Interview: Manu Bhattathiri

Interview with Manu Bhattathiri, the author of Savithri's Special Room and Other Stories. He was also a finalist for the Tata Lit Live! First Book Award for fiction.

ELJ: A quote from Haruki Murakami says, ‘My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart.’ Your thoughts on the subject, please?


MB: I would say my stories are more like faint smiles. Not loud guffaws or giggles. They are the way I smile, often fondly, at people and birds and trees and souls. So they are a response to the way I look out at the world, and the way the world makes me feel.

ELJ: Your work has been widely compared with RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. How/what do you feel about the comparison? Which other authors were your major influences while you were writing this collection? Was it a conscious choice to do interlinked stories?


MB: Here comes a revelation – I am yet to read Malgudi Days. It is a great honour to be compared with such a legend, but I cannot claim the faintest connection. At the time of writing Savithri, I think I was reading War and Peace, with some Carl Sagan in between. But I like to think that my inspiration is more the little village of Cherupoika in Kerala, where I used to spend my vacations with my grandparents.

I have really indulged with many of my characters – gone into their heads and made a lot of jokes there. Which is perhaps why they kept recurring throughout the book, and these became interlinked stories. For a long while into the writing, I was even wondering if this might become a novel finally.


ELJ: Do tell us something about the place where you grew up and how it has influenced your writing. Do you thing geography plays a major role? Why did you choose a fictitious town?


MB: While Karuthupuzha is modelled on Cherupoika Village, and the nearby towns, I did not live in these places for long. Thanks to my father’s work we were, for most of my childhood, in the north – Kashmir, Arunachal and Assam – and then largely in Bangalore. Perhaps that’s why the tiny places of Kerala make me dream so. I used to look forward to my holidays, which were an amalgam of adventure, love and the mythological stories from my grandpa. Places, as much as people, form and prune the landscape of the mind.

Why a fictitious town? Well, to be honest, I am terrified of having to be accurate. If my town is a real one, I’m bound to make factual mistakes, anachronisms and other embarrassing errors. A fictitious town frees my mind from the need to be factually right. It helps me create whatever I want.


ELJ: Do tell us something about your childhood. Did you ever think of being a writer when you were still a child?

MB: Actually, I wanted to be doctor. It was very misplaced, as I later realized, because I was a dreamer and I always lacked the grit and focus required to make it in a competitive exam.

My childhood was fed on two things: the million books I read and the million stories grandpa told me. Though I never dreamed that I would be a writer, I think given these there was little else I could have been.


ELJ: Characters such as Murali, Eeppachan Mothalali and even Acchu and Shanta are quite complex, though they look simple enough on the surface. How did you achieve this rare balance of the simple and the complex in your writing?


MB: Well, I begin with the simple enough intent to depict a person from the outside, often just humorously and little else. But I feel that as I write I go closer and closer into that person, in spite of me. The process of writing seems to give me newer insights into my own characters. They move about in my mind and fill themselves out. It’s beautiful! It’s a happy chance, I think, because in life, too, people are far deeper than what they say or do.


ELJ: What made you choose to write about the era of innocence (characters, setting, plots) that we see in Savithri’s Special Room? Given that you were a journalist and hence more in touch with the dirty reality of today than most, it was an unusual choice to make, wasn’t it?


MB: I think the dirt of today’s reality is only on the surface. Deeper inside people still are beautiful. But indeed, the surface dirt does mar the deeper view considerably. If I am to pick today’s folks, I would need to expend a lot of energy in guiding past the numerous unnecessary philosophies, politics, arguments, trends and fashions, before finally getting to the real person. Go back to my childhood – the 80s – and you have people who are simple but not shallow. Their struggles, conflicts, confusions, tendencies, biases, tastes and mistakes are lovely to watch and to paint.


ELJ: Do you plan to write fiction – shorts stories or a novel – based in today’s India? If so, how will it be different (from your POV)? Also, do tell us about your next book and what it is about.


MB: Yes, I am already scribbling some stuff about the present times. Especially about city life. I am particularly interested in life in college and at work. Humor is everywhere, so it’ll be a pleasure to explore. For instance, I might look at a bar waiter’s hatred for drunken philosophers. Or I might dream up an auto-driver trying to overcome laziness in the afternoons to earn a living. Better still, I might wonder what would happen if a character like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot – Prince Myshkin – were to work in an ad agency in Bangalore. I believe that the same magic of Karuthupuzha is indeed extendable to the rut of the city, if I can open a window here.

My next book is a novel. It’s again set in Karuthupuzha. It will have certain characters from Savithri and some new ones. You’ll find the same humor in it but deeper characterization (because a novel affords greater room for exploration), some pathos and certain glimpses into my own mind.


ELJ: It is very difficult to choose a favorite story or a favorite character from Savithri’s Special Room. Which stories and characters are your favoUrite and why?


MB: My most ambitious character has been Murali, because he is one man I myself cannot entirely read. He is modelled on a person I know, who I continue to study. About stories, my personal favourite would be ‘Music and Love’, simply because it was a challenge for me to write. A friend in fact challenged me to try a romantic story, knowing how much I hate filmy drama. When I began it I never thought I would pull it off. ‘Rationalist’ is another favourite.


ELJ: Where do you think your sense of humor comes from?


MB: I am very, very serious about humour. I believe humour is above the law and even above god. Nothing is beyond the scope of a great joke! I get very upset when people do not get the joke or when they put conditions on it. I think it is simply this passion that sources my humour. When I look at people closely enough, I see humour without requiring them to slip on a banana peel. Their follies, habits, limitations, emotions resonate with my own and then I feel empathetic and funny at the same time.


ELJ: You have consciously stayed away from politics/political comment in your stories. Why?


MB: My agenda, in my writing, is simply to entertain. If, in the process, I make you funnier, kinder and deeper, I would be very happy. But I certainly am not trying to make you see things my way. Which is why, though I have strong political views (that keep changing from time to time, nonetheless), I haven’t used the stories to convey them. I cannot say that this is how my future writings will be, too. But for now, enjoy your stay in Karuthupuzha, without having to wonder which way this little black river flows.