What/who inspired you to create a character like Fasahat Zaidi?
TG: From decriminalization of same-sex intercourse [Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code] to offering equitable opportunities to gender non-conforming individuals, not only from the upper classes/ privileged families but also those from lower classes, there’s a lot we need to do legally, politically, and socially as allies or members of the LGBTQI community in India. In Open Couplets, though Fasahat is perhaps the most striking example of gender non-conformity, every character bends or questions gender roles.
This is not a novel where most characters live normative lives and then one person transgresses and comes out. On the other hand, I remain interested in how every day even the most ordinary and seemingly conforming characters nurse desires that do not fit into the template of heteronormativity. Queer friendships rather than the typical desi family informs the core values of the novel. It is also not about the oppressions or struggles–though the novel acknowledges these struggles–but about the pleasures of not conforming. I did not have to do any extensive research for this because my experiences and friendships allowed me to imagine the different characters, including Fasahat.
ME: I liked how you effortlessly blend the artistic aspects of Hindu and Muslim cultures in the story. How do you think they influence or relate to each other in India?
TG: In the places I’ve lived in India–Kolkata, Murshidabad, and very briefly, Delhi–I’ve noticed that architecture, music, literature, and language bear traces of several different religious cultures. Of course, in popular discourse today we see zealous efforts being made to invent “pure” histories for art forms, claiming a particular art form for a particular religion, but the moment we start digging deeper, this superficial purity gives way to a mosaic. Whether it is folk music–say, baul music that has elements of Sufism–or the so-called classical dance forms–say, Kathak that was influenced by the Muslim patrons of Lucknow as well as the Hindu-majority cultures of Jaipur and Benares–, the mingling of cultural practices has been constant.
Moreover, religious practices in India vary according to sects, ethnicities, regions, and the like. Even within Bengal, the ways in which strands of Islam interacted with Hinduism in the various parts of Murshidabad were very different from the cultures I came across in Kolkata. So, I think, different religious practices keep influencing one another in India, but for various reasons–political and otherwise–people sometimes insist on erasing or ignoring the influences of one religious culture on another.
ME: Academia plays a huge role in the novel. As you are doing a Ph.D. yourself, what do you think about the current state of research, particularly in the humanities? I constantly hear very negative stories on how difficult it is – lack of funding, yes, but also that the emphasis on narrow specialisation makes it hard for scholars to land jobs.
TG: A character such as Ira who is both sensitive and thoughtful and yet, not always the most perceptive in day to day life exemplifies certain tendencies I encounter within academia, particularly the humanities. I know I’m generalizing here but what I mean is that the culture in humanities departments is such that one can remain trapped in its echo chambers and feel quite self-righteous about it all. Yet, despite many shortcomings, humanities departments still offer environments that allow one to think in ways that might not have been tenable otherwise, and allow one to appreciate and create things (here, I am thinking of art) that might be deemed “useless” and unproductive by others and hence, not job-worthy or worthy of high salaries.
I came to the US for pursuing my Ph.D. degree and the grad school experiences in the novel also refer to the academia in the US quite often. In that sense, my being in grad school certainly informs some of the novel’s preoccupations but the primary reason academia plays a central role in the novel is because in the present-day, it is the universities that often act as “patrons” of authors and artists in ways that parallel the practices of the landholding babus who brought the idol-makers to Kumartuli or the Nawabs who employed court poets. It is not as if any of these patrons necessarily bestow a lot of money on the artists (and not all artists depend on such patrons) but in an economy that otherwise does not accommodate anything that is not overly useful or has already accumulated cultural capital, these are often the only sources one can tap for sustenance.
ME: Finally, what are your thoughts on contemporary Indian writing in English? Who are some of the authors you like (whether based in India or abroad)? What more, do you think, needs to be done in this area? What all subjects/issues, according to you, should the authors try to explore and address?
TG: Indian writings in English are rich and diverse and given that I edit a literary magazine–Papercuts–I read a lot of emerging South Asian authors alongside the well-known ones and I love to see how the vernaculars of the authors inform their uses of English, the way desi sayings and idioms make their way into English. Of authors writing in the mid- to late-twentieth century, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali is someone I keep returning to and G V Desani’s All about H. Hatterr is a novel I recently enjoyed re-reading. There are also several South Asian authors currently writing in English who I like to read–too many to list. At present, I am reading Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions and liking it a lot.
Check out fiction from other contemporary Indian writers (based in India and abroad) featured on this blog: Kanishk Tharoor (Swimmer Among the Stars), Sharanya Manivannan (The High Priestess Never Marries), Karan Mahajan (The Association of Small Bombs) and Janice Pariat (Boats on Land, Seahorse).