The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Sayantani Dasgupta
Of the many books being published during the pandemic that take a joyous wickedness in celebrating unique women, Sayantani Dasgupta’s forthcoming collection, Women Who Misbehave, holds a very high place. Set mostly in India, each story zeroes in on protagonists who are willful, curious, discontent, wild and/or slightly on the edge. Here are women who have opinions, may be contradictory, who don’t care about likability, who lust to live, and who sometimes live their secrets in daily life. At turns dark, often irreverent, and always quirky, Sayantani’s protagonists—like Binu, the child bride, or the mysterious Miss Josephine, and even the quietly rioting yet conforming Shaaji—tell us about women, in particular, Indian women, and the complexities of living in and fighting a patriarchal society. Each of them puts themselves first in their story, and to watch the author weave her prose expertly around each protagonist is refreshing and invigorating.
Women Who Misbehave features South Asian women protagonists who can be complicated, fiery, and controversial—all good things. A tightly woven collection, it took Sayantani almost a decade and a half to write these stories. Each story examines decisions made by impetuous women, confident women, and even fearful women, and all of their decisions highlight our patriarchal society and offer us ways to bend rules, guidelines, and orders. Sayantani admits she didn’t set out to write about “misbehaving women” but rather unconventional women. We all have stories, and we live these stories daily. As she notes, “How you tell it is where the art lies.”
I interviewed Sayantani in 2016 for her debut essay collection, Fire Girl, and so to reconnect now about her new book has been a coming-home kind of conversation. Sayantani and I grew up in the same neighborhood in New Delhi, which is currently struggling with a massive COVID humanitarian crisis; we attended the same high school and still fangirl over our teachers like we are Catholic school girls. To read Sayantani’s work is a joy, and it is an honor to be part of her literary journey.
I spoke recently with Sayantani about Women Who Misbehave, publishing in a pandemic, book covers, and more.
The Rumpus: Tell us how Women Who Misbehave germinated. You deviate from the usual South Asian tropes, and each of your protagonists is wondrous, wicked, funny, wise… How did the collection come about?
Sayantani Dasgupta: I am fascinated by the interior lives of women, since historically women have not been granted the freedom to just be themselves. I am thinking in particular of the sacrifice trope so central to Hindi cinema. It’s highly valued and normalized, and, of course, we learn and imbibe what we see. But what if we didn’t grow up seeing “sacrifice” so celebrated? What would we do then? How would we behave? What would come naturally to us?
My stories spring from the question: what is it that each woman is really thinking, underneath the bullshit and the layers, and the “how to behave in polite society” template she’s been handed? Three stories came to me pretty quickly—”The Party,” “Miss Josephine,” and “Shaaji and Satnam.” That’s when I started toying with the idea of a collection.
Rumpus: “Shaaji and Satnam” truly was a fascinating ride, watching the protagonist’s mind work. You then carry on with her into the next story, “If Only Somewhere,” where the pacing, tone, and world-weariness seems like it’s a different woman and yet also the same. What made you follow this protagonist into a separate story?
Dasgupta: “Shaaji and Satnam” was inspired by an actual incident I read about in Indian newspapers a few years ago, wherein a woman and her partner commit this heinous crime against her family. They were based in a small town, if I am remembering this correctly. I don’t think the newspapers really dug in to examine why they did what they did. The tone seemed dismissive and yet voyeuristic. Look at this awful woman and her boyfriend! Look at what they have done!
I couldn’t stop wondering about what might have been their backstory. Shaaji is such a product of patriarchy that even when she is in full punishing mode, she still wants her father’s approval. I couldn’t stop thinking about these two characters, because how do you move on from an incident like that? How does it not change you forever? I ended up spending more time with them, and with this panacea that they were seeking but that stayed out of their reach.
Rumpus: It’s always enlightening to hear from the author about how a collection is ordered. Why start with “The Party”? You begin with a wise, bored, and introspective narrator who is very confident in her ability to analyze people around her. Lines like, “The vodka has hit a sweet spot. It makes you want to try to focus on the conversation,” prepare us for misbehaving and yet we are still surprised when the narrator misbehaves. How did you research this character, and what made you end the story where it did?
Dasgupta: I find parties very interesting because of all the artificial constructs placed on them. The host and the guest both have preconceived notions of how to behave, what to bring, what to say, then what to say in response. By “parties,” in this case, I mean gatherings where you don’t know everyone that well, or at all. What would we say to each other if we could blurt out whatever’s really on our minds? Your home is a nightmare! Must your couch smell like your cat? Please never put out these appetizers; these are awful. Yes, I am marvelous at pretending I am having a great time. Did you know your hair smells of cheese?
I wanted this to be the first story because the narrator’s discomfort felt very universal. I don’t know if I did any specific research for her character aside from watching people at parties, especially those who were clearly uncomfortable being there. I ended the story on a quiet-seeming gesture because what the husband learns about his wife feels so earth-shattering to him. Of course, the wife’s gesture is anything but quiet, given how it alters the plan they had until that moment.
Rumpus: The women in this collection more than misbehave: they rage, revolt, are darkly mysterious, and even are sometimes plainly bad women. Why this title?
