Two years after the publication of his novel Neon Noon, Tanuj Solanki has returned with a collection of short stories set in his hometown – Muzaffarnagar. Diwali in Muzaffarnagar is a quiet collection of stories that explores what it means to leave a small town as a young adult, and to return to it as an older, more assured, less jaded person. This is a book that is interested in the inner mechanisms of families in small-town India. What are they afraid of? What do they lean on? One of Solanki’s stories, titled “My Friend Daanish” can be read at Catapult under the title, “I Had a Muslim Friend Once.” It’s a powerful story about how bad scenarios have unequal ramifications for people from different genders and communities.

Each of the storylines shows how little we can predict which paths the people who once shared a hometown or a classroom will take. Solanki spoke to about Muzaffarnagar, first drafts, evolving as a writer, autobiography, small-town literature, and the role of money in writing powerful fiction about families. Excerpts from the interview:

Let’s start at the beginning – you grew up in Muzaffarnagar. When were you first moved to write about it? How did this collection come into being?
My life as a writer started in 2010, seven years after leaving Muzaffarnagar for higher studies at the age of seventeen. My first attempts at fiction had nothing to do with my hometown. In fact, even if in my head the protagonists belonged to a place like Muzaffarnagar, I would somehow be unable to include that information in the stories. In late 2012, a set of circumstances led to me spending about six weeks in Muzaffarnagar with my parents. It brought back childhood memories, and the feeling that I still knew the town. Then, almost a year later, I wrote the title story of the collection, which was run in the Caravan as “Muzaffarnagar Diwali”. The story was loved by everyone who read it, and its success made me realise that I had this whole world that I could authentically bring into my fiction. The collection was then a matter of time.

The stories are filled with striking, revealing images such as peeling paint on a sickly green wall, a widow’s white sari a character uses to hang themselves, the Honda Activa as a gift that represents freedom and danger. If the story simply said peeling paint or an unidentified scooter, the images wouldn’t have been as evocative or memorable. Do details like this come to you early in your drafts or is it more often in the editing stages that you bolster the fictional worlds with specificity? And how do you decide upon a specific image such as the colour of a wall or the show a grandfather watches on television?

These images come to me in the first draft itself. In earlier stories, like the one in which the “sickly green wall” appears, the details are just there, with no other intention. But the “widow’s white sari” in another story is perhaps so because the sari is what connects both mother and son to the father. A Honda Activa because it is a gearless scooter and doesn’t require much training before riding (small towns have been full of teenagers speeding on Activas for years now).

With time, I’ve become a writer who isn’t very comfortable with excess – in the sense that nothing is just there anymore but relates to other details either thematically or for considerations of plot. I have mixed feelings about this change, because I am someone who enjoys reading prose in which the writer has taken descriptive liberties. You have rightly pointed out that the scooter represents freedom and danger. Also, what the grandfather is watching on TV is related to what comes immediately after. I guess with time I have become more attuned to the idea of the short story as a compact form, where every detail needs to add up. Interestingly, though, I’m working on a novel now, and since a novel is a more expansive form, I’m having to reconcile with the idea of excess again. Perhaps writers continuously shift between these sensibilities.

Some of the characters in the book are writers. A friend of one of these characters wonders about the overlap between the writer’s life and domestic violence in one of their poems. In another story is a man who works in life insurance – the same field as you (if I’m not mistaken.) When writing this collection, what were some of the ways in which you were thinking the connection between real life and fiction?
Do some of the characters share details with my own life? Yes, at times they do. But then they don’t share the other details, or the events that happen in the stories are not related to anything in my life. In that sense, the autobiographical element is at best a take-off point. By creating characters close to me in some or other similarity, I enable the creation of more elaborate fictions. Other writers may not need to do that; and I, too, may not need to do that for some stories. I like Janice Pariat’s answer from an earlier interview here: 57.8%. In the case of Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, it’s 23.4%.

