INTERVIEWED BY NIKITA BISWAL
Photo courtesy: Jane Borges
When I first spoke to Jane Borges for this column, it was a particularly unusual time in the writer’s life. Westland Books, one of the largest publishers in India, had announced its plans to shut down earlier that month, sending a sixty-year-long catalogue, which includes both of Borges’s books, out of print. Meanwhile, the release of Gangubai Kathiawadi, the much-anticipated Hindi film based on a story from Mafia Queens of Mumbai, a book co-authored by S. Hussain Zaidi and Borges in 2011, had renewed attention on Borges’s work. Even as Mafia Queens of Mumbai soared on bestseller lists, Borges’s books had run out of stock in bookstores.
As a journalist, Borges covers books, heritage and urban planning for the Sunday edition of Mid-Day. Even at a glance her concerns as a writer are apparent – Mumbai, the rapidly evolving metropolis and its lesser-known histories, a passionate subject. In both her journalism and fiction, the city is inextricably tied to the communities who occupy it on the daily and animate its public and private characters. Borges’s debut novel, Bombay Balchão, is a delightful chronicle of life in Cavel – a sooty, fast-disappearing neighbourhood in South Mumbai. Her most recent project, Soboicar, has her documenting personal histories within Mumbai’s Catholic neighbourhoods in collaboration with the Citizens’ Archive of India.
Borges spoke to me from a cosy balcony in her home in Cavel, looking over a compound that leads to the neighbourhood. The potted and curtained space suggested a bucolic perch in the city, something rare and at threat, perhaps like the writing itself. But whatever pressures threaten to strain writing appear to have eluded Borges. “I was just making myself happy,” she says of the process of writing her novel. Throughout this conversation, Borges inhabits her role with an ease, sharing her mind with an uncommon simplicity. We talk here about the critical roles played by readers, the place of joy and success, and how these yardsticks shift from journalism to fiction.
This transcript is an abridged version of the original interview.
NB: Do you find that your writing is motivated by an end?
JB: My writing is motivated by curiosity. I think I started writing Bombay Balchão because I was curious to know what happens to a neighbourhood like Cavel when it completely withers and there’s nothing left of it. This curiosity about whether endings are going to be beautiful or painful and morbid and how we can tweak them drives me, especially with fiction. We writers get that space and liberty to do whatever we want with endings. As a writer, I would want to soften the grief that comes with end. Because I live in a neighbourhood that’s vanishing — we really don’t know what will happen to it next — I wanted to know if there was an end, whether it would make people happy.
NB: What comes after you’ve addressed the curiosity?
JB: I find it very cathartic. For me, that experience of trying to find a better resolution is cathartic. I saw it happen with Bombay Balchão. I thought readers experienced the same catharsis that I did. We start to get to know these characters as children and we all want to know where this will go and that is what takes readers from chapter to chapter. So they feel a similar release that I felt at the end of writing it. By the time I had finished writing, I had taken bits and pieces of people and my own experiences and invested that in my characters. For me, those experiences were what I was seeking resolution to. While for readers, the catharsis came from knowing that there were people they were invested in and their ends were not as painful or sad as one would have imagined them to be.
NB: Does the journey of the book once it’s off the writing table not come into the picture?
