In Conversation With My Mother And Bangla Author, Sanghamitra Roychowdhury, As A Young Writer

Sanghamitra Roychowdhury

-Tejaswinee Roychowdhury


And then?

Then the mum dog boarded the bus with her puppies…

I remember sitting doe-eyed before my mother — an overused towel tucked into my dress collar like a napkin, another placed on my lap — staring at her face, having forgotten to throw a fresh tantrum about my food, curious about the dog and her puppies, or the bear and her cubs, or the clever fox plotting an elaborate escape from the clutches of the silly ferocious crocodile. 

But I didn’t just listen to stories, I learned to narrate before I could read.

Ek Daktarer Opomrityu
Now you tell me about last night’s Road Runner Show episode.

Oi toh, that naughty wolf dropped a huuuuuuge round thing from the hill but the bird ran so fast, doing peep-peep and… and… the wolf couldn’t catch the bird!

I had narrated with more words and a lot more actions, but what was crucial to my mother was that I chewed while talking, completely distracted and detached from the tedious act of eating. To us, storytelling was neither an art nor was it purposely cultural, and we weren’t invested in literature. I didn’t grow up around stories, I grew up in them, watching life through the lens of fiction, finding companionship and adventure tucked between words, reliving them in an act of rebellion, dwelling in them in a manner of escapism. It is safe to say that my mother’s love for stories enveloped me in more ways than one, planted in me the seeds that allow me to call myself a writer today.

Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki
I should have known my mother had always harboured a desire to see herself in print, on the shelves of bookstores and more. I have openly credited my magazine’s co-editor, Ankit Raj Ojha for his editorial inputs on my poetry that was recently published in Amity (Hawakal, 2022) edited by Sahana Ahmed. But here’s a little-known secret: the first poem I ever published at the tender age of ten, was edited by my mother before I sent it to the school magazine. Not to mention, the idea of ‘hoor-paris’ for my short story, “My Mother’s Lullaby”, recently published in Muse India, again came from her.

Today, with heartfelt gratitude to Dr Sunil Sharma, the Editor of Setu Bilingual Magazine for this opportunity, as I engage myself in conversation with my mother, Sanghamitra Roychowdhury, I engage her not as my mother but as an author, and I act not as a daughter but as a young writer and interviewer.

A Brief Introduction To The Author, Sanghamitra Roychowdhury:

Born in July 1967 in rural West Bengal and having spent her childhood across the state, Sanghamitra Roychowdhury, at the age of 51, (re)ventured into writing fiction and poetry in Bangla. Her work has since appeared in various print as well as online magazines such as Purulia Darpan, Shambhavi, Akhkhar Sanlap, Barta, Joydhaak, Aami Aamar Moto, Shobder Michhil, Shobdosanko, Sahitya Bandu, Kheyalikham, Sahitya Aar Sambad, Shabdolekha, Srijan, Sharod Arghya, Dohor, and Ameyo. At the same time, she rigorously published her work on writing platforms such as Pratilipi, StoryMirror, and Momspresso, and also had her work in several anthologies such as Rahasya Romancha (Liber Fieri, 2022).

Sanghamitra has co-authored a poetry anthology, Aaynay (Notion Press, 2019), and published three short story collections, Sororipu (Saatkahon Prokashoni, 2019), Shob Nishiddho Noy (Corporate Publicity, 2020), and Catharsis (Shopizen Bangla, 2021). Her first novel in print is a historical fiction, Neel Chokh Neel Rokto (Pratilipi, 2022). Sanghamitra has also won several awards. Her notable awards include Ayan Srijan Samman 2022 from Rajar Kobita Studio & 91.9 Friends FM, Kolkata International Micro-Film Festival Top Ten Cine-Content Writing Award 2021, Pratilipi Bangla Sera Kalamkar Award 2021 for ‘Neel Chokh Neel Rokto’, StoryMirror Author of the Year Award 2020: Editor’s Choice, and Joydhaak Sandhya Bhattacharjee Sriti Puroshkar 2020: Top Ten.

Sanghamitra’s current novels are Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki from Shalidhan Prokashon and Ek Daktarer Opomrityu from Patrapath Prokashoni. Both novels have been published in January 2023.

