Ketaki is the Professor and Head of English at BN Seal College Cooch Behar. An interview of her's was published in the Statesman calcutta on the 27th of narch 2010.
First the interview and then my letter to the Statesman publishe today.
‘I’m a romantic at heart’
27 March 2010
DR KETAKI DATTA’S brilliant debut novel, A Bird Alone (2008), is centered on Anita, an elderly lady living in Dajeerling, whose story is shaped through the other characters’ lives in an intricately and finely woven pattern.
Sourav, Anita’s husband, had deserted her many years ago, leaving her with two small children, Nina and Sanju. Nina moved to Paris, where she lives with her family. Sanju, after settling in Bombay, does not seem to care much for his mother. When she was younger, Anita decided to foster Chandana, the daughter of a banji, thus securing a better future for the girl, whom she treats like a daughter. What prompts the narrative and its complex, unforeseeable development is an 80-page letter by Merlin, Anita’s childhood friend, which gives her the opportunity to introspect her past, present and future resolutions.
A Bird Alone is a poignant narrative of friendship and loneliness, a deep reflection on human values and the quest to unveil the true meaning of life. Datta talks with Elisabetta Marino on much else besides the novel
Isn’t it rather unusual that a prominent academic is also such a successful creative artist? What prompted you to begin this parallel career? Who are your literary influences?
When I was just a toddler my mother left me to my grandmother’s care. She was a scholarly lady who pampered me to the extreme. I was admitted to the reputed St John’s Diocesan Girls’ HS School in South Calcutta. Incidentally, Gayatri Chakravertty Spivak was one of the successful alumni of the school. With its sprawling playgrounds (not one but four), St John’s Diocesan played a considerable role in shaping the creative artist in me. During the recess, I used to go and sit at a lone nook to scribble whatever came in my mind, throwing a longing, lingering look at the blue sky, the acres of green grass, my feisty friends engaged in a hopping-race or a hide-and-seek game or basketball at some corner or the other.
Back at home, my granny, grandpa, and I formed a jovial household, while my maternal uncle — a renowned chemist — stayed in an industrial locale a few hours off Kolkata. He was in charge of a chlorine plant. My father, a radiologist, used to stay a few miles off my grandma’s place in a hospital apartment with my mother, a postgraduate in philosophy and a promising singer, and my younger brother who was more happy with his toy-engine at home than attending a play-school. The serene two-storeyed house, the silent afternoons, the fairy tale sessions with my granny, the incessant hours of reading storybooks all helped hone my literary panache. By 13, I began to write for the school magazine, The Dio.
Left to myself in the long leisure hours with a storybook in hand I felt the inspiration of the muse. I used to register the train of thoughts in a notebook. Much later, it helped me to write short stories. I started to write stories way back in 1982, when I was in my final year in school.
After that a new chapter in my life began to unfold. My father got transferred to another district hospital, some four hours off Kolkata. It was Murshidabad, a place smelling of history where the great monuments trigger a writer’s imagination. I dropped in often and each time a new experience gave birth to a new write-up. Then, with my grandma’s demise and my days in college in a “heritage” institution of a district headquarter where my father had been transferred the creative artist in me started taking shape with each passing day. During my graduation I wrote a novella, which I lost during transit.
During my postgraduation and research I hardly had the time to write, but each and every moving experience stayed locked in my heart. After I got a job in a college, those treasured memories found expression in short stories — all beside pieces. Meanwhile, the thesis on Tennessee Williams, which brought me a hard-earned PhD, took much time. Hence between 1992-1996 my creative writing took a backseat.
However, from 1998 onwards I began contributing pieces to journals and newspapers of repute. I also started A Bird Alone during this time. Meanwhile, two major incidents left me battered: the sudden death of my father in 2001, and that of my mother in 2007. In the formative years of the novel, she had inspired me a lot. I found solace in the company of a few trusted friends.
I will be always be indebted to my mom, my friends like Gitanjali Chatterjee of Sahitya Akademi and a few legendary teachers like Professor Sanjukta Dasgupta of the University of Calcutta, Professor Benoy Kumar Banerjee of North Bengal University and Professor Mohit K Ray of the University of Burdwan.
