Interview: Bikram Sharma - “For me, writing is very much all about rewriting”
Bikram Sharma, the author of The Colony of Shadows discusses his research process and the importance of representing disability sensitively.
When you began writing The Colony of Shadows, what genre did you have in mind? To what extent did that change over the three years and 10 drafts it took you to write it?
I did not have a specific genre in mind. I chose to free-write the first draft in a set of notebooks to avoid editing or overthinking matters and to see where this idea I had – of a boy climbing through a hole in a wall – would lead. Over subsequent drafts what really steered the direction of the story wasn’t so much genre conventions as it was the characters and their internal worlds becoming better realized. This, by the way, made it quite challenging to pitch to agents and then to publishers!
I wanted to know how Varun coped with the death of his parents. When that exploration of grief moved into spooky territory, I was shocked. What kind of practice/training did it take to write horror? Did you dig into your fears?
Before I started writing my book, I realised something obvious – I should write a story that I would want to read. This led to me re-reading books that I have enjoyed, such as Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Wildings by Nilanjana S Roy, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. These books do not fall under the genre of horror, but they have elements of it, and I learnt a lot from them. As for the horrors that the characters in my book experience, I would say that those are informed not by my fears but their own.
The narrative moves between cities. The Delhi location is identified as Munirka but the Bangalore location is left ambiguous. Why did you make this choice? Why did Munirka seem like the ideal setting to explore Varun’s relationship with his parents?
This is a great observation. Regarding the first part of your question, I suppose I could say I did this because Munirka is Varun’s home and occupies such an important space in his heart, while the bungalow in Bangalore is unexplored and a place where he feels untethered from the world.
But, in truth, the decision was made instinctively. Munirka is where my grandfather lived and where my uncle lives. When the fog descends, it becomes almost otherworldly. And the bungalow in Bangalore no longer exists save for in my memory. It was plucked from my childhood and was a glorious place that I enjoyed exploring, especially since the family that owned the property had many lovely dachshunds. Both locations fired my imagination, and I wrote them as I saw them in my mind’s eye.
After the death of his parents Anu and Alok, Varun moves in with his aunt Jyoti, grandmother Usha and their dog Poppy. While imagining this family unit, did you flesh out one character and move to the next, or did you write them simultaneously? Why?
I tried to write them simultaneously. Varun was there from the start, but Usha, Jyoti, and Poppy took some time to join him and then influence the story. And they went through many iterations. For example, in the first draft, Jyoti was sighted, unrelated to Usha, and married.
My writing process is exploratory. I begin with an image or a feeling, not with fully realised characters and a plot outline. And with every draft I get closer to understanding the characters and the story I am telling. Which is why, for me, writing is very much all about rewriting.
Jyoti is exasperated by sighted people who feel the need to congratulate her, a blind woman, for completing mundane tasks. She finds it patronizing. Tell us about how you worked on understanding and expressing her interiority with your uncle Jogi’s help.
Jyoti’s interiority was, to some degree, informed by conversations with my uncle and observing how the world interacted with him. It was also informed by my research. I was less interested in statistics than I was in experiences, and would recommend to anyone interested in the topic to read the Catapult column A Blind Writer’s Notebook by M Leona Godin.
I once attended a talk by the writer Ali Smith where she spoke about her research process. She liked to imagine all the information on a topic was within an envelope, and for her to successfully and creatively write about the topic, she needed to only peek at the lines on the first few pages within the envelope, then allow her imagination to fill in the gaps. Certainly, in my case, my uncle sowed the seed of inspiration, but after a point Jyoti grew and developed into her own person.
What apprehensions did you have? What kind of depth and detailing entered your writing after you interacted with people at the National Association for the Blind?
As a sighted person, I did have apprehensions. I wanted to write Jyoti with sensitivity, in a way that avoided stereotypes, and in a way that honoured my uncle. It was important to me that she was central, not peripheral. When I visited the National Association for the Blind (NAB) in Delhi, I learnt a lot from the director at the time – Mukesh Sharma. He was frank, kind, and remarkably open, sharing his own experiences and encouraging me to ask as many questions as I wanted. There was also much to learn from the facilities and teachers. A detail that I will never forget was arriving at NAB Delhi and, while my uncle paid the auto driver, hearing the jingle of a cricket ball for the visually impaired.
How has the book been received by people associated with NAB?
I’m afraid I don’t know. Mukesh Sharma left the NAB shortly after I interviewed him.
Your novel conveys quite strongly the idea that disability is socially constructed, that people are not inherently weak or helpless because they lose a faculty or sense, that they are made to feel incapable. How did you come to this realization?
This came about through my research. And through the many, many, many declarations from people I know, often delivered in a tone of wonder or pity, about how it is so remarkable that someone who is visually impaired can use a laptop, navigate busy streets, go grocery shopping, and do other day-to-day activities.
Jyoti talks about being happiest when she is getting messy and being creative at the pottery studio. Why did you choose not to set any scene in the novel in that space?
The story unfolds over a few days, and in that short period I wanted to emphasise Jyoti’s struggle to find time for herself while handling her new and daunting responsibilities. Plus, what was most important to me was to write a quiet but powerful scene between Jyoti and Varun where she shares something personal – something that deeply resonates with him and leads to a moment of true emotional bonding.
How did Poppy spring to life in your mind? The maternal love that she feels towards Varun, whom she calls a pup, is so beautifully imagined and communicated. Tell us about all the dogs who did not make it to your acknowledgements section.
Ah, you’re right to point out that the dogs did not make it into my acknowledgements section. They are, however, in the book! Part of my daily routine when I was working on my novel was to feed four stray dogs on my street. My wife and I gave them the names Timmy (who was a bit timid), Buster (who was boisterous around other strays), Mel (who was mellow), and Scooty (the youngest of the lot who was very friendly). They were such beautiful dogs. And unfortunately, like so many strays in India, they had been mistreated by humans. There were many times my wife and I wished we could bring them up to our flat and take care of them. They were the inspiration behind Poppy.
Did you dip into the writings of Carl Jung while working on your novel? The shadow is a significant concept in his work. Is the book title a reference to that?
I think that is giving me far too much credit! I have always liked the idea of supernatural separation. In the past, I have toyed with the idea of writing a story where a person’s reflection or shadow leaves them to live its own life. As I free-wrote the first draft of my book and imagined Varun walking through the colony, that idea returned to me and I could not resist writing a scene where he has an extra shadow – one that does not belong to him.
Tell us about your upcoming short story collection that explores Indian masculinity and vulnerability. Why does this subject interest you? Will any characters from your novel reappear in the new book, or are you creating an entirely new set of characters?
The characters are new. I am not sure if it is as simple as the subject interests me. Rather, when I write short fiction, I am trying to understand my place in the world, my choices, my fears, and this personal exploration often results in stories revolving around the themes of vulnerability, repression, family, and home.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.