Late Modernism Comes to Town

Devika Rege, who was awarded the Ramnath Goenka Sahithya Samman for Best Fiction, on the storytelling and politics of Quarterlife and what a desk by a window means for her work.
Devika Rege. (Photo | Express)
Devika Rege. (Photo | Express)

CHENNAI: In Devika Rege’s debut novel, Quarterlife (HarperCollins), the return to India is also a discovery of self. Naren, the older son of the upper-class Agashes, takes a flight home to Mumbai from America to be the generation that creates new wealth; the younger son, Rohit, an apolitical young man who comes to fraternise with the rightwing, is very much of his time — a time when the fictional Bharat Party is on the rise. The story is set in a year reminiscent of 2014 when the general election marked the beginning of the Hindutva turn in India’s politics, social life and discourse. Rege has just been awarded the Ramnath Goenka Sahithya Samman for Best Fiction by The New Indian Express for her remarkable achievement on a book that has impressed readers with its depth and maturity and pushes the limits of what the form can achieve. 

Excerpts follow: 

Sometimes a line or an image starts off a process of writing, could you tell us what it was in the case of Quarterlife?

There was no epiphany. No voice or vision that I can recall as setting everything in motion. The most memorable pivots came later, like when I first sensed the design that would anchor the story. I didn’t know where each section would go, but I could sense the logic underlying them. That felt so liberating. Like I could sail away from the shore now that I had a compass. 

Because of the subject of the novel, Quarterlife could have been set in a party office or within a rally. What does a typical upper-middle-class family provide in terms of a base from which things pan out in the novel?

Around 2013-14, many middle-class Indians seemed to be waking up to a new relationship with politics. People who had never voted or thought about politics beyond election day were suddenly full of opinions on what the country stood for and what democracy meant. Our political identities became more encompassing than they had ever been. I saw my friends and family respond to this change, and their psychology felt both familiar and confounding enough to respond to in my work. I chose a family that was more affluent still because the Agashes’ new money and confidence seemed to epitomise the ambition and costs involved in this churn. Their privilege also allowed for creating characters who are naïve about the world that identity politics was bringing out of the fields and slums and to their doorsteps. Given the range of political positions the novel explores, I doubt it would have been possible to bring everyone to the same party office or rally.

Your overarching narrative technique is free indirect discourse — you use it to avoid narratorial editorialising in favour of a single narrating consciousness divided into three: Naren, Rohit and Amanda. What has this structural choice allowed you that other techniques would not?

It perhaps says something about our times or our relationship to truth that so many contemporary novelists resort to multiple perspectives to tell a story. For me, initially, it was an instinctive choice, as was free indirect discourse. I suppose I felt comfortable with a voice that neither ventriloquises another’s I, nor assumes complete omniscience. But I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I started. I was simply applying established tools to the task at hand intuitively. The idea that the structure might expand to incorporate many more voices, or collapse to suggest the limits of such a dream, were riffs on form that came later. I’m not suggesting that’s how these gestures should be read, only that they were responses to feeling uncomfortable about writing a novel on democracy that is not only undemocratic but blind to the fact. The result was a dynamic in which the subject inspired changes in the form, and the form changed how I explored the subject. The two are so welded as to seem a false binary. To have employed a different structure would have resulted in a different story altogether.

Why did you create Amanda?

There are many answers to this question because the characters evolve over time and so do the writers’ motivations for crafting them. At the outset, I had a sense that, through Amanda, I might explore the limits of a certain kind of liberal idealism. Her hasty judgment of a field officer accused of sexual misconduct also became a counterpoint to Rohit’s decision to give a young man his friends see as a bigot the benefit of the doubt. Empathy or judgement: at what point have we gone too far in either direction when confronted with a person we feel a moral pressure to condemn? And on whose time and at whose cost do we do so? These are some of the questions that writing Amanda helped me think through.

What is the literary tradition or raison d’etre of art you avow?  

As a teen, I discovered Dostoevsky in my father’s books and his work defined the terrain of the novel for me, especially with its interest in perspective and ethics. Later, the modernists gave me the idea that form might derive from sources other than storytelling traditions. Form inspired by consciousness will always be, if not new, then at least a challenge to any traditional form. Bernhard, Sebald, Coetzee, and Lispector are some authors I’ve loved. Tarkovsky in cinema, but also his writing on the art of cinema. To be honest, it is hard to claim or quantify how literary influence works. You can love an author whose writing is nothing like yours. You can be influenced by writers you have never read because the writers you have read were influenced by them. Sometimes, I think it is best left to academics to identify such traces and draw up family trees.

What are you working on next and what are the kinds of books you want to write and like to read?

Another novel, though I don’t know at this stage if it will grow into anything I’d like to publish. When you think of the innumerable details on every page of a novel, three or four hundred pages is such an immense canvas — more than that of any other art form. The novels I’ve loved best are those that use this scope to push against the author’s limits or the limits of the form.

Do you have a writing ritual?

Not really, no. I like writing in libraries if that counts. I spent a lot of my teens in a government hostel, so the sparseness and monkish air of a public study hall feels familiar, even comforting. If you come in early, you can get a desk beside a window. The scene is so impersonal as to be eloquent. I find that the perfect state of mind for my work.

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The New Indian Express