ON THE COUCH ... Ameen MERCHANT
THE MUSIC OF SILENCE
ERIC FORBES engages AMEEN MERCHANT in a discussion about his poignant début novel, The Silent Raga, an intensely imagined and subtly nuanced exploration of the intricacies of family obligations and sibling relationships
AMEEN MERCHANT was born in Bombay in 1964 and raised in Madras. The Silent Raga (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007/HarperCollins India, 2008) is his first novel. In prose that moves from the sensuous to the sublime, and that recalls the rhythms and progression of the raga, Merchant the storyteller weaves a moving tapestry about the ties that bind us and the sacrifices we must make on the way to realising our destinies. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). He now lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he is working on a second novel.
Tell me something about yourself.
I was born in Bombay and raised in Madras. I moved to Canada to do my postgraduate work in Postcolonial/Cultural Studies, and now live, work, and make my home in Vancouver.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
When I was thirteen, fourteen. I still recall the excitement of seeing my first poem published in the “YouthInk” page of the Indian Express. Later, I wrote advertising copy for a living. When I quit that job to pursue academic work, my family and friends thought I was completely crazy.
What do you do when you are not writing? Do you write full-time?
I am writing even when I am not writing. I don’t see writing as just sitting at the computer and letting it all pour out. A good part of writing is the processing that precedes the act of writing. In that sense, I think every author is a full-time writer. But when I really want to take a break, I cook, listen to music, or catch a movie. If I want a long break, I visit my mother in India.
Was there much difficulty in getting your first novel, The Silent Raga, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
It is always difficult for first-time authors to find good publishers and agents, and I had my share of rejections and maybes. The first thing you learn is to not let that affect you too much. Sure, every time it happens you do feel letdown, but you have to put away that negativity quickly, which is always a hard thing to do. I taught myself to keep it at a distance by starting research on another project. A competent agent, a little patience, and a bit of good luck—and things do turn around. It just takes a few years for it to line up in that particular order.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? Why?
I grew up in Madras, where the school and college literature texts were basically the English canon. Everything from Defoe, Fielding, the Brontës, and all the way to Woolf, Forster and D.H. Lawrence. There are so many writers that are a source of inspiration and guidance, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Toni Morrison’s Beloved affected me deeply, and I think there might be a trace of this regard somewhere in The Silent Raga.
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I just finished reading Neil Smith’s amazing short-story collection, Bang Crunch. Next up is Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I have two big nonfiction titles on my summer reading list: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is.
Could you tell me a bit about your first novel?
The Silent Raga is the story about two sisters from a Brahmin family, and their struggle to find a place and identity in a fast-changing world. The book deals with the choices they make on their journey, and the consequences of those choices on their lives.
What are some of the themes you dealt with in The Silent Raga? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
All families are dysfunctional, and all families are dysfunctional in their own way. The Silent Raga explores this “difference” in the context of small-town, middle-class India. So, it would be safe to say that the book is about a family gone awry. But it also looks closely at the everyday trade-off between tradition and modernity, the role of religion and mythology in Indian women’s lives, the small moments of remembering and forgetting and the big moments of caring and forgiving. I knew all along what I wanted to explore, but the form it took was a discovery.
Why did you choose music as the device to frame your story?
Janaki, the protagonist, is a gifted veena player. The book is also a concert of quiet anger between the estranged sisters, and the title celebrates this internal narrative as a “silent raga.”
Why did you choose to focus on strong female voices?
I admire and value strong female voices. And strong, female readers have embraced the novel with great warmth! A few months after the book was published in South Asia, about 100-150 women got together in Madras to discuss the issues presented in the novel. They invited a classical musician to play a few Carnatic krithis mentioned in the novel, and they also recruited a theatre personality to read passages from the novel. The pièce de résistance? They put the whole event on a DVD and mailed it to me in Canada! Similarly, Canadian Living (a leading women’s journal in Canada) chose The Silent Raga as their “Book of the Month” just four weeks after it was published in Canada. I couldn’t have asked for a better reception!
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
If it writes it like Marquez or Rushdie, I’ll read it.
“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
The right question can be an answer in itself.
You were shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
Creative writing courses may help you hone your skills as a writer, but they cannot teach you how to write. But if you can write, writing workshops are a great way to polish your work. It is always better to have a full manuscript before signing up to workshop it. That way, you can keep your creative vision intact, and still incorporate the structural suggestions gleaned from the workshop sessions. Prizes and awards are a huge source of encouragement for every author (particularly a first-time author), and a big boost for the profile and visibility of the book in a crowded marketplace. It was an honour and a privilege to be on the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
“Have you seen things this way?” That’s the essence of all good fiction.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve started work on a new novel. It is somewhat of a slow, steep climb right now.