Saturday, 20 July 2013

Annie Zaidi and Fourteen Stories

Attended the book reading session of Love Stories #1 to 14 by its author Annie Zaidi at Lamakaan on 30-Jun-2013. The event was compered by Dr. Fatima Shahnaz.

The evening started off with Annie reading from the bucket story, and it’s about a woman watching a gecko, which Annie has to explain in the story, is a house lizard. There you go. The disconnect with the average reader starts right there. How easy is to attract an average reader into a woman’s story conveyed in pieces interspersed into her thoughts about the gecko? For people like me for whom a love story is a Sagara Sangamam, we sure get a page turner. Of course without reading more than four lines per page.

But the writer in person is a totally different ball game. The discussion went something like this: a staccato, overwrought philosophical question and a down-to-earth reply. Like you throw a heavy weapon at Annie and she passes it back with a simple forehand. Aw shucks, please excuse my awful metaphors - had someone shot the event and uploaded it to youtube, you would have seen for yourself what I mean. But there was no video shoot and there’s no video upload, so you will have to depend on my description of the event and the impressions I carried of it. Weapon and forehand combination, here goes.

She was asked about her childhood and key role models. Well, she grew up in Rajasthan mostly, studied there, and always had a lot of women in the house forming the world around her - mother, grand mother -- who, along with the family influence of intellectuals shaped her upbringing. She read voraciously. My take: on role models, thank God, she didn’t quote Ayn Rand or some other obscure yet fashionable-for-Mumbai-elite name that no one in Hyderabad would have heard of. Plus one to Annie.

Dr. Fatima referred to an article in which Annie wrote about her traumatic experience of leg fracture and how this led her to writing. Annie said it was not traumatic because she had two fractures before that. With every writer something has to happen in childhood that bonds them to reading. In order to be a writer you need to be a reader. Because of the fracture, she read and read and this eventually played a role in her becoming a writer.

The anchor said that Annie’s stories are a journey inwards. They are written mostly in 3rd person, and with no names. So how did the book come about? Annie replied that she wanted to write a script in order to make a video for the television. She talked to a friend who asked her do you really want to make a video. So she wrote one story in this style, it worked, so she wrote another story. And another. That led to the fourteen stories book.

The professor asked whether Annie wrote from real life experience. She laughed off, saying some of the stuff in the book is imaginary. Even when she borrowed from relationships that are real, the romances are imaginary. Annie also said you keep the romance and relationships in your head even when there is no real value. Or some such thing, my note-taking and recollection are not very good.

The interviewer stated that the characters are shown as living in two worlds, the inner and the outer, the subconscious comes strongly, and they survive life in dual planes. Anne replied that every individual is a survivor at some point or another. But she writes on normal themes. She grew up watching serials like Mungeri Lal Ke Haseen Sapne, she understands those stories and that the average person understands normal themes.

Dr. Fatima discussed the play, “So many socks” informing the audience that it is about displaced population in search of homeland. The connection she made was that the sense of belonging / alienation are there in relationships and social activism. Annie replied that experience in journalism and activism stand in good stead with each other (my wording here), and doesn’t care to separate both worlds.

The anchor referred to a story of men changing (their attitudes, of course) but I don’t remember which story it was about. Annie replied that the story actually is about the daughter and the story was about trust. She added that gender roles are changing; men and women are seeking out clarity about themselves and others.

Next point discussed was the projection of women and controlling them. The professor said that on one hand, women want to reject sexual objectification as depicted in photo shoots but on the other hand, as more and more women enter the workforce, they show conformism to modern standards of beauty. Annie’s tranquil reply: I really don’t know what to stay. The real conflict is about media projecting images. Technology like Photoshop strips reality off. If you never see the real woman, what can she conform to or rebel against. She added, women can also be selfish. If they rebel, the benefits go to the next generation. They cannot become valuable person accepted by society.

The author rounded off the point saying, objectification is an overused word. A lot of words are overused these days. If women are shown for selling products, it is called objectification; if only men are shown, it will be called stereotyping. This particular part of the interaction was the best part of the evening.

Annie said something about a friend telling about a woman about a man and she thought the friend was making up. This is all I can recollect, so this is the worst part of this blog post.

The professor continued with another point that women have to make compromises. I think the point was about arranged marriages. Annie said that a regular Indian girl goes with common sense and evaluates the pros and cons. It’s not exactly a compromise when she goes for an arranged marriage. Plus one to Annie again.