JB: When I wrote Mafia Queens, it was a very journalistic project. I was writing to be read by a certain audience that wants to be informed. It’s very different from fiction, where you’re writing to take a reader into a different kind of world. It is not information per se. I did have some journalistic rigour when writing Bombay Balchão because I come from that background and I wanted to inform people about Cavel, but I was not looking at what my reader wanted or whether the book would be a hit when it was published. I was just enjoying myself. Sometimes I do these sessions with young students about writing and publishing and I always tell them one thing – don’t write to be published. When you write to be published, there is a certain level of artifice. You are writing to please an audience and that is a struggle because there is such a variety of readers out there, more than the letters of an alphabet. How do you please every one? That pressure itself will affect the writing, which is why I sometimes don’t enjoy certain writers. With a lot of contemporary writers, you can easily see whether they are enjoying their writing or whether they are writing to please you. In that process, you sometimes entirely lose what the plot is. I can’t get invested in the characters because the writer is so caught up in crafting beautiful sentences that will make you go, “Wow!” But my end takeaway is that I wasn’t able to relate to the characters. I am confused about the story. I don’t think that’s what a book should be doing. I write very simply because that is how I think and interact with people. That is what a writer should do. You are just presenting yourself, not because you want to please people but because you want to tell a story. The moment writing is not enjoyable, it reflects in a book.
NB: So do you write for yourself?
JB: There are certain parts of Bombay Balchão that cracked me up. It’s just my kind of sense of humour. I was not at all affected by how my reader would take it, whether he would laugh or not. For someone else, it might be very staid or might not move them in any way, let alone make them smile. I was just writing because I was enjoying the process. Writers need to be honest – honest to yourself, to the feelings you are feeling. Don’t let them hide. But you should also know how much to show without feeling vulnerable. Very often you get so invested in a character that you forget that you are putting yourself out there through them. When you write, write for yourself.
NB: Joan Didion said something really interesting in an interview with The Paris Review when she was asked whether she thinks about the reader when she writes, and her response was “Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me.”
JB: Definitely. We want readers to read our work. It’s not like we write only for ourselves. It’s not a selfish or self-centred process. Everybody seeks validation. If Bombay Balchão was not successful, I would have probably questioned myself as a writer and thought I should stop writing books. The validation is what continues to keep us going. We need it. But if you get too invested in the process of wanting to please your reader, it might affect the uniqueness of your storytelling.
NB: Do you think the writer is more central to the writer-reader relationship then?
JB: Of course there are writers who write for themselves, but the two are inseparable. The writer needs readers to read them. It’s a give and take process that you can’t work independently of.
There are two kinds of writings I do. There is writing that I do for myself. That would be in my diaries, my rambling thoughts, which I would want nobody to read. Then there is writing that you want to be read and that becomes why you write. It is that kind of writing that comes into play when we talk about books. And for that, the reader is integral. You cannot ignore them. I was talking to this colleague of mine from Westland whose book just got published in January, and she was telling me how for the first time in her life, she’s had just a month to sell such a large print run of her books. That is not why we write. We write so that our books are discovered, and discovered in the strangest of circumstances – maybe while you’re walking through the street or while having a discussion over coffee or a friend wants to gift it to you. All of that comes down to serendipity and chance. It’s such an organic process of discovery that goes beyond the marketing that we writers have to do now with the coming in of publicity. It goes far beyond that. What these readers do with the book is what makes writers feel like they belong, that their voice matters and that they need to continue to write.
NB: Do you keep a diary?
JB: I used to have a diary as a teen but I would not write very regularly. During the pandemic, at least once a month. It brought out very negative and dark feelings, the kind of feelings that I would not be able to express in my stories. In fact, I don’t want to put that in the kinds of stories that I write. When you write for yourself, you bring a very different kind of personality. When you’re writing to be read, you want to bring a more positive outlook. I guess it depends on what you want to put out there. I am very clear I would like to make people happy because I like to feel happy after reading a book. I would never want someone to read my diary. They would think the world is going to crash! It’s terrible. But I do write a diary, especially when I have a lot of pent up feelings. I noticed during the pandemic that I wasn’t able to write creatively. I was doing my work for Sunday Mid-Day, pulling out two or three stories a week, which was a lot of writing, but that is work. That has deadlines. There you are writing to inform. But admittedly, I haven’t been able to do great in the pandemic just because of the kind of environment we found ourselves in. So I started writing a diary to release those feelings. That’s one of the most beautiful things about writing. I don’t think anything can give you as much healing as writing does, which gives writers such an advantage. I remember when I was feeling very lonely, I went back to writing Bombay Balchão and in the end, it did make me very happy. In the pandemic, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t create an imaginary world, so I wrote about the real things I was grappling with. When you write about the real issues and struggles that plague you as a writer, it’s to try to release whatever unwanted energies you have inside. I don’t know what I can do with that. I cannot construct something brilliant out of it. I know a lot of writers can. And when I cannot, I let it be.
