Author Interview: Deepti Menon on Satire, Stories and War


Deepti Menon is a well-known name among writers’ circles in India. Writing runs in her blood, as does teaching. She has lived in the Army as a child, and then as a wife, and travelled around the country to places, both beautiful and challenging. In 2002, Arms and the Women, her light-hearted book on life, as seen through the eyes of an Army wife, was published by Rupa Publishers, Delhi.
Many of her short stories have seen the light of day in anthologies as
varied as 21 Tales to Tell, Upper Cut, Chronicles of Urban Nomads, Mango
Chutney, Crossed and Knotted, Rudraksha, Love—an Anthology, The Second Life
and A Little Chorus of Love.

Today, Deepti Menon has agreed to give me an interview for my blog. We’ll talk about many a things, though our focus will be on satire as Mock, Stalk and Quarell, Readomania’s recent offering on satire in form of an anthology has been published and is available in online and offline stores all over India.

AN: How are you doing? Are you ready?

DM: Hi, Anirban! I am like that famed battery… Eveready!

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AN: Ha ha! Good. Our focus of this interview will be on mainly satire. Satire, as we know, is difficult to master. It is a fine art. Can you tell us what inspired you to write a satirical tale? What makes writing satire so difficult?

DM: Writing satire is like tightrope walking. You can either walk on it, perfectly balanced, like a professional artiste, or you can make a perfect clown of yourself as you tumble over in a heap. Satire is a fine-tuned instrument, the kind of writing that needs to hit the target that it is aimed at. If you miss it, you end up sounding ludicrous or hyperbolic.

AN: We have seen recently the bold steps taken by the government, and we are also witnessing the social and political changes India is going through. Many have different opinions about these issues and events. What do you think of the role of satire in expressing one’s opinion in present time?

DM: 2016 will certainly go down as a red-letter year for many reasons – money matters, (pun intended), the Trump card and of course, the end of the Amma era in Tamil Nadu. Is it a coincidence that Cho Ramaswamy, noted humorist and political satirist, also passed away soon after?

Right from ancient times, satire was always seen as a weapon to hold up the ills of society. It is no different today as well. If two pieces are written on the same subject, one in prosaic language and the other veiled in satire, it is always the second one that will evoke more curiosity, and drive the point home, in my opinion.

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AN: In the current Indian literary scene, we see a significant lack of satirical work. What is your response to such a situation?

DM: Very true, Anirban! The reason lies within ourselves. We, the homo sapiens, have turned into a dour, humourless society, unable to take a joke in the right spirit, be it in the case of cartoons, books, movies, newspaper articles or even WhatsApp messages. The powers above scream, like the proverbial Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, “Off with their heads!” And out pop the bans, which ironically, work well for those banned as they bring up the curiosity quotient.

Isaac Hayes couldn’t have put it more aptly when he said, “There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins.”

 
AN: In your story in Mock, Stalk and Quarrel titled, The Little Princess, we see a girl in search of true love, defying the social norms. Though, on closer look, it seems more like a parody. Through a mere matter of groom-matching, you have brought out the political situations of the country in a subtly humorous way. Tell us how you have come up with the idea of this story.

DM: Frankly, Anirban, this was a harmless little story that I had written a decade ago, because I wanted to come out with something light-hearted. It did not have any political allusions at all. When the idea of an anthology on satire came about, I stuck to the same story, but added on the rest, so that my story would fit the bill.

AN: Apart from situational comedy, we find many funny Wodehousian dialogues like:

“So what do you think? Isn’t he handsome?” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled at her daughter.

“Hardly, Mamma! He can get lost in a crowd of two!” The girl’s answer ruffled her mother’s feathers.

I have also read an article on Wodehouse by you. How has Wodehouse influenced you in your writing?

DM: I adore Wodehouse, and so, I love this question. I think his books are the epitome of good humour wrapped around in a writing style that is unique. I would often sit and chuckle over certain portions, even when I was travelling, and earned many strange looks in the process! I also feel that humour is one of the most difficult genres to master, and he is a master, indeed. I have friends who disagree with me on this point, but each to their own.

AN: At the end, the man with whom the girl falls in love identifies himself as ‘the Common Man’. In context of love and politics, its significance is something interesting to note down. Do you think that both a lover and a leader can be found amid the Common Man?

DM: “I think comedy and satire are a very important part of democracy, and it’s important we are able to laugh at the idiosyncrasies or the follies or vanities of people in power.” So said Rory Bremner.
I think in an ideal democracy, it should be the Common Man who rules. After all, it he who votes and brings people to power. So, a lover and a leader can be found in the Common Man. Please note that I am not alluding to the present Common Man, high on cough syrup, who sports a scarf.

AN: Recently, you have published your new novel Shadow in the Mirror under Readomania. Many congratulations to you for this success. What difference did you find between writing a short-story and a full-fledged novel? Of course, apart from short stories are short. Ha ha!

DM: Ha ha, indeed! J Thank you so much, Anirban. I feel that short stories need more skill, and that’s purely my opinion, because an entire story with a beginning, a middle and an end, needs to be encapsulated within a given word limit. Hence, the writing needs to be brief, and yet, sparkle enough to catch the imagination of the reader. A novel is a longer read, and the author has time to meander through the theme and make it work at a more leisurely pace.