Dr. Fatima remarked that marrying outside the caste/community is so difficult and in rural areas it is not possible. The last point got my goat, as it was over generalization. 25 - 30 years ago in the rural areas that I grew up in, there were inter-caste marriages defying parents and community, and girls were eloping with boys outside their caste.

Two times - I think once on women making compromises and another on violence against women -- the anchor said this happens in U.S and other liberal societies also. I was wondering that as a society, we don’t need consolation prizes, do we?

My whole take on the interaction was that perhaps Dr. Fatima Shahnaz over-intellectualized the discussion. It would have been more appropriate for an academic setting or a literary festival, but this was an event open to the public. Also, the professor should have stuck to this book only, why veer into Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl.

Of course she covered a lot of ground bringing out contradictions in the characters, in the stories, and in real life. This naturally had the conversation veer into feminist writing / issues. Should it be so, that whenever there’s a discussion with a woman writer, it has to cover at least in part, feminist themes and writings? I thought it doesn’t have to. Another thought : Is there such a thing as a masculinist writing? Note to self : hold your horses, don’t write another paragraph on this, stick to Annie and her book event, and don’t do the very same thing that you accuse Dr. Shahnaz of.

One point of discomfort stuck in my mind, and I couldn’t just get it off, is that Annie is a non-fiction writer who wants to show she can write fiction too. (Disclosure: I haven’t read her much, much less her fiction.) During the last part, a brief Q&A session, I told this point to Annie.

Non-fiction is her comfort zone and she writes fiction like a writer whose forte is non-fiction. The brooding melancholy oeuvre of indirect dialogue is a testimony to this. I open a random page on her book and almost every time, it feels like I am looking at an essay, not a short story. It’s there: The paragraph is the unit of exposition. Every paragraph should start with a topical sentence. It should be of consistent size. Stuff that you get straight out of a text book on English grammar and composition, and implemented in essays more than in fiction writing.

Also, I couldn’t but help feel is that the stories are like extended character descriptions. With lesser emphasis on other elements of storytelling. Which is what happens when one’s comfort zone is non-fiction but dabbles in fiction. If readers and publishers have accepted her writing, perhaps she is able to do both. But for me it doesn’t look like she is still there. Maybe reached the stage of creative non-fiction. Not complete fiction. Like you have a sedan but want a sports utility vehicle. You make a SUV, but what you get out of it is a cross over. Aw shucks again, damn my awful similes.

After the discussion, the crowd took her signatures and talked to her on-to-one. She said she had no plans to write for the movies. When I asked if someone wants to make a short film of one of the stories in her book, which one would she recommend, she said the first one. This is the story that Dr. Fatima described as the story in which the protagonist reinvents herself and the idea of her man.

All stories are love stories. As I sat through all the discussion, this strange thought entered my mind. A story is a narration of the protagonist reaching a goal. The hurdles are set by a conflict, either external or internal. The conclusion is the theme and the story moves ahead with the protagonist having to reach the goal, which means s/he needs to have love for that goal.

I told this thought to Annie. She said no, countering that there are stories of hatred, I said then they are stories of love for hatred; she mentioned Animal Farm, which I could not relate to immediately, so I blurted it’s a novel; she said what about a story in which there is a group of people fighting for equality, I said, the story is about love for equality. Annie must have thought I am an idiot, but indulged me with poise: love stories are those having relationships like she had written in the book. Therefore implying she does not concur with my definition.

Whom does she keep in mind when she writes her fiction? Annie said none in particular. Her readers who gave feedback are from all over the country and from different age groups. So, I surmised to her, that she doesn’t write for a reader, but for herself. She kind of agreed to it, I think. Which is sad, if true.

My thought, which I didn’t tell her is : Write for me, the average reader, get me interested in the book with things that interest me. Chetan Bhagat seems to get our pulse. And make us reach our valet. I wish Annie would do that too and make more money than Chetan and Rashmi do together. I also hope that her characters will boil rice and cook curry, not fix them.

I asked what her definition of love was. After fourteen stories, I thought, she should have arrived at one, and would have been asked the question on other occasions too. She agreed, yes, she was asked the question, but our own philosophical pursuits, she leaves to us. I liked the answer though I didn’t understand the relation between her definition of love and my philosophical quest(s).

Before leaving, I took her autograph on my copy of the book. Annie signed - Hope you learn to like these, after all. I felt that was a bit condescending. “Begin” would have been better than “learn.” Maybe one day I will begin. Maybe one day she will understand my propositions too.

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