Talking about my literary influences, when I was in Class VII, I read Of Human Bondage, and instantly fell in love with Maugham’s style. I read all his short stories soon after. A few books that have helped shape the writer in me are The Resurrection, Pride and Prejudice, The Last Days of Pompeii, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Roots, Alex Haley, Maugham’s entire corpus, Mrs. Dalloway, Anita Desai’s novels and stories, Gone with the Wind, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and, of course, Lust for Life.
I really owe a lot to Anita Desai who helped fortify my vocabulary and Maugham.
To get back to A Bird Alone. It revolves around men-women relationships are central...
In the novel men and women are spontaneously juxtaposed. It is not that, I have deliberately shown men as oppressors or escapists in different situations and women as liberty-seekers, warriors of independence; but they behave as the situations demand. For example, we find Anita going back to her Darjeeling residence when her husband Sourav goes missing. Her husband was always jealous of her preoccupation with reading-writing. But she couldn’t give it up for it was spontaneous. Was it only because she loved a “room of her own” or because she prized liberty?
The novel shows why women have to be self-dependent, strong and courageous enough to be alone. They need freedom and can achieve it. They are often compelled to rise up in arms against the eccentricities of their husbands and must be self-assertive in an alien world.
Do you see reading and writing as a means of protecting and securing one’s freedom, identity and mental health? Is it an antidote to loneliness?
Reading-writing is, no doubt, the easiest way of keeping oneself meaningfully absorbed. Hence, I have shown Anita and Merlin engaged in reading-writing and Chandana in regular sitar practice. These are the means to connect oneself with one’s own soul. A philosophical quest.
If you talk about loneliness, well, it surely is an antidote. An individual will never feel lonely if he/she loves to read and write. The desire to communicate with others will be satiated through writing. Anita and Merlin both write Robert Southey said, “My never-failing friends are they, with whom I converse day by day”. Books are, no doubt, “never-failing friends”.
From the idea of communion to that of “contrast” Culture clash, especially that between the East and West, forms the background of the novel…
Culture clash is not my subject. I wanted to enforce the tradition of human values that the East takes pride in. I had been to the University of Lisbon in July last year to read out a paper titled “Human Values and Modern Bengali Drama”. I noticed a few raised eyebrows when contrasting Indian family values with those of the West. But none could gainsay the fact that Indians still cared for the old, incapacitated and, if possible didn’t send them away to a ‘home for the geriatric populace’. In the West sons and daughters are so busy with their lives that they do not have time to look after their decrepit parents.
Similarly, the concept of motherhood in the East is really interesting — very different from that in the West. Here a mother can sacrifice everything for her children. An Indian mother hardly has any life of her own. She is the home-maker, the driving force of the family. Even if she earns she does so for the betterment of her family.
In the novel you seem to be overly concerned with the changing face of India. Newly constructed mansions are compared to “hydra-headed monsters” and chaos and political turmoil reign supreme…
Yes, you are right. India is changing every moment. The Kolkata of our childhood was a different place altogether. Though a metropolis, it was a greener and culturally healthier city. Where are all the lush playgrounds? Hydra-headed skyscrapers dot the city and all its innocence and charm is lost forever.
Look at Darjeeling and Kashmir. Political turmoil has robbed them of all their sublimity. Violence has desecrated these abodes of tranquility
“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” says Wordsworth. I, a romantic by heart, have placed my characters in proximity with nature. Whenever Anita feels lonely, she gazes at the tall pine trees, or comes out to the balcony to watch the moving flakes of clouds. I find something therapeutic in nature. Nature heals and shelters desperately lonely souls like Anita.
The writer teaches at the University of Rome
SIR, ~ Elisabetta Marino’s interview of Ketaki Datta ~ ‘I’m a romantic at heart’ ~ in the 8th Day of 28 March was a delightful read. The first novel often tends to be autobiographical. Ms Datta has weathered many a storm and has achieved a coveted position in the contemporary literary world. Her school is indeed proud of her but she has learnt the real lessons of life, which only the school of adversity can teach. Her point that bibliophilia is an antidote to loneliness is a very pertinent observation. The treatment of the old is a social problem in India as much as in the West. However, in our country, family values can yet instill a measure of bonding that age cannot rent asunder. Unhappily the scenario is changing and we do come across many cases of children driving out their aged parents from their homes. And we wish to believe these are aberrations and only posterity can deliver a verdict.