Interview: Manish Gaekwad, author, The Last Courtesan – “My mother and I were accomplices in this”
The genre of memoir was the best way to tell Rekhabai's story because she wanted to share her life in her own voice and not through another narrator. She wanted to be honest and truthful, and the memoir allowed her to do that. The process of writing the memoir was enjoyable and brought the author and Rekhabai closer together. Rekhabai would have been thrilled about the book's reception and the attention it is getting. The cover of the book features a picture of Rekhabai performing her routine as a dancer. The process of listening to Rekhabai's life story did not alter the author's relationship with the various places in India that the story unfolds in. The author's experience as a screenwriter influenced the narrative choices made in the book, but the prospect of selling movie rights did not influence how it was written. While working on the book, the author read various books including The Book of Disquiet and Fictions. If the book were to be made into a movie, the author would choose Tripti Dimri to play Rekhabai. Some depictions of courtesans in Indian cinema and literature that stood out for the author include Sardari Begum and Umrao Jaan Ada. The author believes that the stereotype of the tawaif as a sex-worker needs to be more informed. The author responds to gay men who romanticize the lives of courtesans by saying that if they find comfort and expression in courtesan-ship, why not? The author is currently working on a book about their own growing up years in the kotha and a rom-com film script.
Why did the genre of the memoir seem like the best way to tell Rekhabai’s story?
My mother always wanted to tell her story in her own voice and not through another narrator. First and foremost, it was important to her that I know the story of her life, not just as my mother but also as a woman, a girl, a child that she was before she became a parent. She never got an education and thought her story should perhaps serve as one to anyone willing to hear her – so the memoir feels like you are sitting in a room listening to her talk.
When you broached the idea of writing this book, what was her first reaction? How would she have responded to all the attention and adulation that the book is getting?
We were accomplices in this. When I told her that I was going to write it, she understood that I had come around as the ablest chronicler because I am not an outsider and she can tell me things that I may already know of, and that she can be honest and truthful and not hide the scars and paint only a romantic view as we see in hagiography. She did not brood, and only laughed through her miseries because she survived them. We bonded through humour, so the process of writing was both enjoyable and a way for us to spend time together, as we lived in different cities. She loved attention as a performer is used to. She would have been thrilled about the book’s reception.
Tell us the story behind the cover of the book, and the picture that you have used.
In this picture taken in the 1980s, we are celebrating my birthday at Congress House in Bombay. My mother is doing her routine. She would dance balancing a bottle on her head, and bend like an acrobat to collect cash with her mouth. As a child, I thought that she was from a circus. But this striking image stayed with me for years. Each time while looking at it in an album I thought if, someday, I would get the opportunity to use it… and voila!
How did the process of listening to your mother’s life story – which unfolds across various parts of India – alter your relationship with these places?
It was not altered because that is her own journey, her own story. Mine is when I travelled the country for a year to write my first book Lean Days. I guess I do not let her story affect mine, and keep the two separate. In fact, we have travelled together. As individuals, we were able to have altogether different experiences viewing the same thing at the same time.
Writing is a solitary activity but choosing to publish requires you to participate in selling the book. How has this experience been for you? After listening, transcribing, translating and writing, how does it feel to tell the story repeatedly to market the book?
It was tricky in the beginning, because we are constantly trying to reinvent a new way to repeat ourself. But I also realise that repetition is practice to shape your words into finer thoughts. And marketing helps you understand where you stand.
How did your experience as a screenwriter shape the narrative choices that you made? To what extent did the prospect of selling movie rights influence how you wrote?
You know the famous literary writer F Scott Fitzgerald struggled to find his footing as a screenwriter in Hollywood. His friend, the filmmaker Billy Wilder, said of him that Fitzgerald was like “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job”. Books and screenplays are two different styles. Films have to show. Books can keep telling.There is a real danger of one reading like the other, and that is not always complimentary. It’s because I have done both that I know how to keep them in separate boxes and not be tempted by Mammon or fame to make a mess by combining the two styles. If you are writing to sell movie rights then don’t write a book, just write the movie script. If one writes with movie rights in mind, it will eventually show that the book has no intrinsic literary merit.
At the end of your first book Lean Days, you remark, “A writer may never write if he cannot finish reading”. What did you read while working on The Last Courtesan?
At the time specifically, during the lockdown, I was in Kolkata, and I was leafing through these books if I remember correctly: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Saadat Hasan Manto’s Meena Bazaar, Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jorge Luis Borges’s Fictions, Yanagi Sōetsu’s The Beauty of Everyday Things, Jeremy Noel-Tod’s The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
If you could pick any actor to play Rekhabai, who would you choose? Why?
Tripti Dimri, maybe! She has a pahadi-ness, an alhadpan – words that others used to describe my mother – which I would have said Kangana Ranaut had, 10 years ago. Actually, I had asked my mother about this and showed her pictures of several actresses such as Alia Bhatt, Kiara Advani, Janhvi Kapoor, and Ananya Panday. For Ananya, she chuckled and said, Arre, yeh toh bilkul mere jaisi dekhti hai. I joked about her poor eyesight and said all of them are capable. So, anyone could surprise us.
Among the depictions of courtesans in Indian cinema and literature, which ones have stood out for you? What are the stereotypes that you wish you could do away with?
Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum has one of the best soundtracks in Indian cinema. Authentic and beautiful, not discounting how close to reality the film is too! But I also enjoy the escapism of the standard Bollywood drama where the courtesan is depicted with a heart of gold and beauty to die for. Saba Dewan’s book Tawaifnama, and Veena Talwar Oldenberg’s essay Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow are, of course, essential reading along with Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada. I think that the stereotype of the tawaif as a sex-worker needs to be more informed.
How do you respond to gay men who romanticize the lives of courtesans because of these depictions but have a terribly limited understanding of the material conditions of such lives?
Courtesans can be divas. And, in some sense, they can even be considered the foremothers to drag queens. In mainstream cinema, they are impossibly beautiful, flamboyant, colourful, glamorous, larger-than-life but their lives are tinged with sadness, expressed through mirth and humour. There’s an element of camp about them that appeals and resonates with gay men who see their own identity or aspirations reflected and heightened by idolising them. Perhaps, their own reality is harsh or dull and boring and if they find comfort and expression in courtesan-ship, why not?
What other projects are you working on?
I have a book about my own growing up years in the kotha out with HarperCollins next year, and a rom-com film script floating in a few production houses for consideration.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.