• Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Arts and Culture

Rijula Das: Unveiling Kolkata’s underbelly

By: Asjad Nazir

Rijula Das discusses her award-winning debut novel and literary influences

New novel Small Deaths is a powerful debut from award-winning writer Rijula Das.

The story follows a sex worker, dreaming of a better life, who is drawn into a nefarious web of prostitution, pimps, sex rings, cults, unimaginable secrets, and danger after a girl living next door to her is murdered. The acclaimed story, set in the murky underbelly of a fabled Kolkata neighbourhood, explores the lives of individuals who exist on the margins of society, while fighting to be seen, heard, and respected.

The heart-wrenching and gripping novel won the Tata Lit Live First Book Award 2021 when it was originally published as A Death in Shonagachhi in India last year.

Eastern Eye spoke to the award-winning Indian author to discuss the novel ahead of it starting an interesting international journey with new title Small Deaths. She also spoke about her inspirations, literary hero, and secrets of a good story.

What first connected you to writing? 
Writing has always been a part of my world, even before I understood it as writing, or before it took on any kind of professional aspiration. It is a way of expressing and understanding the world, and even as a young child, literature was my unconscious medium for understanding the world around me.

What would you say inspired your debut novel Small Deaths?
A novel is a big, unruly beast and I doubt I can say that a single thing inspired the whole novel. Different things influence different parts of the writing sometimes. The city of Kolkata is a big influence on the novel. In a way, I wanted to write a novel about Kolkata, its people, streets, and how we talk and dream.

Tell us about the story? 
Lalee, a sex worker in Shonagachhi, wants a more secure future for herself in a volatile sexual industry. Her long-term client Tilu Shau is in love with her. One evening, while the two of them are together, a sex worker called Maya, who lives next door to Lalee in the brothel, is brutally murdered. The novel follows their story and that of many others who get embroiled in the aftermath of this brutal death.

What was the biggest challenge of writing this book?
The biggest challenge of writing this book was to get the craft right. There is a story in my head, and I have an understanding of how it feels or the shape of it, but when I sit down to write it, there is the wrestling with language and creating something that feels true to the vision. That was always the challenge.

As a writer, how did you put yourself in the mind of such a dark setting?
There have been years of research that have gone into this book. My doctoral degree focuses on the relationship between public space and sexual violence in India, and as part of that research, I have spent much time speaking to people in Shonagachhi and reading case studies, archival history, and other materials. So, the setting was familiar to me.

Who will connect with this book? 
Anyone who likes a good book. I hope Small Deaths provides a window into a different world that most readers are unfamiliar with. It is also a slightly different kind of Indian novel than most readers may be used to. I hope that this kind of storytelling connects with readers worldwide.

What inspired the Small Deaths title?
The title is a play on the French term, la petite mort but, more importantly, it stands for the small lives that society marginalises, so their deaths go uninvestigated and unrecognised.

What’s your favourite part in the book? 
I enjoyed writing the scenes involving Tilu, the small-time erotic novelist who has made Lalee into a kind of muse in his imagination. Tilu is a bit of a self-parody, and I had fun creating him and self-reflecting on how seriously we writers take our work.

What do you enjoy reading? 
I enjoy reading a variety of things depending on my mood. I have a particular fondness for non-fiction books that reflect on writing and life, by authors I admire. Sometimes for pure joy of reading, nothing beats a well-written story that one can get lost in.

Who is your own literary hero? 
Terry Pratchett is one of my few literary heroes. He wrote a lot, and his books have sold record breaking numbers, and all of them are consistently well-crafted. He really was a genius of storytelling and craft.


What can we expect next from you? 
I’m finishing translating a novel from Bengali to English, to be published by Seagull Books, and hoping to start work on the next novel.

What do you think is the secret of a great story?
It has to mean something to the writer, or the writer must be able to derive feelings of joy, pleasure, excitement or some kind of meaning from the story. If the experience of writing it does not move the writer in some way, it is very unlikely to move the reader.

What inspires you as a writer? 
This is hard to know, and it is possible that if I ever crack it I may stop being inspired by it. Broadly, I am interested in people and imagining their lives, and the small ways in which we win, lose, cry, dream and break our hearts every day. I like to find that in my writing.

Why should we pick up your new book Small Deaths
You should pick it up so that you can tell people you read it before it came on screen. I would recommend it to readers who like to find new voices, and like a story that is immersive and transports them to a different world.

Small Deaths by Rijula Das is published by Amazon Crossing on September 13, Paperback £8.99

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