In my time even if a woman was raped a hundred times, she kept her bloody mouth shut!
That’s Shobhaa De’s Sethji for you. Shocking and yet intriguing and so, as De put it, “No one can say that they don’t belong in the pages of Sethji”.
De was in town to officially launch her latest novel Sethji (Penguin, Rs 250) at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2013. The Rosewood hall at The Park brimmed over as the author engaged in a free-wheeling chat with Rakhi Sarkar, director of CIMA, and Rita Bhimani, PR consultant.
Talking about the book that centres on Sethji, head of the ABSP, a crucial coalition partner in the government, the book literally holds open a can of worms plaguing India today.
Sethji is a heady cocktail of rape, incestuous relations, impotency, the Mumbai underworld, sex toys, drugs, real estate, murder....
On the sidelines of the book launch and discussion, t2 got chatting with the author who still gets excited seeing a full-scape page full of words, prefers typing away at her laptop on the dining table while overseeing household activities, and still touts Pond’s Cold Cream as her beauty secret.
How did the story of Sethji come about?
Sethji came and occupied my head and heart some 13 years ago. The first 40 pages of the book in fact deals with a brutal rape of a Northeastern student. And today after the book has been written and published, I ask myself that whatever we are dealing with right now in our society every single day was there even back then and hasn’t really changed in the intervening years. The problem that I had felt about so strongly back then, still exists. So what has changed? Nothing!
What has changed however is that for the first time in the history of independent India, women have found the courage to at least make an attempt to fight back, and they are coming out in not just Delhi but other cities of India too to register their protest. I hope that doesn’t die out and the momentum is kept up. For that to happen there has to be a far more sensitive response to it from the ruling class.
How would you define Sethji?
Sethji as a character is a symbol of all that is wrong in our political system and it was something that preoccupied my mind for the last decade.... He is a symbol of all that we loathe. And at the same time he is a character who has also become a part of the political system whom we can’t wish away. These are small-time players, not big netajis. But again they are the ones affecting national politics because of coalition governments.
The novel has lots of violence and even more sex, so are those two really dominant parts of society today or is it a sure shot for a good read?
There is violence, but I see the sex as a metaphor for the violence. It is not in isolation. Unfortunately, no male author is ever asked this question whether the sex in his novel is for a good read. The sex is there as I wanted to write about it and there is no other explanation needed. It was very essential, particularly in this book as it is used almost as a weapon, a tool of domination. The arrogance that power breeds has led politicians to use, misuse and abuse women sexually and I could not have written Sethji without including that in the book in a way that is graphic and very telling.
Bollywood, business tycoons, fashion industry, politicians… what’s your 18th book going to be about?
There is this huge expectation that I would do a sequel to Sethji as there is an open ending with Amrita, the daughter-in-law, who is coming into her own at the end of the book. However, Sethji himself is on such a roll right now that I haven’t been able to start concentrating on his daughter-in-law just yet. But perhaps that will be the next book.
I am also interested in writing a trilogy on power itself and how we are interpreting power in today’s contemporary India. So this tackles political power, then there could be a book about corporate power and another book on Bollywood power. These are the three areas of power that in a way influence us in a manner that we don’t even realise.
One of your recent tweets read: “Solitary wish for the new year: A rape-free India/Bharat.” — but with politicians of every hue making shocking comments about women, are we even close to that wish?
As long as women who have finally found a voice and a platform to protest continue with their fight and do not let any kind of pressures make them abandon what has been started. It can be a movement that will change India and I hope that we can sustain it and there will be enough support for it. We can actually bring about reforms and changes on a legal platform rather than just candlelight vigils. The government should be shamed into pushing for changes. A rape-free India, rather a world, is just a dream. It is too idealistic a wish.
Do you think women should be doing something to protect themselves?
I feel extremely offended when women are supposed to arm themselves with chilli powders or pepper sprays, learn martial arts… that is not our job! It is the state’s job to protect its women and even men. It is their responsibility. So to put the onus on women, that if you can’t do it for yourself then too bad you are asking for trouble, is something that I find completely deplorable and despicable. And that line of thinking should not be encouraged as it only takes away the responsibility from the state and passes it on to the defenceless women.
You are known as a fearless woman. What are you scared of?
It would be a dumb confession, but I am really scared of creepy-crawlies. If someone really wanted to scare me, they just have to spring a box with a cockroach on me (laughs). Other than that, I would say fear is a four-letter word which has never intimidated me.
Swabhimaan (1995), Shanti (1994) were popular TV series. Have you ever considered going back to writing scripts for television or maybe even movies?
I have several offers but one has to keep choosing all the time. I used to enjoy writing for television a lot and I would love to go back again, and there are offers I am looking at. But I cannot write a Balika Vadhu kind of thing. I did not want to be a part of these regressive saas-bahu soaps. Fiction has sort of taken a backseat and I can’t write fiction based out of a haveli where the woman wakes up with pink eye-shadow! Swabhimaan, Shanti, Kittie Party (2002)… even they were way ahead of their time. However, there was broad acceptance and when I get an opportunity of a similar kind I will jump at it as I believe television is a very potent medium.