It’s hard to not be in awe of author and mother of a four-year-old, Tina Biswas. As her third novel, ‘The Antagonists’ hits the stands, we caught up with the celebrated novelist to know more about her views on politics, how it influences the theme of her books and gain insights on the extremely demanding process of writing a novel that she goes through.
Unlike your first book (‘Dancing with the Two-Headed Tigress’), ‘The Red Road’ and ‘The Antagonist’ have a political theme to them. Was this a conscious shift to voice your opinions, politically?
“Well, my first book still had politics with a small ‘p’ – sexual politics, relationship politics, gender politics. But with my second book – which focuses on an actual political movement – there wasn’t a conscious shift as much as a gradual, organic move in direction about the next story I wanted to tell. I think even when I was working on my first book, this idea about the everyman teacher who joins the Naxalites was percolating. I had known about the Naxalites for a long time, as my uncle was in the movement. And then my third book, ‘The Antagonists’, lead on directly from the second in the sense that ‘The Red Road’ finishes in the 1970s and I just thought, ‘let’s see what has changed in West Bengal since then’ – especially now that the Communists have been kicked out after so long. Having said all of this, my books aren’t mouthpieces for my personal political opinions as much as they are explorations of my characters’ opinions – along with my observations on those.”
For me, growing up, it was rare for women to have strong political views, especially with the patriarchy holding a louder voice on everything related to politics. Of course, it is 2019 now and things are changing. I still find it hard to form my own political view without being influenced by the opinions of others. But for you, growing up, how has your mother (who was politically active) influenced you to have your own political voice and opinion?
“If you have a mother who is very interested in politics then you grow up with political discussion – at pretty much every dinner time! So, probably, at first, you take on your parent’s view because they are your main source of knowledge. But as you grow up, you are exposed to more sources of knowledge and a variety of opinions, from your teachers, to your friends, and from newspapers to books on political theory, and gradually your own convictions start to form. I don’t know see why one would need to form their own political view without being influenced by the opinions of others, I mean, you can’t pluck a political view out of nowhere, you have to realise that it’s frequently a function of your social milieu, your geography, your economic circumstances, your education level, all these sorts of things. I’m not a believer in a ‘pure’ political view, it’s always a bit of a hash, isn’t it! I still change my mind about things as I hear other people’s arguments and get new data points. Otherwise, I’d be dogmatic, which is just narrow-minded.”
How easy or daunting is it for you to write a book? Can you take us through your writing process — from research to writing to publishing?
“I think about a book for at least six months before I actually start writing. Characters first, always characters – everything about them, from where they grew up to what they look like to what they might say. And then a very loose plot, no details, just a vague sense of what storyline binds these characters together. None of this is written down, it’s all in my head. Then, when I decide to start writing, it’s quite funny: I’m always extremely excited about typing the title page, and then seconds later, I think, ‘Oh God, the first blank page. Horror.’ I’m not a procrastinator though, I will write something. It might be awful and something I will delete in its entirety but it starts the process off, and I’ve found that once you’re about ten pages in, you’re on your way.”
“I do research whilst I’m writing, and I do it pretty extensively, I like to have an eye for details. For ‘The Antagonists’ I remember reading a huge academic paper on longwall mining in India – just for one line! It might sound funny but I have no idea how long it’s taken me to write my three books, I completely lose track of when I start and when I finish, and how many hours I’m writing a day and that sort of thing. As for publishers and the stress of it, ask my editor, Garima! Actually, it wasn’t stressful at all with her, we had an absolute ball. She kept removing adverbs though and I kept putting them back in, so that was amusing. The stress, for me, comes from the stuff I have absolutely zero control over, like, why isn’t bookstore X stocking my novel!”
Are there any writers that you look up to and admire?
“‘Look up to’ implies for me a sort of moral judgement on the writer themselves, and I don’t really think of writers in terms of their personalities. But in terms of the writing itself, the writers I admire the most are V. S. Naipaul and Philip Roth. I think I’ve read pretty much every one of their books. Their writing is always brutally honest and funny and coruscating (both of the word’s meanings), although Roth’s prose is more muscular and swaggering, and Naipaul’s is much finer and more sharply rendered.”
Any tips for struggling writers/authors that you would like to share?
“Honestly? Don’t do it unless you love it. And I mean the kind of love where you think you can’t go on without writing. It is just such a tough, tough process and your commitment and tenacity and downright stubbornness have to be at Olympian level. If you mean ‘struggling’ as in writer’s block, then go and do something else, be it for a day, a week or a year. And whilst you’re doing that something else, a story will gradually seep into your brain, it always does. No point in sitting in front of a computer and making yourself miserable!”