Charity events are a good thing, especially when it’s a fundraiser for literacy! It’s a great way to sell your books, it’s a great way to raise money for a good cause, and, it’s a great way to meet people you want to know more about. Montreal authors Karen P. Foster and Greg Santos I met at an event in February; and that’s where I first met Veena Gokhale as well.
I heard Veena reading from her short story collection, Bombay Wali and other stories, and between her delightful accent and the story at hand, I was absolutely transported to the Subcontinent and enjoyed every minute of it. Here was a story about women (who weren’t action heroes) in a country that was colourful, alive, and incredibly diverse.
So, I had to know more. The more I asked, the more surprised I was.
You never know what you’re going to learn when you strike up a conversation with a new friend.
By the way: make sure you check out the links at the bottom of the interview for a sample of Veena’s stories.
9DW: You’ve written and put together 12 stories into Bombay Wali and other stories, each story vastly different than the next. Easy question first: I’m sure you’ve written more than just these twelve stories. How did you decide which to include in Bombay Wali, and which to exclude?
Veena Gokhale: I’ve been writing these stories since early 1991 elsewhere in Canada. Moving to Montreal gave me the luxury of time to pick, edit and find a publisher. Six stories were set in Bombay (now Mumbai) and that set the tone for the book, including the title. Bombay Wali means a woman from Bombay. I added three other stories that are set in India. Easy so far! Three more stories also seemed to fit. One features a young Canadian student “stranded” in Kathmandu (Nepal), another a lonely, old woman in a Tokyo apartment (at least we’re still in Asia!) and the last, The Tea Drinker, is a kind of coming of age story set on an unnamed tropical island and very briefly in Toronto. These last three reflect one of the themes of the book: growing up and growing old.
Guernica Editions, my publisher, called it an eclectic collection! I am all for variety. Too much is made of “fit”; life is messy! While linked stories have their merit unlinked ones should be equally celebrated.
There was a story I’d included in the original manuscript about two sisters, one in Afghanistan and one in Toronto, which the publisher said “doesn’t fit” and I agreed. Bombay Wali does not contain Diaspora stories. Instead, the fascinating city that is Bombay comes through viscerally. By the way, the stories are set in the Bombay I knew in the 1980s, when it had not been renamed Mumbai. Also, since I depict a cosmopolitan world using “Bombay” made more sense.
9DW: There was a description of one of your stories posted to the CBC radio website after you interview back in October, and that one short description alone was enough to put Bombay Wali on my “to purchase” list. The story is about “A wealthy business woman compelled by the desire to hurt her best friend.” You treat your characters with a loving attention to detail; so how do you ensure that you don’t pull any punches when talking about their flaws as well?
VG: Kavita, the protagonist in this story, Smoke and Mirrors, is a conflicted, stormy soul! My characters are very “real” to me. It’s funny because when I was in Bombay with my French-Canadian partner after the book was published and we taking pictures in the city’s downtown area I was going, “this is the bookstand where Dilip scanned newspaper headlines (he couldn’t afford to buy a newspaper); Feroza lived in one of these apartments (pointing at some that line Bombay’s Marine Drive now called whatever!) I don’t have to make a special effort speaking frankly of character flaws, as they are really there – warts and all.
9DW: You spend a lot of time on character and relationships, and since these stories are so very alive, I have to know: how many of these stories are based on actual events in your own life or observation?
VG: I confess that I am reproducing part of this answer from another interview. There is one true story in the book and that is Munni, about a servant girl. This is a story from my own childhood. Otherwise what happens is that all the things that fiction writers take in, different people they meet and their life stories and personality traits, things people say, things they read, see in movies, their own thoughts and experiences, everything gets churned up in some part of the brain and the characters and stories start emerging. So it is difficult to say for the most part that this person or situation inspired exactly that character or story!
Sometimes the links are more overt. There’s Dilip, a dalit (low caste) student who comes to Bombay from a small town on a scholarship. The ending is from real life, something I came across as a journalist working in Bombay; everything else is made up. I read in a newspaper that the kind of service I describe at the end of the story called Snapshot, exists. But I never knew an old Japanese woman called Sukiyo, nor have I ever been to Tokyo (alas!)
Two of the 12 stories feature the world of Bombay journalism. And that’s a milieu I knew well. I had close, women journalist friends who came to Bombay from other cities and it wasn’t always easy for them living on a shoestring in big, bad Bombay, with their parents far away. But then they had their freedom, ah freedom! This inspired the title story Bombay Wali.
9DW: You’ve spent a lot of time in both India and in Canada now, as student, journalist and working for non-profits. What do you find most odd or funny about Canadians, coming from such a rich and well-travelled background as you do?
VG: Interesting question; how frank should I be?! The response to bereavement in Canada is entirely different. My father passed away many years ago. I was already here then. My Canadian friends sent cards and e-mails expressing great sympathy and saying they would let me have time to grieve. My Indian friends called immediately or wanted to come by. In India references to death are quite casual; here that topic is more of a no-no.
And a funny thing: when my partner (who’s French-Canadian as I said) and I have arguments he’ll say things like: you’re raising your voice. And I’m like, damn right I am. I’m furious! This idea of having an argument in measured tones cracks me up (after the fact)!
9DW: What can Canadians learn about India – and elsewhere – from Bombay Wali?
