In conversation with: Anukrti Upadhyay

Anukrti Upadhyay writes prose and poetry, in both English and Hindi. She stunned readers and critics alike with the twin novellas Daura and Bhaunri in 2019, and delighted Hindi readers with short story collection Japani Sarai. Her latest work of fiction is the recently released Kintsugi, named after the ancient Japanese art of mending broken objects with gold. It is a novel about young women breaching boundaries, overcoming trauma, and challenging the social order. And about men surprised by women who are unconventional, unafraid and independent. Bringing together Jaipur and Japan, with their folk arts and traditions, in a tightly woven plot, this is a novel as profound as it is playful, and as emotionally moving as it is gripping.

Here is an attempt to deep dive into the writer's mind and what moves it, as explored via this conversation with Anukrti -

Q: It is said that literature transcends boundaries. In your works of fiction, you traverse geographical, cultural and imaginative boundaries with such facility. Is this a case of writing from the mind’s eye or from lived experience?

Anukrti: I would say it is a bit of both. Stories must originate from somewhere – a place, a person, a scene, a word. The merest trifle can sow the seed and the stimulation of different geographies, conflicts of culture, diversity in workplaces and elsewhere that defines our lives, nurtures stories. I think lived experience gives stories their authenticity and imagination adds richness.

Q: We are witnessing raging debates around the issue of cultural appropriation. What is your take on creative license, the multicultural novel and writing which is not restricted to one’s immediate context?

Anukrti: I can understand the angst that cultural appropriation by a dominant class, and the further marginalisation of already marginal voices that it leads to, can cause. At the same time, I believe that as writers, one feels a compulsion to tell the stories that need to be told, that one cannot step aside from because writing is only part-volition. To me, when one writes about another culture or a context that is not one’s own but experienced or in other ways familiar, one needs to approach it with respect and awareness of one’s limitations. Sometimes, otherness of perspective can add layers to stories, and therefore, to our understanding of the issues they speak of. 

Kintsugi, the novel is named after the ancient Japanese art of mending broken objects with gold

Q: While labels and tags are restrictive, especially when it comes to artistic expression, but allow me, nevertheless, to ask if you would define your latest novel, Kintsugi, as a 'glocal' novel?

Anukrti: That’s an interesting question! Kintsugi travels through the world and a large part of it is situated in a very specialised trade in Jaipur, thus drawing on both global and local elements but the fact is I don’t feel qualified to define Kintsugi at all. The writer is just the medium and, in many ways, it is unimportant how I view my own work. Kintsugi belongs to its readers and it is for them to say if they taste the world and their own country in it.

Q: Japan & Jaipur. Two disparate points on the world map. What brought them together, first, in your vision for the novel? Is the act of stitching maps, metaphors and memory a deliberate one, or one which can flow from a sense of continued being, globalized creatures that we are?

Anukrti: Another thought-provoking question. Whilst Jaipur and Japan are very different, my experiences of both went through the usual, inexplicable, transformative process that occurs while writing and emerged linked organically in Kintsugi. It was not deliberate, nothing or very little in my writing is deliberate, but now that you have asked, perhaps it is the unbroken process of existing in multiple worlds that caused this synthesis.

The distinct beauty of thewa jewellery is in its use of molten glass overlaid with intricately carved gold

Q: What’s is it about folk art forms that brings you to them – be it kintsugi or meenakari or thewa? What sort of research did you need to do, and could you share any anecdotes from your research experience?

Anukrti: To me, the folk-art forms are the purest expression of our need for beauty. They are ancient and the dedication of folk artists towards creating beauty, through various means and in various forms, is fascinating. I was born and raised in Jaipur and have visited Japan multiple times. I have seen meenkars and kundansaaz at work, and  also Kintsugi artists . I found the concentration and patience with which all these artists work in their very disparate work environments, the sunars in small cubby-holes in the heat and noise of the bazar and the kintsugi artists in the quiet, spare surroundings of studios and craft-boutiques, is very calming. I remember a couple of young meenakars in a small room, three flights up in a haveli in one of the lanes in Johari bazar, working on a necklace of such beauty it would make your eyes water. The room was hot like a furnace. The two men had stripped to their undershirts and were working carefully, while I sat at the threshold watching them fill enamel in intricate grooves. As one of them took a break, he saw me fanning myself with my scarf. He immediately turned the small fan, the only source of breeze in that stifling room, completely towards me despite my protests and went back to his work, sweat streaming into his eyes. I’ll always remember this act of kindness and courtesy performed at the cost of his own comfort.

Redolent with the songs and myths, the beauty and mystery of Rajasthan, Daura & Bhaunri are must reads

Q: Both Daura and Bhaunri operated in a world that is rural and also seemed outside of time, drawing on the mythological and, even more, on folktales. What was it like to work on them and how was it different from working on Kintsugi which operates in a more recognizably contemporary and urban settings?

Anukrti: Daura and Bhaunri emerged like poems do – in organic whole and then got worked at, going through several re-writes till they reached the form in which they were published. Kintsugi, on the other hand, was written piece by piece, each story calling forth another, each character egging me on to tell the tale of another. In fact, it hasn’t ended still. While writing a short story, I realised I was writing Meena’s story from where it was left off in Kintsugi.

Q: Cultures are seen as coalescing in a globalized world, but the recent rise of the hyperlocal, compounded by burgeoning nationalist sentiments, seems to be creating a polarity that might make it difficult to be global nomads, if one wanted to. Do you think this polarity will come to affect art as well?

Anukrti: Art cannot remain unaffected by the world in which it is created, even though it creates worlds of its own. I do worry that parochial thoughts and aggressive nationalism would affect art and, as often happens when art is created to prop up ideologies, would perhaps lead to mediocrity. At the same time, I find myself trusting the essential liberality of the arts, which flows from the fact that despite our differences, we are not that different from each other. The defenses of culture and context ought to pique and enhance curiosity rather than divide us and I would like to hold on to that.

Q: You are an accomplished writer in Hindi as well. How has your writing in Hindi affected the way you write in English, and vice versa. Do you find yourself writing differently if different languages?

Anukrti: Thank you for the kind compliment. I feel as inadequate in Hindi as I do in English. I do think writing in Hindi has impacted my work in English, specifically when it comes to dialogues and characterisations. I see that my intimacy with Hindi results in dialogues flowing differently when spoken by a non-English speaking character. First unconsciously and then consciously, I have tried to preserve the flavour of Hindi, and even Rajasthani, in English. I can’t say whether I write differently in essence in the two languages for I strive to achieve the same in both – to let the story tell itself and resist the temptation of embellishing, saying too much, revealing everything – but the two languages have very different rhythms, so perhaps I do. You’d need to read my Hindi work and decide for yourself!

Anukrti's twin novellas and the latest novel are available here - https://amzn.to/34WWuy3; https://amzn.to/2FteM10

HarperCollins India publishes illustrious Indian authors such as Raghuram G. Rajan, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Khushwant Singh, Aravind Adiga, Anuja Chauhan, Ravi Subramanian, and Shubhangi Swarup, amongst many others. Apart from the Indian titles, HarperCollins India also distributes books by international bestselling authors such as Doris Lessing, Paulo Coelho, Agatha Christie, Jack Welch, Jack Higgins, Alistair Maclean, Isaac Asimov, Sidney Sheldon, Amitav Ghosh, Cecelia Ahern, A.J. Finn, and The Dalai Lama, besides the world-renowned Collins Cobuild and Collins Gem Dictionaries.