Interview with akarsh jain (from a creative nonfictionist high on fiction)

As mentioned in another post, I have been recently enamoured with the stories of fellow WordPress blogger, Akarsh Jain.

Akarsh’s “About Me” page leads to a list of his posts. As per the mini-bio at the end of each post, “Akarsh Jain is an Engineer, if one were to go by his long-abandoned degree that rests peacefully between the pages of a folder. He was born in Ashoknagar, a place, in the heartland of India, that is too big to be called a hamlet, but otherwise, everything about it screams the word ‘village’ in the mind of the wanderers. He lives in Bengaluru without any pets and without any wife but this is only because his work-life balance might be injurious to the pet, and to the wife. He loves to read.” 

A very evocative bio… it gives the basics, and yet it begs so many questions, which is perhaps the best kind.

Last weekend I asked Akarsh (in the comments of his latest post) if I could interview him and he said yes. So then I went into a (grateful) whirlwind of wondering how exactly to conduct the interview. I have very little experience with this sort of thing, and there are of course a myriad of ways to do it, so finally all I could do to get started was begin.

After considering attempting to do some kind of online voice recording or even webcam interview, I finally decide to simply write my questions in an email, and hope that he will answer some of them. Here goes.

Dear Akarsh,

Thank you for agreeing to this interview with me. I have become entranced by your most recent stories on WordPress.com, which contain evocative imagery and feel very true-to-life. They also take place in your homeland India, which is a country that has always fascinated me. I have always loved finding out about individual creative writing processes and am eager to learn about yours.

After reading your mini-bio I did some homework. To give our readers the same picture: I went to Google maps and saw that the town of your birthplace, a municipality of about eighty thousand called Ashoknagar, is in the north-central India, while Bengaluru, a megacity of 10 million inhabitants, is very far from that, to the south (but also inland). The two cities are about 1600 kilometres apart by road, and Google Maps tells me that although that is the same approximate road distance as Vancouver (Canada) to San Francisco (USA), the route in North America takes 16 hours, while the journey by automobile in India would take 27 hours!

I mention this time-distance difference here in the interview to make it clear, to those who don’t know much about India, that there is some marked difference in transportation systems (and thus also perhaps the concept of time). I also saw that the temperature in your current city, Bengaluru, which is only about 13 degrees north of the equator in terms of latitude, seems to reach about 33ºC most days at this time of year, which for those of us in more northern climes sounds very hot for winter time.

I have always been fascinated by the way landscape and climate affect art, including literature. Part of the reason I love your stories is the way you imbue them with the cultural environment; in other words, you show us what life is like there. I can feel the languid heat of the city when I read your work.

Reading your mini-bio, myself having always been interested in travel, and likewise having a degree that remains officially unused (though the education was not wasted), I immediately got curious about two potential story lines (or perhaps they are conjoined). The first one being, what stimulated the long-distance move from Ashoknagar to Bengaluru (why did you choose that city)? And why does your degree lie “long-abandoned”? And may I be so bold as to ask that dreaded writerly question, what “pays the bills”?

=====

22 February 2018 —  There. So I have written that. But where am I going with it? It’s too long. I am flummoxed. I fear doing it the wrong way. I have not interviewed anyone about their writing before. I should read everything Akarsh ever wrote first. No that doesn’t make sense. It is for me to pull the story from him. Otherwise it’s a review, not an interview. How do I proceed? I should take a journalism course. I should have taken Journalism in university. Or Literature at least, as I was meant to. Why did I take Linguistics? Because it was easy and I was afraid of failing. And now I will make a mess of everything. No, don’t be silly, old girl, you’re fine. You’ve listened to great interviewers. Even if the tiniest iota of all that listening sank in, it can’t be all bad. Sent him an email. Tell him you haven’t forgotten.

=====

[Resumed preparing interview 2019-02-23:]

++++++

Akarsh has just answered the last of those three questions in his wonderful reply to my three creativity questions, here [https://akarshjain.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/in-conversation-with-nadine/]. I asked: ‘How do you balance “regular life” (e.g. daily “duties” and/or the need for money) with creative life/pursuits? And what improvements could be made to this balance, and what positive changes might they bring?’

AKARSH (in his blog post): “There is absolutely no balance between the two as I type this, and ironically, the blog goes by the name of ‘A Fine Balance.’ (Why are some things so easy to preach and so difficult to imbibe, Nadine?)