NB: You never mine one for the other?
JB: No. It’s very clear. It’s set in stone.
NB: What brought you to writing? Did journalism precede the fiction or vice verse?
JB: I loved writing as a child. I started with bad poetry, and I used to get published in a magazine in Oman where my parents lived and where we were brought up. Having the work read — it used to be a weekly magazine — and friends coming and saying they read my story made me feel like that was something I could pursue. But I also was fully aware that I couldn’t earn a livelihood by just plain writing books. At that point, I had no intention of writing. I just knew that I was a better writer than I could be anything else in the world. So I decided to do journalism instead and see how that would work for me. The book happened by accident. I had no wish or interest in writing a book then. I was very clear that I wanted to change the world with my writing, that is through journalism, and bring about some real difference. Writing books is something I thought I would do when I am in my forties or fifties, when I have nothing else to do. I got lucky with a book deal quite early on in life, and that made me think about books more seriously.
NB: And over those years, did the pressures — both the routine and the unusual — change anything about you as a writer?
JB: I can’t work under pressure. Nobody can push me to write a book. I am not that kind of person, who is here to make a statement with their books. When Mafia Queens happened, I was twenty-four, and by the time Bombay Balchão released, it was 2019. There was a gap of eight years. It was only in 2015 that I knew that I had a story to tell. I had briefly moved to Oman again to work and I was missing home and writing this book came out of a sense of vacuum, a sense of longing for home. But I was able to realise after only a story or two that it is no longer about loneliness and longing. It struck me that I had a story here that I wanted to stitch together and I allowed it to happen very organically. I started writing in 2015 again after four years and then gave a break to it in 2016 when I moved back to Mumbai. I decided to concentrate on my journalism because I realised that the stories were not going anywhere. I had gotten a bit of negative feedback on my writing and I thought maybe I should just shelf it for a bit and come back to it when I am really ready to work. I went back to the book only in 2018. It was such a long journey for a book that maybe didn’t need so much time. If I would have just sat with it for a month, I would have been able to pull it off, but I don’t think I would have been able write the book that I now find as enjoyable. I allowed it to brew and I took my time. Sometimes I was just thinking or talking to a friend over coffee or having a chat with my brother before we went to sleep when some idea would strike me and I thought maybe this is something I can go back and add to my chapter. I cannot force myself to start unless I am ready. I allow for that process. I think it works differently for different writers. I am writing religiously and diligently every day thanks to my job, so that exercise is there. I am constantly experimenting with how I tell my stories because I get that freedom to narrate my story differently as a features writer. I really don’t worry about not writing a book. It’s okay if there isn’t another book, people are reading me in some form or the other.
NB: When writing is your day job, how do you make room for it as an art in your everyday life?
JB: With journalism, there’s a sixty-forty. Sixty per cent of the reason I do journalism is because it makes me feel like I am doing something. It makes me feel good about my work. Forty per cent because it helps me earn my bread and butter. But beyond the realm of whether writing helps you earn, it helps you survive in other ways. Lucky are those who are able to articulate themselves through their writings and stories because they are able to channelise what they feel. As a writer, I perceive the world very differently. I am constantly observing. I am constantly thinking of ways to see the world differently and to imagine a better life for myself and for readers through my stories. I think that is what sustains me more than whether or not it will bring me money. That is very secondary as a process.
NB: And what does it cost the writing?
JB: What does it cost me as a writer not being able to constantly create?
NB: Yes, does the profession cost the creative writing in any way?
