On Lit, ghosts and creativity: A literary conversation with Santosh Bakaya

The eminent author-academic-blogger-biographer-TedX speaker from Jaipur, India, Santosh Bakaya discusses her world and craft with fellow writer and editor Sunil Sharma.

Sunil Sharma

Q:  What does it mean to be: a woman, a poet and academic in the post-colonial, mass society?

Santosh: In the intellectual space provided to us- the decolonized people in the post-colonial world, the emergent women writers have found snug niches for their differently contoured and differently nuanced voices with varying inflections and emphasis. In the post-colonial society, new perceptions, paradigm shifts and newer methods of looking at the world have emerged, and there are alternative dialogues and counter-narratives and women have been vocal enough to talk about these new perceptions in their own confident voices.

I can say it with a robust conviction that I have received a lot of respect and love as a woman-writer, in the present post-colonial society, which I indeed find very humbling. What more can a writer dream of?

Q: Santosh Bakaya that her readers do not know?

Santosh: The readers don’t know the insane side of me. They called me the Mad Hatter in school, and I continue to retain that insane streak, and seem to be adding to it every day [and am I proud of it!] I believe that I am forever injecting a little of my insanity in the sane world around and am firmly convinced that all of us are mad here.

Yes, another thing that my readers don’t know [some do!] is that I had enacted the role of one of Macbeth’s witches in my school days, and the vestigial remains of the cackling laughter that I worked on, still clings to me. So, I tend to laugh a lot- so what, if some believe that it is a cackle- I believe that a cackle can also spread joy. And I am absolutely peeved by people who frown without any reason. Many a time, I have told a flabbergasted class to wipe off their frowns before entering my class.

Q: Santosh Bakaya summed up, in a paragraph, please.

Santosh: My daughter calls me a social embarrassment, [and, like a fool, I keep telling myself that it is tongue-in-cheek] because of my tactility, garrulity and proclivity of laughing the loudest at my own jokes. Trust me to strike long lasting friendships with people I have met in trains and planes.

Q: The necessity of creativity and dissidence in societies of the Alt-right?

Santosh: Dissidence is absolutely important in societies of the Alt-Right, because if we don’t dissent, we will be asphyxiated- squeezed out of existence. These days, it is very edifying to hear many youngsters raising their indignant voices of dissent against such societies, through powerful writings – both in poetry and prose.
The societies of the Alt –right go all out to exclude other voices from public deliberation and fake news, hate speeches, personal attacks and trolling reign supreme, coupled with a vehement desire to indulge in drowning [their] speaking with shrieking and squeaking In fifty different sharps and flats.
In order to sabotage this desire of the Alt-Right to drown the others’ voices, it becomes our moral duty to increase the pitches of our voices, so that we are also heard above the shrill cacophony.

Q: Literary truth, lies in a post-truth culture?
Conformism and creativity, are these productive or dangerous for fine arts as a public domain of cognition, communication and consumption?

Santosh: In the present culture of post- truth, where facts and reality are being
assaulted every day with impunity, truth has become Janus-faced. We often find
falsehood masquerading as truth and fake news strutting around brazenly, and
journalists crying themselves hoarse trying to establish falsehoods as truth.
Schisms are evolving every day, and new fault lines can be seen polarizing the
world like never before .There is no such thing as accountability, and the authorities are known to do whatever suits their political exigencies.
That idyllic world, alas, is irretrievably lost when there used to be only one version of the truth. Now we have many versions of the truth, and even literary truth has fallen prey to this practice. The writers can create their own literary truth, literary works can be written in a manner which present reality in a distorted manner, or in a manner which is in conformity with the perspectives of the writer.
The Britishers called the 1857 uprising a mutiny, thus giving it an absolutely
negative spin.
These days we find that false narratives are dexterously woven around ‘Us’ and
‘them’, injecting one’s own biases, prejudices and beliefs into the narrative.
In such a scenario, the onus of differentiating between falsehood and reality falls
on the shoulders of the literary critics. There was a time when Truth was Truth, but
today, there are many versions of the truth. For some, the overwhelming information churned out by WhatsApp is the sole truth. A writer with right wing leanings can inject his own personal viewpoint in his narrative, touting it as the truth, but it is the duty of a discerning person to try to get to the root of the actual truth.
Regarding the second part of your question, let me maintain that if one is conforming to a particular line of thought, creativity becomes a misnomer. One cannot conform and be creative at the same time. Right from our preschool days, we get subtle hints of indoctrination – how a child should behave and how he should not – do’s and don’ts of a student’s life. When we start moving forward, these efforts of the society to make us mental slaves conforming to their norms become stronger and clearer. Unless one has a robust sense of self-worth, one will invariably become a slave to societal expectations. No matter what others say, I strongly believe that conformism and creativity are absolutely dangerous for fine arts as a domain of cognition, communication and consumption, and smack of a servile mindset. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said this a long time ago, and this has a stronger resonance in the society of today, when one is expected to toe lines laid down by the high-ups, and if you don’t, woe betide you.

