Monday, March 12, 2018

The Accountant turned Author

Archana Sarat is the author of Birds of Prey, a moving book that talks about a significant issue - Child Sexual Abuse. Besides being an author, she also works as a teacher and writes op-ed styled pieces for a range of publications. Here is our conversation with her.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, your growing years, education and work?
As a cherished daughter of traditional Tamil parents, I grew up in a warm, cosy and protected environment in Chennai. I followed my father’s footsteps and completed my chartered accountancy at the age of 21. However, I found the practical side of chartered accountancy did not give me the fulfillment that the academic part of it did.

Was there a conscious decision to step into writing? Did you envisionmuch of what you are doing now, or was it an organic process that grew asyou walked into it?
I have always been writing, right from my childhood years, and I have also always shared my work with anybody who would be interested to read it. I had my articles and poetry published in the school journal and college journal. I also wrote the script for a few plays during this period. However, I started writing seriously when I was a new mother in a strange city without a job or any friends. Writing gave me the solace that I needed. My initial articles and stories were about marriage, motherhood, Mumbai and the Arabian Sea. I sent out these pieces and many of them were published. During this period, I also wrote various financial articles, which were published in the leading newspapers and magazines. Still I hadn’t considered writing as a career. I was intent on getting a degree in art from the JJ School of Arts, a vision that I still cherish. However, all these publishing credits had launched me on my writing journey and I started dreaming of publishing a novel. It was another 8 years before that dream came true.

Let's talk about Birds of Prey. What was your thought process behindcreating the novel? Could you also weigh in on how you personally evolvedas a writer while working on the piece?
Before writing Birds of Prey, I had written two non-fiction books and three novels. However, they all remained as first drafts. A first draft is just like a jotting in a journal – raw and unpublishable. Birds of Prey was my first book that I took to completion. I had Neil Gaiman’s quote taped to the wall in front of me: “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.” Birds of Prey gave me confidence. Writing further books does not seem daunting any more.

Coming to your work as a writer, you talk about difficult themes like marital rape. Can you tell us a bit about some of your key milestones in this space?
I strongly believe that we can convey important social messages through the medium of fiction. Birds of Prey was an attempt to give voice to the society’s silence on the abuse of children within the supposedly safe confines of home. During a recent visit to a coffee plantation in Coorg, I was shocked to see that the hourly wages for men and women were still different, though legislations proscribing this have been around for quite some time. I wrote a piece of flash fiction based on this incident and it was widely circulated online. Many of those who read this were oblivious to this practice and were shocked to know about it. Fiction can be used effectively to convey the truth. I have a long way to go in this.

You've broken quite a few stereotypes in taking on some of the restrictions culture and society has put upon women. Can you share some thoughts on this with us?
Birds of Prey is a dark, psychological crime thriller. The immediate reaction that I received from friends and family was a shocked surprise as to why I hadn’t written in a more ‘womanly’ genre, like romance or chick-lit. When women are the victims of most crimes in society, isn’t it natural that we are better armed to write crime when compared to men? Womenare attuned and equipped with sensitivity and sensibility to express the issues surrounding a crime.In my opinion, the only restriction for a woman is the one she puts on herself; all others can, and must, be shattered by her.
Interestingly, as much as women are out there breaking glass ceilingsand are phenomenal writers and authors, they are not given as much respectas men - lit fests are still peppered with more men, our book storespresent men's books more prominently than women's books. How have younavigated the route as a woman in an otherwise male-dominated world?

Initially, the thought did come across as to whether I should position myself with a male alias name, especially since I was writing thrillers. However, I couldn’t think of myself as anyone else. Add to this, the fact that some of the greatest mystery thriller writers in the world are women – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and so on – and that made me rethink. Closer home, we have the likes of Anita Nair, Ambai, K.R. Meera, Kalpana Swaminathan etc. It is true that litfests and bookstores are peppered with more men authors than women. The recent incident of Vir Sanghvi mansplaining a woman author at JLF comes to my mind. As Shonda Rhimes says, a woman needs to work twice as hard and twice as long to achieve what a man can. I told myself that I would even do that, if that is what it takes!

What have some of your key challenges been, and how have you addressed /dealt with them?
My biggest challenge has always been finding the space, time and peace to write. A man working from home is accorded a different respect compared to a woman working from home. Though I have a study completely devoted to my work and although it has a door that I shut, neither family nor outsiders respect it. So, I have trained myself to work in all surroundings. Still,there are days when the words don’t come easily, and I need solitude and silence. Those days, either I run away from home or lock myself in the bathroom with my laptop.

What inspires you?
I stumbled upon this poem by George Banks during my school years. From then, this has been my inspiration.
I live for those who love me,
For those who know me true,
For the heaven that lies above me
And awaits my spirit too;
For the cause that lacks assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance
And the good that I can do.

(By the way, I typed that out from memory. Please excuse any slight changes in the poem. This was the form that I read when I was ten and the words have embedded themselves into my head.)