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An interview with writer and novelist,
Tanuj Solanki

By Apoorva Saini

8 January 2024

Tanuj Solanki is the author of four books of fiction, and founder of The Bombay Literary Magazine (TBLM), an esteemed and much loved online literary magazines from India. His debut novel Neon Noon was shortlisted for the Tata Lit Live First Book Award 2016. His second, the short-story collection titled Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2019. His novel The Machine is Learning was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 and was listed by The Hindu as among the 10 best fiction books of 2020. Manjhi's Mayhem, his latest novel, was also longlisted for the JCB Prize 2023. 

In this interview, he shares his insights on: what is being written about cities in fiction from his rich experience of reading submissions as the founding editor of TBLM for almost a decade now; his hometown Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh; how he derives his 'location' as a writer from the absence of a certain kind of literature; his favourite city-reads; and among other things, how he uses Google Maps as a resource to build real-world places in his stories.

1. We are writing to you from Bhopal and Bangalore. Where are you writing to us from?
 

I’m writing to you from Gurgaon / Gurugram. I moved here from Mumbai in 2019

2. Through our website, we are interested in developing an understanding of how a location-specific work of fiction affects our imagination of the world. Incidentally, your journal The Bombay Literary Magazine is named after a city. Having run the magazine for over eight years now, what kind of places did you find getting written about in short stories from India? Were there any noticeable patterns or concerns about cities in the submissions you received? Please share your insights.

I’ve run TBLM for eight years and continue to work as Fiction and Translated Fiction editor. So fiction submissions continue to come my way.
 

The ‘urban disaffection’ story is frequent. I call it the story of stasis, and I usually lean on the side of rejecting this unless the story does what it does in a novel way. The said disaffection may come out through a failure to connect romantically or emotionally or professionally, or it might be something generic that devolves into a kind of existential ennui or crisis. Technology often plays a key role in this story. The story may be set in any city in India—or the world, for that matter. Incidentally, despite having the word Bombay in our name, we have never had anything resembling a surplus of Bombay stories. Bangalore, I think, is the city most frequently encountered in our submissions pile. But this is based not on data but my perception. We keep no records like this.
 

The ‘urban microcosm’ story is rare. It’s the one that traces the happenings inside a specific place or point in a city and makes no attempt to address the city as a totality. It fares well with us. ‘No Drama at Navala Meat Shop’ by Sidharth Singh is a good example.
 

The second kind of story that is frequent is the story of movement. A sojourn to a small town/village. A vacation. A movement between cities. These stories do well during our evaluations, largely because change is a given, and there is always the thrust of Event. A recent example is Bikram Sharma’s ‘Between Waiting Rooms’.

The third kind of story that we see frequently is the one set in an imaginary setting. Or where the place has little relevance. This story can take the form of a fable, have some Gothic elements, whatever. The widest thematic range here.
 

The shift I’ve noticed over the last ten years is a reduction in the ‘urban disaffection’ story and an increase in stories that are set in imaginary or nondescript places. I’m speaking of the slush pile, not of the fiction published. I think the last decade, when we were still getting used to new technology and its estrangements, is over.  We blame the abstract city less now; we have resigned to its newfound pace. And this resignation seems to be pointing the imagination to newer directions.
 

Other than this general shift, we see thematic spikes now and then. MeToo led to a spike in a certain kind of emancipatory story—good intentions, but usually short on craft. Numbers of that kind of story have declined. Covid practically created a small Covid fiction category, but, sadly, we weren’t able to get a good story about the pandemic or the lockdown. Fiction lags the topical. I think now is a good time for a stellar lockdown story to come our way.


3. One of the things your readers appreciate about your books is that your characters engage with what having lived or living in a specific city did to them, and almost all of your fiction so far is set in real-world places. Your characters – whether in tension or at ease with these places – help readers think about their own experiences and relationship to their cities. How important is the conceptualization of the city while you are writing? Or are your stories placeless when you begin? Can you talk about this choice as a fiction writer in each of your books, including your short story collection Diwali in Muzaffarnagar?

With Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, I briefly entertained the idea of naming Muzaffarnagar as a fictional town. I even got a note from a dear friend specifying how that might have been the better choice. There was merit to the argument, for the Muzaffarnagar of those stories could be any town in North India. But, I guess, the small specificities of my own lived experience prevailed over my decision-making.
 

