In 2022, when I started translating Chandan Pandey’s short stories, there was very little I knew about him as a writer and his literary aesthetics. I took up the project because I was eager to try my hand at translating from the Hindi. As I worked my way through the nine stories in The Keeper of Desolation, I was introduced to a world that was so unlike my own. Traversing big cities, small towns, and villages, Pandey’s gaze is fixed firmly on the underdog. His characters range from poor families riddled with debt to corporate workers being bullied at the office, and a boy who’s forgotten by his needy family.

The hyperrealism of the stories borders on the absurd and what starts off “realistically” often assumes a fable-like quality. Pandey seems to be interested in the dubious morality of human beings, especially men, whose greed and hypocrisy have caused much pain around the world.

Over the next two years, as I worked on several drafts of the translation, I got to engage with Pandey at a more personal level. We talked about his stories, the philosophies that guide him as a writer and discussed how best we could bring his stories to an English reader. It has been one month since the collection was published, and we still talk about writing – the joys and some pains – of it. In a conversation after the publication of the book, Pandey and I talked about his craft.

Can you tell me about the first story you wrote? Creative writing in Indian languages isn’t usually taught, still I’d like to know if you received any formal training in the craft.
I first attempted my hand at writing when I was 17. It was a story of a mother reading a letter from her son, a military officer. But he had sent her the letter many months ago and at the time she’s reading the letter, she doesn’t know the conditions in which her son is. This is something I still want to write about. Perhaps it was my first time or because it was a story about a lonely mother, I could not eventually finish writing it. I went back to writing at 21 and that’s when my first story was also published.

I have not received any formal training. And even today, I don’t feel comfortable about learning the craft of writing stories. In the sphere of Hindi literature, the understanding is that writing fiction or poetry cannot be taught. Seeking lessons from senior writers was not encouraged and was often looked down upon. But now I think the trends might be changing.

My “training” happened at home. I was brought up among six aunts and three sisters. Now when I look back to my childhood, I realise that I existed in a completely different universe with them. I was influenced by their love, their stories – as well as how they told their stories. My mother is a brilliant orator. She is wonderful with proverbs. She has an excellent command over Bhojpuri. And how beautifully she narrates! In her storytelling, I have found the brilliance of Imre Kertész, who wrote Kaddish for an Unborn Child. In the novel, the narrator talks about A and before completing it, he finds a cue to move to situation B and then to situation C, and then without completing B, he suddenly returns to A, and then just as suddenly moves on to D and so on…

My mother too narrates an event in a similar manner and this is simply because of her ability to observe situations in detail and therefore, feel genuine concern for every little thing that’s happening around her. I am yet to tell a story with a similar finesse.

Imre Kertész! That’s a high praise. So even though you didn’t grow up in a traditional literary family, you were surrounded by storytellers. And clearly, the oral culture was quite strong. Would you also say the same about the reading culture? Was anyone in your family a writer?
No, there wasn’t a reading culture at home per se. However, sometimes my father used to bring pulp fiction and Bollywood gossip magazines, which the children were not allowed to read. I knew all hell would break loose if I was caught reading them – perhaps, that is what made the magazines all the more charming!

When I was eight or nine years old, my father started bringing home Hindi-language magazines for children like Chandamama, Nandan, Suman Saurabh, and the like. It is through them that I started reading stories outside of the school syllabus and I found myself quite happily engaged. My mother says that my maternal grandfather was a poet, he did extempore. But I never got to know him, he died in the year I was born.

In the stories I translated for The Keeper of Desolation, you write about the politics of our times in intensely private settings. What would you say is the reason for opting for this style? Is it a way of documenting history or, at a personal level, to make sense of what’s happening around you?
What you have said about documenting history is wonderful. I don’t know the situation in other languages but from what I know of Hindi and a little bit of English literature, I get a feeling we are in a time where we are playing a game of “not recording” history.

What happened in 1990-92 changed the course of Indian politics. Especially, three particular events: The Mandal Commission, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and compiling the Dunkel Draft in 1991 which made India a participant in the free global market. These three events had the tremendous merit of becoming literary subjects but in most cases, Hindi literature was besieged by the capitalist market. There was a deluge of fiction that was written on this matter. Then there was another sect that concerned itself with the questions of communal violence. Perhaps the least amount of writing was done on the evils of casteism – even after the Mandal Commission came into existence and its positive effects could be felt in real life. It was much later that writers from Dalit communities started to document these issues in their works.

Similarly, there was also a time of the Independence and the Partition. Plenty was written in Hindi about the dreams of freedom, the nightmares too, and the lies of independence but a similar corpus of writing is missing about the Partition. I think all of us will agree that the Partition was a great tragedy.