JB: The advantage here is that I am a full-time journalist. I am constantly creating in terms of writing. On a weekly basis, I am churning out a new story, sometimes two. Most of the time, these are stories that have not been written about and I get to tell them. In that way, I have been constantly creating. Fortunately, I am not just a hardcore news journalist. I do a lot of feature writing that allows the liberty and possibility for a bit of my creativity to come into play. I am not someone with another day job entirely that is not related to writing, then perhaps I would be stressed about having one book out in four years or not writing enough. But at no point in the last two years have I felt like my writing has suffered. In fact, I am constantly looking at how one feature story could be better than the other. Writing is not just about writing books. It’s not about one way of connecting with your reader. I have the advantage as a journalist to reach out to people through different kinds of stories, not only fiction, but something more real perhaps. There are really no costs to not being able to constantly produce a book that I have worried about, because I am creating and being paid for it.
I would definitely want to write more fiction, because that is where I feel my strengths lie. It allows more room for creativity. Writing fiction makes me happy. But when you do not have a great story inside of you, it will not come out of you. I am waiting for that to happen. Fiction is absolute creation. There is nothing you are relying on. What my journalism allows me to do is talk about real things, real life, real people – easy. But it’s challenging to make up a world in your head. When you do, it takes time. If you are not honest with it, if you just do it because you have to write a book, you will not be able to hold onto it. With a lot of authors who are in a hurry to create their next book, I feel that pace in their work and how that affects who reads their work and who doesn’t. It’s very important to constantly create, but I just feel that we need to create more honestly.
NB: Do you see all your writing on a continuum? How do you think your work as a journalist informs your fiction?
JB: A lot. In fact, with Bombay Balchão, I gave the book a break because I was not satisfied with what I had created. In my journalism, I cover heritage and urban planning, so bits and pieces of information that I was gathering from my research as a journalist were informing me. I was able to connect those dots with my fiction. I could see that my journalism would give this work more heft. It made it a story that also had a side-take where you get a sense of this city, this community, this world that you probably had no idea about. I wanted to introduce it because it’s vanishing. I didn’t want to talk about it in vague terms. Because I had the information, I wanted to dive in and give the readers as much as I could. So I think one part of my journalism came into play, which was research. I am also an editor. That made me a writer who was simultaneously editing while writing their book. You have these truckloads of information that you gather from a place, but how do you put it in a structure that is consumable? Because I have been working as an editor for nearly a decade, that automatically or subconsciously was always at play. I can take pride in the fact that I did not trouble my editors too much in terms of structure. Still, the book was challenging because it was written to be nonlinear. Its events take place over a period of seventy years, and it’s constructed in a very arbitrary fashion. It could have been misleading and confusing to the reader, but I think my editing mind allowed me to compartmentalise information and characters and weave these stories.
Sometimes I think it’s bad because what editing does is it makes your work very crisp and concise. But then you are always thinking of these words – crisp, concise. I have a feeling that it’s one of the reasons why Bombay Balchão was such a short novel. I wanted to give just about enough information, but not too much to overwhelm the reader. Writers don’t write like that. Writers allow themselves to be a little greedy when it comes to their writing. They allow their pens to flow, as they say. I couldn’t do that. Every time my pen would flow, it was as if I was holding back. The editor in me was saying, “Shut up and stop here, that’s too much for your reader to take!” I don’t know how to work without it. It was with me at a very subconscious level.
NB: Is this always the case – it’s the editor in you that’s doing the writing?
JB: Yes, I think so.
NB: And has writing fiction changed your journalism in any way?