My stories or novels are never placeless in their conception. But I don’t take any pressure of ‘making the city a character.’ I fail to understand the notion. For the most part, place or setting is the unchanging element of fiction, which makes it the farthest thing possible from the way I define ‘character’. It must be different for historical novels, especially those in which the action takes place over a long period. A city can change over a long period. Usually, if a writer gives us a lot of specifics, readers tend to say that the city becomes a character in so and so work. A recent example is Anjum Hasan’s History’s Angel and the way it presents (and makes use of) Delhi. But I argue that what Hasan does is render a city through its markers and characteristics. The city doesn’t ‘become a character’ in doing that, simply because it is neither appearing nor acting nor changing. 
 

For me, through its specificities or generalisations, the place provides a backdrop for the action. It is the characters who appear and act and change. And one of the changes they may very well undergo is a change in perception regarding a particular place. This happened a lot in the stories of Diwali in Muzaffarnagar. In the two novels after that, however, the city of Mumbai is strictly a backdrop, and the characters opine, if they ever do so, about the unchanging traits of the city that they have to face in their day-to-day.

4. Is there an excerpt from your books that you would like to share – where one of your characters interacts with the city? Or the city becomes a character? Tell us what prompted this scene.
 

I give you a small paragraph from Manjhi’s Mayhem.
 

Half an hour later, I was hanging by the doorway of a second-class compartment in a southbound train, holding my Hardcore Security shirt out in the wind to dry. Nobody laughed at me, nobody thought I was doing something weird. Sometimes, you like that about this city. No one ever gives a pube.
 

Mumbai has a bit of a reputation for being our least judgmental city. Nobody has the time to judge another. I’ve lived in the city for almost a decade. In this paragraph, Sewaram Manjhi, the protagonist, has washed his security-guard-uniform shirt late at night and it is still not dry. So he removes it and tries to dry it in the way he does. Had I seen someone do that in a Mumbai local, I would not have cared. I think this is unique to Mumbai among Indian cities, hence the scene.

 

5. The people you write about always have their hometowns in some corner of their minds. In your interviews and social media posts, you often advocate reading in one's native languages. Have you ever had the chance to read about your hometown in fiction in your mother tongue? How did you find and access these books?
 

It’s been rare. And discovery is completely by chance. The Hindi writer Om Prakash Valmiki, the author of Joothan, was born in the district. There is a Hindi novel titled Log by Giriraj Kishore that’s set in Muzaffarnagar. Kishore gets the peculiar Kauravi dialect so, so right whenever he attempts it. It was a unique feeling for me, to find on paper the intonations of the language I encountered at home and outside for a good two decades of my life. Kishore lived in Muzaffarnagar for a length of time and had a house there. The Hindi poet Shamsher Bahadur Singh was born in the district, I’m told. Irwin Allan Sealy apparently lived in Muzaffarnagar for a small period, though I’m yet to confirm this. In Hasan’s History’s Angel, a key character belongs to Muzaffarnagar, and I was pleased to see that. I would love to come across more works set in Muzaffarnagar, or by writers who have a connection to Muzaffarnagar, or just to see more appearances of it in fiction. I expect Hindi to offer more here than English, for obvious reasons. I hope that through Cities in Fiction, this search will become somewhat easier.

 

6. What influence has this absence or presence have had on your writing, if any?
 

This absence is not uniquely mine. I think writers from many parts of the country can legitimately say they feel it. I think my part of the world—let’s call it Western Uttar Pradesh—suffers an acute case of it. In Hindi, as far as I’m aware, there have not been many fiction writers from this area. For some reason, Middle and Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar produce more Hindi writers than Western Uttar Pradesh. This may have something to do with the latter’s proximity to Delhi; many writers based in Delhi may have some unsaid connection to these parts. As far as English goes, we often mix up talk of political importance and domination with representation in the literary world. They are two different things. There is a general paucity of English fiction writers from the so-called Hindi belt (ex-Delhi), to the extent that I sometimes fail to name as many as I can name, say, from the North East. I must emphasise that I’m speaking, strictly, of fiction.
 

Selfishly, I derive a lot of my location as a writer from this absence. It’s a way to see myself uniquely, to see myself at some slight remove from the common communities and traditions (as observed by academia) of Indian English fiction. This sort of standing apart can be helpful at times. However, I must add that all writers find a way to create such definitions for themselves, and also that being at a remove is sometimes frustrating. In sum, though, it is for this reason that I think that I will come back to Muzaffarnagar in my fiction. 
 