In such times, recording history is a momentous task and I am not certain about my work in this regard. I cannot claim to be doing it. But I’d like to add something – the times I find myself stun me in a way that imagination cannot match. I suppose only a reader can judge if these stories hold any meaning or not.

I’d have to agree that the times we are in are truly beyond our imagination. The adage, “the truth is stranger than fiction” makes complete sense in your stories. In this book alone, we read stories you wrote across two decades of your career. This naturally makes me curious about how quickly – or slowly – does one have to write to objectively create stories from real-life events…
The real-life events that become stories do not abide by any rules. Time is immaterial in this case. When the stream of early consciousness begins to dry up, meaning, the memories of childhood and the regrets of youth wear out, it is perhaps then that one is in a hurry to transform reality into stories – otherwise, this is not what usually happens.

One of Hindi’s finest poets, Gajanan Madhav (Muktibodh) had a different view of this question and his perspective is a source of great knowledge. He spoke about the three moments in art. They are: Feelings, thoughts, and expressions. Now there can be many reasons for the intervals between any two moments. An unusual feeling becomes a part of our thoughts, and then the thought becomes an impulse and transforms into expression – this process is different for each one of us. To a great extent, it is affected by personal sympathies. It is also possible that one fine morning, what happened forty years ago suddenly flashes before your eyes and you find inspiration in it. Similarly, it is also possible that you are able to visualise a possibility of the future – which plants itself within you in the present. All of this in turn is related to passion, the passion that you feel for certain ideas or subjects.

That’s a very poetic way to summarise the artistic timeline. The stories are geographically varied. I mean, they are set in urban, semi-urban, and rural India. How does one write authentically about the experiences of the common man in each of these locations?
Perhaps your earlier question can be answered more convincingly here. All three geographies are a part of my life. The village is where I am from, what I dream of, where I want to return to. Sometimes we wake up from a fearsome nightmare only to go back to sleep, but I have been awake for the last thirty years. The village was my sleep – I woke up from it when I was just ten years old and since then, life has been a nightmare. My failures in life also make me want to go back to my village. I know this, and very well too, that the village is no longer what it used to be. Unfamiliarity enshrouds me when I visit. The men from my grandfather’s generation are no longer around. My father’s generation, which gave me so much love – as I’m reminded and as I myself remember – is on the final leg of its journey from which there is no return. My own generation has left the village for employment and the next generation barely knows it. Still, I want to go back to the village. That is how the village exists in my stories.

I dislike the big cities but the truth is that a large chunk of my life has been claimed by them and I have acquiesced. Whatever I have gained in life, I have the city to thank for it. The privacy I needed after leaving the village could only be found in the crowds of the cosmopolitan city. The privacy which sometimes became loneliness was granted to me in plenty. We moved around a lot due to my father’s job – that is how I met the small towns. They also nourished me. The small town is a repository of stories. My own work also took me to many small towns across India.

I have intimately engaged with all three geographies of India – the village, small town, and big city.

Now I’ll try to go through the table of contents of The Keeper of Desolation in some detail. In the stories “The Poet” and “Wound”, we see how an employee finds himself in a tricky position because of their identity as an artist. As a writer with a corporate job, have you found this to be true for you too?
Although these stories aren’t based on real-life events and I do not know anyone who’s been in similar situations, the latter part of your question is still true. A special note is taken of the corporate worker who is also an artist. The company expects them – since they are also a writer or a poet – to be equally creative when it comes to the matters of their corporate job. Once, I had praised an advertisement very highly. The CEO and everyone else were present. The rest of them started to talk about the advertisement among themselves but the CEO looked at me and said, “This is what we are expecting from you!”

There’s also a downside to this. If you are the creative type, then the company hesitates to promote you to big roles. They think that being creative also means being soft. These are still the perspectives of those with a positive outlook but those who represent the other side of the coin are proficient in an entirely different method. They do not like artists. What I mean to say is, I’m yet to write about my own experiences in the corporate world. The things you read about in “Wound” are about a company of little repute where human beings are treated as subhumans. Whereas, in “The Poet”, you read about a highly corporate organisation.

Absolutely. I often think of corporate jobs as necessary evils – they pay for your bills but at a tremendous personal and emotional cost.
Next up is the story that starts just outside the office setup. While reading “The Land Was Ours,” one feels as though they have stepped into another dimension. Especially, when Aniket is being roughened up in the car by Lucky and Major. Tell us about creating this dystopian landscape so close to the capital city of Delhi.
My uncle used to work in Noida when I was a child. I clearly remember the scene that unfolded in the kitchen. I was sitting on logs meant to be used as firewood. My aunt was making rotis on the clay stove and my uncle was eating his food in the same room. He was on leave at that time. It was winter and he thought I had dozed off. He started to tell my aunt about his experiences in Delhi – there was violence, humiliation, and more. His story still haunts me. He also shared an anecdote which was in reality a testament to a pattern of crime. At night, Tata Sumo or Jeep would leave for Gurgaon from Kashmere Gate and some people occupied the seats at the front and the back.