“I work full-time, as a Software Engineer. It was supposed to be one of those 9-5 jobs, which it clearly isn’t, sometimes it is more than a 12 hours job, but, almost always, it is [at least] more than a 9-5 job. And so [due to work hours being long] I write, if and when, I feel the need to. Sometimes, when I am happy, but mostly, when I feel that this world is ill-suited for the likes of me. Some most liked articles/stories on this blog have emanated out of me when the burden of the losses had become insurmountable, or when I had started missing someone just too much. But there had been a few articles that came out when I was dumping the laundry in the washing machine or stuck up in the traffic or brewing some tea.

“I do not have a writing pattern. At least not yet. Sadly, I do not have a pattern in my job either. I didn’t even know people were taking things on this blog seriously until I started receiving a few comments.

“And I hope, I’ll continue to write, and I will soon devise a time scheme and devote at least some time to writing. Daily.”

NADINE, to readers: In a quick follow up email, yesterday, to our first contact email (nearly one week before), I confided to Akarsh that I was having a hard time figuring out how to do the interview. I also asked him (off-handedly, although I am most curious) whether he would classify his writing as fiction or nonfiction. He answered:

AKARSH (in his blog post): “…my stories, they are more of observations than all fictions. But they are not real. So that makes them fiction. A few characters are derived from around but then they are again moulded and all of this happens unconsciously.”

He also commented on that topic, once again, in his post replying to my creativity questions, as a kind of introduction. Here it is:

AKARSH (in his blog post): [I write] confidently and as honestly as possible for me. Some stories bear more resemblance to reality than I had thought they ever would, but then it is only because of the people around me who have been authentic, for you write what you see and imbibe in you.

Writing, for me, is about connection. Someone might write something extraordinary as per many others, but the same might not end up synchronizing with you or me. Does that make it bad writing? I am happy that you were able to connect with mine.

NADINE (drafting reply): I agree entirely, about connection being the utmost purpose of writing, and that popularity does not necessarily a great piece make. I have seen many pieces of writing that are astounding in their beauty and perception but have very little apparent public interest. But your stories entrance me and apparently many others as well. I have only recently started following your blog, and yet I see that you have had the blog since July 2015. Have you shared any posts that perhaps incorporate your journey from Ashoknagar to Bengalore? I did a little

====

26 February 2019 — Damnit is that where I left off? And I have not sent him that last part yet? So how do I blend all this together and get back to my first question? What was my first question? There are two many now, and in separate threads. How shall they be woven together? The kids are on the trampoline, the black webbing stretched taught beneath them. The day is warm. Not hot like Bengaluru, but unseasonably warm indeed and there is sunshine in my ears. The tractors are mowing, the wind-chime is blowing, the cows and sheep are lowing. What would they do? The wind-chime and the cows and the sheep? Just be. IS THE ANSWER FROM THE TREE

Aha! I have written a bit fiction here. Akarsh has taught me how to write fiction. For all of these things have happened today and some of them are happening now but also a few other things are happening as well that I haven’t mentioned. For example that the two youngest children are playing chess — yes chess! gods bless — at the kitchen table. And my eldest son is working with his DJ mix table, playing some loud dance music. That kills the romance of the French countryside scene, so I shall leave that out. Wait, now I am writing nonfiction again. Shall I never escape it?

I must email Akarsh. Four days now, his reply to my email sitting in my inbox. I did not even see it amongst all the sales notices. I used to be so good at managing email. What happened? I began writing nonfiction is what happened. But was it ever really nonfiction? I have given it my “angle of the moment,” meaning, every moment that I wrote of a past moment or a future moment, I was seeing that other moment through the lens of the present one. I am like a fish in the reeds, going with the flow of the water, so my lens changes all the time, with the time and with the tide. This means my nonfiction is fiction, though less romantic. If I increase the romance of the text, invite white lies into the truth, rather than failed attempts at ever-changing truth, my nonfiction shall be truly fiction and I shall be fantastically free from all bonds of reality. Akarsh will understand this. He lives in India. The river, the river is the heart of all. The women standing, in brightly coloured clothes, washing in it, washing clothes in it. The bodies burning on the funeral pyres. The lights and lanterns of Diwali. But no, that was months ago.

