Interview with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: I’ve read about how you began this novel as a series of stories told in exchange for drinks. At what point did you realise that you had a novel in the works?

Siddharth: I was never conscious I could write a novel, but a close friend of mine in London was. She pointed it out to me (mainly because she knew that the idea of being a “novelist” never preoccupied my mind.) A story is an act of friendship or a gesture in a romance: that was how I looked at it, not in “novelistic” terms. And I don’t like this idea of the “author” as a singular. The creation and telling of a story is a communal act (so I guess it’s kind of tidy that my friends would ask tales from me, and one day, when I seemed to have enough, they had the acuity to suggest that within them lay the bones of a novel.) Would I write, they asked? That was the original question. And, Maggie, it still is.

Magdalena: Do any of these characters arise out of your own experience?

Siddharth: Characters are influenced by reality: as imagination is. But to believe that a Nandini or an Anuradha came from my life is misleading. In any case, since it’s fiction, what does it matter either way, right?

Magdalena: The novel itself is Shloka’s song isn’t it? Tell me more about this.

Siddharth: Unlike his father, Vardhmaan, who is unable to speak of his loss, Sholka is witness to the glorious ruin of their family, the slow, steady breakdown of everything until only the profound essence of things is left. And this is what he carries when he’s sent away to Australia. You have to transcend
experience to be able to tell it: to write from within experience is dangerous (it’s like that man stuck in quicksand speaking of how it feels like when he should really concentrate on getting out!) Because Sholka gets away from that house, he is able to fly, to find solace: this escape is as much his song as his story.

Magdalena: The novel begins with Mrs Patwardhan telling Anuradha that there is no mercy in this life. What kind of mercy does the The Last Song of Dusk
offer us?

Siddharth: I try not to code meaning into a story. A story belongs to the reader, and I don’t believe it’s my job to tell her that THIS is what THAT means. I’m sure she can do a much better job of unraveling meaning – of mercy or otherwise –
out of it. But speaking for myself, the mercy that Anuradha glimpses at the end is how unbearable mercy really is; it’s kindness that can kill you.

Magdalena: Were there any characters (or sections) that you found particularly difficult to write?

Siddharth: Everything is difficult to write; if it’s easy, it ain’t worth it. What I
can point out is that there are some sections I enjoyed writing more than others, and these included the party scenes of Nandini – I adore her brass! – and Anuradha’s conversations with Pallavi, particularly at the end when Pallavi is dying and Anuradha helps her find some kind of resolution and acceptance.

Magdalena: Do the comparisons with other great Indian novelists like Rushdie, Desai and Roy trouble you?

Siddharth: I think you have to be grateful for comparisions: but you never believe them. They’re well meaning but ultimately irrelevant compliments. (In any
case, if the influences in my writing could be identified, I would not write.) And to be honest, Maggie, I don’t find fiction – from anyone, Indian or otherwise – particularly inspiring; my inspiration comes more from photography and music. Only now do I find reader who tells me that a certain image reminds him of a photograph by Bresson – and then I blush.

Magdalena: You’ve said in an interview that our lives are burdened with a haunting sense of homelessness and a search for this mythical space called “home.” This is the original Odysseus sense of home as Ithaca isn’t it? Tell me more about this and how it plays out in your fiction.

Siddharth: It’s really a subject I’ve been thinking about more so because I’m living it: the process of publication has taken me to three continents, and I’ve been flitting from city to city, and so often I find myself wondering: Where is home? Does it exist? There were nights, Maggie, that I felt myself split from sadness as I spent yet another night in some anonymous room, in some anonymous city . . .but then before long, you unlearn what you hold true: the heart seeks meaning, seeks intimacy with a few; life, on the other hand, provides little meaning, but it allows intimacy with all if you’re open enough to it. Home is where I am. You can’t always bloom where you’re planted, but heck, just enjoy the sunshine as it falls.

In the new story I’ve been thinking about, a character makes the initial migration, first from a small town to a dazzling metro, and later, from the  East to the West . . .and it allowed me to wrestle a few private curiosities of my own: Is there a place to return to? What are the consolations of home?  Do they compare to the thrills and diversion travel offers?

Magdalena: Your debut novel has been very successful. Do you think you’ll work fulltime as a novelist now? Or are there other projects in the pipeline? (eg the pizza shop)

Siddharth: The pizza shop is always a possibility: I can never confidently say I’ll continue to write simply because the moons of imagination rise to their own
whimsical tides. I’d love to say I want to tell stories all my life, but who knows if I can? Maybe I’ll have more fun making pizza in Bombay – and you’ll stop by for a slice, won’t you?

Magdalena: Were there other stories (sold for drinks or otherwise) that you left out of this novel that might form the basis for future novels?

Siddharth: Yes. Certain ideas that I needed more room to contemplate, I saved. Ideas on how we form our sexual consciousness; themes of karma and retribution; images of flamingoes on a road in Bombay – all this I carry forward.

Magdalena: Have you begun work on your next novel?

Siddharth: I’m thinking about a story. But writing is so utterly boring. I’d much rather conduct a love affair. That’s where the real story is . . .