JB: Not really, I doubt it. Journalism has definitely informed fiction. In some way, I am more creatively tuned. I take sentences very seriously when I turn in my feature stories. Journalism takes rigour. It requires you to gather stories, while the writing is secondary. If you are not able to gather your news story, get the right information from the right sources, and put your report together, the story falls flat. Writing is a very secondary process in journalism. I enjoy the process of writing creatively but the first part is having the information and content. Then I have to speak to my sources and while I am doing this, at the back of my mind, I am thinking about how I can start the story. How do I begin? How do I open it? I am most concerned with whether I am able to give you the information you need in the piece. But structuring it creatively is very important to me. In that way, creativity definitely comes into play. I am constantly thinking about how to write my sentences, how to craft it beautifully. That is the aim when I am telling a story. I like to enjoy that experience.
NB: Do you see those as different personalities – the journalist, the fiction writer, and the editor?
JB: I look at journalism as the most serious job at hand. There is serious responsibility. On my part, I am not just writing a story. I am writing about real people’s real lives and how it’s going to impact someone else. I am constantly thinking about how not to misrepresent. Journalists have a lot of responsibility that way, and that makes it more challenging. It’s not my job to worry about who not to offend. But if I don’t write something fairly, I could risk destroying a life. So that responsibility makes journalism so much more different. Fiction, on the other hand, is my world. I don’t really have to worry about it. I don’t carry that burden.
I work for the Sunday edition of the papers. Every Sunday, I wake up in the morning, and the first two hours of Sunday go hoping nobody’s calling me to say they didn’t like this part of the story. There is judgment even in fiction, but they are judging your story. This judgment is not just on you, but on the people you are writing about. So I would look at them as two very different things. In terms of what inspires what, that is where they meet, but otherwise, they are very different and should not be confused for each other. A lot of journalism that we are seeing in our country today is fictional, and we know from history that that kind of fiction is dangerous.
NB: Does this responsibility ever weigh the writing down? How do you free yourself from it?
JB: Does it weigh my writing down? I don’t think so. I would say that it makes what I do as a writer feel more useful. I feel like I am impacting something. I am not sure if my fiction does that. Fiction, at least my fiction, was intended for you to feel something, whatever it was – love, anger, pain. It was not meant to impact. I think writing for the newspaper does that for me. I feel a part of this process of change, impacting lives of people, events, circumstances. Whether it really happens or not I don’t know, but it has never weighed me down. It helps me articulate a problem. I have never wanted to be free of this in any way.
NB: In your work as a journalist, I imagine you approach many stories from the position of an outsider. In fiction, when you write about lives that are so close to you, how does that change your approach to the story?
JB: With fiction also, at the end, you have to be an outsider. I remember in a review that I read, someone called me a flaneur. If you get too involved in the story, you do become an insider in that story. But you have to look at the characters you are creating from the outside. What would this world look like then? Even when I am observing people, even if there are people from my community for instance, I am very much an outsider who is looking at them with some kind of judgment or critique. My observations come into play, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am an insider. If you become too invested in that story then you cannot laugh at those characters because they become part of this little family. With Bombay Balchão, there were a lot of ridiculous characters, who sometimes do things that are bizarre. The moment I turn completely invested in a character, I would not allow them to do that. When you are the insider, a voice in you says, “No, this shouldn’t happen.” But I try to enjoy this madness from the outside and spin a completely crazy story. I want to see what’s happening from the outside. Same goes for journalism. We work week after week on a new story, so we start detaching ourselves from the story after it ends. Once I am done with a story I tell myself I have to move to the next edition. You have to look for your next good story. The detachment happens there. With fiction writers, they tend to be attached to the stories for a longer period of time.
NB: Would you say that it’s this detachment that allows for imaginative leaps within the fiction?
JB: Of course, in so many different ways. There are characters that were very much inspired from people I knew, sometimes even myself, my own thoughts, thoughts I would not want to share with the world but that I was able to force into my characters. When you are able to
detach yourself from those feelings in a way that you can see how bizarre or emotional they are, you allow those emotions to be given to someone else, like a fictional character. That detachment is necessary to build good characters. I have to be able to detach myself from the characters so I can show how stupid they can be. Unless you do that, you won’t allow them room to grow and learn to pick up their sticks and move on. That was very important for me to do – to give every character the same space to grow, make mistakes, and become the people they eventually become.