Q: Why horror and ghosts as preferred forms of writing and reading for you? Are you not afraid of the cold sighs and a visitor from the other side, dead of night?

Santosh: This reminds me of my daughter when she was just a two year old. Reassured that she was sleeping, I would watch horror movies at midnight, only to hear some squirming next to the bed. To my utter horror, I would find her, watching the movie through chinks between her fingers.

The moment I switched off the television set, she would throw a tantrum, flinging away the quilt, her yells making the owls break into a string of frightened hoots. “I WANT TO WATCH THE ‘HORREL’ MOVIE!” Her discordant shriek would rent the air.
Horror had a tiny tot who could not even pronounce the word ‘horror’ properly, in its grip. So you see, the spirits and spooks always intrigue, both the young and the old.
But, honestly speaking, I have read The wind in the Willows, Gerald Durrell’s My family and other Animals with the same gusto as I have read The Woman in white, or the best horror stories of the world.
I often think that we are merely ghosts strutting the earth vainly and will soon dissolve into thin air, leaving behind all our earthly assets, but we never seem to realize it because of our humongous conceit.
Yes, and even the present sad scenario of a pandemic has the makings of a scary, spooky surrealscape, bringing to mind a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story

‘The Masque of the Red Death’, ‘’No pestilence had ever been so fatal and so
hideous.” We seem to have become ghosts of our former selves, jumping at our own sighs –ears pricked to the eerie sound emanating from the constant washing of hands.
Honestly, it is high time we realized that we are merely malevolent ghosts, and ought to be afraid of our shenanigans, and our knack of wreaking havoc.

Q: Language of male writers, is it different from the female writers, in terms of sensibility, emotive quotient, lexical and linguistic usage? Is it more sensitive? More lyrical?

Santosh: No matter, what is said on this issue, I fail to notice any subtle differences in the writing style of male and female writers. It is believed by many that gender shows up in writing, but, honestly speaking, I am not so discerning a reader. I know many professors of linguistics have emphasized that men and women have differing communication styles and computers can pick up these differences, but, I know even computers have been known to err.
For a long time, I continued to think that George Eliot was a man, and if I were told that To kill a Mockingbird was written by a man, I would have willingly believed it.
So, for a layperson like me, I find no difference in men / women writers in terms of sensibility, emotive quotient, lexical and linguistic usage, or sensitivity or lyricism.

Q: The role of eminent women writers like Jane Austen, George Eliot, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

Santosh: The niche that George Eliot and Jane Austen have carved for themselves in the annals of English literature cannot be underestimated.
It is 200 years since Jane Austen’s death, and she still continues to be discussed with a bright eyed ardor in classrooms. There are many screen adaptations of her novels which written such a long time back are still as captivating now as they were then, as they deal with the eternal matters of money, romantic relations and family conflicts. There is no surreality about her novels, only a very credible reality which families faced then, and continue to face even now. Both the young adults and older audiences have enjoyed her novels equally. The timeless narratives have so enchanted the new writers that they have effortlessly adapted them to the present times, creating their own versions.
George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was one of the important English novelists of the 19th century, whose books Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Mariner have left an everlasting impact on the literary scene. Middlemarch [1871] her psychologically insightful masterpiece, focused on the thwarted idealism of its two principal characters and spoke of the role of women in the community, their longings, yearnings and energies. Replete with many psychological insights and moral ambiguity, the book was critiqued for its bold handling by men critics, as she had not given a happy ending to the novel, as women writers were expected to do. But the book continued to fascinate then as it does now, so much so that Rebecca Mead went on to show her fascination for this nineteenth century work by writing the absolutely intriguing book, My Life in Middlemarch [2014] - her heartfelt tribute to a seminal work of literature.
Who can deny the colossal contribution of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou? Toni Morrison, was the first African- American to win the Nobel prize in literature [1993] and Pulitzer Prize in 1988 [Beloved] This towering writer of The Bluest Eye and the critically acclaimed Song of Solomon, will always be remembered for her writings about Black experience, black identity and her incredibly scintillating prose about the bruising pain, the trials and tribulations of black women.
When she died at the age of 88 on August 5, 2019, she left the world a slightly better place than the one which she was born into. She was not just a writer but a movement challenging America’s inherent racism, partly responsible for America taking strides, albeit slowly, towards a more inclusive America.

