Devika Rege’s Quarterlife is a debut with the surefootedness of a third or fourth novel by an author who is preoccupied with the inner landscapes of people on the precipice of crises, both moral and existential. Ambitious in its scope and structural inventiveness, Rege’s novel is remarkable in the way it maps these myriad characters’ inner worlds onto the rapidly changing political landscape in the country since the 2014 national election. Set in Mumbai, Quarterlife takes us into the nouveau riche high-rises of Bandra West, the tony, old-money flats of SoBo aristocracy, the crumbling chawls of Lalbaug, and the glistening new corporate towers that have replaced the bogs and swampland around Mahim Creek.
In those spaces, with a preternatural attentiveness to language, and a finely-honed gaze for nuance and moral precarity, Rege unravels the lives of everyday upper-middle class and poor Mumbai dwellers in the frenzied lead-up to Ganesh Utsav, culminating in a devastating and explosive clash of ideals, cultural contexts and class boundaries on the eve of the idol’s immersion.
In a conversation with Scroll, Rege discussed the preoccupations that led her to write Quarterlife over the span of almost a decade, her writing process, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
I devoured Quarterlife in a week. I have so many questions, but let’s start with place and time. I was curious when you mentioned that you spent almost five years preoccupied with this book. I’m wondering why you chose to ask the book questions about this particular moment in time. And why this story for your debut?
After finishing college, I had a corporate job where I travelled to markets in over a dozen Indian states. And from being a girl who’d grown up in Pune and studied in Mumbai, that job gave me this sense of the wider country. This was also when it first came to me, with some seriousness, that I wanted to be a writer. I was playing with stories and stubs of potential novels when I got a scholarship to study writing in the US. And by the time I returned, the churn that would end in the Hindu nationalists sweeping the 2014 election was evident.
I had a gut feeling this moment was a pivot; it was a response to changes that had been in the air for over a decade, and it would come to define Indian politics for years after. I had also sensed a similar rhetoric gathering in the West. This was a time of reckoning for more than one democracy, and I wanted to understand how we had got here. What followed was an intense creative period of five to six years when most of the novel came together. Of course, I’ve lived with it for much longer. There was material from earlier work that fed into it, and events in the time afterwards that clarified the ways in which 2014 was pregnant with 2019 and 2024. In a sense, although the novel is mostly set in a single year and country, it speaks, I hope, to a much wider historical arc.
You did a huge amount of groundwork and journalistic research for this novel, and I’m interested to know more about your decision to go with fiction as your mode of addressing this moment, as opposed to non-fiction.
Throughout my MFA, I knew I was headed back to India. I did not want to write a novel that regurgitates the existing scholarship on the country or that feeds off news reports and social media biases. I had grown up here but wanted to revisit the ground with a writer’s lens. In fact, a book that inspired my research process was a non-fiction work, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee documents the lives of poor sharecroppers during the Great Depression, and his ethos and humility as a writer, the dignity he brings his subjects, and the way his findings shape the design of the text spoke to me. You can tell that he has put aside what he knows as a young man from Harvard and Exeter, and is trying really hard to see the world ground up…
As for the choice of fiction, honestly, it was an instinctive one, though I have always found some motivation in the kind of truth the form aspires to. But however well it is researched, the novel is not intended to be a source of historical, economic, or scientific fact. For instance, Quarterlife’s backdrop may map onto a certain political moment, but the characters and subplots are composites. You study events or facts or people in the real world, pare away the inessentials, and move towards the parts that hold true for the rest. That is why, in fiction, you can have the character of a friend who is not like any of your friends in real life, and yet tells you something about all of your friends. Its task is to arrive at something fundamental about our reality that goes beyond the facts even if it derives from them. And I would like to believe there is some value in such an exercise.
This novel dives deep into the interiority of many disparate characters, and I was struck by one of the main characters, Naren, as an Indian and an immigrant in the US, reflecting on his former roommate (an American) Amanda’s social context. It is a lovely example of the many moments that populate this novel, of a universal connection and humanness, while at the same time of a particularness, and of being within the context of history and geography. Could you elaborate on this?
Thank you, that’s a wonderful way to put it. I suppose Naren’s slow and unsteady emergence is to some extent characteristic of a person’s entry into any new social setting. You spend a while missing subtext, making blunders, and watching closely how people engage with each other before you start to recognise how a society experiences itself. In this sense, Naren’s experience as an Indian in America is not dissimilar from Amanda’s as an American in India, where she cannot tell the implications of one surname from another, and because surnames in India betray caste, the outcome is far more punishing.
As a writer, I am interested in such nuances, especially when fiction is set in a real-world historical and geographical context. This is not least because true comprehension, and, by extension, the scope for empathy rests in acknowledging a people’s complexity. It is not by discarding the particulars as parochial, but through the particulars that we arrive at what is most human about us.
Interesting. Is that what you want people to turn to this book for? What do you hope that readers will walk away with from this book?
