In Conversation with Mitra Phukan about her latest novel, What Will People Say? A Novel , published by Speaking Tiger Books, March 2023
What will people Say? A Novel by Mitra Phukan, a well-known writer from Assam, plays out like a sonata with fugues introducing complexities into the narrative. It concludes in a crescendo of hope with an acceptance of love. At the end, Phukan writes: “It was love. A love great enough to conquer all the ‘What Will People Says’.”
What is remarkable about the novel is the light touch with which it deals with major issues like communal tensions, acceptance of love across divisive human constructs and questioning of social norms. She elucidates: “I have written What Will People Say in a conversational, everyday style, sprinkled liberally with humour, even though the themes are very serious.”
Phukan’s novel moves towards a more accepting world where social norms adapt to changing needs — perhaps an attitude we would all do well to emulate, given the need for a change in mindsets to broach not only divisive societal practices but the advancing climate crises which calls for unconventional, untried steps to create cohesive bonds among humanity.
The story is set in a small town in Assam called Tinigaon. Where the protagonist, Mihika, a widow and a professor, upends accepted social norms with her budding romance to a Muslim expat, a friend of her deceased husband. She has strong supporters among her family and friends but faces devastating social criticism and even some ostracisation. This makes her think of giving up the relationship that drew her out of the darkness of widowhood.
Suffering during widowhood is a topic that has been broached by many Indian writers ranging from Tagore, Sunil Gangopadhyay to many more. Before the advent of these writers, in 1856, the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act was brought into play by the efforts of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who had also written on the issue. But despite the law, has it as yet been accepted by conventional society? And how would such a society which bases its perceptions on rituals and traditions respond further to a relationship that discards marriage as a norm? These are questions that Phukan deals with not only in her novel but in the conversation that follows.
The plot showcases an interesting interplay of different perspectives. In certain senses, it has the delightful touch of a Jane Austen novel, except it is set in India in the twenty first century, where relationships are impacted by even social media. Phukan, herself, sees “ageism” and female bonding and friendship” as major issues addressed in the novel. She says that women’s bonding is a theme that “has not been focused on enough, at least in Assamese writing”, even though, it is a fact that this has been the focus in other literature like, Jane Austen’s novels written in the nineteenth century and in subsequent modern-day take-offs on her novels, like the The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, published in 2004. In the sub-continent, Begum Rokeya described a full woman’s utopia in Sultana’s Dream (1905), though Rokeya’s story is essentially a feminist sci-fi. Unlike Rokeya’s book, Phukan’s is not an intense feminist novel. The protagonist, Mihika, has men well-wishers and men friends-cum-colleagues too. The tone is lighter and makes for a fabulous read, like Austen’s novels.
As if rising in a fugue to Mihika’s romance are two more relationships of a similar nature. One is between her daughter and a young boy from a traditional, respected, conventional home. The other, which I found more interesting, and I wish Phukan had explored a bit more, is a relationship between Mihika’s Bihari beautician, Sita, and a tribal boy. While the girl is from a traditional vegetarian strictly Hindu family, the boy is an orphan, a tribal. It is a romance that is outside the conventional affluent, middle-class circle. And is used as a contrast to Mihika’s and her daughter’s experiences. Sita’s narrative highlights how the conventional finally accept the unconventionality of a romance that in the past might have been completely rejected.
The novel rises above victimhood by looking for resolutions outside the accepted norms subtly. The plot weaves the triangular interplay of relationships with notes of harmony. The story, devoid of gender biases and darker shades of drama, delves into serious themes with a feathery touch.
The structuring of the novel arrests the reader with its seeming simplicity but each is fitted into the composition to create a fiction that touches your heart and leaves you pining for a bit more… like the strains of a composition that has the deftness and neatness of a Jane Austen novel, written in the context of twenty first century Assam.
Phukan herself is a trained vocalist in Indian classical, a columnist, a translator and a writer. In this conversation, she reveals more about the making and intent of her novel and her journey as a writer.
You wear a number of hats — that of an Indian classical vocalist, a columnist, a children’s writer, a translator and so much more. How does this impact your work as a novelist?