 

Note: This interview was conducted in Bangla. It has been transcripted from audio recordings, translated into English, and edited for readability.


Tejaswinee Roychowdhury
 Tell us about your journey as an author.

I have been into writing since my primary school years. My mother has always encouraged me to write. Of course, back then—I was born in 1967—times were different—there was no internet, online platforms or social media, and we had limited access to literary magazines and limited magazines even. Thus, it was through local magazines and school magazines that I first waded into these waters and saw my name in print. One of my finest experiences lasted for 4 years—Class 7 to Class 10—when I used to run a Wall Magazine for my school, for which I contributed as well as collected works from my schoolmates and school teachers. After school, my writing took a hiatus and eventually, after college, once I got married, life got busy as a mother, a wife, a daughter-in-law, and a working woman often struggling to make ends meet.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening sickness that lasted till early 2017, following which I fell into a deep depression as a result of having to shift away from work and become homebound. At the time, my daughter got me connected to social media and encouraged me to write. Eventually, I started to get the hang of the internet and found writing opportunities in various print as well as online magazines and at the same time, rigorously published my work on writing platforms such as Pratilipi, StoryMirror, and Momspresso. I had work published in anthologies, and was able to publish short story and poetry collections of my own. My first novel in print is a historical fiction, Neel Chokh Neel Rokto, traditionally published by Pratilipi in June 2022, as a result of winning the Pratilipi Bangla Sera Kalamkar Award 2021. I just had two novels traditionally published before the International Kolkata Book Fair 2023: Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki was published by Shalidhan Prokashon and Ek Daktarer Opomrityu was published by Patrapath Prokashoni.

 

Speak to us about the craft of writing, your creative process, and your evolution as a writer.

The first criteria of being a writer is being a good reader. This helps in the shaping of a literary voice which is quintessential for every writer. I read the classics as well as contemporary literature, a lot of non-fiction, and I make it a point to read the newspaper regularly. In fact, I often have to spend more time reading than writing, because writing involves a lot of research. Additionally, reading a lot is also helpful when it comes to hunting around for plots. What I believe allowed me to evolve as a writer, helping my plot and character development is my everyday life experience after marriage and my varied work experience, especially as a proprietor of a kindergarten school for 15 years, where I not only taught but also dealt with parents, recruited teaching and non-teaching staff, etc. This helped me because I have the habit of talking to anyone who I meet whether it is a shopkeeper or an auto-rickshaw driver or the lady who sweeps our apartment or the local fruit-seller or co-passengers on a public transport. Learning about the lives, struggles, and experiences of people from all walks of life enriches one and is fodder for all the characters in my stories.

As for my creative process, I have found that after latching onto a plot idea, the most important thing is discipline. Once I choose to write something, I start to work in a very structured manner. This includes doing the necessary research, making notes, and when all is done, spending at least four to five hours each day writing and editing. Even when I’m doing chores, I’m letting the plot develop and my characters are speaking to me.

 

This brings us to character development. You have written some fantastic and well-rounded characters such as Urmila in Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki and Barfi in Ek Daktarer Opomrityu. Additionally, several of your characters such as Gouri Shankar, Rashu Didi, Arthur Saheb, Helen Memsaheb, Kamal Bala in Neel Chokh Neel Rokto, Tanumoy in Shorirer Saat Kando, a serialized fiction on Pratilipi, have garnered a lot of positive and negative emotions from your readers. Could you go into a little more detail on how you develop your characters?

Character development is a very important part of story-telling. In short stories, we often only get to explore a fraction of a character for the purpose of the events in the narrative. However, in novellas and novels, the characters, especially the main ones can come out to breathe and play as they propel the plot forward and evolve through positive and negative arcs. To have realistic characters and establish a logic in their actions, reactions, and behaviours, I also believe it is important to have their socio-economic status in mind, as well as their cultures, beliefs, region, gender, and other factors. For instance, a fifty-year-old farmer from a rural part of Bengal will have a very different view on let’s say, politics, than a thirty-year-old lawyer who was born and brought up and is living and working in Kolkata. Similarly, in case of period pieces such as in Neel Chokh Neel Rokto, the characters have to respond to the same factors but within that time period and this requires research into the culture and lifestyle of the people during those times. Proper dialogue is another crucial part of character building. The relationships between characters also allow giving shades and shadows to them as people do not behave or interact the same way with everyone they meet. The devil is in the details. In my opinion, a novel is incomplete without well-established characters who draw emotions from its readers.