7. Tell us about two books by other authors that made you cherish the idea of reading about cities in literature.
 

The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish uses Boston as a city splendidly. The working-class characters pass through working-class neighbourhoods, but their occasional interactions with the university town of Cambridge are brought out well. I got a sense of how it must feel to be, say, a construction worker in a place that houses Harvard University: to be so close to knowledge production and to have no way to participate. 
 

The Hindi novel Baramasi by Gyan Chaturvedi is the second work that I’d like to mention. Its action takes place in an imaginary Bundelkhandi village over three decades. The novel captures the dialects, the mindsets, the fantasies, the scarcities, the corruption, and the easy brutality of the people living in that part of the world at that time superbly. All peculiarities add up, creating an indelible portrait of a place. It was translated into English as Alipura, by Salim Yusufji.

 

8. Our project Cities in Fiction aims to help people map their cities/towns/villages on the literary landscape of India. How do you see yourself using our existing database? Do you have any suggestions that could help us to make it more useful for writers, readers, researchers, or anyone interested in cities and literature in general?
 

I believe that finding work set in long-tail places (like Muzaffarnagar) will be a great help to the community. I will occasionally be looking for additions against the Muzaffarnagar or Meerut or Haridwar or Roorkee or Shamli or Baghpat tags. 

I think data collection is made easier if the more frequently encountered cities—like Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, New York etc—are ready tabs that can be clicked and a list of books added to them. At some point, you will need automated de-duplication. I’m sorry if I sound overly operational about this—that’s my training. At some point, you may want to experiment with building a history of specifics. Like, say, starting with what Manjhi’s Mayhem said about local trains, a key identifier of Mumbai. Then: what have fiction writers said about local trains in Mumbai? Can we see a chronology of local train descriptions? That will be something! Direct quotations may, of course, need to be limited per fair-use stipulations in copyright laws.

9. To contextualise a place, what kind of resources do you rely on while writing your books?
 

Lived experience, mostly. And Google Maps. I’m not very good with street geography, but my characters sometimes need to be. I sometimes look at the pictures they have on Google Maps, especially the 3D ones, to see things how my character may see things.
 

I don’t always go for exactitude. If my novel needs a shop near Borivali station in Mumbai where a few people need to have chai and vada pav, I don’t bother with knowing which exact shop. I just create one. But if someone needs to travel from Powai to Andheri, I make sure that the right road is mentioned and the traffic becomes a bit of a concern.
 

10. Anjum Hasan x Bangalore. Sharanya Manivannan x Chennai. Tanuj Solanki x … ? Which city would you like to fill this blank with? Does that idea appeal to you, or does it sound limiting? 
 

Anjum Hasan may want to mention Shillong there, and Sharanya Manivannan may want to include other places too. I think the idea is somewhat limiting. I’ve written more about Mumbai than about Muzaffarnagar. I now live in Gurugram, so at some point, it may enter my fiction too. But I guess if one has had the kind of childhood where a lot of growing up happened in one place, then one is tied to that place. In my case, it would be Muzaffarnagar, with the caveat that I may have other places appear more frequently in my fiction, and with the acknowledgement that I’m always writing from Muzaffarnagar. I think it’s a question that can be answered in various ways—which place has formed your sensibility the most, which place do you feel most like saving from oblivion, or which place do you know the best? This can change over time.
 

11. Is there a question you wish we’d asked you with regard to cities in your writing? What would have been your answer to that question?
 

Perhaps one about the seasons and festivals that mark a place. Making a city as a backdrop requires speaking of its peculiar patterns. Delhi winters, Mumbai monsoons, that kind of thing. In Muzaffarnagar, pushcarts selling lumps of jaggery, or boiled eggs with chutney, or groundnuts, proliferate in winter and vanish during the summer months. Close to Eid, one sees a lot of meat hanging from shops near Meenakshi Chowk, one of the main crossroads in the town. A character’s perceptions of the city are linked to these rhythms. A bigot finds new Whatsapp arsenal crossing Meenakshi Chowk close to Eid, while someone else may feel tortured at not being able to afford a leg piece for their son. In this way, a place, by just being in place, provides the first possibilities of conflict and drama to us. These intimations mix up with imagination to become stories, novels, or dumped first drafts. 


 

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