Writer Vivek Shanbhag, whose novel Ghachar Ghochar was hailed globally after it was translated from Kannada to English, believes that the written word carries extraordinary power, even in the face of the visual and digital invasion. This conviction is reflected in the quiet potency of all his work. His recent work, a Kannada play Illiruvudu Summane – which translates to We Are Here Just Like That – deals with the urban experience.

It is the story of Vikram, a non-resident Indian, who returns to Bengaluru to find his home missing. Vikram arrives in the dead of the night, with a co-passenger who offers to drop him, but he cannot locate his childhood home. It turns out that the caretaker cheated the family and built a 12-storied apartment block in its place.

As Vikram struggles to overcome this loss, along the way he meets Cutlet Naga, an unseen underworld don, Madhuri, his friend’s wife who reminds him of his childhood friend also named Madhuri, and Betala – like in the fable – a friend who advises him to be content with the status quo. Shanbhag spike to Scroll.in about the play and on writing in general. Excerpts from a conversation:

How did your latest play, Illiruvudu Summane, come about? In your own words, what is it about?
I wrote this play for a group called Lokacharita. They are theatre enthusiasts who meet once a month to discuss plays, literature and related subjects. They were led by [G] Channakeshava, a well-known theatre director, but after his sudden and sad demise last year, the staging had to be shelved. Channakeshava and I had grand plans of putting up this play but unfortunately it couldn’t happen. Later, I decided to publish it.

It isn’t easy for me to describe what it’s about, but I have tried to examine themes like the idea of home, of loss, the relationship between physical space and our experiences, and so on. It begins with a rather absurd situation of a house that’s disappeared. Obviously the changing experiences in a city aren’t easy to depict in a realistic manner and so, a play might have been the best form. Let me not dwell too much on it because finally a play has to offer the director immense possibilities to work on.

Does all the social leapfrogging in our cities give rise to the problem of cultural memory as well? Vikram talks of the conman “erasing the past”. Later, Madhuri tells him, “Reclaim your past”, and then later Cutlet Naga says, “How long will you dream of pushing back the past?”
This is a complex question. Look at it closely and you realise so many people belong to this city, and to grasp its existence, they create an altered self – something different from what they really are.

In the process, the past they speak of is an imagined past. This idea of the past kind of propels their present/urban existence. I have met some people who paint a completely different “past” for themselves so that they can belong here.

Apart from the little details that mark your work, the dialogue catches attention. The colloquialism and the pithy lines like, “The roads you’ve left behind are always beautiful.” On the one hand, you use commonplace phrases, and on the other, there are reflective lines. How does this mix happen?
I feel that of all the forms that I work with, a play is the most challenging one. You have to virtually live with the characters to deeply understand their actions, speech, worldview and even minute ways of expression. In the process, you have to mix all these – ordinary speech and reflective lines.

It is not a deliberate design when you put various characters together, the way they respond to one another is interesting. It is this chemistry or alchemy that I try to capture. Ultimately the process of writing a play is to understand the swabhava, or disposition, of these characters. Once you go deeper and deeper into the swabhava, the language of these characters shows up.

Interesting that Sharavana Services makes an entry here. Is he the same man from your short story written some years ago?
I’m happy you noticed this. Sharavana is an idea, really. You can say he’s the soul of a city that thrives on service. He’s, of course, the same person who’s come from my short story but probably he’s acquired more skills now. What’s crucial to me – in the story as well as in the play – is that the service provider is not expected to be judgmental even when it comes to some moral aspects. Which is why I find it interesting to explore the connection between the work or service that people like Sharavana offer in a city and the self. This has always intrigued me.

Much of your work examines how changing urban scenarios hurt the values we live by. What is the primary loss that we see?
The kind of work that we do in cities today is something we have never done. If you look at the youngsters who have migrated to cities today, you’ll see that their parents have no inkling of the kind of job they do – be it driving a cab, working for the IT industry or engaging in any other service. These are different kinds of jobs and require different kinds of postures to present themselves to the city. In this transformation, there is a deep conflict between what they were doing traditionally and what they are doing now.

Once they arrive in the city, the set of values, the hierarchy of systems around them, is all new. They are unable to balance and therefore cannot hold on to something that can give them some emotional stability. Obviously they are earning a lot, but what’s the quality of life that they get? These might look like simple and straightforward issues, but it isn’t about a person or a small group. There are tens of thousands of such migrants who are grappling with this.

What concerns me primarily is the relationship between work and the self. This is something that agitates people and so they put on a different self to project to the outside world. In this struggle, the gaps do show up. The loss that you’re talking about could be in a particular way of living, certain values, some memories or even language.

How has the success of Ghachar Ghochar impacted your writing? Is there a marked change in the way you approach your stories now?
As you know, Ghachar Ghochar is not arecent work. One of the main reasons for translating Ghachar Ghochar into English is that it is the shortest of my novels. I’m happy that it has reached many people in multiple languages. But I don’t think it has impacted me because I essentially write for Kannada readers.

It’s important for a writer to have a good understanding of who your readers are, and my readers are Kannadigas who speak, read and write Kannada and who share a deep relationship with this language and culture.

Also, as a writer one is always evolving and experimenting, and so every new work compels you to take a new path; it is this approach alone that helps you explore different experiences. Just because a work is successful, I can’t keep doing the same thing again and again. The joy of writing is after all to examine and understand different aspects of life and the world around us.

Credit: Penguin Random House

Critics keep talking about the decline of the psychological novel, the need for polyphonic narratives, etc. Do we ascribe too much to a novel?
I don’t think so. The novel as a form has immense possibilities. As our experiences become more and more complex and diverse – as we are witness to in these times – the need for a different kind of a narrative, polyphonic or any other, arises. A novel, at least in my view, is able to hold these potentials.

Cinema or the digital media has strong capabilities too, but the power of the word has in no way shrunk. There are many writers doing wonderful work with providing new perspectives, for example the Polish writer and Nobel [Prize in Literature in 2018] winner Olga Tokarczuk.

The diversity of experiences that comes from technology and the so-called connectivity that we talk about could expose us to various other cultures, lifestyle, food habits, etc, which in turn can make us consumers of another kind. This may even spread a layer of difficulty in the deeper understanding of literature or art in general. The novel, after all, is about the depth – and not the width – of our experience.

Tone, you say, is the core of a story that the translator must catch. Is there a challenge in employing language too, something that can effectively capture multiple realities of a story
Tone is a key that decides the expression or language as well. It’s like a camera that you fix at a certain angle where you see certain things closely and more importantly, you don’t see certain things. So once you deploy a tone, your language has to be in sync with it – you can’t use certain words or phrases. The tone and the language are inseparable. If one wants to capture multiple realities of a story, the effective use of tone is absolutely essential. Tone also tells you about the worldview of the narrator.

In fact, it’s so many things. When I write, I struggle to get that perfect pitch. Most of the times a work comes to me with a certain tone and when there’s perfect harmony between the tone and what I’m trying to say, the writing just flows. A writer is always in search of that tone to explore a theme or experience.

Jayanth Kodkani is a Bengaluru-based writer.