Toni Morrison called Maya Angelou ‘a real original’, having been the first to have launched African- American women writing in the United States. Lines from her masterpiece, I know why the caged bird sings have been very oft quoted. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you, is a quote very close to my heart and therefore, I am always trying to spew out those stories lying dormant inside me. Her lines, you may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise are lines which will continue to inspire womankind for years to come.
Needless to say, this hugely popular American poet, civil rights activist and memoirist, with her formidable oeuvre of works and edifying speeches will undoubtedly remain an inspiration, always.

Q: Enduring literary influences on your psyche for more than a decade or so?

Santosh: I am a Dickens loyalist and it has always been Charles Dickens for me. No matter what people say about my being a twenty first century woman caught in a time warp, I will take my love for Dickens to the grave. I was in the tenth standard when I had read all the Dickens classics, and I know, till the last breath, like Oliver Twist, I will keep asking for more- more of Dickens.
Although, I do read the modern writers, [I love David Baldacci, have read all the novels of John Grisham], Dickens has always been my first love, and I will continue carrying a torch for him till the time I totter and flounder to my grave.

Q: What makes you write? And why? Is it worth the efforts?

Santosh: The happy cloud flaunting its silverware, the rag picker bending over an overflowing dumpster, and straightening up, with a serendipitous gleam in sunken eyes, holding some precious booty in his grimy hands, an emaciated woman at the construction site suckling her infant lying in a patchwork hammock in the shade of a neem tree , and an octogenarian couple trudging on into the sunset, holding hands, whispering trivia into each other’s ears, a shikara in the Dal Lake in my homeland, Kashmir, and the boatman singing a sad, sad song of the good old days, a rosy cherub peeping through his mother’s pheran- such heart-warming scenes have always sent me into a poetic tizzy. When I see any social injustice, my pen starts itching and spewing indignant words.
Of course, it is very much worth the efforts. Let me make myself clearer. Once at the SAARC Sufi festival in Jaipur, where I happened to be one of the delegates, to my absolute embarrassment, someone mistook me for Taslima Nasreen! When I sheepishly told him of my non- entity status, he did not bat an eyelid, on the contrary, fumbling in his bag, pulled out three copies of Ballad of Bapu.
“Sorry for the confusion, madam, but I know you, I had seen your picture in the SAARC brochure, and hence brought these copies of Ballad of Bapu along for your autograph. Thanks a ton for this poetic tribute to Bapu. Madam, how long did it take you to write this masterpiece? I had resolved not to start reading unless these books had been autographed by you.”
“Three copies?”
“Well, one for my daughter, one for my wife who will gift it to her college and one for myself.” He said beaming; I would have beamed too, but for the tingling sensation in my eyes.
But in a lighter vein, you know, I have often been at the receiving end of many jibes from my daughter, “when will you stop spilling the creative juices all over the house?” I have often heard her crib with a naughty twinkle in her eyes.
Then there are beautiful, sensitive souls that I have met along the way and struck lifelong friendships with. That wouldn’t have been possible if writing had not been my passion.

Q: The novel is a demanding literary form. What problems do you face, writing longer prose than poetry? The challenges of the novel? How long do you take to finish it?

Santosh: Well, the first three novels that I wrote were YA novels, and I had no problem writing them because my childhood escapades came to my rescue there, and I wrote a lot about them in these mystery novels; in fact, the novels just wrote themselves, there was absolutely no problem there, and I finished them in four months each.
Then I started writing a humorous-satirical novel on higher education, which also has many autobiographical elements, but alas, the novel is still languishing, because I cannot decide how to end it.
I just had a faint idea regarding what I was going to write in my latest novella, A Skyful of Balloons and here again I faced no problem as the backdrop was Kashmir, my homeland, and the characters also bore a strong resemblance to some people I was very familiar with. This was written during the Nanowrimo, [National novel writing month] hence was finished in a month, but I later added a few more chapters to it, to give it its present form.

Q: Say something about the mystery creatures called cats. You have plenty of them, I am told.

