Book Reviews,  Others

Meet the author: Ms Nibedita Deb

There are very few times when a book touches my heart and I have that uncanny urge to get to know what went behind compiling the thoughts together. This time, The Goddess’s Homecoming was that book and I had to catch hold of Nibedita for this interview. Hence, here is the result. Enjoy this lively discussion that peels off several layers of Nibedita’s mind. I am sure you all are going to enjoy it.

Nibedita, your recent work elicits the adversities faced by women. Are these stories inspired by real characters?

As I have confessed in my last couple of interviews as well, the character ‘Mohuli’ is loosely based on an amazingly enterprising woman I had the privilege to meet a few years back. I had met her while interning for a public health project in the rural pockets of East Champaran district in Bihar. But as far as Mohuli’s story and her character arc in the book are concerned, they are completely fictional.

The other central characters and their stories are fictional as well. But I can’t deny that they stem from the time I spent with a number of inspiring rural women, primarily in the Sundarbans and the Bankura district of West Bengal, the East Champaran district in Bihar, Saurashtra in Gujarat, and Attappaddi in Palakkad, Kerala. These are the places where I have lived for a few months at a time to do my field-work for various developmental research projects.

What made you provide a silver lining at the end of every story?

Oh, did I do that?

You know, I have heard this comment so many times by now, but I am still unable to see it that way. Take Shreya’s story, for example. If anything, her story ends on the note that she might as well dispel any hopes of living a conjugal life with her husband ever again, no matter how much she craves it. It’s another matter that she now has a bigger purpose to her life and existence, that is, bettering the lives of adolescents of Mohinpur who are crumbling under the social demon of addiction.

Except for Mohuli, I don’t think I consciously gave a so-called ‘happy ending’ or ‘silver lining’ to any of the characters. In fact, I don’t think I even gave an ‘ending’ to most of these stories.

But I did give an upward arc to the central characters with the conclusion of each story. I think that I have subliminally treated each story like a tunnel, urging the character to wade through the darkness and making sure that they have the light at the other end just within their grasp by the end of each story. That’s not because the tunnel ends there, no. That would be the ‘silver lining’ that you are talking about, which I did only for Mohuli. On the contrary, the other characters finally see the light at the end of the tunnel because they ‘learn’ to see it and gather their wits to march towards it with purpose. This way, the character arc trumps the plot of the story, just as in life our indomitable spirit trumps over the things that happen to us.

What are you working on currently? Can you share some details with the readers?

Oh yes! I am working on a collection of poems, tentatively titled “Bully.” It is an incisive throwback to the days when I was reeling from the effects of years of untreated hyper-anxiety, severely low self-esteem, and a general lack of energy and vitality.

In those days, I used to be my biggest bully.

It took me three long years to weasel myself out of that rabbit hole, but I now come across more and more people who are in a similar plight. Hence, the poems in “Bully” might transcend my personal reminiscence and end up being a tribute to them as well. We will have to wait and see how the poems shape up.

Having said that, I am yet to pen a single line of verse! Haha.

For now, I am spending 2 to 4 hours every day studying the mechanics of poetry and creating a thought-canvas of the poems that I intend to compose. It is hard for me to revisit that gloomy phase of my life when I was struggling with emotional upheaval. But with “Bully,” I am coaxing myself to look back at it all with a fresh pair of eyes, and who knows? Perhaps it will help me and my reader-friends in ways that we don’t yet know of. That’s the hope anyway. 😊

What is your idea of a writing space? Do you have one? What all elements form the essence of that space?

Given that I write for 8 to 10 hours every day and do it for a living, my idea of a writing space is very basic. A laptop and a pair of headphones to ward off the distractions around me is all I need!

While my tryst with fiction is fairly recent, I have been doing commissioned work as a freelancer and ghostwriter since I was 19. I have been running a content development business for the last 3.5 years. Writing is my bread and butter now, so I don’t let myself get too attached to the notion of a perfect or even a conducive writing space for myself. If I know that I need to write, I do it.

What do you think is the best way to improve your writing skills?

I learn a lot from people who read my work with a critical eye. In business writing, my clients are my best teachers. They help me to see the ramifications of a word or a sentence in ways that we writers can’t always perceive when we work in isolation. Writing is much more than dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. If not for my clients, I would not have learnt to see a phrase or a paragraph in a certain way when viewed in the industry context, for example.

