Buku Sarkar is a photographer and writer who has grown up in Calcutta and New York. Her first novel, Not Quite a Disaster After All, was published by Harper Collins India in January 2023. In six connected vignettes that span two continents and two decades, readers follow Anjali, the expensively educated daughter of a wealthy family, from her childhood in Calcutta to her coming of age in New York City. There is also her childhood friend Anita, who struggles with the quieter life, marriage and motherhood she has chosen, in a suburb of Ohio.
The two women muster all their grit and resolve to make their way in the world, seeking their identity. Sarkar writes about survival and giving up, and the complexities of feminine freedoms and entanglements.
In a conversation with Scroll, Sarkar talked about her characters, the metropolises of Calcutta and New York City, and how her role as a photographer inspires her as an author. Excerpts from the conversation:
Your book starts with a child’s narrative – her aspirations, inhibitions, and understanding of adulthood. What is so unique about a child’s perspective and was it only natural to incorporate it at the beginning of the book?
I like a child’s perspective because they see things simply. It means writing observations with very precise language, which I enjoy as a challenge. How to present a complex thought through a child’s mind. It’s not easy.
Anjali the child is quite self-aware. Something as simple as not wanting to share her can of Coca-Cola makes her realise “nothing is more natural than wanting things. Nothing sillier and more desolate.” This is a profound realisation. At times I could not separate the adult Anjali from her childhood self. Was this a deliberate construction of the character?
Well the story is told in retrospect through an omniscient adult voice. So even when you are reading about Anjali the child, it is Anjali the adult who is narrating it.
We learn so much about Anita (and her marriage with Mark) as she walks around Upper West Side looking at shop windows till she stumbles upon a dress she could “potentially wear” and is completely enamoured with it. Here you wonderfully illuminate the performative nature of femininity – how much it has to do with the body and how we dress it. And yet, on the front cover, we see unclothed legs. The photos you take of yourself are in the nude too. I am very interested in this contrast. Could you tell me more about it?
Anita is very different from me. She is still trying to discover herself as an individual. I’m always curious about married women with children. I always think of them as very sad people...
As for my photography, I started my self portraits to talk about an illness. And how it affects the body. It felt natural to show the body in that context. I had no idea I’d be doing it. It happened so naturally and almost by accident one day. I had asked my sister if I could use a photograph of hers that I’d taken. She said no.
Then it occurred to me how cameras have timers and I can retake the same image of myself. That’s how the self portrait series started. And it felt so liberating and empowering after suffering with neurological issues that have made me so disconnected from myself.
However, the sequel is with “costumes” and masks. Quite the opposite. As for the jacket cover, you have to ask my editor. It’s not my work.
We meet a range of male characters in the book – mostly in flashbacks and accidental meetings in the present. And in both time frames, they have failed the women in their lives in very fundamental ways. Interestingly, the women toughen up while the men remain stuck (psychologically and economically). Is this something you have noticed often happens when relationships go south?
Hah! Well, it was true in my case when I got divorced. I felt like Superwoman and went around with a drill gun and made a new walk-in closet, built boxes with hinges and latches. It was certainly the case with the women in my family. My other friends aren’t divorced yet.
Anjali and Anita are longtime friends and during her worst personal crisis, Anita comes to stay with Anjali. However, we don’t witness any long conversations between them or any other typical gestures of female companionship. In many ways, it is an unusual one. What is your personal understanding of female friendships?
I grew up with male friends mostly. My female friends now are usually over sixty. I have very intense friendships unlike Anjali and Anita. But they were childhood friends trying to stay in touch as adults, which is always challenging. We change so much in our twenties. I think their relationship shows that fading, somewhat tenuous friendship.
We travel from Calcutta to New York City and Ohio. We follow Anjali from a child to a 40-something woman. Anita comes into her own in a new city too. It is, therefore, a geographical and a psychological journey. Every city makes us different people. In what ways has that been true for you?
I always felt a city physically. How I “feel” different in New York City is very different to how I feel in Calcutta. Bodily, I mean. I walk differently, talk differently in both cities.
I almost always judge a book by its cover. After all, it’s what catches your eye. Could you tell me more about what made you decide on this cover?
I didn’t choose it. My choice was overruled. You’d have to ask Poulomi (Chatterjee) about it. Though, I like the city skyline in it.
Staying on this subject – what are some of your favourite book covers?
I’m the opposite. I hate jacket covers and almost never look at them. Most are terrible anyway. My favorite are the ones by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Simple, French style with blue cover and the title in white. No images. Plain covers. Non fiction is the opposite with white covers and the title written in blue. So elegant! It’d be an honour to be published by them.
Are you already writing your next book?
Yes, in bits. When I am not ill. Health has taken a toll so it’s hard to be on a computer. I’m rethinking of other ways to write or going back to a conventional typewriter.