They would approach an unsuspecting person and tell them that all seats were full save one. Then they would make them sit in the middle seat of the middle row – there were people at the back and the front, and in the middle, there was you. As soon as the vehicle left Delhi, the people seated at the back threw a noose around your neck and killed you and stole whatever you were carrying. Be it one rupee or one thousand. Clothes, scraps whatever. They wouldn’t spare a second. They wouldn’t even say, Give us the money or we will kill you. I heard my uncle tell his stories though all the while he was under the assumption that I was asleep. My aunt started to cry. Her crying was unexpected and I was forced to “wake up”. Seeing me, my aunt fell silent and my uncle said, It’s not right to eavesdrop on elders. I also remember how she took me away to the passageway next to the kitchen so I could sleep properly.

I had entirely forgotten about this episode until 2001 or 2002 when I read about similar incidents in the newspaper – and I was immediately reminded of everything I had heard as a child. By then, I had decided to write but I had no experience of Delhi, Haryana, or Punjab. I had heard about the farmers, read about them, who received millions of rupees by selling their lands – soon enough they spent all their money and found themselves in poverty. I also heard about how those who sold off their lands for the construction of offices and factories were later employed in those same places as clerks, security guards, and other nominal jobs. It made me wonder about the self-respect of these people.

In 2009, thanks to my job, I became the in-charge of operations in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Kashmir. I was required to travel a lot for work and back then it was a typical sales job. I had a meeting in Bhatinda and just the day before a Sikh preacher was killed in Austria. There was a riot-like situation across Punjab. A train was set on fire in Jalandhar and a curfew was imposed in the entire area. People advised me to cancel the meeting but I don’t know what came over me. After the meeting was over, my colleagues said that travelling to Karnal was out of the question. They advised me to stay back at the hotel but something untoward was awaiting me, I was still heady from the highs of a new job and declared I’d travel regardless.

My colleagues accompanied me to the main road. There were no vehicles. A milk van passed us by and it was full of people. If I could just manage to travel from Bhatinda to Mandi Dabwali in Haryana, then I would find a bus to take me to Karnal. There was another person on the main road, who like me, was waiting all alone. Once the evening set in, a big car parked itself in front of me. It was occupied by two people. They were headed to Sirsa. They agreed to offer me a lift but refused the other person. My colleagues began to insist. Both of us got into the car. They were actually lovely people. They even asked us before drinking alcohol! But soon enough they started to poke fun at the other guy. It is through their jokes and taunts that the story started to take wings in my imagination. And you already know the rest…

Memories from many years ago dusted themselves and appeared in front of me. Their laughter, how they teased and jeered became the third “moment” and added another dimension. Just like how Muktibodh had said it does.

Wow, that’s a fabulous anecdote. And yet another example of how the truth is stranger – or as strange – as fiction.
In your more personal stories, (“The Decision”, “Forgetting”) human relationships are completely torn apart by external forces beyond the control of the characters. I felt that it was a warning of sorts against what happens when we are careless about our principles and politics…
I’m very happy with how you have read the stories – you have been able to see their very cores. Your question points to exactly what I was thinking while I wrote the stories. While writing both of them and “The Alphabet of Grass” too, my focus was on the family and interpersonal relationships. I’m not a fan of the unit we call “family”. Perhaps tomorrow we can come up with an arrangement that serves society better but at the moment this is what we are stuck with. That’s why I try to pit a family, with all its strengths, against other social forces. What kind of story would emerge then? This “strength” is nothing but love. For any family, love is its biggest strength – and yet, love is also subject to litmus tests.

As far as external forces as concerned, it would be appropriate to say that external forces are always looming large on love. In the course of human history, external forces have never been so ominous as they have in the last one hundred years. The Holocaust, the Partition of India…were all events controlled by external forces which made humans think about each other as sub-humans, and perhaps something even worse. The unlimited extent of human failure made itself known in the last century. It is through sheer human courage that life still thrives, there’s beauty on this planet otherwise every organisation, every institution is hell-bent on destroying everything. Perhaps this is what stories want to convey.

And could you tell us about writing the titular story, “The Keeper of Desolation” – which is almost fable-like in its quality? In many ways, it is also a departure from the other stories in the collection that appear more “real”.
I wish to write many such stories like this. I’m very fond of the fable as a medium. A distributor at my company had told me this story in two or three lines and I was completely enthralled by it. I’d like to add here that if I had listened to the story as a child then perhaps I would not have been able to write it. One does feel the urge to turn their childhood stories into contemporary retellings but there’s an unknown fear that prevents us from doing so.

