Author Interview: There is Love Even in a Core of Torture and Pain, Says Aparna Sanyal 

It’s not every day that you see some ancient torture tools and are inspired to write short stories around them. But this is exactly what happened with Aparna Sanyal, author of the new book Instruments of Torture, a collection of short stories that talk about the human condition as well as how we torture each other mentally, physically and emotionally. Excerpts from an interview:

Bhavneet: Your short stories have been inspired by and their titles come from ancient instruments of torture. How did you correlate those instruments of torture to these stories? 
Aparna: I had visited a physical exhibition of medieval torture instruments and when I looked at them in some detail, I realized that there was a lot there that focused purely on the physical torture aspect of it. And then I realize that there’s so much emotional, mental and psychological torture that we as human beings put each other through knowingly and unknowingly. When I did a little bit more research out of my own interest on each particular instrument of torture, I found these instances coming to me, which are almost like a parallel, a modern day parallel of it, which was a psychological equivalent. And that’s where I came upon the idea of kind of correlating both the worlds and putting these stories together. 

Bhavneet: Within these stories, there is also at one level an underlying layer of love. Amid all of this torture and everything, where does all that love fit in? 
Aparna: I think anywhere that there is humanity, there is love. Even if there is a core of torture, even if there is a core of pain, even within that pain there is love. I think love is what drives the whole narrative.In every story you’ll find that even though it is a lot about, you could call it deviance or fetishes… there are a lot of psychological disorders that are spoken about in the book. But it’s all underpinned by a human being’s need for connection or to belong to somebody else and to feel that sense of connection, and that is underpinned by love. I think that is where it comes from. And the core of the book, I like to think, is tender. It’s just the whole vulnerability and tenderness of the human experience that I’ve tried to encapsulate. 

Bhavneet: How long did it take you to finish this book?
Aparna: It took me a few weeks to just write the stories, but that was in a very rough form. But then after that it took me a good two years to get it into any legible form to get out to publish. 

Bhavneet: Mostly books are all about happy endings. Your stories don’t really have a happy ending.
Aparna: They are human endings. You can say that most books have happy endings, but I think most of the books I read don’t. So, we are clearly reading very different literature, because I prefer a story that tells it the way it would probably happen rather than looking at it through rose-tinted glasses.

Bhavneet: So, a more realistic story. 
Aparna: I’d like to think that there is an inevitability in most of the stories and you do see where this is trajectory leading. And you do realize that you know, inevitably this is what happens. I mean, this is what would happen. You can’t expect a love story between two minors of different communities to actually lead to a very happy ending given the India that we live in. So, it’s as simple as that, you know, coming to that inevitable conclusion. 

Bhavneet: You have two young boys at home. Have they read these stories? 
Aparna: No. The older one, he’s 17, I think he would like to read the stories and I’d love for him to read them because he’s a very mature young man and a very thoughtful young man. I think these stories, since they are not gratuitous or unnecessarily raunchy, will make him think. There are stories that unnecessarily describe things which are awkward or uneasy, but I think my stories deal with issues that all of us should be aware of. They deal with differences and deviances. But my 10-year-old son won’t be reading it right now, because he’s at the Diary of a Wimpy Kid stage. But when he’s old and mature enough, I would like for him to read them. 

Bhavneet: Would you walk us through your writing process? And how much time do you spend reading the kind of books you read? 
Aparna: I wish I could read as much as I would like to read. Being a full-time mum just takes a lot of time away from it. Especially because I’m the sort of person who needs to pay attention and give my all to what I’m doing. Which is why writing is not something I do daily. But I do take out time every couple of months where I put everything away and just focus on writing. The rest of the time the story is fermenting, and the characters are developing in my head. So, it’s almost like a second skin to me. And it’s actually very subjective, because the writing of the actual story could take anything from a week to three weeks. But then begins the real work, which is editing and stepping away from it and going away from it and coming back to it and then realizing that all this is absolutely not what I had set out to do. And that whole process would take maybe over a year. But I don’t write daily because I realized that when I set down a time and sit to write, most of what I write I find so trite and unpalatable to myself that I end up rejecting it. I find that I have to write with a lot of intent, very specific intent and that intent only comes when I’ve had several months to think to kind of literally just unravel the threads of my story. I’ve done that sort of process. I’ve unraveled the whole thing in my head. And then when I sit back to write, it just comes. It’s like word vomit, it just comes and it will just keep coming. And after I’ve written it, I will step away from it. Then when I return to it maybe a month or two later, I’ll be like ‘I wrote this? Is it some sort of fever dream?’ But I know where it’s come from. It’s come from months of that fermentation in my head. 

Bhavneet: What kind of books do you read?
Aparna: I read a wide variety. I read a little bit of non-fiction. I read mostly a lot of fiction. I love female authors who are kind of breach the barrier between literary fiction and the paranormal. My favorite genre is like a good Gothic novel with a strong female protagonist, but nothing which is like too much of a thriller. It’s more about that slow development and the characters. I need to read something into which I can sink my teeth. So, people say, ‘oh, I am a fast reader’ and they pride themselves on reading 50 pages a day. I will read one page and then I’ll go over it again and I’ll savour it again, and then I’ll probably come back to it again. I’ll also possibly read maybe one or one or two novels at a time. You know, there’ll be one on my Kindle, and then there’ll be one physically. And then I’ll go away from it, and then I’ll come back to it. I read all kinds of things. I even love creature features. I love to call myself a Meg head, because I love reading about Megalodon sharks and stuff like that. 

Bhavneet: Can you give us a list of five of your favorite books?
Aparna: Five is narrowing it down. What I grew up reading, and I absolutely love, is anything by RK Narayan, especially the Swami series. Anything to do with Malgudi has my heart. I love Kafka’s Metamorphosis.That was a book that just blew my brains. Everything, anything by Edgar Allan Poe, I will devour. I absolutely adore Edgar Allan Poe. Anything by Ismat Chugtai, anything by Rohinton Mistry. So the older generation of Indian writers, I love their work as well. I love a good story by Manto. And then in the newer authors. If I could ever write 10 words like somebody like Catriona Ward, I would consider myself to be blessed. According to me, she is the goddess of female literary fiction, which has has undertones and overtones of thriller and paranormal stuff. Laura Purcell is another one that I absolutely love. So yeah, I can keep.

Bhavneet: What are your thoughts about reading as a hobby.
Aparna: I think it’s unique. I think the most beautiful gift you can give yourself is the gift of reading. I don’t think you’ll be alone for a day of your life. All I need is a book and I’m sorted and I don’t think it can ever compare to other forms of media just because of the active part of your brain, or rather than the passivity of watching something. For me, if I ever watch a good movie and I’ve enjoyed it, I will make sure I will find the book and I will read the book because I know that if I’ve enjoyed this, then I’m sure that there will be so much more waiting for me in the book, and I’ve rarely been disappointed. So, you know, I think I’m one of those old-fashioned people. 

Leave a comment