Dasgupta: I am intrigued by what constitutes good or even appropriate behavior because it is so subjective, isn’t it? What’s well-behaved in one home or one part of the world is unacceptable elsewhere. In my first year in the US, I accompanied a friend during her visit to her mother’s home. When we entered the kitchen, my friend’s mother pointed to the fridge and told me, a stranger she had just met, “Help yourself to whatever you like.” It was clearly a kind offer on her part but it seemed rude, even dismissive, because I was used to a different style of hospitality in India. I went with “misbehave” because it seemed to encapsulate the wide range of bad behaviors I wanted my women to give into.
Rumpus: You take great care to give your characters names that are Indian, and you do not compromise on how easy or difficult the names may be for a non-Indian to spell or pronounce. Was that a deliberate choice? (I’m thinking of how Anjali Enjeti talks in her essay, “Who are you? Where are you really from,” in Southbound, about how a name can other you in so many subtle ways.)
Dasgupta: I wrote the book that I needed when I was growing up, because I remember clearly how desperate I was to see Indian women give in to a wide range of behaviors and not just love and sacrifice for their beloveds, sons, and brothers. For some of the stories, I researched place- and time-appropriate names. For others, the names kept getting changed in every subsequent draft until I finally hit upon the one that “sat” right. When I write nonfiction, I don’t send it out for publication until I have got the last sentence that I am one hundred percent happy with. In fiction, I think I give that level of attention to names.
Rumpus: Tell us about the book jacket’s design and the art within the book. In The Clothing of Books, Jhumpa Lahiri says about her books and their covers, “A jacket is made to measure, conceived and created specifically to cover and package a hardcover book. It should fit like a glove. And yet… most of my book jackets don’t fit me.” What do you feel about yours, and do they represent you and your women?
Dasgupta: My main job as the author is done once I hand in my manuscript to the publisher. After that, the process of transforming the manuscript to a book kicks in, and this thing I have created is open to others’ interpretation. I think all my covers have things to say! I am struck by how different the covers are from each other, and the questions and ideas they may plant in the reader. The inside art of Women Who Misbehave was a surprise to me as well. I don’t think I have seen a book of short stories designed like this, wherein each story is introduced by its own artwork. It’s gorgeous, and of course, all credit for that goes to the design team for imagining and executing it.
Rumpus: In “The Reader,” which is I believe the only story set in the nineteenth century, you discuss child marriage and education through Binu, the young protagonist. She is curious, homesick, knowledge-hungry, and precocious. What did you want to show us with this story, beyond a young girl married off too early in life?
Dasgupta: Too often stories centering women, especially from that time period, are about women’s misery and men’s cruelty. I wanted to write a story that doesn’t shy away from the problems but one that’s also hopeful. I channeled my own great-grandparents when I wrote “The Reader.” I never met either of them but I know that there was this vast age difference between them. But I have also heard that my great-grandfather was an erudite and kind man, and that my great-grandmother was very learned vis-à-vis Hindu scriptures. I wanted to write a story imagining his kindness as a predominant guide in how he behaved with his wife, and how that might have bolstered her already keen interest in Hindu mythology.
Rumpus: How did the story “Sisters” come about? Given the politics of day-to-day life in America, this story will resonate with anyone who reads this. And, were you surprised with how the story ended?
Dasgupta: Very much so. First, I really resisted writing this story. I am very conscious of who gets to write what story, who should not appropriate whose words. That this story appeared fully formed and baked and set in Texas with none of the characters being Indian caused me a great deal of distress and distrust. I was faced with several questions: Will I be able to write this properly? Will I do justice to the characters? I even tried placing the story in India and making the characters Indian, but it just didn’t work. Finally, I just went with how the story first appeared in my head so as to not anger or offend wherever stories come from.
Rumpus: How difficult was it to publish a book during a pandemic?
Dasgupta: Very difficult. Not in the sense that there were any logistical problems with my publishers. They were thorough professionals, and everything happened on time via email, WhatsApp, and the lifeline of our times, Zoom. But for someone like me who genuinely enjoys the opportunity to talk to readers in person, it felt like a huge loss. And, because this book was first released in India, I had planned to be home for it so I could celebrate with my family and friends. Of course, none of that happened. Given the current COVID crisis in India, it is awful to complain about something as simple as a book, but this book also took fourteen years of work, so I am allowing myself this moment.
Rumpus: Who are you reading now, and who are the contemporary authors you think we need to read?
Dasgupta: The best books I have read recently cover a wide range. They include Ali Wong’s memoir Dear Girls, the haunting novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Taran Khan’s travelogue/memoir Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, Sumana Roy’s essay collection How I Became a Tree, and Otessa Moshfegh’s incredibly funny yet chilling novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Rumpus: What has been the most surprising comment you’ve received about Women Who Misbehave?
Dasgupta: I don’t know about surprising but a note that I found deeply moving simply said, “I feel you wrote this book for me. In as much as it is for all women (and men) who have lived (or continue to live) a life filled with societal perception of normalcy.”
Rumpus: If women didn’t misbehave in this collection, what do you think they would have done?
Dasgupta: Burned it all down.
Photograph of Sayantani Dasgupta by Amrinder Grewal.