 

You have written a lot of serialized fiction on Pratilipi where you write and publish a fresh episode every day. For instance, you are currently writing Trikaal and you have already published over 110 episodes. How do you organise your plot and your time?

This is definitely a challenge and a very systematic approach is required to successfully complete a serialized fiction. Generally, in these cases, there is a day to start publishing and there is a deadline. Before I start writing, I have the characters and the plot mapped out in my diary, and I also stock up on raw materials through research for information that can be a part of the plot. This allows me to decide on the amount of story I’ll be telling each episode while making sure the reader is hooked and is eagerly waiting for the next episode. In Trikaal, for instance, the challenges included Pratilipi’s rule to write at least a 1000 words per episode and publish at least a 100 episodes, and so I have to keep that in mind while fleshing out the episodes. If I have enough writing material for one episode and faith in my ability to churn out the episode in a couple of hours, the work is comparatively easier. It is a challenge, yes, but I like challenges. In fact, my love for challenges allowed me to research for Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki while I was writing Ek Daktarer Opomrityu.

 

Your novels span across genres. It is impressive that you have simultaneously researched for Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki which is a literary fiction centred on romance and written Ek Daktarer Opomrityu which is a mystery. On the other hand, Neel Chokh Neel Rokto was a historical fiction. You have also written speculative short fiction. Tell us how you navigate genres.

I find it difficult to tie myself to genres in the first place. First, I don’t want to be stereotyped as an author who writes in only one genre. Second, while my novels did get broadly categorized in a particular genre for the sake of the market, I have explored multiple genres in each of them. Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki is much more than a romance within the confines of literary fiction. A large portion of the novel reconstructs parts of the Ramayana from the perspective of Lakshman and Urmila and this reconstruction is done by the two main contemporary characters in the novel, one of whom is a history professor and another who works at the Archaeological Survey of India. The plot also takes the reader through Laksman temples across India, briefly serving as a travel guide if one allows it. Similarly, Ek Daktarer Opomrityu may be categorized as a mystery novel but it delves deep into human psychology, illicit relationships, and family politics. Neel Chokh Neel Rokto is known for being historical fiction but it includes romance and power-politics within the folds of the socio-political and socio-economic structure of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey.

What I am trying to say is, when I am writing, I don’t want to have a genre in mind, even the words ‘literary fiction’ do not hold much meaning for me. My goal is to tell a story and go wherever it requires me to. My goal is to add a literary value to that story through my characters, layers, and language. Pre-deciding upon a genre is extremely restrictive and works against my creative flow. However, there are times, particularly for contests, anthologies, magazine calls, where I am required to write within a particular genre. In those cases, I take it as a challenge as there is usually a word-count restriction as well but this doesn’t mean I place any less importance on the characters or the language. Whether I’m writing short fiction or a novel, my creative process remains the same and I always settle for character-driven fiction even when I’m working within the confines of genres. To colour the plot within the lines of these genres, whether it is thriller or science-fiction or horror, I try to look back and think of the genre-specific works both in written and audio-visual mediums and take inspiration from how the plots have been developed.

 

What is your experience as a bhasha author in a male-dominated market? Talk to us about navigating the world of literary magazines and publishing.

The Bengali literary community spans across West Bengal and Bangladesh. As a result, and especially in the age of the internet where submissions can be easily made through emails, there are not only a lot of magazines both online and in print, but it is very easy to reach them. However, there is unfortunately an element of ‘groupism’ within certain literary circles of writers and editors. This leads to a form of gatekeeping wherein only a select few are invited to contribute to some magazines, and this can be for a myriad of reasons ranging from commercial reasons where the presence of a popular writer in the contributor list would ensure more sales to sadly, often petty personal reasons. Emerging writers, irrespective of gender, bear the brunt of this practice as they often do not get the opportunity to be published and expand themselves as a writer. A lot of grit, patience, and a thick skin is required on one’s part to make a mark in this community. Several writers take to publishing their work on social media platforms such as Facebook and often face mockery at the hands of other writers. The emergence of writing platforms like Pratilipi, which is now helping writers monetize their content as well, have greatly helped new writers (including me) to present their skills directly to the readers and get recognized within the literary community because of their readers, thereby forcing magazine editors to often reconsider.

