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She has become a fiction writer.
[Interview and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One dry monsoon evening I met Ms Rakhshanda Jalil, the author of Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi, in the first floor restaurant of India International Center (IIC). Over grilled fish and broccoli (she paid the bills), Ms Jalil disclosed that after a lifetime of writing on ruins and monuments, after translating a great amount of Urdu fiction into English, she has finally ended up writing fiction herself. A leading publishing house in the country would publish Ms Jalil’s collection of short stories.
Employed in the Jamia Millia Islamia University as director, media & culture, Ms Jalil’s satisfaction was like that of a first-time author who was finally going to be published. Born in Aligrah, she came to live in Delhi when she was less than four. Her family stayed in Nizamuddin East for over 20 years till her father bought a piece of land and built a house in the Jamia neighbourhood. He wanted a garden and that didn't seem possible anywhere else.
So far, except for a year abroad, Ms Jalil have lived her entire life in Delhi; that too only in three neighbourhoods: Nizamuddin East, Jamia, Gulmohar Park and now back again in Jamia. But in IIC, our conversation focused on the new stint in her life – that of a fiction writer.
Ms Jalil, what is this! We are used to reading your engaging pieces on Delhi’s famous and not-so-famous monuments. But your short stories have words like ‘sexy’ and ‘m*f*’!
Well, why not! After all, my stories are about real people and real people speak like this. Moreover, young Mayank, don't forget one very important difference between these stories and my articles on the old monuments of Delhi: my stories speak for themselves whereas I speak on behalf of the old monuments! Wouldn't you expect a different tone and tenor?
OK, got it. After translating Urdu-language stories, after writing so much non-fiction, you’ve veered towards fiction. Why?
These stories were waiting to be hatched; some had hatched and come out and had been cheeping and chirping inside me for a long time. Others were simply taking their time. I think their time has come now. You need to be partly sure when you can reveal your fiction writing to the world. I have always been reasonably confident about my non-fiction writings but it has taken me a very long time to bring out my fiction.
A very long time?
I wrote the first of these stories in 1996; Nah, I’m not telling you which one! I wrote two more, quickly and furtively, that very year. After that there was a long drought. You could say the stories were inside me, waiting to come out.
Some, of course, I have written very recently; their stimulus has been recent years, new events, new people I have met. One story I wrote over the weekend, taking several weeks to flesh out a thought that flashed clearly across my mind. So, time varies, and the effort required varies. But the work is not done. I often pluck stories that I think I have finished and go back to reading them again, tweaking, changing, editing myself. The process goes on.
This sounds like hard work. Were you cocksure of your stories when you showed them to your publisher? What she had to say about them?
Forget cocksure, I was a bundle of nerves. The editor was the first person who had ever read them and I was reminded of my college days. It was like presenting your tutorial and waiting for a response from the teacher. I have never known this sort of anxiety, nervousness even, about anything else I have written over the past 20 years.
So, what’s tougher – writing fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction is tougher any day. No question about it!
Ms Jalil, you’ve very graciously showed me a few of your stories. They are about Muslim women in Delhi but there’s no old Delhi in the stories. Old Delhi, after all, is synonymous with the city’s Muslim gentry. So how come it’s missing?
I have written about what I know. I frankly don't know many people living in old Delhi. Moreover, I think this is a myth; Muslims live in substantial numbers in other parts of Delhi, too. There is a growing Muslim middle class that lives in mixed neighbourhoods. Then there are other pockets occupied by educated, upwardly mobile Muslims; the Jamia neighbourhood alone has over two lakh Muslims. Also, I am questioning this whole business of gentry. The notion of Muslim gentry, especially the old fashioned type, is a stereotype of popular imagination. It constitutes a minuscule sub-percentage of the Indian Muslims who constitute 15 per cent of the overall population of India.
In one story, there’s a Muslim woman living in Jaracanda Park (is that a real place in Delhi?) who drinks whiskey, smoke Dunhill and talk Iraq and Afghanistan. Does such specie really exist in Delhi?
Jacaranda Park is not a figment of my imagination, nor is the woman. Both exist in parts in different names under different guises. Neither is unreal.
Umm, that means that the characters in your collection are inspired from real life Delhiites? Any person we know?
That would be telling!
I won’t insist. Let’s get more personal. You’ve two daughters, one husband and one day-job. Where did you find the time for short stories?
Time is elastic and elusive, Mayank. You have to find it. Moreover, like all women, especially working women, I have learnt multi-tasking. I write on the go, between doing several mundane tasks.
There are people who say that short stories are dying. Your views.
How can the short story die? There is nothing else to take its place. The novel, the autobiography, travel writing have their own place but nothing can beat the short story for brevity and compactness, and its ability to tell a story.
How much Delhi is there in your short story collection?
Quite a fair bit. Though not all stories are based in Delhi. In some places some parts are recognisable. But unlike my book on monuments, I did not set out to write a book of stories on Delhi. But because I have lived in Delhi since I was four years old, naturally Delhi has shaped my understanding of a city and its people.
In one of your stories, there is this well-off Muslim couple. Both husband and wife work in MNCs. The husband, as it happens, does not seem to be a regular namazi. Was it intentional on your part to bring out this section of Delhi’s Muslim gentry?
Oh please, I don't like this word ‘gentry’. But I do know plenty of young Muslim professionals. These stories might help you look beyond the stereotypes. The sort of people I have depicted, exist. Take off your blinkers and see them. Delhi, more than other cosmopolitan cities in India, is awash with them. These Muslims are everywhere. Yet people seem to see only a certain sort of Muslim profile. So, yes, it was intentional on my part to 'show' them.
Any interesting short story collection on Delhi you’ve read recently?
The last Delhi book I read was Delhi Master Plan 2001, a Rupa publication. Can't say I‘ve read a short story collection based on Delhi.
Which are the essential Delhi books in your shelf?
I consider the two volumes of INTACH's Delhi: The Built heritage to be my bible on Delhi. I consult them all the time. I also keep the three volume set by Maulvi Zafar Hasan handy. Perceval Spears sits right beside Narayani Gupta on my bookshelf. Khushwant Singh is essential reading on Delhi.