NB: It’s interesting to hear you talk about writing being driven by detachment, as opposed to empathy.
JB: It is very important, so much of it is empathy. So much of me was in these different characters. Bombay Balchão had sixteen different characters. In your head, creating sixteen different people with sixteen different voices is impossible. Basically what you do then is you split all that you are as a person into sixteen different people. You put your experiences in different characters and you know that some parts of you are in each one of them. So you need to know how to detach yourself to be able to see them objectively. Journalism allows such objectivity. Maybe that’s where my journalism and fiction inform each other – I see them objectively. Only then can you make interesting stories, not necessarily great stories, but surely stories that would amuse people.
One of the feedbacks that I got early on in my writing was that all my characters sounded the same. I was just four or five chapters in, but I realised everyone had the same voice. Perhaps many of them spoke like me because I was not able to differentiate each character from the other. That’s when I went back to the drawing board and started to put it down. How do you make them look different and sound different? I had been attached to the point that I couldn’t see that my characters spoke and felt the same until somebody gave me that feedback. Only then was I able to step back and take a look.
NB: Do you find such collaboration vital to your work as a writer and a journalist?
JB: Very. It’s very important. I think it makes your work richer. Writers should always listen. When you write for people, it’s very important to listen to them. When you write, you are vulnerable to feedback, the kind of criticism that will come at both a personal level and at the writing. What I think informed feedback does is it makes your writing richer in some shape or form. Bombay Balchão would not have been the book it is today if it was not for my literary agent and my commissioning editor who told me I need to historicise my novel. Earlier the place in my book was not called Cavel; it was a fictional place. When they gave me their feedback, I renamed the place in the book and made the history real and it completely changed the book. People read the book not just for stories now, but because they want to understand something about a community or a neighbourhood like this in Bombay. I have had people come randomly to our compound saying I got curious about Cavel reading the book. Bombay Balchão found a different purpose – it became about finding a lost place. It’s nice when fiction can do that. Not all fiction needs to do that, but if it can strike some chord in you and stay with you in any way, that’s a wonderful thing. So I would say listen. I gave my book to my agent and my commissioning editor, but I also gave them to a lot of non-readers, like my brother. I knew that if a non-reader could read this book, it would also reach the readers.
NB: How does writing about a place that you inhabit so closely change your relationship with it? Do you occupy it differently when you write?
JB: I have become more attached. I have newfound respect for the place I inhabit now. I see it with a very different lens. I was very detached to the writing process to be honest. I found it very amusing how quirky the people around me were, not particularly friendly or warm at the outside. But at the end of the day, they are all there for each other, though they might not be really supportive at first. I found that quirk amusing enough to write about, but I think the moment I finished writing and put the book out, seeing how much they loved these stories too made me think about how lucky I was to experience this place very day. It made me a little more attached to Cavel. I will always, no matter where I go, remember Cavel for what it did to me as an individual.
NB: What has changed in the way you see the place now?
JB: I realised that places have their own beating hearts, and they beat differently for different people. Cavel – it’s a very quiet neighbourhood, quite dead even, but the moment you walk out, it’s noisy and chaotic. It’s the busiest street in the south of Bombay – Kalbadevi and Chira Bazaar. It’s this interesting dichotomy of being surrounded by noise and being able to cut off from it the moment you enter Cavel. That is what Cavel has embodied for me – peace. It embodies that little spirit of resilience and this ability to stay despite having no reason to. For me, Cavel is a real person. I didn’t realise that Cavel was my muse until the book was completed. The neighbourhood is peopled with people, and all of them have become part of my life now. It’s such a large universe, one that I enjoy and might go back to when I write something else. I can’t ignore it in my future writings. It reigns me when I am in the mix of chaos.