Having realized the value of good criticism early on in my life, I make it a point to seek criticism for my personal creative writing projects as well. That’s how I learn, that’s how I grow. I got 6 people to beta-read The Goddess’s Homecoming before publishing it. Technically speaking, I basically paid them to point out my flaws! Haha. But I am glad I did it because I learnt so much in the process.

Apart from this, I also read a lot to stay in the groove and learn new and innovative ways to express the hungers and the fears of my characters. It helps me to think differently and outside of my own little head.

What are your views on the common genres and the customary storylines that become bestsellers overnight?

A book, like any other piece of art, can be looked at in two different ways. You can look at it as a product, in which case terminology like ‘bestseller’ and ‘mid-list’ come into the picture. There is nothing wrong with this view.

But when we live in a world ruled by bestsellers, genres like thrillers and boy-meets-girl romances fill our shelves, and by extension, our selves. That’s a pity. We start to thrive solely on so-called ‘airport fiction’ or ‘commercial fiction.’ Again, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just a tad mundane and monochromatic, don’t you think?

Further, looking at the book as a product also means that authors/publishers with deep pockets who can afford to invest in quality editors, publicists, and marketers, have a greater chance of hitting the coveted bestseller list than struggling indie authors with perhaps an equal command on the craft, or having an equally good story to tell, if not better.

Now, the other way to look at a book is to see it as an invitation to have a conversation with the author. This school of thought, according to me, leaves more room for experimentation and restores the inherent democracy of the written word. I have lost count of how many ‘bestsellers’ I have bought, only to be disappointed to my bones. (I have a regrettable habit of finishing every book I start, even if I am despising it every step along the way).

Conversely, I have been pleasantly surprised and engrossed by not-so-popular mid-listers and the occasional indie author who manage to charm their way into my heart by weaving captivating stories, and not just empty words on blank pages. Recently, for example, I relished a contemporary witch fiction novella called ‘Brand of Magic’ by K M Jackways, a fellow indie author from New Zealand.

Bestseller or not, a book that resonates with me will always find space in my shelf.

You have touched upon some very important issues that govern the social status of women in the society- menstruation, fertility, suppression, casting couch and prostitution. Do you think these stereotypes or notions are perpetuated in our society by us?

Social evils do exist, be it taboos around menstruation and infertility, or the subversive power-play of the casting couch. But if my journey with my emotional health has taught me anything, it is the fact that it is in my hands to face it all with resilience, hope, and courage, which is what the central characters in The Goddess’s Homecoming learn to do through each story.

Seen that way, one can even argue that I have merely used the backdrop of social issues around gender as a prop to nudge and prod my heroines to self-actualization. I think that being a woman is fundamentally a tricky business. It gets even trickier when you are stripped of the privileges of education, opportunities, financial independence, and the like. But the social issues in themselves are not at the heart of my stories, the protagonists are.

It’s their battle that I want the readers to focus on. I have tried my best to depict them as relentless, fearless, and tireless warriors – the ‘enemy’ on the other side, be it the social demons or the actual villains in these stories, only serve to accentuate the visual of a battlefield with a lone heroine raging a war at the centre of it.

What is the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

As I said earlier, I actively seek out criticisms to learn and grow. I rarely find criticisms tough.

But I would like to share a very interesting criticism that I received from a fellow author. She pointed out that I often play God in my stories. I refuse to let the characters take control of the story. I micro-manage their lives and fates. I found it to be an amazing and sharp observation because even in real-life, as an entrepreneur, boss, and wife, I have a tendency to micro-manage.

Mind you, I am not your garden-variety task-master, I am a true-blue control-freak! Haha.

Jokes apart, her observation made me realize that my freakish need for control shows in my writing. I think that’s the smartest criticism I have received so far, and I am ever grateful to her for that.

Where can the readers discover more about you and your books?

My website (nibeditadeb.com) is still under construction, and I am on a self-imposed hiatus from social media to work distraction-free on my next project “Bully”. So for now, emailing me is the best way to spark a conversation on books, authors, art, music, and more! I am reachable at [email protected]. And yes, I reply to every email that I receive. 😊

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