The Indian Authors brings to you an interview with Dr Prema Raghavan who has made her debut in the field of fiction writing with Eve in the Land of Kali, a collection of short stories. In her book, a striking feature which stands out is giving space to female protagonists and also giving them the lead role. Prema Ragahavn’s writing is literary in style and contemporary in terms of relevance. She writes about working women, suffocating women, the life of a woman from childhood to maternity, struggling women and so on. Her work has been praised by the readers as well as received warmly by the critics. Many have praised her beautiful language and many have talked about the courageous characters. In this conversation with Amit Mishra, Dr Prema has discussed many things about her debut book, her writing and also literature. Enjoy this interview and do share it with the ones who might cherish reading literary stuff!
Amit Mishra: Let’s begin this conversation with the genre itself, Prema! How do you see both the genres, side by side – short story and novel? How is one different from another? Or are both just the same, one being an extension of the other.
Dr Prema Raghavan: There are some conventions which separate a short story from a novel. A short story has to be of a length which a reader can complete at one sitting. A novella would be a narrative of about a hundred pages, and a novel would be longer than the novella. Conventions, of course, are not always followed.
In a short story, the author attempts to capture epiphanic moments, which change the life or worldview of the protagonist. The term ‘epiphany’ is used for sudden insight or realisation, leading to the change. There are usually no subplots. Characterisation, while being detailed, is limited to a few. Minor characters are delineated only in relation to the main character. The timeline can range from a day to an extended period in the protagonist’s life.
A novel provides a larger canvas and the scope for different storylines to mesh into a comprehensive whole. The author can use various points of view and move back and forth in time, ranging over centuries sometimes, in the course of the narrative. Can a short story be extended into a novel? I think not.
Amit Mishra: How do you explain the title of your maiden short story collection, Prema? Eve being mentioned along with Kali can convey many interesting ideas. What is the version you want the readers to know and think about?
Dr Prema Raghavan: In Judeo-Christian traditions, Adam and Eve are the first man and woman created by God. Tempted by Satan, Eve persuades Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, an act causing their banishment from Paradise. Adam falls from the grace of God, and Eve becomes an accomplice of the devil. Eve, created out of a rib of Adam, exists solely for his pleasure. She has no identity, apart from him. You can view her as a scapegoat, or a provoked woman. She defies the decree of God to prove she is not powerless and gets punished. In this narrative, Eve is denounced and held responsible for the downfall of Adam and the loss of Paradise.
In common parlance, Eve has come to represent the female gender. The term ‘Eve’ in the title stands for being female, with all that it connotes in the biblical story. ‘The land of Kali’ is India, the land where Kali, the Mother Goddess is worshipped. Kali is Shakti, a powerful force and a destroyer of demoniac forces. On the surface, it does seem that Eve, a woman, would be empowered in a country that worships the boundless, free and combative spirit of Kali. Eve in the Land of Kali explores the multiple realities of the everyday life of women in India. It simultaneously celebrates their indomitable spirit.
Amit Mishra: You have used symbolic imagery in your anthology of short stories Eve in the Land of Kali? Can you explain them for the benefit of the readers?
Dr Prema Raghavan: Symbolic imagery adds depth to stories. Certain ideas are associated with a symbol. Take, for example, purity or virginity, and the association with the colour white. Symbols suggest a hidden meaning beyond the actual lines of the text. I have used symbolic imagery in several short stories, in the anthology you mentioned. The story, The Magpie Robins, changes from being about the birds and becomes an expression of a deep, personal sense of loss which many women experience when their children leave home. It includes feelings of futility, a sense of being marginalised and an awareness of the biological clock ticking away relentlessly.
There are frequent references to the long, lustrous tresses of women in many stories in the collection. It is believed that a woman’s hair adds to her charm; therefore, we have the expression ‘crowning glory’. Several cultures require a woman to cover her head so that her hair remains hidden from view, thereby making her less seductive. Woman, the siren or the temptress, is rendered unsexed by the loss of her hair. The practice of tonsuring the hair of widows is an attempt to make them unattractive to the male gaze. Long, flowing hair thus becomes a potent symbol of femininity.
In several other places, there are references to Indian cuisine. Food is central to all human cultures, and the preparation of a particular dish is almost a sacred rite. In The Homecoming, the preparation of ladoos for the grandfather is a nurturing act, an act of love. In A Suitable Match, the food Mridula prepares becomes an alienating feature separating her universe from the one occupied by Sahana.
Amit Mishra: When you first thought of a collection of short stories, did it ever occur to you how the characters should be? How did you model your protagonists, Prema?
Dr Prema Raghavan: I am glad you asked this. My stories sound authentic is a frequent remark made by readers. That is because they are based either on real-life experiences or on people whose lives have brushed past mine. Sometimes, I borrow nuggets from the lives of different people and weave it into a story embellished by my imagination.
