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Stories Spanning Generations

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Would you read an anthology about the lives of women in contemporary India? Anindra Siqueira talks to author Rita Joshi about her book The Simla Paintings and Other Stories

At first glance The Simla Paintings and Other Stories seems like the Indian version of classic British tales about the lives of women in the 1800s and early 1900s — think Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. However, it’s not quite the same. The book is a collection of stories about women, which are played out in colonial India and modern day Delhi. The tales have a spin of humour to them as they tell of how women struggle to cope with and survive in traditional society. We caught up with author Rita Joshi to learn more about the book and her method.

How long has The Simla Paintings and Other Stories been in the offing?
The stories have been written over many years — as and when a story struck me. The story, The Simla Paintings, was written at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, where I was an associate over ten years ago. The Case of The Missing Necklace was written early last year on lazy afternoons when I was holidaying in Port Blair. I did not really set out to be a writer, but when I found that I had written a small collection, I decided to publish it.

Tell us about the book. What makes it interesting?
The Simla Paintings and Other Stories depicts the dilemmas of women in contemporary Indian society. Most readers would identify with the characters and situations portrayed in the book. Also, each story begins with a crisis, unraveling the mystery as it goes along. There is also a lot of humour and there are comical characters too — the astrologer Mahadev, Tina of Startrack Magazine in Curtain Call and the character MW in Awakening are a few comical characters.

Where did you draw inspiration from for the book? What sort of research did you have to do?
I have been involved with theatre and teaching. These experiences weave themselves into my stories. Several characters in the stories are academicians. At the IIAS, Shimla, I researched the history of colonial Simla, which forms the context of The Simla Paintings. The Goddess is based on the living goddess tradition in Nepal. I teach in a women’s college and have been a British Council scholar to Cambridge in England and have directed plays. These experiences figure in the last story, Awakening. Depression and mental health issues are very important today — hence the story Curtain Call on the touchy subject of suicide.

The style of my writing has also been inspired by films that I have seen. The idea of several perspectives and different points of view on a single event, creating complexity of interpretation in the story Curtain Call is inspired by Kurosawa’s classic Japanese film, Rashomon, where there are different versions to how a particular death occurred.

My stories are not autobiographical as such. My creative writing does have its roots in my observations and concerns, but is far beyond the autobiographical and is invented fiction.

What led you to choosing this theme? Is it close to your heart?
The book is inspired by my observation of women. The devaluing of women is something we see everywhere. Repression and silencing of women and the resistance to this by my fictional female characters forms the central pattern of the stories.

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