AN: I have read your stories in Defiant Dreams, Urban Nomads and When They Spoke. A recurring theme of women empowerment can be noticed in your stories. This is also true for the story in Mock, Stalk and Quarrel too. There has not been a better time when the topic of women empowerment is of such importance. What do you think, as a writer, of the role of women in modern creative writing in India?

DM: My stories write themselves. I have never deliberately written a story on women’s empowerment. However, the issue is, perhaps, so strongly engrained in my psyche, that it comes out as a subconscious narrative. I think that all writers, men and women, should try and bring in a renaissance of gender equality and the empowerment of women and children.

AN: Does your new novel touch on similar issues?

DM: ‘Shadow in the Mirror’ is a work of fiction that has autobiographical elements in it. Thus, one of my main characters, who is a journalist, does fight against various issues that impact women negatively.

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AN: What do you think of the current Indian literary scene? Also about the publishing trends?

DM: The current Indian literary scene is bursting at its seams with new writers being born and published every day. Today, everyone can write, and does, sometimes well, and at other times, with disastrous results. But I do think that it is a very positive trend which will throw up “full many a gem of purest ray serene” that would otherwise remain hidden “in the dark unfathomed caves of (the) ocean”.

Publishers have also mushroomed over the years. Today you have traditional publishers, vanity publishers and self-publishing, as well. Hence, it is easier to get your manuscript published than it was in the past, like back in 2002, when my first book, ‘Arms and the Woman’ (Rupa Publishers, Delhi) got published.

AN: Name a few of your favourite authors.

DM: George Eliot, Alexander Dumas for their classics, Somerset Maugham, O Henry, Guy de Maupassant and Jeffrey Archer for their short stories, and Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle for their mysteries, are among my favourites. I also enjoy Indian writers like RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Shashi Tharoor, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee and Jaisree Mishra. I have also enjoyed all the books I have read from the Readomania collection.

AN: As an experienced writer, your advice to young writers?

DM: Love books, read and savour them, and identify the genre with which you want to be associated. Most importantly, enjoy what you write, for if you don’t like your own writing, no one else will either.

AN: Thank you for this interview. It’s been a pleasure.

 

DM: Thank you so much, Anirban, for the interesting questions. All the best with all your writing, and God bless!

AN: Thank you very much. Same to you.

 

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A pocket-masterpiece: review of A Dog Eat Dog-Food World


A Dog Eat Dog-Food World by C.Suresh was silently published a year ago. A slim book. Only some 90 pages long. But so good that I couldn’t ignore reviewing it.

I had read it when it was published and then read again a few months back. And I realized that when your view about a book changes drastically upon multiple readings, it must be too layered to be understood in the first read. Hence, though I did write a short review on Goodreads a year ago, I think, it deserves a more elaborate treatment.

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The book starts with a declaration that it is a pseudo-history, i.e. what would have happened if the things that would happen in the book were true. In other words, an alternate history. To give a sense of the period in which the book is set, the narrator says,

Incidentally, difficult though it must be to believe, the world was not always run by computers and a cell-phone was not something that could only be removed from the body by surgery.

This is a story of an entrepreneur, about how too much money and boredom caused him to start a business, where he hoped he’d be able to spend all his money. Here, the author doesn’t forget to mildly poke fun at the wealth distribution in the world:

People with no money knew what to do with the money, which they did not possess, but people with money seemed merely to be burdened by it. Something was seriously wrong with the disbursal system in Heaven.

Anyway, to find the right business Spike Fortune (yes, what a name!) recruited his nephew Jerry. And thus the concept of boss and subordinate came.

“You are not paid to think, Jerry! Just do as you are told.” Spike did not realize that he had just set the conversational trend for all employers for some time to come.

And what was the business? Yes, as the title suggests, the dog-food! And here, the author brings out some excellent descriptions which are humorous, vivid and full of allusions.

Thus brooding, Jerry moodily kicked at the ground – as human beings are wont to do when they are unable to kick the reason for their worry. Only, the ground seemed a bit squashy and, before Jerry could even take that message in, his entire horizon was full of teeth and fur and a deafening growl.

[…]

When the barking turned suddenly into a duet, he looked around to find a stout middle-aged man also barking at him. It was then that he realized that a chain connected the dog and the man, which meant that one of them was the other’s pet. But for that chain, Jerry would have been minus a nose by now.

[…]

Jerry froze. Had he been a character in a comic, a bright light would have lit up above his head. Then, he jumped up yelling unoriginally, “Eureka”, tripped over the hot water tub and fell down full length. Unlike Archimedes, who got his idea in his bath, Jerry had a bath on getting his idea, with the contents of the hot water tub inundating him.

You get the idea.

There are more on employer-employee relations and office politics. Like appearance of effort is more important than the effort itself.

He was happy that Jerry had done enough work to write a big report but it was too much to expect that he should have to do the work of reading it.

“What is this?”

“The project report for the business, Uncle”, said Jerry.

“Throw that crap down the chute. What does it say? What is the business?”