The ‘other woman’ is a much-reviled character. Have I met Smitha, the protagonist of A Moment in Time? Not necessarily, though I may have got the whiff of a story. I have seen how dehumanising matchmaking in India is and the loneliness of being single. In an extra-marital affair, people blame the woman involved, accusing her of being a marriage breaker. I wanted to show her as both vulnerable and worthy of respect or at least of the reader’s sympathy.
Sometimes I would begin a story, and an outcome would follow which I had not planned. In A Suitable Match, I was not sure whether Sahana would break up with Yashas. Sahana made a decision which grew out of her character. That decision, evolving as it did from the circumstance in which she found herself, was not anticipated by me.
Amit: Works depicting women issues are being popular these days. As a professor, how do you view this rise of ‘feminism’ in Indian literature? If asked, would you like your name to be associated with such a movement?
Dr Prema: There has been a robust tradition of feminist writings in Indian literature. Feminism represents a challenge against oppression. In India, this oppression is manifold, with caste and economic status compounding both subtle forms of suppression and unimaginable atrocities. Sexual liberation finds voice in writers like Kamala Das, both in her autobiography My Story and The Sandal Trees. The Urdu writer, Ismat Chughtai, caused a stir with the short story The Quilt that subtly hints at autoeroticism and lesbian lovemaking. She even had a case of obscenity slapped against her. Some contemporary writers have exploded into the world with works which celebrate feminine sexuality, still a taboo except within the pages of a book. The aesthetic sensibilities present in the lesbian poetry of Adrienne Riche and the challenge posed to heterosexuality in Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm may soon follow. Perhaps, they already have in feminist writings in regional literature, emerging in multilingual India.
I am a campaigner for the rights of women. However, the feminism I believe in does not exclude men. It is about the freedom to make choices and equal opportunities. I do not think I want to confine myself to any specific genre of writing.
Amit: In your recent interview published on Author Interviews, you have raised a question, very thought-provocative one, about India as a country for women. As a woman and also as a woman who reads, writes and teaches something as wonderful as literature, what do you think we need to do to make India even better for women?
Dr Prema: India at present is not the best country for women. Not so long as rapes and dowry-deaths abound. In our country, a woman is glorified as a mother, the mother of a male child. Look at the skewed sex-ratio in many states of India. Our girl children have disappeared with the sex-selective abortions. With men not being able to find suitable partners, predation is on the rise. The land of Kamasutra is now occupied by hypocrites who think of sex as degrading. Yet, India is the rape capital of the world! The Oedipal complex manifests itself in only two roles being stipulated for a woman. She exists either as Madonna or a fallen woman. There are no shades of grey.
The segregation of female and male from the earliest years contributes to this sordid state of affairs. If allowed to mingle, men would learn to view women as being people like themselves. Women would no longer exist as mere objects for sexual gratification or idols placed on a pedestal.
What can we do? Plenty. For a start, celebrate the birth of a girl child. As of now, they are a ‘threatened species’.
Amit: Since your short story collection portrays a glimpse of sexual harassment that women usually face in various forms and magnitudes, Dr Prema, how do you view the Bollywood culture? Has the Indian cinema lived up to its ideals of setting better precedents in Indian society?
Dr Prema: Bollywood has come a long way from, ‘boy teases girl, boy gets girl formula’. There are some women-centric movies released in 2020 which are worth watching. Thappad, for instance, takes a good look at marital relationships as does Shakuntala Devi.
Women get paid equally everywhere except in Bollywood and as manual labourers. That says it all. Murky depths, women have to traverse on their way to securing better visibility, does not exist in Bollywood alone. The ‘me too’ movement had supporters from all professions and walks of life.
Amit: Your debut book, fiction, has been praised and received very well by critics and readers for a compelling narrative that presents the realistic image of women and their issues in India. Would you like to do a full-length novel with a women-centric theme in future?
Dr Prema: I am grateful for all the praise and support that I have received for Eve in the Land of Kali. The novel that I am writing is not women-centric in the way the short stories were. The plot is primarily that of a quest. At this juncture, I cannot say more. I am a woman first and an author later, so I guess the novel will have strong women characters and the men they consort with, will compel attention.
Amit: What is your advice to those women who want to write? Rarely but it happens, a few women authors, in enthusiasm and anticipation, overdrive on the course of presenting women issues. What’s your suggestion to the emerging women authors?
Dr Prema: Unsolicited advice is never well-received. Joking apart, just make a beginning and the rest will follow. Do not imitate; develop your own style. You have nothing to lose…the world is your oyster.
The Indian Authors is delighted to host Dr Prema Raghavan and wishes her the best for her continued journey in the field of writing.