‘What inspires you?’ is a question I am inevitably asked on those occasions when I tell people I am a writer.
When asked the question, I mumble something about being inspired by surroundings, the news, nature. It is only afterwards, when it is too late, that I find I have the perfect answer. I just, ironically, couldn’t put it into words when put on the spot.
This is what I would have said:
I am a snoop. A people watcher. A lurker. An eavesdropper.
When I was little, I would hide behind the kitchen door, with my ear pressed to the wood – the smell of damp and sawdust (woodlice had got to the door) tickling my nose – my eye positioned at the slit at the hinge, listening to my grandmother gossip with her friends.
They had a routine, which I got to know very well after a few spying sessions.
First, they would all sit cross-legged on the cool cement floor of the kitchen and apply themselves to the serious business of eating: spicy potato bondas, onion bhajis, powdery yellow melt in the mouth laddoos and jalebis: crispy tubes filled with sugar syrup. (I grew up in a small village in India where food was the currency of love, second only to religion and sometimes, when religion could not provide answers, the go-to panacea for tribulations and celebrations alike.)
Once they had had their fill of the sweetmeats, they would sit back, their sari pallus awry now that they were relaxing, their hair escaping tight coconut oil massaged buns, and sip sweet, milky, cardamom flavoured tea. After this, they would much on paan and get to the serious business of the day – what they had all come for: gossip.
In retrospect I realise that they were intelligent women, bored with their lot now that their children and grandchildren were grown. With no job to turn their mind to, they channelled their considerable intellect into the comings and goings of everyone in the village.
‘Jillubai hasn’t been to church in four weeks,’ I would hear. ‘Did you see the size of her stomach? The rest of her thin as a reed. And her husband slogging away in Kuwait – he last visited a year ago. Do you think…’
This was why I waited patiently behind the kitchen door, my stomach rumbling as I watched them eat, even though I was missing out on the game of cricket with the neighbourhood kids out in the fields, which inevitably ended in war and of which I was, generally, the arbitrator.
For me, even now, this is how gossip looks: frothy and bubbling, red and fermented, spitting out of eager mouths. It smells tart, of spices and betelnut and it tastes pungent, paan flavoured and fermented with intrigue.
After her friends left, my grandmother would swivel round and look right at me, meeting the eye that was pressed to the slit of the door-hinge. ‘Come away from behind the door now, hasn’t anyone told you eavesdropping is bad for you?’
I should have known that nothing ever escaped her notice.
She would sit me down on her lap and tell me a long winded story about a little girl who listened to what she wasn’t supposed to and the horrid things that happened to her. I would listen agog, while trying to stuff a jalebi surreptitiously into my mouth, replying earnestly when she asked me for the moral of the story – although it didn’t stop me snooping the next opportunity I got.
All that overheard gossip, all my grandmother’s stories, permeated in my head, marinating and maturing, and they are effervescing out of me now, in my books.
I write about small villages in India, steeped in prejudice, pickled in rumour.
I write about women, like my grandmother’s friends, who want to study, to work, to better themselves but are denied the opportunity because they are women; their job to procreate and be good wives, meek and obedient to their husbands who more often than not treat them like possessions.
Growing up, I hated the unintentional injustices against women, the way we were side-lined as a matter of course, so ingrained in village culture that nobody even noticed anymore, weaved as they were into the fabric of society. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t articulate it then – I was (still am) quite shy and the anger and upset I felt then is coming out now in my books. I write about strong women who speak out against the casual dumbing down they are subjected to, treated as if they are secondary to men.
I write about Indian women trying to stretch their wings while facing the constrictions of a restrictive culture; how they define themselves in a world that tends to impose stifling limitations upon them, how they try and find themselves, constraints notwithstanding.
I am riveted by the interactions, feuds, secrets, lies and intense bonds prevalent among families. The complex ties between family members seem rife with hurt, hate, so many seething emotions, so much love and angst and anger and grudges nurtured over the years. The complicated dynamics of relationships, whether within families or cultures, religions, states or countries – that is what all the stories I love share in common and what I gravitate towards in my own stories.
So, this is what inspires me. This is why I write.
What inspires you?
This post is brought to you by Renita D’Silva.