I feel everything is related; everything flows seamlessly into the other aspects. Yes, I am a trained Shastriya Sangeetvocalist, though I have retired from performances now. But at one time that was my life…even now, I write extensively about music through essays and reviews. And I’m always listening to music, of many genres.
I began writing, hesitantly comparatively late, though I always enjoyed it, getting prizes in school and college. Later, I began to write stories, etc, for magazines such as Femina, Eve’s Weekly. Mainly though it was the paper The Sentinel and its editor D N Bezboruah which gave me a platform through middles, short fiction, essays and other genres. My children were very young at the time, and somehow the children’s stories came to me at that point. Now that they are grown up, those stories don’t come any more…and I regret that.
Translation happened because two stalwarts of Assamese literature, Jnanpith awardee Dr Indira Goswami and Sahitya Akdami awardee poet Dr Nirmal Prova Bordoloi encouraged me to try my hand at it by translating their work. I found I enjoyed it …and the journey continues!
Writing fiction, especially novels, needs the writer to have a wide view of life, I feel. I love storytelling. I write from observation, but also, I learn a lot about the literature of the place I come from, Assam, through the works of the greats in Assamese.
Do your other passions, especially music, impact your writing?
Music, definitely. In What Will People Say, for instance, there are so many references to songs and music, to concerts and musicians. There is an entire chapter devoted to songs in Hindi and Assamese where the theme is music. Besides, my novel A Monsoon of Music is about the lives of four practicing musicians. Many of my short stories from A Full Night’s Thievery have music as a theme …’The Tabla Player’, ‘The Choice’, ‘Spring Song’, and so on.
Also, musical metaphors seem to creep in, unbidden, to my writing…
Among the other passions that are reflected to a greater or lesser degree in my writing are gardening, and of course food!
What led you to write What Will People Say?
My stories, whether long or short, are always triggered by events, people, that I see around me. Sometimes it could even be a sentence I overhear while waiting at an airport, or maybe an expression on somebody’s face. They are based on reality, though they are fictionalised as they pass through the prism of my mind, my imagination.
What Will People Say was triggered by the fact that I see so many older women who have lost their spouses spend their lives in loneliness and sometimes despondency. Yes, their children may be caring, they may have women friends, a profession, but that is not enough. Love, finding a romantic partner, even companionship, is very unusual as a senior. There are so many unwritten codes, so many taboos and restrictions, especially in the small, peri-urban places.
And yet I find that change is coming. After all, people are exposed to other cultures, where going in for a second relationship is not seen as a betrayal of the dead husband, as it tends to be here.
The need for social change and a questioning of norms is part of the journey you take your readers through in your novel. Were these consciously woven into the story or did the story just happen? Please tell us about the journey of the novel.
This was the theme I have had in my mind for a while now. It was a conscious decision, and not always an easy one to implement, because of the binaries involved.
The place where I live, the larger society, prides itself on being “liberal”. And it is, compared to some other places on the planet, or in the country. But in the twenty first century, we are aware that there is much more that needs to be done, a much longer path to be traversed. The theme came first. After which I began to think of the storyline, the characters, the incidents that would make the theme come alive, all in a fictional way, of course.
What Will People Say, the line, is a kind of whip used to keep “straying” members of society, usually young people, within the fold. But here I have inverted it …it is the older members, those who are supposed to uphold the status quo, who are doing what, for many, would be the unthinkable.
Do you still see widow remarriage as an issue? Is it still an issue in Northeast India as your book shows?
Assam is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
The community I am describing is what is known as the “caste Hindu” society, in which, traditionally, widow remarriage is not “allowed”. Even now, even in urban Assamese society, it is uncommon. There are unspoken taboos, unwritten codes of conduct. The extreme strictness of the past has lessened no doubt, but also a lot depends on the economic and social status of the woman. I never, for instance, saw my grandmother, a staunch Brahmin, wear anything but stark white after she was widowed. Her vegetarian kitchen was separate from the main kitchen …leave aside meat or fish, even onions, garlic were not allowed there. My mother wanted to follow the same route after my father passed away, but her doctor forbade her from doing that, while her children insisted, she wear colour. Today, my generation of women wear colour and eat non-vegetarian after the demise of their husbands, so things are slowly changing. But a second marriage, or a romantic relationship, in middle age is still very rare indeed.