To me, fiction is an artificial thing that must work hard to appear real. To bolster its reality credentials, a certain kind of fiction finds it natural to take from real life. But it is to be done in order to suspend disbelief enough so that when the artificial elements – the dramatic situation, the twist, the epiphany, the violent act, the monologue, the awkward conversation, etc., – are forwarded, there is no dissonance. Why are artificial elements there? Well, because fiction has objectives whereas real life doesn’t. Though it is important that the objectives of a fiction be concealed – both through, and for the sake of, real life. If, after reading a work of fiction, readers have the notion that “this certainly happened/happens”, then is that fiction suddenly transforming into non-fiction? Or is it just that fiction being successful?

One of the stories is about a man who doesn’t know how to swim because he grew up in land-locked Muzaffarnagar. As someone who grew up on the coast, this story reminded me of how intrinsically our skills are limited and magnified by where we grow up.
I think our skills are definitely related to two things – the place we grow up in, and the family we grow up with. There were no thoughts given to swimming as a life skill in my growing up years in Muzaffarnagar. My parents didn’t know how to swim, and naturally it never occurred to them that I would need to. Then the economy changed, and kids like me grew up to work in mega cities and had enough money to see the world. In the story “B’s First Solo Trip”, the character B is coming from a similar life experience. We see him when he’s just completed his education. He has all the impetus for becoming a part of the wider world. But at the first such interface, he struggles with the deficiency of experience that his small-town upbringing has endowed him with. He even sees this as an embarrassment.

Recently, you posted on Facebook saying that the way to bring nuance into fiction about families is by exploring the way money operates within a family. In your stories, money is tied up with gender, age, obligation, social appearances and much more. Could you talk to us a little about your thoughts on money when you were writing this book?
I believe that in families and extended families, forgiving or tolerance is closely tied to money. More than who has the money, what modulates relations is the dynamic of who is expected to provide for whom. Also, unmet expectations are not easily articulated inside families.

I wanted to tackle these complexities through some of my stories, with the easy knowledge that all these people essentially love each other to bits. From a cold-hearted writers’ perspective: the constraints that money imposes always elevate the story, increasing its capacity for complications, so to say. As a writer I’m not interested in making a fictional family that has no scarcities, even if it were dysfunctional for other valid reasons.

It’s been a couple of years since Neon Noon. Would you say writers grow and mature in their writing from book to book?
My first two books were pitched together. And some of the stories in Diwali in Muzaffarnagar were written before completing Neon Noon. So, I don’t think there exists a straight line between the two books, though I’m also aware that I can’t stop that line from being drawn. Neon Noon was a book about a self-conscious monster, and most of it was written in the voice of that monster; Diwali in Muzaffarnagar is about those who are – to use the title of one of the stories – “good people”. My growth as a writer in the period between the two books is perhaps in the fact that now I’m slightly more interested in calamities faced by decent people rather than by monsters.

The stories are in conversation with one another as the inhabitants of Muzaffarnagar and the migrants who return to it reconcile their distaste for the place with their deep-rooted love for it. I enjoyed the way the last couple of stories bring back characters we encounter early in the book. In a book universe like that, one feels like one has entered a town where one can’t help but bump into the same people over time. Was that the intent with the echoes and overlaps?

Some of the characters were in school together. They all leave Muzaffarnagar for the big cities at around the same time. When I return to their lives as grown-ups in later stories, it is deliberately done at junctures where these characters find themselves returning to Muzaffarnagar for one reason or another. The town, they find, has retained its notions and prejudices, and is therefore unable to accommodate the expansions in their character. But it is still their hometown, and is also the place where their parents have continued to live. In that sense, Muzaffarnagar is inextricable from their lives, especially as it is the locus of these characters’ filial responsibilities.

The echoes and overlaps are products of this overall design.

What is some writing about small towns you’ve personally read and enjoyed?
I have immensely enjoyed Gyanranjan’s short stories (in Hindi). Anees Salim’s novels are always a delight. Mohit Parikh’s Manan is a novel I have read more than once and enjoyed each time. I like visiting Manu Bhattathiri’s fictional small town in the collection Savithri’s Special Room & Other Stories. I also admire the Hazaribagh-based poet Mihir Vatsa’s work.

Generally speaking, with respect to small towns, I prefer work that is written by an insider, rather than by a big city person in transit.