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Dharini Bhaskar on "These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light": 'This book explores agency and the degree to which women can make independent choices'

Dharini Bhaskar was born in Bombay and has at various points also called Britain, Greece and Delhi home. She was the former editorial director of Simon and Schuster India and was one of five young Indian writers selected for Caravan’s Writers of India Festival, Paris. She has been published in an anthology, Day’s End Stories, and in Hindu Blink and Arré, among other publications. When she isn’t writing, Dharini backpacks, reads, and finds immense joy in being brought up by her son.
Dharini has recently come out with her debut novel “These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light”, which delves into the themes of women’s autonomy, uncommon love, and the claims of familial history. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her book, her writing journey and also gives some amazing book recommendations for our readers.
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Dharini. A word-hunter. An eavesdropper. A gatherer of stories. I’m presently being unschooled by my toddler.
 
This is your debut book. How does it feel?
Honestly, life hasn’t shifted in a dramatic way. But there has been a subtle change.
My little book now seeks a world beyond me, is building a tight circle of friends and well-wishers. Watching this is to know wonder and joy, yes, but also, if I dare admit it, loss.
A phase has ended. One celebrates. One mourns. One must move on.
 
You have been an Editorial director with Simon & Schuster India, and have now turned author. How did working with authors beforehand in a publishing setup help you, when you yourself sat down to write your book? Are there any processes or perspectives that crossed over from that part of your life to the other, when you were writing this book?
I was working as an editor while I was writing my novel. I spent the decade that it took to create this book being two people, slipping out of one skin and into another. Writing and editing ask for very different skills—one hopes to break confines; the other seeks to steady and revitalize. Both processes, to me, are deeply fulfilling and creative, and essential to the creation of a book of value. They aren’t adversarial, but they do make very different demands of the self.
My life in publishing has influenced, if not my writing life, the post-writing process (which, I hold, is even more significant to the act of book-building than the first ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’). It has taught me the art of measuring, balancing, pruning, reining in, and has made me less dismissive of the little things, the errant comma, the stray semi-colon, the orphaned line. It has, above all else, taught me the importance of respecting an editor. S/he isn’t just a gateway to getting a manuscript to press; s/he is meant to be the rock that balances an awkwardly teetering sentence, the wind that grants a stolid, out-of-place chapter flight. Most of all, s/he is meant to offer the writer insight and honesty—things the writer cannot quite summon given her/his proximity to the manuscript.
My other life as a writer had a direct impact on my interactions as an editor. I believe it made me more sympathetic to the writing life—its anxieties, frustrations and loneliness—and also more sensitive to my interactions with the text before me. A manuscript is, after all, someone’s offspring, and the task given to me, as an editor, was a sacred one—I had to handhold someone’s child till she was ready to walk.
 
Can you take us through the day you wrote the first words of “These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light”? Which portion of the novel did you write first?
It was in Arizona. I was in a place that knew no moderation—summers scorched, wild foliage stung. It was here that the first chapter of the book grew. And the tale it chronicled—of a fifteen-year-old being whisked off by a middle-aged man—was as dramatic, as unforgiving, as the land where it took root.
 

‘These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light’, Hachette India Publishers.
 
In the book, you have woven an emotional tapestry which treads into familial history of love and relationships, with the storyline confronting the lives and loves of three generations of a family’s women. How did this idea for the book originate?
It is rare, I think, for one defining moment to birth a book. Often memories pile on to fantasies, events feed off non-events, and the cluster of all that was and wasn’t creates an idea for a book.
Maybe the first rushed outlines of the novel emerged, without my full awareness, when I confronted the stories within my own household. Or maybe they grew in a classroom in England, when I, as a student of literature, analysed family sagas. Or maybe they gained in clarity as I interacted with women, distantly, closely, and with the forces that guided their decisions. Or maybe whole parts unfurled in a dream.
The idea evolved even as life did.
 
The character of the protagonist Deeya makes complex negotiations with love, and is conflicted between her heady romance and tolerable marriage. Please tell us a little bit about the genesis and development of this particular character.
This is a book that, among other things, explores agency and the degree to which women can make independent choices—indeed, whether there is such a thing as an independent choice. As much as I wished to see Deeya, the narrator, plunge recklessly, joyfully, into the great unknown, I felt her being restrained—and therefore myself, as the writer, being restrained—by an inherited past. To break free, Deeya first had to know what she was breaking free from. To stake claim to one or the other life, she had to understand her options deeply, intimately, across space and time. I couldn’t dictate the course of Deeya’s life; I had to let her guide me. Deeya did that over the course of a decade. I listened.
 
The title of the book is taken from the poem ‘Scheherazade’ by Richard Siken. When and how did you decide that would be the title of your book? Were there other contenders?
I name a book before I start writing it. It feels respectful. It is also a sacrament, a way of marking a beginning, a real acknowledgment that now the story has life, it breathes.
Perhaps there was a kind of geographical inevitably that dictated the choice of name. Richard Siken, after all, is an Arizona-based poet, and I started writing the novel in Arizona.
Besides, the poem from which the title is drawn, ‘Scheherazade’, is one I have often gone back to. To invoke Scheherazade is to hint at the fact that the telling of a story, the way it unfolds, is as vital as the overarching plot. But equally, Siken’s ‘Scheherazade’ achingly reaches out for the safety of magnificent lies, and this is something that forms the kernel of the novel—that, as Chandrahas Choudhury so poignantly put it in his endorsement, family is not just a fact, but one of the greatest and most necessary fictions to sustain us.
As you can imagine, there was no other contender for the choice of title. The name asserted itself; the book grew around it. Names come with destines.
 
At one instance in the novel, Deeya is asked “Do you believe everything Anne Carson says?”, and to which she replies: “I believe anything that’s well-written.” Is that the same for you? What, as a reader, do you look for in a book?
I’m afraid, that is entirely like me. It is perhaps my hamartia. For me, there are few things more profoundly moving, more numinous, more real, than well-crafted sentences. And I believe them, believe in them, the way some would trust in prayers.
What do I look for in a novel as a reader? Well, for me, craft comes first. Words must sing; language must, to quote Woolf, be wine upon the lips. If that’s there, everything else falls in place—the story, the plot.
 
Speaking of writing style, this book has a poetic prose and has been described as a “Poet’s Novel”. Which are some of the literary works and authors that have influenced your writing?
Yes, I suppose I should have anticipated the observation that the prose holds poetry. My first love remains, and will always remain, poetry. It’s where one can find language at its purest. In another life, I hope I evolve into a poet. Until then, I can read and worship poems, and on a good day, capture the rhythm and wordplay of poetry in prose.
The poets I have read have moulded my association with words—Jack Gilbert, Dorianne Laux, Stephen Dunn, Agha Shahid Ali, Robert Hass, to name a few.
But I’m also a student of prose, and I’ve gained enormously from the works of Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, James Joyce, Anne Enright, Tania James, Marilynne Robinson, Arundhati Roy, among so many others.
And Anne Carson is a category unto herself. She dismantles all genres. She remains the most dominant influence.
 
And what’s on your current reading list?
Multiple books.

 
Finally, on to quick literary word associations. Tell us the books that pop into your mind for the following.
FamilyHousekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Gathering by Anne Enright, and Wise Children by Angela Carter
PoetryThe Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert; and Chosen by the Lion by Linda Gregg
Booker PrizeThe Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Famished Road by Ben Okri
LoveA Literate Passion: The Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Millerand Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
 
‘These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light’ by Dharini Bhaskar has been published by Hachette India Publishers. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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