In conversation with Himanjali Sankar about her new book Mrs C Remembers.
Celebrated children’s writer and an editor with Bloomsbury India, Himanjali Sankar, talks about her ‘first novel for adult’, Mrs C Remembers, and explains how despite its polyphonic concerns, the novel is about love, family and illness.
What would you say the novel is about? It started as a family drama, a critique of bourgeoisie, and then ended up being a critic of sectarian politics, with a dash of sly crime. I felt there were two distinct stories colliding with each other.
I love the idea of two distinct stories colliding though it does seem to suggest I’ve written a somewhat wayward novel! In an increasingly politicised polyphonic world, it’s rather difficult to write a linear narrative with a singular focus — unless that itself is a conscious political choice.
If I have to pare it down to the basics, I would say this is a book about love, family and illness. It has all that you have mentioned (family drama, critique of the bourgeoisie and sectarian politics, sly crime) because without it, the story wouldn’t have been complete — for the love and the illness to be realised, for a complete understanding of the family that is being portrayed, it was essential to widen the net and capture all the loving hypocrisies (not an oxymoron) of our day-to-day lives.
I liked the way you subvert the possibilities of narrative. I thought the expectation was for Mrs C to narrate her side of the story, but you took her to uncharted territories. Was it a conscious choice?
It was. The nature of her illness necessitated the breakdown of language and thought so after a point she couldn’t remain articulate and reasonable. I took the easy way out by having the daughter’s narrative prop hers up, to complement/contradict her story. The use of the word ‘remembers’ in the title is ironical, of course, in a novel that is about forgetting.
Was it a conscious decision to link the private narratives to the newspaper headlines of the time?
I like the inherent contradiction of women trying to go beyond the domestic/engaging with the outside world to please their husbands — it’s something intelligent, stay-at-home women used to do a lot in our parents’ generation. So it was a plot requirement really, but I must admit that I selected the headlines to suit my own political ideas/thoughts.
Yet, what fascinated me most were the stories left untold, like the stories of Omar’s family.
They were incidental to the story so I didn’t try to understand them fully.
In a way, Mrs C Remembers is a feminist narrative about motherhood. But it is also very politically aware, sometimes exasperatedly so.
Politics is, at many levels, an intensely personal experience for many of us. It becomes relevant only when it affirms or contradicts our own ideological beliefs. It’s just that some of us make the connections quicker and react more vociferously.
Those who are indifferent possibly lack imagination. That’s not meant to be an indictment. I am often indifferent because I don’t join the dots or I am happy to have others do the thinking for me, but there are times when I am not and the political becomes personal.