You know, this question keeps coming up and I always hesitate to answer. The novel is a creative exchange between the writer and the reader. The reader’s imagination completes the work, and by betraying my hopes, I would be, if not mediating, then mistrusting what readers will bring to that exercise. There are so many themes, so many characters, so many questions and stylistic gestures running through the work. There’s an open-ended quality to it. Though I did not have a specific reader in mind while I wrote, I experienced literature as a kind of dialogue, and it is now the reader’s turn to respond.
I mean, it’s kind of unfair, actually, that we ask this question of writers because when somebody makes a movie, or when somebody paints a portrait, we don’t ask those artists, “What do you expect from the people who are going to view this art?”
Yeah, yeah, what are they going to say? I don’t know…
But it’s a particular burden that we seem to put on literature. Which is interesting, possibly…So, moving on to place. In your mind, how does the particularity of geography or place relate to the story?
It’s hard to escape talking about Quarterlife as a book about India or Mumbai, but such assertions inevitably feel limiting in that they focus on merely one of the many geographical planes on which the story operates. For instance, the novel is as much about Hindu nationalism in a local context as a wider shift towards conservative values, and the ways in which such macro forces and microenvironments play into each other. After all, the deeply local and the transnational are not divorced in our daily lives, nor are these the only two registers of place on which we experience ourselves. There’s the regional, the national, and so many others. And given the sense of identity often encoded in such conceptions, and how central the theme of identity is to the novel, there was no escaping the implications of privileging one at the cost of the other.
Take the case of Omkar, who identifies not only as a Hindu from India, but also as a Marathi man from Satara, and often finds these selves in conflict. In democratic countries, such details are not trivial. They are the basis on which people are politicised, and their wealth is instinctively understood by politicians even as they sing the nation.
There is so much of people’s interior landscape in this novel. It’s a novel kind of filled entirely with interiority. And somehow the restlessness of these characters also kind of mirror back the restlessness of the place that they’re from, and you capture that beautifully, for example, you have Amanda’s way of feeling trapped in her New England town, and her restlessness to see more, to do more, to be more. Naren’s fidgety, bullish, and irascible ambition definitely reflects Mumbai’s perennially on-the-go energy to me. I was wondering how you went about locating a place within interiority. Or did it just happen organically?
I find the texture of prose a means to gently animate my character’s internal states, which are inevitably affected by their geography. So, there is a slight shift in texture between Amanda feeling trapped in her quiet hometown, Naren’s movements through a well-oiled corporate day, or the raw and fragmented thoughts of a jingoistic crowd on a festive night in Mumbai. But there is also a wider, deeper voice within which these eddies and currents reside, and that transcends a single chapter or a setting or even perhaps a book.
This is the voice of the writers’ consciousness in prose, and to the extent that it is shaped by the external environment, I suspect, it is not so much a function of one place as all the places you have been, all the experiences you have had, and all the languages you have encountered at the time of the writing. In the case of Quarterlife, the evolution of this consciousness also came to shape the narrative structure. At the start, I was simply working with the literary modes I knew. But as the novel progressed, I came to question the values they betrayed.
For instance, stories have always played with shifting perspectives, but it’s the modernists who foregrounded it as a structural device. And since post-modern literature, with its values of pluralism and ambiguity, the device has become ubiquitous. But if there is a moral value guiding this device, how far have we got with it? On what basis are some characters awarded interiority and not others? Is the end result of our much-touted polyphony, moral relativism? Are there ethical implications to writing in the first person as compared with the third? If one is writing about a 21st-century political consciousness, is there not some irony in employing such modes of storytelling unconsciously? And if the writer and the characters whose perspectives constitute the novel start to respond to this anxiety, how would it change both the story and the telling?
I know that the goalpost is always shifting when one writes a novel, but what was it that drew you? Was it writing about a particular political moment? Or was it viewing this moment, through the eyes of these very deeply mined and finely wrought characters?
That’s very true about the goalpost always shifting, and what can I say except that it would be within the ethos of this novel to be honest that there was no one point of origin? I have no memory of a day when I first heard a voice or saw a character who would tell me the story. I do remember a phase in the run-up to the 2014 election when I became intensely aware that this would become my first book, yet I’m weary of over-emphasising the moment. There were characters from earlier works that fed into the novel, and on the other side, so little of the story was visible then. The narrative revealed itself through the writing. At times, a historical moment called new characters into being, at other times, the characters expanded my conception of the moment.
Looking back, the writing felt less like telling a story than an exploration. The place in time, the characters, the structure…all of these were, at best, a frame through which to push my understanding of something fundamental about human nature. What that is or why it fascinated me are answers I’m not sure of, but I suspect it has to do with my inclination, as a child, to write poems about war and poverty and the nation, and my interest, as an adult, in the psychological basis and moral justifications for certain political philosophies.
AN Phiroze is a writer who lives and works in the greater New York City area. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Guardian, Poets & Writers, Public Books, LitHub, HuffPost, New England Review, Asymptote Journal, and elsewhere.