Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at Delhi University. She has an abiding fondness for Victorian literature as well as early twentieth century American works, and also enjoys reading travel writing, fantasy, dystopian, and lately, noir fiction. She is particularly fascinated by the city of Delhi. For her, engaging with the metropolis is a terrible but thrilling ride, and she likes wandering in the city in search of the bewildering realities of urban spaces. She has written and published several research papers, and has given presentations at various national and international conferences. “The Rickshaw Reveries” is her first book, and comes out of her experiences of walking in Delhi.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her debut book, the dark dazzling Delhi stories in the book, and why she is a spontaneous writer.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I teach English literature to undergraduates at University of Delhi. I am a researcher and my doctoral thesis is in the area of postcolonial studies. I enjoy travelling and exploring the art and culture of different places. I love stories, and see them everywhere around me. Writing, for me, has been aimed at capturing those stories in a way that would fascinate readers like they have fascinated me.
What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
The first thing I ever wrote was a travel account. I was about eight or nine years old then, and had visited my paternal grandparents’ house in Shyamnagar, West Bengal, for a few days. My class teacher had asked us to write about what we had done during summer, so I wrote a piece in which I detailed my train journey, the old ancestral house, the pond nearby where they fished, the well next to the house that intrigued me very much, the call of jackals in the night, and so on. It was quite a few pages long.
Someone very dear to me who read it back then told me I could grow up to be a writer. It is one of my fondest memories.
What kind of a writer are you? Do you take a disciplined approach and make yourself write for a certain amount of time, or is writing more spontaneous for you?
I would say I am a spontaneous writer and have rarely planned writing sessions, especially given my academic research and work requirements. But yes, I have been consistent, purely because I am passionate about writing stories. I must point out that I have never been able to schedule my writing time, and sort of only squeezed it in wherever possible. I have written during breaks in between work, in between research, on trips, in cafes, at home through the night till the morning. Generally, if some idea struck me, I made a mental note of it and found time to dig it up as early as possible for fear it slips my mind. It has been rather random that way.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I have always used the rickshaw as a mode of travel, and frequently conversed with the bhaiyas. A few years ago, I decided to make a Facebook page for their welfare, and to archive their stories, inspired by Humans of New York. After a while, I decided to write a non-fiction piece of work with these stories. But when I started writing, somehow, organically, I began writing fiction. So my stories are all inspired by my conversations with rickshawallas around the city.
The book features fantasy stories about rickshaw wallahs, who have not been written about much in mainstream fiction. How did you go about researching for this book?
Like I mentioned, I began to document my conversations with rickshawallas from different parts of the city. When I wrote the stories, I did not base them on these interactions, but some conversations did inspire me in terms of character construction. The conversations also gave me a direct insight into the lives of such migrant workers in Delhi, and what city-living meant for them. Furthermore, the conversations allowed me to understand the kind of sacrifices they made and what they left behind to come and work in the city as manual labourers.
What was the writing process like? Did you enjoy writing the book?
My process of writing has been rather perilous. This is because once an idea struck me, I knew I had to write it or risk losing the chain or thought and compromise the whole story. When I would sit down to write, I would have to write out the entire story in one sitting. Almost all stories in the book were written after my family went to bed at night, and finished by the time they woke up the next morning. I must say, the experience was exhilarating each time because I never planned the plot-line after an idea struck me. The stories flowed quickly and automatically. It was like being lost in a reverie and typing under some sort of spell. Of course, I revised the stories later. But the stories were never charted out beforehand.
Which is your favourite story in “The Rickshaw Reveries”?
Hard to say. I enjoyed writing “Subterranean Love”. I feel “Pandoobi” is a more complex story, and I remember being surprised at myself after writing the end. “Crack” was fun to write too… I’m afraid, I cannot choose.
You are particularly fascinated by the city of Delhi, and constantly explore the different facets of the city. This book also comes out of your experiences of walking in Delhi. If you had to send our readers on a tour of the most fascinating places in Delhi that you came across during your research, what are the places that would feature?
Interesting question. If I had to set out my readers on an exploratory tour of Delhi, I would want them to see the pastiche of history that the city is. I would want them to get a glimpse of places of historical importance from Qutb reign to the colonial architecture in New Delhi and Cantonment areas. I would certainly start by recommending the Qutb Minar and Mehrauli area, including the lesser known baoli there, the gorgeous Jamali Kamali, the Dargah of Qutbudin Bakhtiar, etc. The area is truly mystical.
Hauz Khas and Siri Fort which are important landmarks in South Delhi come next. The ruins of Tughlaqabad fort are also breath-taking and worth exploring. I must also recommend visiting Firoz Shah Kotla due to the urban legends associated with it.
I suppose I need not mention the numerous Mughal architectural beauties around the city, but Safdarjang’s fort is a thing of beauty.
After this, I would recommend a thorough tour of North Delhi and Civil Lines, including St. James’ Church, Mutiny Memorial, Flagstaff Tower in the northern ridge, and Hindu Rao’s house which is now a hospital.
Lutyen’s Delhi presents us with another set of architectural wonderments. Someone new in Delhi must see the parliament and North and South Blocks. Jantar Mantar is a must see too.
Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?
Lastly, what are you working on next?
I have started planning a feminist dystopian novel. I actually wrote the first draft about ten years ago and lost the document. I wasn’t serious about it then. However, I still remember the plot-line so I will start working on it as soon as I find time.
Oh, also quick literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind when you read these words.
Delhi — The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Noir Fiction — Delhi Noir by Hirsh Sawhney
Travelogue — Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Dave Prager
Also Read: An excerpt from the book “The Rickshaw Reveries”.