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The ‘Boston Brahmin’
Text by Gitanjali Shahani and Photographs by Shibu Arakkal
Published: Volume 15, Issue 8, August, 2007

Brinda Charry is a self-confessed loner, a bit of an arch cynic and a brooding romantic. Her short stories have won several prizes while her two novels – The Hottest Day of the Year and Naked in the Wind – have garnered critical acclaim. The reclusive New England-based wordsmith whose syncretic fiction often returns to the city of Bangalore where she grew up, speaks to Gitanjali Shahani about life, love and literature

Brinda Charry is a ‘quiet eccentric’ and a self-confessed loner. This reclusive novelist and English professor enjoys the solitary pleasures of writing in ‘a room of one’s own’. She lives in a quaint New England town, yet her fiction repeatedly returns to the city of Bangalore, where she grew up. But her outpourings are no ‘emotions recollected in tranquility’. In fact, the narratives unfold amidst traumatic family situations, caste wars and communal strife. Even love is a violent, highly fraught emotion in her work. And yet, her characters strive to connect across divisive boundaries. They are culled from the different literary and cultural traditions that influenced the writer in her formative years.

You grew up reading Jane Austen as much as A. K. Ramanujan, Shashi Deshpande as much as William Shakespeare. How do you negotiate these different literary influences in your own writing?
Like many Indians, my influences were varied. I believe that the richest writing in the world comes from those exposed to multiple literary and cultural traditions. As a child and adolescent I did not make too much of the fact that these writers came from different traditions and that many of them wrote of experiences not my own. (I was no different from, in fact I was, I imagined, the young Jane Eyre of Brontë’s novel!) As an adult I am, of course, more aware of differences in literary traditions, but as a writer I am often able to set my awareness aside when I am absorbed in the business of reading. In fact, I cannot consecutively read two books from the same part of the world! I read for pleasure, for inspiration – and the fact is that I get all of this from a range of writing. When I read Indian writers I am moved by the familiarity of the worlds they set up, when I read ‘other’ writers I am stimulated by the excitement of experiencing the foreign and the distant. I do believe (and this is at the risk of incurring the wrath of critics!) that there are aspects of the human experience that are ‘universal’ – and I don’t mean this in any simplistic way, but good writing can make you empathise with all manner of experiences and make them your own. This is what I strive to do in my own work.

When did you start writing?
So long back that I cannot remember! I was a voracious reader and somehow from very early on I was sensitive to technique. I started writing poetry at the age of four or five (the birth of my baby brother inspired the first poem I ever wrote – I still have it somewhere). I wrote poetry till I was 12 or so, realised I was terrible at it, discovered the delights of writing fiction and it’s been fiction ever since.

You’ve mentioned that your outer landscape and inner mindscape are very much at odds, given the world you inhabit in New Hampshire. The fir trees, snow-covered roads and grey skies around you rarely make their way into your work. Why do you find yourself returning to the streets of Bangalore or the neighbourhoods of Thiruninravur?
I am someone who needs to live in a place a long, long time before I acquire a sense of intimacy with it. While I may not go into painstaking detail in my descriptions of locale, I like to capture the ‘aura’ or ‘feel’ of a place and I feel I am not yet ready to do that with the United States. Regional differences, the quirks and eccentricities of the ‘local’ in America are not immediately obvious to the foreign eye, but I am beginning to get a sense of that now and find it exciting. Maybe this will soon stimulate me enough to set some of my work against the snow and skies of New England. Perhaps I might write a novel on being the literal ‘Boston Brahmin’!