Dharini Bhaskar's early research for her JCB Prize longlisted debut novel These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light began as a student of English literature, when writing the book wasn't even a thought. In reading 20th century literature and the family saga in modern fiction, she found not just a theoretical framework that she could build upon, but was also exposed to the type of literature that has deeply shaped her writing life. "More than anything else, it made me aware of the contradictions inherent in this unit we call a family " a unit that is deeply conservative yet home to firebrand participants; that is the fount of our most enduring pleasures and the deepest of our agonies," she tells Firstpost.
These are the ideas that came back to her when she sat down to write her own domestic fiction. "Families are mysteries, aren't they? We believe we know our relations, we claim our household is boringly familiar, but really, the family unit comes with more secrets than any other institution I can think of. It is this that fascinates me, these shadow stories in spaces that are perceived as being banal."
Bhaskar's writing process bagan with first deciding upon a title, with 'These Our Bodies Possessed by Light' being a line borrowed from Richard Siken's poem Scheherazade. "It all began, for me, with a word. The word was Scheherazade, a storyteller, a woman who survived by holding on to and relaying fictions. In Scheherazade, I found the narrative voice, the title of my novel, the protagonist." And from here, the novel developed. It follows Deeya, who is faced with a difficult personal choice. But before she can decide what to do, she must confront the narratives of other women of her family, her mother and grandmother. Through the book, Bhaskar explores ideas of women's agency and the ways in which family histories influence a woman's life and choices. "What deeply interests me is how familial narratives " narratives that are often unacknowledged or reimagined or pushed to the margins or erased by the forces of patriatchy " impact the lives of women."
For Bhaskar, writing about women is political, since "for too long, women's writing and writing by women have been dismissed." But slowly and subtly, fiction has the power to change widespread attitude to such stories. "By virtue of the fact that literature reminds us of the universality of the human experience, it dismantles the labels we tend to attach to writing about/by women," she says. She also strongly believes that through highlighting the inner lives of characters, literature has the capacity to make powerful political statements. "Consider, for instance, the family, a remarkable microcosm of the society we inhabit. Each act of verbal or physical violence within the walls of a house is reflective of the violence outside. Every attempt at subverting patriarchal norms within a tiny household contributes to the waves of change sweeping across the world."
A little over eight years in the making, when creating the novel, Bhaskar was concerned with the quality of her prose, meticulously finding the perfect words and crafting the perfect sentences. "I can't imagine writing without viewing words as sacred things. Each word comes with many layers of meaning; each also holds cadence. And the hope is " always, the hope is " that sound and sense are tightly entwined. This is when, in my view, writing soars." Important when writing like this were the "fragments I gathered, the way we collect shells on a beach " the oral histories of relations, dialogues with strangers, conversations eavesdropped on, dreams."
Counting Anne Carson and Virginia Woolf as dominant influences, she highlights the reverence that such poetic prose inspires in her. "When I read anything they write, I read it first for sound " sometimes, the sentence is a dirge " and then, I re-read it for what it says " and yes, the words convey grief. How rare, how magical." This deep connection with language is also why poetry is another major influence for her. "Poetry, in my view, is language at its purest. Every word has been weighed, tasted, felt, observed, intoned. I deeply admire poetry's commitment to preserving the inherent beauty of language, and I love prose that displays a similar reverence for words."
Writing, while being an artistic and intellectual exercise and a way for her to celebrate her love for words and language, has also largely been a matter of discipline, demanding she commit a certain number of hours each day to working on her manuscript. "Inspiration sounds glamorous " bright visions flashing before a writer, words descending fast and thick. But on most days, there's an empty room, silence, a blank page, and a sentence that refuses to land the way it should. One keeps hammering at it, night after night," she says. "It is the only way."
And when setting about editing this prose, she called upon her experience as former editorial director of Simon & Schuster India. Writing and editing, she notes, are vastly different processes; "one seeks to break confines, the other steadies text." So it was important that she took time away from her work, until "the words and the rhythm of the text felt unfamiliar", and then returned with an editing eye so she could "rewrite with a certain degree of ruthlessness and detachment".
The result is a work of literary fiction rich in beautifully-crafted sentences, with myriad literary, mythological, and philosophical references, which she hopes a reader will engage with in a genuine way; "If a reader re-reads a book because s/he doesn't want it to end, that is the ultimate compliment."
The JCB Prize for Literature 2020 shortlist will be announced on 25 September.