NB: When you are writing about people you live with and come to know so intimately, what comes with asking questions about and of them?
JB: I was very clear that I do not base a character on a singular person because that would mean I would have done so without their consent and created another version of them. Even so, a lot of people came back to me and said that this character reminded me exactly of this person. And I was worried because I had very consciously not wanted to do that. I was listening to stories but I was very particular about creating new characters who have bits of everyone I had seen but stand out as very different individuals. But sometimes you tend to, as writers, overindulge, and in the process, you don’t realise that perhaps a character is a lot like somebody you know. I don’t worry about it too much. Such accidents happen.
NB: You said earlier that your job as a journalist allows for inspiration to drive your other writing. What does the process of waiting for inspiration look like?
JB: It can be inordinate and that’s the tough part. When I finished Mafia Queens, I was at a phase in my life where I wanted to prove I have another book in me. I remember quitting my job in 2013. I had a little break of three months so I tried writing. It was a lot of rubbish – writing I would never go back to. At that time, I felt pressured to write another book, on my own, since I had co-authored Mafia Queens. But the writing I was doing simply had no meaning because I didn’t know what kind of story I wanted to tell. I just realised at some point that you can’t be pressured into having a book. You need to allow yourself to feel. And someday a story will come to you. I remember moving to Muscat around this time, leaving home and Cavel, and missing it. A lot of my creativity came back to me at that point because I was writing stories about home. It was a story about Cavel and from there, a bigger story grew. I was motivated after writing that one story, even though it was all very juvenile writing. I had time at work, so I wrote something, in say, two hours flat. I think it was a nice and lovely coincidence that I could weave a larger story from there that so many people later enjoyed. That is probably because I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling and pour those feeling out in some shape or form. If I keep doing that, perhaps there would be some great story waiting inside of me. After two books, and especially after Bombay Balchão — because Mafia Queens required working with someone, researching, deadlines, journalistic rigour — I realised that if you are not patient, if you hurry, if you don’t allow yourself to feel the story, it will not come to you. So I am just going to take my time now. I am not in a rush. After the last episode, which was an inordinate wait, I know that I don’t want the wait to be this long, so I am constantly thinking. It is always there at the back of my mind.
NB: What is your writing routine like during a typical week?
JB: I write almost five times a week. My writing routine can be very long when I am talking about journalistic writing, which can be challenging. On an average, I put out around 3000 to 5000 words a week, which is a lot. I don’t have the advantage of a fiction writer where you have multiple manuscripts or drafts of your copy. You only have the time to create a final draft that goes into print on Sunday. On a weekly basis, I dedicate about twelve hours average to writing. A bigger copy can take about nine hours, smaller will take three. I take nine hours because I want to make it look like a piece of art, not just a plain report. This does not include the double the number of hours, when I am thinking about how to write these stories. I am using the time that I am on the train or in the cab to think about my writing and then twelve hours to just write the work. The research’s separate. In entirety, I dedicate about two days of the week just for fieldwork.
NB: Is this writing that happens primarily at the workplace?
JB: I write at home mostly. The best parts are written at home and then I go to my workspace and I rewrite it. I have my space at home in my room. I don’t like any noise or disturbance when I am trying to craft an idea or a sentence in my mind. Sometimes I wake up early in the morning to put together something and then go and elaborate on it at work. When I have a story I really believe in, I wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning and get to work. Sometimes a great idea for how to begin my story comes at 11:00 in the night and I have to turn on my laptop and write that bit so I can use it the next day.
NB: How did the routine change when you were working on the novel?
