Shobhaa Dé is one of India’s best-selling authors. All her seventeen books have topped the charts and created records. Four of her titles are course material at the University of London. Her work features extensively in Comparative Literature courses at Universities abroad and within India. Considered something of a literary phenomenon, over a hundred dissertations on her work are in various libraries worldwide. Recipient of several awards for her journalistic contributions, she writes prolifically for Indian and International publications. She has also been the writer of several popular soaps on television. Dé is recognized as an important social commentator and something of an authority on popular culture. She has gone back to writing fiction with a provocative new title, the soon-to-be-published Sethji. Featured on the list of India’s 100 Most Impactful Indians over the past 15 years, by leading lifestyle magazine Verve, she has also been the recipient of the prestigious ‘Veuve Clicquot
International Tribute to Inspirational Women’ in Paris, the only Indian woman to be thus
-SUPERSTAR WRITER: In Conversation with Shobhaa Dé
This is your third trip to Karachi and I know you were keenly looking forward to it. How’re you enjoying the trip so far?
Karachi is always an overwhelming experience, and this time it’s better! I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. It’s only a four day trip and even though I’m sure it won’t be enough I still consider myself very lucky to be here. I attended a mehndi function last night and I’m hoping to go to a Qawwali tonight. In between there have been luncheons and other very exciting get-togethers. I’ve also been invited to dinner by Imran Khan tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to that as well.
Sounds like your personal schedule is tighter than that of the festival!
I went shawl shopping yesterday and I really want to go to the famous Itwaar (Sunday) Bazaar as well… so yeah, I’m definitely trying to make the most of my time here!
Tell me about your cocktail Sari business. Why did you call it off when it was doing so well?
Well, I did it for three years and it was great fun, but I called it off because my daughters who were supposed to help me with it didn’t give me any time! They were busy with their own lives and had their own priorities: one of them left to study in Paris and the other one got married. So, for me to do it on my own wasn’t really possibly because it was on a big scale and I wanted to focus more on writing. Maybe I’ll go back to it sometime in the future.
But you do still design for yourself sometimes?
Oh yes! I still very much design for myself and my friends and daughters and their friends and their mothers. People keep asking me to create saris for them and I’m always happy to design for them or people I’d like to dress as well. It’s just no longer a commercial project because it was causing too much tension and I’m not a businesswoman. My daughters were supposed to look after that, not me!
You’re an active blogger and interact actively with your fans online. What do you think is the importance of such discourse for public figures like yourself?
I think all online social platforms, especially blogs, are democratic spaces that are very important in today’s world. It’s your space where you can write and express yourself. I haven’t monetized my blog even though there have been several offers. I don’t want to be paid for it. I control my space and I love it. In fact, I’m very possessive about it. I actually enjoy the idea of people leaving comments on it that are critical or negative. Of course I don’t tolerate abusive comments and just delete them, but if someone challenges me, I’m all game. I enjoy a good democratic dialogue.
And just like everything else you do, you’ve also made blogging quite fashionable! How often do you make it a point to blog and what is the usual subject matter of your posts?
Really? That’s a nice way of putting it! My blog is important to me because the minute I blog I get responses from around the world and it’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m traveling, people would come up to me and tell me they’re my “blogdost” (blog friend). So, I’m always open to building new friendships and relationships. I use my blog to communicate something that’s more universal. Things people would want to know about. My blogdosts actually wait for me to watch a Bollywood film and comment on it! And it’s not just my blog, I enjoy twitter a lot too, but I don’t use it to tell the world that I’ve had this and this for lunch and that I’ll now be taking a nap or something like most people. I use it to make a political or a social comment; or to comment on a Bollywood film that I’ve seen and there’s something in it that I find ridiculous, for instance. I don’t believe in sharing my private life with anyone on social networking sites like most people.
You’d be surprised to know but children are all very jealous of my blogdosts because they say I give them a lot of my time and I’ve forged very good penships with most of them. All my children have their own blogs now too and one of them is writing a terrific travel blog called ‘Azad Awaz’. You should check it out.
You’re also famous for “inventing” the very colloquial and practical Hinglish. Was it a conscious effort, creating this new language that would eventually catch on with younger writers in the region? Does it bother you when others use and abuse it so?