Your book describes middle class liberals, conservatives as well as immigrants and tribals. What kind of impact have tribals and immigrants had in Assam over time?
There have been many waves of migration into this fertile valley of the Brahmaputra. As a result, it is a rich cultural and linguistic mosaic. Different influences are at play all the time, communities that live in proximity to each other are definitely influenced. But it is a slow process, naturally. And usually takes place over generations.
You have hinted that tribals are more liberal and out of the framework of Hindu rituals. Is that a fact?
Many tribes are, in general, indeed more liberal when it comes to widow remarriage, as are the large Muslim and also the Christian communities. It is the “caste Hindus”, especially those from the “top” of the caste pyramid, who mostly have these taboos. The original inhabitants of these valleys were different ethnic groups, which, because of the riverine, heavily forested aspects of the region, tended to remain in isolation from each other. As a result, cultural practices were unique to each one. Different waves of immigrants from both the East of the region, from Southeast Asia and beyond, and from the rest of India in the west brought in different influences, which were absorbed slowly. We see this in the food practices, the music, the weaves and clothes that we traditionally wear, and religious and social practices, among other things.
How do your characters evolve? Out of fact or are they just a figment of your imagination?
All are creations of my mind, my imagination. But I try to keep them as real as possible. It is all fiction. I love adding layers to them as I go along, till they have their own individuality, their own body language, their own ways of thinking, speaking, their food preferences, everything. By the end, they are “real” to me, though they actually exist only within the pages of a book.
What writers/ musicians/art impact you as a writer? Is there any writer who you feel impacts you more than others?
My music gurus have impacted me in many ways, beyond music. Guru Birendra Kumar Phukan, especially, taught me …through his music …what it means to be steeped in spirituality, and how to aspire higher through Shastriya music, which, to him, and sometimes to me, too, was and is prayer.
As for writers, there are so many I admire deeply. Among the Assamese writers are the scholar and creative writer of the 15th-16th Century, the Saint Srimanta Sankardev, Jnanpith awardees Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya and Indira Goswami. I am always deeply moved by their humanity. Their works, their characters, are drenched in it.
Among writers that I have read in English are the obvious ones, so many of them …but for style and humour, I think nobody can beat P G Wodehouse, and for irony, Jane Austen. And my Go To book during the pandemic was Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, for an instant lifting of spirits.
You have written a lot of children’s stories and written columns. Have these impacted you as a novelist? How is writing a novel different from doing a fantasy-based children’s story or writing a column?
I have written biographies, short stories and essays too. Basically, I see myself as a storyteller, though I write non-fiction too. The children’s stories came from my observations of the child’s world at one time, the way they thought and reacted. My columns are commentaries on society, couched in different “rasas”, including the humorous, but are sometimes a narration in the form of a story. The practice of writing, whatever the genre, and the habit of observation, have all helped me in the marathon task of writing novels!
What can we look forward to from you next? Are you working on a new novel?
Yes. I do have a novel in the pipeline, am giving it some final touches now. But what is due to be published next is a biography of Dr Bhupen Hazarika, a monograph really. He is a musical icon and so much else for us. It is being published by Sahitya Akademi. And then there is a translation of a novella by Sahitya Akademi Awardee Dr Dhrubjyoti Borah, to be published later this year by Om Books. And then of course there are the columns which I really enjoy doing, since the paper that I write for, The Assam Tribune, reaches the deepest areas of rural Assam. Many of the readers of this column, ‘All Things Considered’ are first generation literates, and that makes me really happy.
Thank you so much for these lovely questions.
Thanks for giving us your time.
 Classical Indian music
Click here to read the book excerpt of What Will People Say?
(The book review and the online interview conducted through emails are by Mitali Chakravarty)
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