Santosh: Well, my fascination with cats goes back to the time my dad, a professor of English, with a doctorate in Robert Browning used to recite poems to us from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of practical Cats. [“Shouldn’t you be talking of rats, considering your specialization in Robert Browning- Pied Piper of Hamelin, and all?” I remember asking him, and he would merely smile, quoting Eliot, The naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games” while we looked quizzically at him.
Moreover, we used to have two pet cats, Lizzy and Kitty, about whom he penned many poems which he would recite with ‘purrfect’ sounds, while the cats lounged around in feline grace, probably aware that they were the topic of discussion.
You know, I have written many ghost stories where a cat is one of the characters, and many poems revolving around cats. A novel which I am just about to complete also has a cat.
Well, you might say I am a cat person.
Sunil Sharma, this conversation was indeed very stimulating and needless to say, I enjoyed every moment of answering the thought provoking questions. Thanks a ton for this wonderful opportunity.

Q: Same here. Thanks for your patience.

Santosh Bakaya
Author-bio: Dr. Santosh Bakaya, recipient of the International Reuel Award for writing and literature [2014] for her long narrative poem, Oh Hark!, Setu Award [2018], Bharat Nirman Award for literary excellence [2017] Keshav Malik Award [2019], is an academic- poet- novelist- biographer - essayist -Ted Speaker- creative writing mentor, whose Ted talk on the Myth of Writers' Block is very popular in creative writing circles. She runs a much appreciated column, Morning Meanderings, in Learning and Creativity. Com. which now has a kindle version. Her three mystery novels, now out of print [The Mystery of the Relic, The Mystery of the Jhalana fort and The Mystery of the Pine cottage], for young adults ,were very well received.

Her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu], has been internationally acclaimed. Under the Apple Boughs [Poetry], Where are the lilacs? [Poetry], Songs of Belligerence [Poetry], Flights from my Terrace [Personal essays], Bring out the tall Tales, [short stories with Avijit Sarkar], A Skyful of Balloons [novella] are some of her other books which have received laurels. Her latest book is a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. [Only in Darkness can you see the Stars]


  1. Thanks a ton for this stimulating conversation. I enjoyed it immensely . Dr. Sunil Sharma .Honoured and humbled.

    1. Always a pleasure talking to one of the most prolific writers like you, Santoshji.

  2. Enjoyed every question with an equally brilliant answer. Great interview giving a few more insights into the intellectual stalwart, a catty mad hatter with quirks and foibles along with all the lovable reasons why Santosh Bakaya is so adored by everyone.
    Great interview by Dr. Sunil Sharma . Congrats to both of you.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Enjoyed every bit of it!Excellent !

  5. Excellent interview!👌👌

  6. Oh, wow! One of the best interviews in recent times.

    Brindha Vinodh

    1. The questions were very thought provoking , indeed !
      Thanks a ton .

  7. Outstanding interview with such brilliant questions and praiseworthy words, delivered as its answers..
    My heartiest gratitude and love to you ma'am Santosh Bakaya, as I really didn't know so many truths, behind your horror story writings and your inspiration to hold such a mighty pen against the odds whenever you experienced..
    Great and interesting interview indeed

  8. Oh this was a lovely read and very enlightening. So good to read about and get to know the writing process of one of the most boisterous writers I have ever come across. Your writings are a delight.

  9. What a wonderful interview, Santosh Ma'am, and as entertaining and tongue in cheek as ever! The parallels continue. I too will hold a torch to Mr Dickens till the grave. I love cats, especially my daughter's beautiful grey, Tyrion. There is so much in this interview for the uninitiated and the initiated. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the words of two erudite souls, one on either side. Kudos, and here's to many more such enlightening interviews!

  10. Just an engaging and an enriching read! You draw one in - personally and into your writing. Mad hatter you❤️

  11. The amazing interview I get to know many things about ma'am, who herself is an iconoclast the laughs and her proclivity of reading habit, thanks for the beautiful interview indeed God bless
    Prasanna kkumar

  12. A very excellent interview. Intelligent questions and brilliant answers

  13. What a wonderfully insightful interview!

  14. Quite an engaging and insightful conversation. Enjoyed both the questions and the way they were answered, in such a frank and honest manner by Dr.Santosh Bakaya. I for one, call her the Mad Hatter and if it were not for her madness, the world would be a very dreary place.
    One of the most powerful things in this conversation that touched me is the way she asserts the voices of dissent in societies of the Alt-Right.
    And that horror behind writing horror stories, that was one touching incident indeed.
    Loved reading this!

    1. Thanks a ton Samrudhi for your detailed comment.

  15. Reading you is always so full of vibrancy. There is learning yet there is a spark that is so alluring. Love always🧡

  16. Excellent interview. Enjoyed reading it. The love and respect you have received is more than fully deserved. I fully agree with you that there is no difference between the language of a female writer and a male writer. Look at your own writing. Can anyone tell the difference? Your daughter teases you. You are a social asset.


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