The language I use in my books is street-speak; it’s very colloquial: it’s how people actually communicate. People in India and Pakistan are suffering from a colonial hangover. Most of our English authors tend to write like Jane Austin or Charles Dickens. It was archaic and obsolete and it certainly didn’t capture the flavor of the Sub-continent like it should! That’s not how we speak! I’m sure you use a lot of Urdu words when you’re speaking and I always use a bit of Marathi, a bit of Hindi and a bit of Urdu when I speak… and that’s become our language. We appropriate it and make it our own. It’s always very important for me to do that. Of course it wasn’t a conscious decision that I wanted to start a new language. I just started writing like that and it caught on, and eventually everybody started writing in a similar way. And it doesn’t bother me one bit with others use it. In fact, it makes me quite proud!
Tell me a bit about your upcoming novel ‘Sethji’. How does it feel to come back to writing fiction after fifteen years?
I really enjoy writing non-fiction, but coming back to fiction for me is like coming full circle. ‘Sethji’ is based on a slimy, despicable Delhi based politician who’s been in my mind for a long time. He’s not a big name; he’s a hustler. He would like to be very powerful and he’s hustling his way through the society to get there. He’s a guy who’s forever looking to do ‘setting,’ but never really making it big. He’s an interesting character and I’m sure you’ll enjoy him very much.
Modeling, acting, writing, reporting, hosting and designing—you’ve pretty much done it all. What’s next on your list of agendas?
To be honest, writing is my one vocation. It’s my passion and it’s what defines me professionally. Everything else is just icing on the cake. They’re just little thrills I enjoy, but nothing I’d take very seriously. I feel very flattered when I’m constantly being asked to model at this age! I’ve just done a shoot for Vogue and Hello! It’s all good fun. I’d like to model with my daughter and my granddaughter now and show the world the three generations!
In your session earlier you mentioned that you make it a point to writer at least 2,500 words every day, whether or not they’re published. Would you call this a matter of discipline or is it simply an addiction you’ve chosen not to fight?
It’s a nasha (addiction), definitely! I haven’t been able to write for couple of days and I’m already experiencing withdrawal symptoms! My day doesn’t go very well if I don’t write at least a couple of pages. In fact, I would rush to my room right now to write for my blog or something if the internet in my room was working.
Would you encourage other writers to ‘smoke the same pipe’ then!?
Of course! If not 2500 words, write 300 or 500 words at least, because seriously speaking, it’s about the discipline as well. Write whatever you want: it could a blog; it could be a part of your reportage; or it could be fiction.
You’re obviously not new to literature festivals, but this is your first time here, so how does it feel to be a part of this particular event?
The Karachi Literature Festival is a brilliant effort. It so far hasn’t been converted into a carnival. In terms of numbers, sure, Jaipur is gigantic and it’s right there on the map as one of the top three literature fests in the world, but I’ve felt that the focus there is not as much on the writers and writing as much as it is on the sideshows. A lot of people who attend the Jaipur festival aren’t necessarily readers, but everybody I’ve met here in Karachi is here for the love of books; they all have their favourite authors and know specifically what sessions they want to attend. The atmosphere is much more literary. The focus is very much on book and the writers, like it should be.
Who were you most eagerly looking forward to meet at the festival this year?
I wanted to hear Hanif Kureishi but I missed his session because it overlapped with my time in the media room. I heard him at Jaipur and very much wanted to see if he’d say today what he had said there. I absolutely adore Vikram Seth and hopefully I’ll catch his session tomorrow!
Any comments on the Salam Rushdie’s last-minute pull-out at Jaipur this year?
Well, I wrote extensively about the Salman Rushdie incident and I spoke about it on television as well. It’s not really about Salman Rushdie. I personally don’t care about him. I mean, of course ‘Satanic Verses’ has offended a lot of people and I understand that, but the management at Jaipur failed, in my opinion, in handling the situation in a decent fashion. I mean, if it was an honest protest, I would have been OK with it because everybody is entitled to protest, but I didn’t care much for it since it was a politically motivated protest and some people were looking to gain political advantage prior to the elections in UP that are just around the corner.
Salman has been in and out of the country many times and he was present at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2007 or 2009 as well. Nobody even bothered about his presence there then! This whole incident has turned him into a martyr and a hero in many segments. I just wish he had had the guts to come and face whatever it is. You must have the guts to defend your work. If you decide to stay away, they you should stay away. I personally would never have decided to speak over a video link like that.
Any final words on the whole Karachi experience? Can we expect to see you here again next year?
It’s like a sister city to Mumbai. I feel so completely at home here. I actually have to pinch myself to remind myself that I’m actually in Karachi. We have so much in common. The welcome has been overwhelming for me and I hope they invite me again next year. I would love to sit down and chat with you again and next time hopefully it’ll be for a longer time!