CHENNAI: Sitting in a cosy dimly-lit room, away from the chattering of people and clattering of cutlery on the plates, the authors of 15 Tables at Tranquebar, Bhavna Arya, Jaya Mahubani, Parvathi Nayar, Ranjana Bagry, and Vinita Nayar open up about their book and let us on some interesting anecdotes.
15 Tables at Tranquebar is an anthology that connects one story with the other through a common setting which is Tranquebar, a restaurant in Chennai. The story begins with Alicia looking forward to welcoming her guests who have been invited to the opening. The first chapter begins with table one and then moves on to progressing tables.
How did this all begin?
Jaya: This is Parvathi’s baby. She always wanted to write and so did all of us. Forming a writing group was her idea. Through this book, we have all been connected. We had agreed to write five stories each and they all ended up being women-centric and we understood that that was our common thread.
Parvathi: I think it’s very nice to have a writers’ group where it’s a safe place to write and get critiqued. It’s the right place for the baby to be incubated and then once we felt that our little babies could come together to form a book, everything else happened quite organically. Since the book is centred in Chennai, it offers a sense of belonging and relatability.
Bhavna: When Jaya and Parvathi approached Ranjana and me, we immediately wanted to be a part of this project and we immediately said yes.
Vinita: Parvathi pretty much summed up everything (chuckles). But if I must add something to it. I must say that it was more than just writing because Parvathi and I didn’t know Ranjana, or Bhavna. So, the process of working together was a huge learning experience for all of us and it was wonderful having people on the same wavelength as you.
How was the process of writing these stories? Since these were short stories did you find them difficult or easy?
Ranjana: All of us wanted to write. So, we were pretty in sync with that. Despite having been told to write only five stories with a word limit set, it was sometimes a little difficult to crunch all of my thoughts into that space. Because I felt that this particular character needs to be treated differently. Or that particular character needs to have a mind of their own. But, with the help of our editor, we were able to streamline our thoughts. It was in fact, the part that comes after writing that got us initially overwhelmed. Because we knew nothing about publishing or marketing.
Vinita: I’ll agree with Ranjana. For me, my thoughts were very free-flowing. I didn’t have to spend much time thinking or trying to speculate how my character would behave, because I already knew how I wanted to start the story and how I wanted to end it. So, the only thing I needed to work on was to find a way to connect the loose end and piece it to make sense.
Parvathi: For me, writing is about discipline. Since I have the habit of writing every day it didn’t seem like much work. Each of us has a different writing style. Initially, I would go to book signings and author meets and I’d see authors say that the idea of the book just came to them and I’d think to myself, “Yeah right. It sure did”. I thought that authors would sit and plot and plot. But when the idea of 15 Tables at Tranquebar came to me, I understood that it doesn’t require much plotting. It was all about putting the characters in situations and seeing how they react was how I approached the stories.
Bhavna and Jaya: Yeah
Talking about characters, through the stories it’s evident that you have spent a considerable amount of time on building and establishing the essence of the characters. Was it done intentionally or did it just happen?
All: No… no, it was not what we were going for.
Bhavna: As Parvathi said, all of us have a different approach to writing. I don’t know how to get to the point or write straight because that’s just how my writing style is (chuckles).
Ranjana: For me, it was like working together and getting feedback from the others, which you may or may not agree to. But incorporating it was necessary because the common interest was that the book should turn out to be good. So, everyone was very invested in the book. For my stories, I wanted to approach them differently and wrote them in three different styles. One is completely in the form of letters, the other is a first-person narration of multiple people in one situation, and another focuses on dialogues. Now, when I look at it I don’t seem to understand why I felt it was difficult. These girls made it easy for me (smiles).
Jaya: I have already published a poetry book individually and worked on it completely on my own. Each poem had a different colour, font, and format. I didn’t have to ask anyone and just went with it. But here, it had to be decided by five people and I was used to do doing things on my own. Often, there would be delays in feedback. Because someone is travelling, someone is ill, or busy. It was difficult. But, since we all agreed to agree to something (chuckles) the process gave us the common thread. In this case, the characters.
What is your typical writing environment like?
Parvathi: Since I’m an artist; the studio where I paint, brings me a sense of belonging and comfort. So, that’s where I write.
Jaya: For me, it’s a view facing the ocean and my thoughts begin flowing naturally.
Vinita: I don’t have any designated time for writing. I write when my thoughts ebb in. I’m usually up late at night. So, you’d see me working at 3 in the morning too (chuckles).
Bhavna: I’m a morning person, I like to write first thing in the morning when my thoughts are fresh and while I have the energy.
Ranjana: I like travelling when I’m writing. Actually, one of the stories which is a horror story was written when I was visiting a friend in Scotland. It was late at night and I was home alone writing into the night. Suddenly, I felt a presence around me and saw a black apparition move across the room. I was scared to my wits and didn’t work on the story for two days.
Jaya: (laughs) We were running on a deadline and were trying to reach her. But we just couldn’t get hold of her through calls or texts.
Ranjana: I was so scared. When I reached London, I reverted to their messages and told them what happened and their response was, “Is the story ready?” (laughs). I’m laughing now, but it most certainly was not funny then.
What do you want the readers to take away from the book?
Vinita: We didn’t try to convey a message in each story deliberately. But what we are certain about is that there is a story for everyone in this book. There are stories about love, friendship, family, abuse, animals, everything. I just hope that readers find themselves in these stories because what I have written is personal.
Jaya: I’ll agree with what Vinita says because the other day I sent a copy of the book to someone and they said that there was a character in the book she could relate a lot to. That’s when I understood that this book is about the readers and if they see a reflection of themselves. Because we have created a reflection of society through these women-centric stories.
Parvathi: We are really hoping for people to make this book and call it their own (smiles).