Talking of the publishing industry, vanity publishers will publish anyone who can fund themselves, no questions asked. On the other hand, traditional publishers invest their money and they will only invest it in a content or a name they know can bring them the returns. Understanding the business of publishing is very important in this case. The gender of the author they are publishing is irrelevant. However, there are certainly far less female writers compared to male ones and one of the reasons is the social structure that expects women to perform her duties and responsibilities before fuelling her passions. As a result, women often do not get the time to explore themselves and their craft.

Another thing which I feel hold back female writers is a prevailing stereotype that they will write flowery love stories and simplistic tales of everyday life within family structures. Thus, whenever a woman dares to write a bold story, and this includes anything from exploring sexuality to establishing strong socio-political views, she is often shoved into a corner by fellow writers and a section of readers. For instance, a female writer exploring sexuality has her character questioned, or a female writer using raw curse words in dialogues has her womanhood questioned. This also leads to magazine editors and publishers often gatekeeping on the basis of content. The publishing industry has always been male-dominated but that hasn’t stopped several female authors such as Ashapurna Devi, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Mahashweta Devi, Nabanita Deb Sen, from ruling the industry and dominating the markets. But they’ve all had the same experience of their content deciding the goodness or badness of their characters. Additionally, the family members of the female writer also, for the sake of preserving their honour, prefer the writers do not venture into ‘morally questionable’ waters. As a result, several female writers have put themselves in a box from which they advertise themselves as ‘clean’ and ‘family friendly’ writers. In such a reality, male-domination is inevitable. That said, I feel very lucky as my current publishers, Tanmoy Dey from Shalidhan Prokashon and Samrat Hui from Patrapath Prokashoni have been extremely dynamic and did not bother about such things.

 

Who are your favourite authors, including contemporary ones? Tell us about the writers who have inspired you.

I have a long list of favourite authors, but if I were to pick favourites among favourites, the works of Samaresh Basu under the pen name, Kalkut, have helped me develop and grow as a writer. In fact, Basu’s Amrita Kumbher Sandhane and has inspired me to write Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Sei Samay inspired me to write historical fiction and his style was a teacher while I was writing Neel Chokh Neel Rokto. Additionally, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar, Mahashweta Devi, Ashapurna Devi, Suchitra Bhattacharyya, and Nabanita Deb Sen are some of my favourites. Among the classics, I absolutely love Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, particularly his novels, Pather Panchali and Aranyak. I also enjoy the works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, as well as poetry, lyrics, natya-kavya, and short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. There is some inspiration to be found in all of their works. Among contemporary writers, Saikat Mukhopadhyay and Sanmatrananda Maharaj, their use of language have me mesmerised, and as for smooth storytelling, I enjoy Procheta Gupta and Sukanto Gangopadhyay’s works.

 

What is your vision as an author, i.e., where do you see yourself going?

I certainly look forward to having my works translated into English and other languages so that those unfamiliar with Bangla can read them. Additionally, I also wish that some of my stories, especially the ones that have been popular with readers, are adapted for the screen someday.

 

This reminds me of a discussion on Facebook many months ago where a few writers were of the opinion that when a piece of literature is adapted for the screen, the literary value of the work depletes. What are your views on this?

I disagree. Several memorable movies have been adapted from short stories and novels of great literary merit. Satyajit Ray’s Academy Award winning Pather Panchali has been adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel of the same name. A number of Tagore’s stories have made their way to the screens. In contemporary times, filmmakers Rituparno Ghosh and Tarun Majumdar have adapted several stories into movies. Recently, filmmaker Srijit Mukherjee brought Rabindranath Ekhane Kokhono Khete Ashenni to the screen. None of these films have reduced the literary value of the works they have been adapted from. Obviously, books and movies being two very different mediums of storytelling, when written work is being adapted for the screen, some obvious changes will have to be made. For instance, in writing I will describe the sound of waves breaking on the shore but when it is an audio-visual medium, the words to describe it are no longer necessary as I can simply show the waves breaking on the shore. Again, both mediums will have a very different way of depicting emotions, or lets say, a poverty-stricken man in tattered clothes and hollow cheeks. These changes are necessary, but in no way takes away the value of literature. In fact, why just movies? Literature is also adapted for the stage with some very significant changes. No medium of storytelling can ever take away any value from another medium of storytelling.

