Playing with Fiction / by N. Dhar

(Reflections on the writing of Tea and Treachery)

It begins with a memory. A faint colour of a memory. In front of the house in which I was born. I cannot be more than four. The front wall of the house is a pistachio green, next to which is a window in the style of a semi-circle, much larger than me. Dark green wooden sticks go criss-cross across it. The gap in between each stick fits my four year old hand. I stand in front of the house, under a neem tree which has always scared me. It is believed that neem trees house ghosts. My mother, father and sister are all outside, discussing the construction of my father’s office building, next door. A mountain heap of stones are piled in front of my house. I lie down there often but since it is under the neem tree, I don’t dare fall asleep there. Within minutes, we are surrounded by green snakes. My father tells me they are harmless. There is laughter. The construction workers are called out to take care of them. I stand there frozen for a few seconds before being led into the house.

My stories begin with memories of such kind. I inherit the colour and pace of fiction from my childhood. From how I remember going about with life. The events of my childhood, removed of definition and detail, are filled with colours of the surroundings. A memory of the kind mentioned above is filled with the pistachio green of the walls of my house rather than chatter of my family. This uncertainty seeps into aspects of characterisation and plot, leaving us with characters and situations difficult to judge.  

I don’t plan the course of the story. I don’t write in one sitting. I can sit on the same story for more than a fortnight. Such long brewed stories seem to be more circular and whole, the second half completing the first half, forming a perfect circle, resulting in a kind of emotional closure for one or all of the characters. Whether this means closure or catharsis for the reader, is difficult to tell.  

In Tea and Treachery, the father calls the little girl – our protagonist – Laila whereas her mother calls her Leila. It so happens that my father calls me Avirna and my mother calls me Avrina, which is how it is meant to be. This has been the case for as long as I can remember and no amount of chiding could make my father correct the way he pronounces  my name. A few years ago, I gave up correcting him but still flinch every time I hear him call out to me. I’ve come about to internalise and respond to a mistake, a mispronunciation. This is what irks me the most about the naming/misnaming.

As the story progresses, other memories present themselves and grow into it. When Laila/Leila gets her first period, the memory of my first period merges with the former’s telling.  I’m unaware of this blend of the past with fiction as I write – first word to last. I write the little girl’s first period to reflect something of my first period – the initial fear and later the staunch possession of body I develop. 

Soon the girl is gifted gold jewelry by her father and close relatives. A custom followed in most south Indian households, whose implications I did not know when I was subjected to it. I neither appreciated nor disregarded the jewelry. The little girl though breaks and steals pendants from one of the necklaces gifted to her. She simply reasons that if gifted to her, she ought to keep them and not her father.

As a child, I remember cooking with coconut shell ladles in the backyard of our house. My sister would join me. We never could wait till the rice boiled but ate the water-soaked raw rice in tiny vessels. My mother disapproved of this. Again a memory finds its way into the story in a different shape though in this particular scene, I remember my childlike features and attribute them to her. There is a photograph of me in the backyard, squatted, back to the wall and face to the sun. It is difficult to not keep this picture in mind as I write this scene.

It has become customary to trace such lines of memory –  after finishing a story – to see how they’ve morphed. I spend more time questioning why they’ve morphed so rather than editing the story.  With Tea and Treachery – as with a few stories before it – I came to believe that the conscious, subconscious, the unconscious and the imagination have come together to make something, to make fiction. Perhaps this is the way all fiction is made or should be made…

What follows my morphed memories is always something unexpected and unplanned. Something to remove the innocence of the picture or further it. Something to insist that beyond this layer there are many more and they don’t look the same. Usually I’m surprised by it. It takes my breath away and I wonder where it came from. For example, in the story, as the little girl cooks in the backyard, she sees a tiny green snake in the distance and decides to take it in her hand. She stretches it taut and breaks it. I stop writing here and wait for my body to digest the new event.

Such an event juxtaposed with a childhood memory of mine upsets the truth of the memory itself. The memory was only vaguely remembered and preserved, to begin with.  Fiction, now, continues the memory which I cannot otherwise continue. Perhaps this is what fiction is – a mix of the real and the unreal which could be the real, which is real. Maybe that is why we call it fiction after all.

But this is not where I’m completely in awe or disengaged from my mind in pure emotional frenzy. It happens after the girl and her father drink their gold flavoured tea and the father decides to keep the child. I write the last sentence, close the laptop and bend my head over it to cry. What was I gaining or what was I losing? But no, I was crying for Laila, a little girl tossed and turned in her own way in the midst of separated parents, both reluctant to take custody of her. Until I wrote the last sentence, I didn’t know this. But Laila knew. She waited all through the story for the dichotomy of her life to end. She waited to pick between Leila and Laila.

Tea and Treachery was written in a room, at a desk, in a prosaic little town. The one in which I grew up and imagined Laila to have. But the writing was filled with magic and sensuality, something only this town can offer. I didn’t see that coming. There was smell of sand, stones, cooking and the construction site from childhood. There was colour from the house in which I grew up and the colour of the burning crimson sun. There was the colour of red which stood for fear during the first period. There is a new town and a new childhood.

To write fiction is to stand on the very thin line between knowing and not knowing. No, maybe this is not a thin line at all. Between knowing and not knowing may exist a crater, a large gap where an eclectic mix of things happen. Things like memory and remembrance. Things like not knowing that you know/knew, or not knowing that you’ve known all along. Sometimes there are things that you didn’t want to know, but which you had to know. This too happens here – that some knowledge or truth is shoved down your throat. All kinds of knowledge exist in this gap between knowing and not knowing. Fiction cannot help but bring out these strains. For one, this is where fiction exists and it takes it upon itself to properly describe its place of being. Two, to make known is the play of fiction.

After Tea and Treachery ended, I walked about as if in a trance for a few days to come. Then went back to playing with fiction.

-Avrina Joslin

Avrina Joslin is a drifter who writes fiction, poetry and travel essays. She usually writes about her childhood memories, sexuality and the body - all in fragments or new versions. She’s currently working on a novel which her best friend called ‘grossly erotic’. She writes at www.avrinajos.com and tweets @AvrinaJoslin.