I edited myself out of the book.

"I edited myself out of the book."

A conversation with Shubhangi Swarup

I haven’t had any such experiences. My most valiant attempts with language have been at capturing what it doesn’t. The silence. The unspoken. The truths buried in our hearts, that furrow in our brows and force us to smile out of the blue.

Flaws can be the first step towards uniqueness. What was initially a disjointed and disconnected way of telling a story, staccato almost, eventually became my strength. I wanted to use my first chapter in the application for a fellowship, so I shared it around for feedback before I did so. I was told that it lacked flow. This naturally upset me, so I shared it with my sister. She told me that if it doesn’t flow, it need not. Highlight the breaks by distancing the paragraphs. She also changed the placement of certain passages in a manner that created intrigue. I got the fellowship, and later, this transformed into the writing style of Latitudes of Longing.

There was one mistake that I consistently made, when I didn’t listen to the character or the story. The words on the page would freeze up when I tried to impose my will. I, as the author, cannot kill a character who wants to live, even in fiction. I cannot change the outcome of a story. Yes, I can write about it in whichever way I please, but I can’t change it.

Even though the struggle feels like your biggest reality, it isn’t. Embrace it all, go easy on yourself.

On my research trip to Myanmar, I contracted amoebiosis and bacterial dysentery at the same time, after which my digestion took a huge hit. I could only travel again if I maintained a frugal diet and lifestyle. Less than two months after hospitalization, I was up in the high passes and plateaus of Ladakh, with the added challenges high altitudes impose on the body. Researching the novel has been as big a physical challenge as an emotional one. I have taken 7 years and overcome so many rejections to publish this novel, the journey has already tested me deeply. If there was something that I could give up, I already have. My husband and I lived in my parents' house while I wrote the novel, because I needed all the support I could get.

There is an unspoken expectation for Indian English to be intellectual, eloquent, offering insights into the incomprehensible ugliness of poverty, caste, urbanism and patriarchy. I am not undermining the importance of such insights, I just don’t claim to have them. As for separating fact from fiction, the key is not to separate and label it, but use everything you can lay your hands on as fodder for the work.

I changed the narratives many times till it reached its final form, for something as simple as the placement of a passage or chapter can determine the emotional impact it has on the reader. I edited entire sections and chapters out of the book. I edited myself out of the book. There is a line in the novel where the character of Plato (a university student) tells his friend, ‘We can imagine god, god’s enemies, ideologies to fight over, but we can’t tell a single story of which we are not the centre.’ He calls it art’s biggest tragedy, and I call it one big challenge!

There were scenes that were emotionally very intense, like the one that involves a tsunami, or descriptions of torture meted out to a character, and his solitary confinement. I had to make a conscious effort to sit still and witness without flinching or breaking down. But the scene that was the most difficult in its writing was when Apo tells Ghazala stories under the tree. It needed the effortlessness and spontaneity it requires to fall in love. It also needed the wisdom of two very wise and ancient beings. This chapter may have not made it into the published work, and the final draft was when I nailed it. There is a line in the chapter, ‘the best stories are the ones that are still to come… close enough to hear, smell and admire. Yet out of reach.’ The line applies to my journey ahead as a writer, as much as it does to the characters.

No, but there are layers and characters that come through upon a re-read.