 

Who do you write for — editors, publishers, award committees, filmmakers, literature students/professors, or general readers?

Readers, without a doubt. Because my reader can be any one of the above and more. I don’t know who will read my story. For instance, just the other day, a reader commented on Albela Sajan, one of my ongoing serialized fictions on Pratilipi, after reading 52 episodes within three days, saying that they are a Bengali professor and appreciated the way I have explored the internal layers of a character, claiming that they have read several literary works but there is a uniqueness to the way I’ve written, and are waiting for the subsequent episodes. Now, I don’t know who my readers are. My job as a writer is to tug at the emotions of whoever is reading my story, irrespective of their position, their educational or social background, or any other factor one can think of. One of my serialized fiction has over 1.1 million readers on Pratilipi, and it is overwhelming when 18-year-olds and 70-year-olds come to my inbox claiming it is one of their favourite pieces of fiction. Even when I am writing for magazines, I never think about impressing the editor. I write a story I want to tell, and I write it for everyone. Not to mention, an attempt to impress someone in particular can be as restrictive as binding oneself within the confines of genre.

 

Tell us about your motivations and creative struggles.

I believe that stories need to be told because there are many things happening around the world in families, in social circles, in nations, and there are people experiencing things on a very personal level, and not everything is reported, or can be reported, or in many case, should be reported. Stories allow sordid realities to be repackaged as fiction helping readers to know and be assured that they are not alone in their struggles and help them harbour hope for the future. Additionally, stories also allow the dispersion of personal viewpoints, knowledge and information which otherwise stay hidden in textbooks. I simply want to be a part of this. That said, if I am being candid, I do hope at least some people will remember me for my work. My biggest creative struggle is time management as I usually dedicate five hours to writing and sometimes family responsibilities get in the way. Apart from that, I enjoy writing too much to complain about it.

 

Finally, do you have any tips for young writers?

I’ll simply repeat myself from earlier — read, read, read. Go out and experience life, Additionally, make sure you write at least a couple lakh words before you venture into your first novel. Write poetry, flash fiction and short fiction off story prompts, blog about your travels or your favourite recipes, write a nice caption for a photograph, write a tweet, write a research paper, write a text, an email anything, because every time you express your thoughts, you hone your skills as a writer. Relax, and don’t rush yourself.


I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did!

Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki from Shalidhan Prokashon, as mentioned above is a love story told through a reconstruction of portions of the great epic, Ramayana from the perspective of Lakshman and Urmila. Based on the question of ‘what if’, the novel explores the internal conflict of Lakshman. What if he didn’t quietly perform his brotherly and princely dharma to go to the exile with Ram and Sita? What if he didn’t strike an unarmed Meghnadh without questioning his honour as a warrior? Urmila, on the other hand, is explored through her dialogues. This novel, says its author, happened because of an interpretation that for the 14 years Lakhsman was in exile, he had never slept while Urmila had been asleep. At its core, Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki explores love, pride, guilt, and so much more. Ek Daktarer Opomrityu from Patrapath Prokashoni is a mystery novel about the unnatural death of a doctor. It delves deep into human psychology, illicit relationships, and family politics. At its core, Ek Daktarer Opomrityu is driven by grief and a woman’s refusal to accept the sudden death of her lover, which fuels her hunger and zeal for the truth.

Both novels are available in bookstores across West Bengal and will be available for nationwide and overseas sale online after the International Kolkata Book Fair 2023, where they can be picked up until 12 February. Onno Raghubir Bhinno Janaki will be available at Stall No. 371 beside Gate No. 8 and Ek Daktarer Opomrityu will be available at Stall No. 494-A beside Gate No. 9.


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