VG: I think I’ll let the reviewers answer that one. Says Heather Leighton in Rover: “… there is a definite departure from tradition in this collection, giving the reader a sense that considerable change is in the air… For anyone who loves stories about the Subcontinent, this collection offers some gems that are both evocative and visually pleasing.” Heather talks about how the book departs from the traditional portrayal of Indian women.
Says Professor Amrita Ghosh writing in an academic journal. “What I especially appreciated is that Gokhale does not offer orientalist fare selling exotica to readers. Gokhale’s Bombay is not the flashy, elite, “imagined” space of Bollywood films, nor is it the one-dimensional space of violent poverty as depicted in the popular film, Slumdog Millionaire. Bombay does not exist as a monolith, but instead, becomes a protagonist in the collection. Gokhale presents the city as both a backdrop and as an organic, generative space filled with dynamism… Gokhale’s characters come from different castes, ethnic groups and classes and struggle to find a space in the sprawling city.”
While award-winning writer Mark Frutkin says: ” These are stories that provide the genuine flavour and taste of India, and other exotic locales… we meet true-to-life characters imbued with interest and complexity. These are rich stories, well-imagined, deeply felt.”
9DW: I understand from a previous interview with Fiction for a Change that you’re very interested in generating social change through writing, be it journalism or fiction. How can literature generate social change?
VG: If you really want to know about a country or culture go to its literature, both classical and contemporary, rely less on news stories, that’s my advice. That is to say, good literature lays bare the world with all its complexities, contradictions, richness, horror and beauty; it’s profound social and moral dilemmas. It can lift you up and set you down in another world, another sensibility, including less visited corners of your own society or for that matter your own self. Good literature can challenge, reveal, delight and inspire. Reading is also an activity that naturally allows for reflection. It can open our hearts and minds, and hence its power to bring social change, often through a slow, non-linear, hard to understand process.
Then there’s education-entertainment (EE) where social issues are consciously woven into comic books, radio or TV serials and storytelling in other media to expose people to a range of questions as well as options and to “model” desirable behaviour. If this is not done superficially, merely to manipulate, it can be interesting, satisfying and transformative.
9DW: I had the pleasure of hearing you read from Bombay Wali back in February at a fundraising event for literacy programs in Montreal. How have you been able to use your writing to help others?
VG: As a journalist I have written about social issues. Some readers and editors have made kind remarks about some of these articles and the fact that they were moved or informed by them. But have I really “helped” others and to what extent? I really don’t know!
I have worked for non-profits, and when I was doing a two-year contract for an international development organization in Tanzania, I produced two illustrated storybooks, working with a graphic artist. Aimed at primary school students, one talked about the importance of intergenerational communication about HIV AIDS, and allied issues, while the other contrasted child-centered education with a more top-down model. Both were well received (there were feedback forms attached) and used for discussion in the community. I have also developed a workshop entitled Using Stories for Social Change and presented it at conferences.
More recently I have been presenting some stories from Bombay Wali in classrooms through the Writers in CEGEPs program. I believe this gave the students glimpses of other realities they don’t encounter in their daily lives. This can also show them similarities between cultures, not just differences.
9DW: What was the greatest challenge re Bombay Wali, this being your first book?
VG: The greatest pleasure is the writing, it’s downhill all the way after that! Luckily I didn’t have too hard a time finding a publisher but how to get the word out and get people to give the book a try? That is a toughie even with social media and all that. I did tons of marketing for my book; I was at it for a year. I went as far west as Vancouver through a Canada Council grant and as far east as Halifax (for the first time!) thanks to a wonderful friend who organized a kind of a show and tell road trip. Whew! I learnt a lot. I found it was really about exchange and community building.
As far as real sales, friends of friends were my best buyers and word of mouth my best ally. And one thing often led to another. It’s really such a web of human connections.
9DW: What follows Bombay Wali? Where else can we find more of your short stories?
VG: I just finished what I hope is the final draft of a novel. I got a small Vivacité Montreal grant in 2011 to write it. Here’s my description of the book, which is nowhere near publication yet (no contract signed). Here’s my description of Simply there to Help: “Anjali, an Indo-Canadian single mother, works for HELP, an international development organization that provides people at the margins with healthcare, education and training. In Africa on a year long posting, Anjali is struggling professionally and personally, at odds with Grace, her Board Chair, and her 10 year-old son Rahul. She allies herself with Fatimah and her community who are displaced from their fertile farmland without compensation. As Anjali and Fatimah’s quest for new land is threatened, and Anjali’s conflict with Grace escalates, Anjali receives a request and a threat that force her to face fundamental questions about her life, and her role in Africa.”
Veena Gokhale started her career in the mercurial world of print journalism in Bombay, in the 1980s. She first came to Canada on a journalism fellowship, returning to do a Masters in Environmental Studies in Toronto. After immigrating, she worked in communications for non-profit organizations, which included a two-year stint in Tanzania. She has published fiction and poetry in anthologies and literary journals, and read from her work. In 2011, she received a grant from Vivacité Montréal, Quebec Arts Council, to write her first novel. She is currently marketing that book. She lives in Montreal with her partner, Marc-Antoine.
Visit her website: http://www.veenago.com/story/
Read Munni at the Maple Tree Literary Supplement: http://www.mtls.ca/issue8/writings-nfiction-gokhale.php
And, if you have iBooks on your Apple-ish device, you can also read the title story of Bombay Wali. Check it out: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/bombay-wali-other-stories/id865599217?mt=11
And for goodness sake, buy the book! http://www.guernicaeditions.com/title/9781550716726