JB: Writing this book happened in two parts, two phases of my life. One was in Oman while I was there and the other in Mumbai. The second half or the latter was while I was in Bombay. I would say at least the skeleton of the book and perhaps 35% or 40% of this was envisioned in Oman, when I had a lot of time. I think just the way the place is it lends itself to time and space, not just physical space, but even mental space and emotional space. You get so much of it that you can become an absolute daydreamer. At that time I did work for a newspaper, Muscat Daily. I had a fixed job say from 10’o clock to 6’o clock. I usually went to the gym in the evening and came back home by 8’o clock. But I had my weekends to me. I didn’t have a lot of friends so I used my weekends to cook and write and wash clothes, do my laundry! That is all I did for those two years that I was there. I actually started writing about Cavel in the last six months of being in Muscat. I did a lot of writing. Whenever I had the time, instead of getting invested in any kind of negative feelings, I wrote these fun stories. So 30% of that happened in Muscat because I had ample time. When I came to Bombay I actually shelved this project for a good two and half years. I would keep filling in details here and there, but not take it too seriously. I rewrote, or restarted, in 2018 April. That’s when my literary agent Anish Chandy came on board and said that we could do something with this. This is where the work started and I had to do a balancing act, because I had a full time job and it was very rigourous. I needed to figure out how I would balance my time. I usually sat on Mondays – only Mondays. On Mondays we give story ideas for the coming week. I would get up early in the morning, by 7’o clock and give my ideas for stories that I wanted to do by 9:30 or 10:00, and the rest of the day was just the book. I did this for about a year. Less than a year actually, about ten months, but I did it diligently. I didn’t do anything else in that year. I was very serious about getting this book out. I was very particular about not writing during the week because I didn’t want my work to influence my stories in any way. I didn’t want how consumed I was with work to influence the way I wrote creatively. I didn’t even write on a Sunday because I wanted to disconnect between my creative writing and my journalism, and give that one day to doing nothing. And I did nothing on Sundays. It was just that Monday. So I found the balance. I realised that this was the only way I could be productive with my creativity.
NB: When the process gets isolating, what do you seek?
JB: It’s a very lonely process. I remember for Bombay Balchão, I took two weeks off and I was completely disconnected from social media just so I could write. My doors were shut. I only came out to eat food, because I had a deadline and I seriously had to send the book by then. Those were the final two weeks of tweaking all my chapters. I wanted there to be two weeks dedicated to that work. I don’t know what happened to the world in those two weeks. I would have coffee, speak to my mum, and go back. But I allow myself to feel the isolation. I sometimes step out for a walk and I allow myself to think. I make peace with that moment, with being lonely and alone and creating. It’s nice to come back to something after that, come back home, to have something waiting for me. It’s a lonely process of creating. There are moments when you get completely disconnected from people around you. Living with a writer is another challenge, because it’s such an all-consuming process. You have the world that you live in and the world that resides within you. It’s a constant struggle between them, but you need to know when to cut off and disconnect from this world inside you and come back.
NB: When writing is so close to living, do you find it difficult to separate the two?
JB: No, they are correlated in so many different ways! It’s the little parts of how you live that inform your writing, so you can’t separate the two in any way. It would be very unfair to say that this is one part of my life and I cannot mix it with the other. How are you going to make your writing richer if you are not going to allow yourself to feel those little experiences and just slip? They are very related and I would not like to…it’s very difficult to disconnect. I have done some very strange things, like going on treks alone or skydiving, and that is not me at all. I am a very safe person, but I still end up doing these things because I think at some point these experiences are going to make me a better writer, someone who can construct a completely different person who is not me, because I am living these different experiences day in and out.
NB: Does that mean you have to practice to be a writer?
JB: It is practice. It’s not just about sitting down and writing sentences. Writing is about experiencing. That is the practice – doing the things that you don’t see yourself doing very often. Being in situations that make you uncomfortable, being in situations that make you unhappy, meeting people that you don’t like meeting. Those interactions will at some point inform your writing. A great writer observes even in environments that you think mundane and repetitive, so imagine what you could do if you just open yourself to different worlds. I am very conscious of this as a journalist.
Bombay Balchão was published in 2019 by Westland Books, which shut down in February 2022.