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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’!

In Naked in the Wind you appear to be preoccupied with the changing face of Bangalore. You write about multinational companies, the ‘fashionable hangouts’ and the burgeoning KFC icons. Do you find yourself yearning for the Bangalore of your childhood?
Yes, I do. Few Bangaloreans don’t! But the metamorphosis of the cityscape is interesting in itself and worth writing about, I think. After all, social and cultural transformation always brings about conflict – and storytellers live off conflict! In Naked in the Wind I wrote about the side of Bangalore that I know best: this is a section of Bangalore East, the city’s Cantonment region which is very heterogeneous, culturally speaking. I grew up among Muslims and largely among Mangalorean and Goan Christians and Anglo-Indians. In fact, we were among the few Hindu families on the street. Personally speaking, I think it is among the most fascinating parts of the city. It has some of the old-world charm that the Bangalore of the ’60s and ’70s was known for but its social and cultural landscape was already very multicultural and ‘globalised’ even before the rest of the city changed.

As an English teacher yourself, how do you grapple with some of the conflicts that Katherine, the character in your novel, faces about ‘what we should teach and what we should not’, about creating an ‘authentic’ Indian canon as opposed to an oppressive English one?
Yes, Kathy’s quandaries are my own, to an extent. Because I grew up among Anglo-Indians it was difficult for me to see English simply as the language of the coloniser. English was as my character Marie of Naked in the Wind puts it ‘the only one we have’. Because of this I’m not able to make the simplistic distinction between ‘Indian’ languages and English. In my own career as a teacher of English literature, I have trained specifically to teach early modern British literature in the United States. I am thrilled by the change in Indian universities whereby more and more Indian literature is being taught – this is absolutely necessary and important. However, I do advocate that we continue to read British, American and other literatures – from our own critical perspective.

Your novels are peopled with exuberant women, as well as reticent figures. While growing up, were you surrounded by both kinds of women?
My family is a middle-class Tamil Brahmin one that is a strange mixture of the traditional and the liberal. Consequently, I am surrounded by all kinds of women – I think the ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ model we often resort to when describing characters in fiction and real-life is rather simplistic. Most Indian women are negotiating between the two and are a paradoxical mix of the traditional and the modern, the passive and the strong-willed (my character, Janaki, is an example of this). These contradictions are, of course not easy to live with; they cause all kinds of trauma and turbulence. But this is precisely what makes Indian women so fascinating as subjects in fiction.

Why is love fraught with such pain and violence in your novels?
Perhaps because that is the way love is? In both my novels I set the ‘private’ experience of love against ‘social’ backdrops like caste and religion. The engagement of the personal with the social is so common and obvious in the Indian context – in any love experience one is not simply dealing with an individual’s personality but with the social and cultural experiences that constitute the other person. When one takes a person into one’s life one takes in an entire world. It is this aspect of love that I am interested in exploring in my work and that is why I tend to depict love and relationships as both full of possibility and fraught with pain and violence.

Who has been your toughest critic to date?
My toughest and most sensitive critic has perhaps been my brother, who is familiar with the world I write about and who has a fine ear for language and a good sense of the aesthetic. My little nephew Varun, now 10 years old, is not yet ready to actually read my work but often asks me to tell him the ‘story’ of whatever project I am working on. A child has a keen sense of narrative and plot development and I find it useful to rehearse plots with him. He is often difficult to please too!

Your friends often wonder if you are an arch cynic or a brooding romantic. How do you see yourself?
A bit of both I’d say – my twin professions (academia and fiction writing) are responsible for this hopeless mixture. My family and friends would also say I’m ‘quietly eccentric’. It is not (I hope) some kind of eccentricity that is overly self-conscious or puts itself on display. In fact I abhor the image of the writer as a self-absorbed, pompous, egocentric artist. I dislike pretentiousness and affectedness; humility, simplicity and unselfconsciousness are qualities I value most in both artists and human beings in general. I am also a bit of a loner – living in the USA and more importantly the long years of doing a doctorate do that to you. Writing fiction is also by nature a profoundly solitary act.