The stories are dominated by male characters and yet all of them are quite timid and morally dubious. Some of them can be called cowards too. While translating, I had a feeling that you think that masculine bravado is just a facade. Would you agree?
You are right. Masculinity is merely a cover. A facade. And the world is fatigued by its existence. Men have expended their energy on mostly useless things such as religion, war, unchecked technological advancement, and hatred. You can understand what I’m trying to say by picturing a simple scene of men in the village who while away their time playing cards because they have nothing better to do.

The claims of physical prowess were proven untrue a long time ago when with the help of technology, small armies have been able to defeat their much bigger and stronger counterparts. However, men still foster primitive beliefs that make them think they are responsible for everyone’s well-being. When criminals change their ways, they are convinced that they were the inspiration for it.

Whereas in reality, most men do not have an option but to submit when it comes to the affairs of daily life. They are not cowards, but they are afraid. More than religion and caste (and class), they worry that women will become powerful. Is there any justification for such a backward society amid such blinding technological progress? No. Is there any justification for the wars that men fight under the garb of religion? No.

And the women in your stories, though they appear rarely, are level-headed and strong-willed. Tell us about this role reversal.
My life has evolved around women. I have had the opportunity to witness their struggles from very close quarters. My childhood was spent among my mother, aunts, and sisters. I was the only boy child at home after my younger brother, Kundan, was sent away to a hostel. Everyone who loved me at home was a woman. There was no dearth of love even after my brother returned home. Perhaps this is why I’m so fond of women.

Perhaps another reason could be that I have seen women fight with determination for the truth and their rights. I don’t want to do the unwise thing by saying that one sex is better than the other and another is weaker but the truth is that women have been deprived for a long time, and this loss has changed something within them. The stifling atmosphere of home exasperates them, perhaps that is why they are so astute at understanding the pains of others.

If I were to talk about my own home, my mother, aunts, and wife talk about justice with a clarity that I have rarely seen in men. When they become powerful – and one day they will – I know for certain that if we were to hand over the reins of the world to women then it’d become a more hospitable place. There’ll be an end to forcefully snatching away resources from Mother Nature. Men who are prone to politicise both their offices and homes, spread violence, take pride in their race would find something productive to do too, which would in turn ensure peace at home.

It’s hard to find happiness in these stories. Do you think, as a nation, we have lost all hopes of an optimistic future?
These days happiness can only be found in movies. Otherwise, where else does one find happiness? We should in fact investigate if children these days feel any happiness at all. If they are at all happy, it is because they are children but time and society will leave no stone unturned to break their hearts.

I feel the literature that only portrays happiness is just a mouthpiece of the State or of authorities who yield power. Government reports and happy literature are mostly alike.

For every smile, time extracts payment from the most deprived people in our society by heaping pain on them for days, months, and years. That is why I don’t believe in happy literature. Or government reports. I believe in the future, I certainly do, but happiness is a desire, a hope.

As a writer, what are some of your foremost concerns – personal and social?
I feel like Don Quixote while answering questions such as these. They make one feel very important as if I’m someone important! But everyone knows the truth. I’d humbly like to say that when everyone tries to wilfully ignore the truth, that strange moment becomes the germ of a story – it doesn’t matter if this is a personal or social concern. And this is what I try to document.

In your long-ish career of writing fiction, what according to you is literary success?
If I am asked to divide my writing into short stories and novels, then all I can say is writing has always been a part of my personal ambition. I did not receive formal training which is why I started out by writing short stories. I chose genres that would make readers uncomfortable, genres that they usually do not like. If the reader is kind enough to stick with my creations despite the initial discomforts then I would say that my writing has been meaningful to some extent.

Who are some of the writers you look up to among your contemporaries? Who are some of the writers you would want translators to translate into English?
Taking names also means leaving some out. Contemporary Hindi literature is progressing with great gusto. New questions have given rise to a new language. Among my peers, some names that I can remember off the top of my head are Kunal Singh, Manoj Pandey, Rakesh Mishra, Ravi Buley, Pankaj Mitra, Vandana Rag, Neelakshi Singh, Upasana, Anil Kumar Yadav, Mohammed Arif, Mithilesh Priyadarshi, Ravindra Arohi, and Shivendra.

I must have missed out on a few more. I consider myself lucky to be able to write the names of the authors who are senior to me but are still active. I learned the art of writing by reading them. They are the stars in the sky of Hindi literature and I sincerely hope that English-language readers know the names of the stories, find them, and read them – they’ll find a different India in their writings. Uday Prakash, Raju Sharma, Akhilesh, Manoj Rupda, Srinjay, Geetanjali Shree are some of them. On this note, I also ask forgiveness from those whose names I have forgotten to mention.

Disclosure: Sayari Debnath is a Senior Writer at Scroll and the translator of Chandan Pandey’s new book of short stories, The Keeper of Desolation. This interview was also translated by her from the Hindi.