Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
Mohan won Best Story at the 2014 Screen Awards for the film adaption of his story “The Railway Aunty”, remade as dark thriller B.A. Pass by debut director Ajay Bahl. “The Railway Aunty” was published in Delhi Noir, part of the renowned urban noir series from Akashic Books brought to India by HarperCollins. Mohan’s story “Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress” won a PEN/O. Henry Prize. Mohan’s fiction and non-fiction looks at the repression, coercion and violence that lives just under the surface of urban middle-class life. His work has appeared in the journal One Story, the Toronto South Asian Review, Trikone Magazine, Tehelka, Open, National Geographic Traveller (India), and in anthologies in several languages and countries. Mohan is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.
1. What does it mean to be a writer?
MS: I write simply to connect, to make meaning of my observations of, and experiences in, the world, and also to be part of, in a modest way, a larger dialogue of sense and meaning-making, that I think all artists are involved in, and to connect and hopefully shift hearts and minds in a very difficult time for us as a species. And yes, I write also to entertain.
2. Why short stories and not a novel?
MS:In terms of short story vs. novel, people have said my stories, even the short ones, are novelesque in scope and content, so maybe a novel is right around the corner! I’m working on a couple ideas that I think have the potential to expand to novel size — one needs the right engine and story to carry through several hundred pages.
3. What inspired your award-winning story, ” Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress”?
MS:Life in South Delhi colonies inspired Musto. As did my grandmother, who was a vivid and unforgettable one-of-a-kind Punjabi lady. Her personality was the inspiration for the character of Grandma in the story. I took some scattered memories from childhood, grafted a made-up plot over them with reworked and imagined characters, and worked through an idea and climax that emerged in the writing. So part memory, part imagination.
4. How did Railway Aunty come along? Does the screen adaptation B.A. Pass do justice to your story?
MS:For The Railway Aunty, I think everything about that process has been captured in this essay in Open Magazine — it’s been quite a journey from concept to Best Story at the Indian Screen Awards!
5. The worst criticism you were given? And the best compliment?
MS:I don’t know about compliments and praise — the things I’ve produced have done really well, and it’s up to each reader to decide for themselves that they like and what they don’t. I resonate with compliments like: “You really captured a milieu or location well.” Or: “In 7,000 words you pulled off quite a complete and vivid story that was hard to put down.” For me getting the craft right is the biggest reward — arriving at a clean plot that words is such a difficult process. My biggest criticism is a self-criticism that in the midst of making a living and surviving etc. I don’t produce more — I’m trying to address that.
6. Who have been your story mentors?
MS:Re mentors — there are so many — there are masters of the short story craft like Alice Munro, Grace Paley and Flannery O’Connor. Jhumpa Lahiri does story structure really well. Each writers has their own set of go to people — I like Junot Diaz, Colm Toibn and Charles D’Ambrosio, a guy who hasn’t published a lot but some solid stuff, I love to see how people enrich their writing work from different life experiences and backgrounds, like Amitav Ghosh and his background in social anthropology. I’m a sucker for a complex story that works at multiple levels as well as a simple story, well told.
7. How do you respond to reviews about your work?
MS:One has to have a thick skin with reviews and not be attached — people are entitled to love and hate as they like, and they are and are not talking about you (personally) when they are responding to your work. Over time one gets better at realizing this.
8. Is there any subject you would never write about as an author?
MS:I’m drawn to subjects I have curiosity about — I’ve very interested in the incredibly creative ways in which people coerce and manipulate each other, while maintaing the necessary fantasy that they are “good” and “reasonable”. Also how power works in interpersonal relationships, sometimes in unexpected ways. One thread in my work is an exploration what people have to give up, in terms of their desires and yearnings, in order to nor be ejected from the norm, whatever that is, family, stable social relationships, society, etc. — and what the internal cost of this is.
9. What next?
MS:Keep the slog going, come what may. It’s the only way to produce — ass in chair!