“D.. D.. Dog foods”, said Jerry, thereby creating the world’s first executive summary.

First thing that happened after the introduction of the cat food, apart from huge sell of the product, was the division of class based on having dog-food.

Also, of course, dog-lovers had now become stratified into the upper class of those who fed dog foods to their dogs and the lower class of those who did not.

And as often happens, when one business flourishes, other similar businesses open up and become rivals. Cat-food Inc was born. The rival was Tom, Spike’s childhood friend. To keep score against your rival, what you do? You come up with market research. And thus, scientific market research came into being. They surveyed the customers and they found that the dog-owners’ responses to their dog-foods were based on how the owners’ days had gone, not whether the dogs liked it. Subtly, the author hints at the real face of market-research; it is more about how the customer feels than how the actual consumer feels.

“My Rosie… she is so cute… when I give her the food, she licks it… so daintily you know… then rolls her eyes like she is in Heaven… then… she is so clever… she gets her tongue around one morsel and.. crunch… she just loves that sound…” and so on and so forth. From which, the young men came to the conclusion, quite rightly, that the entire process of Rosie’s meal was the highlight of her owner’s day. Though it said nothing much about Rosie’s preferences or about what the dog enjoyed the most.

As expected, slowly but inadvertently, the concept of advertising came next. Not only it shows the rise of advertising in every corner of our life, trying to get our attention as much as possible, it also shows how it affects our thinking.

Within a couple of months, not a citizen in the country could walk the streets safe from a soulful dog looking down on him from a hoarding and saying, ‘Won’t you get me DogFood Inc’s dog food, please!”

[…]

Nor were the scrap-feeders spared the ignominy of having their nefarious activities exposed. The pick of the hoardings was of a sweet dog gazing longingly at DogFood Inc’s dog food, while a brutal man tugged at its leash. The speech balloon above the dog said,” Please! I want DogFood Inc’s dog food.” The speech balloon above the man’s head was, “You dumb brute! Don’t think I am going to pamper you.”

[…]

Every time they fed their dogs leftovers, they felt like that brutal man who denied his poor dog the chance to eat good food. Every time they looked at their dogs, it seemed as though they were looking accusingly at them and complaining of ill-treatment. They had to give in.

Similarly, the corporate jargon emerged, to show an utterly simple matter in a complicated language. “Incomprehensibility is wisdom” – seemed the mantra. No wonder management degrees have such high demand.

Later, they went on to advertise the idea of dog as a protector or cat as a mice-eater. Glorifying dogs would glorify its keepers i.e. the owners. In other words, whatever is good for the dog was good for the owner. On closer inspection, you see, such things are shown everywhere – be it a smartphone company or a deodorant manufacturer. Having a smartphone means you’re smart, applying a particular deodorant makes you a real man.

The dog-show, like a tech-fest, did just that.

To win prizes in dog shows bestowed an aura on the winners that almost rivalled Royalty. The erstwhile door-to-door salesmen worked to such good effect that the entire country did all the other trivial jobs associated with living in Society – like agriculture – in the brief intervals between dog shows.

It doesn’t end here. This concept is further broadened later – to spread the goodness of feeding your dog the proper food throughout the world – and voila, we have the concept of colonization.

The crowning glory would come when it started determining what you ought to wish for and thrust it on you.

The concept of a product can be rooted so deep that it can give rise to racism. The companies decided to label a particular pet for a particular class, and thereby, a particular type of food for that pet. This is another name of – you know it very well – market segmentation. Persian cat was for high class society, the alley cat for utilitarian. Strangely, due to presence some rare nutrients in Persian cat-food, it was priced three times more. Division of such classes led to:

Lady 1: “Oh! Alvin is here! What a perfect Pekinese man! And his wife Dora is such a happy person, as who would not be when married to Alvin”

Lady 2: “Do you know what he has gone and done? Bought an Alsatian!”

Lady 1: “No, really? The fellow has hidden predatory instincts, then? Wouldn’t be surprised if he beats his wife. I always thought that Dora must be hiding her unhappiness. She smiles too brightly.”

Lady 2: “You never can trust appearances these days”

Or,

“Ellen never did know how to bring up children. Heard what her eldest has done? Married a Balinese owner.”

“Oh! Thrown over Peter, has she? Such a perfect boy – good Persian owner stock. What are these young girls coming to?”

“I blame Ellen. If she does not get a hold on her children, her second daughter may end up marrying a dog-owner.”

Both ladies would then look at each other with horrified pleasure.

The corporate became so powerful that they started affecting the government and had it amend laws that would help them. This is a hint to capitalism which later at the final sentence is alluded by, “The invisible hand has writ and, having writ, moved on. Now, we are all left staring aghast at the writing on the wall!”

So we see that though on surface it seems a mere fun story of how two rivals of pet-food compete, many darker, more complicated issues are subtly hidden underneath. And only upon carefully studying these lines, one would be able to truly appreciate how layered this deceptively simple looking novella is.

After a long time, I have read a work of satire that is so good that it can stand proudly with other great satirical works. I am quite amazed about this little masterpiece and I hope that a work like this would be widely read and appreciated.