(Camille has come outside. Turns out I lied. But not on purpose. It was not chess they were playing; they were making crafts out of paper. Camille brings me a romantic drawing about her parents, my old/new friends. Hearts and diamond trees and their names entwined. Zoren has brought me a telescope made of paper. He makes me such a gift each day since I fell like an asteroid from the kitchen table. The telescope helps us see the craters on the moon. The craters which we tried to replicate the other day in flour and cocoa, as I stood on the kitchen table, hand held high above my head, near the white plaster between the oak beams of the ceiling, clasping a small white ball, aimed directly above the baking dish containing the surface and depths of the moon. Then I tripped and had a fall. I was the asteroid after all. (All of this was true. Are you?) I begin to get a funny feeling. The children are on the trampoline again. The washing machine is whirring. Third load today… and the sheets are on the line. The children are incredibly happy. There are six of them. My four boys plus the beloved boy and girl of our neighbours. They are new/old friends. They laugh and chatter and shout in French. This is all true. But it may change at any moment.

I have become entranced with the fingers typing on the keyboard; I sit with sunshine in my hair. I am sitting on the terrace, the terrace laid by Tajh, facing the southeast, facing the great linden tree. The tree and our house both face Mecca. I found that out the day my husband brought me the prayer mat; a precious gift, beryl blue, the colour of my necklace. From Saudi Arabia, in beryl blue with golden embroidery. It was pale golden blue like the dawn in Auvergne. I learned a prayer and tried to say it. But I could not form the words. I knelt and cried instead. I was happy. Or perhaps I was sad.

But I must not do what I am doing. I must instead continue with the path I have set for myself, a path that was set impulsively, from the centre of a different present moment. I long to interview Akarsh, to understand the craft behind his fiction, which is why I set this path. Why do I not email him then? Because I am afraid of getting it wrong. Or of asking for the truth. I have always freely given the truth but never dared to take it. Is that true outside this moment? Can the truth even be taken? Even be asked? The only way to find out…

===

But how. I have written such long beginnings above, none of which he has seen. Do I include

====

The children are arguing. Camille has asked Zoren why he is scribbling and he did not feel he was scribbling so he was angry and scribbled on her paper. Then he put a wastepaper basket above her head as though to empty it upon her. But I did not hear any of that. It was not loud. It was quiet. Then she came to me as I sat typing, now in the mudroom where my desk and the washing machines both are. She is not quite six years old. He is seven. The washing machine has stopped. I must get the laundry off the line and hang the third load. “Nadine? Zoren a fait…” said Camille, and she shared her story with me, and I hugged her and smelled the sunshine in her golden hair. Then I went upstairs to find Zoren, who was cheekily hiding, and I revealed him hiding under the white nest of his duvet, in his bed, grinning cheekily, and I heard his story, and then led them downstairs for a snack, along with the middle two children, and taught the youngest children to make a perfect apology to one another, modelling, with my Canadian accent on the French, each sentence, which they quietly repeated, a little stuttering, a little smirking, a little bashful and with unconsciously fluttering lashes as they regarded each other steadily, while eating chocolate (in France, the snack is at four o’clock. In France, or in the Auvergne at least, the snack must always include chocolate. This is, at least, what is expected by other Auvergnat children, and thus hoped for by my children. And I become the fulfiller of hopes and dreams, in this instant). Then I gently tell them to shake hands. Then they smile into each other’s eyes.

===

In nonfiction I constantly debate the ethics of publishing stories that include other people. But no other kind of story is interesting. And I can justify them by only focussing on beautiful truths, regardless of how temporarily unpleasant or in-temporally true, and on happy endings. The endings are always in the middle of a story.

===

I have done the incredible tasks required in inviting a group of people over for a meal. This is easy for some perhaps but not for me. I fear I shall never get it right. I can never commit far enough in advance to be polite. My meal invitations are premeditated for a year then asked at the last minute. In my head I promise to provide things that that the invitee will love but finally realize I could never prepare them so may only offer something I know how to make. Something that may momentarily bring them awake from their own dream.

I called the three mothers of the three friends who will join us, the three friends of the two older boys. They have more friends but these three are the ones who will come. They are older friends from the last school. Perhaps we will changes schools again next year. I do not know. The decision will hopefully not be made in the last minute. I will allow the boys to decide this time, as the last time, but I shall have the last say, as the last time.

I called the mothers of the three friends who will join us. It is a terrible fear for me, calling people on the phone but especially in French. How do I form the words? Will my language fail me? Will they speak too fast? Will I make them uncomfortable by accident. That is my greatest fear. When I write it here I realize it’s not so great. Nor is it my greatest fear in other moments. I know I am lucky in my life.

The other mothers are kind and courteous. Their boys will be delighted to come. I explain all the truths as I know them. That the weather being unseasonably warm, I have planned that they shall sleep in tents under the stars. We shall sit around the fire and make burgers. I do not say that I shall play guitar and sing songs of love and of burning and of forests and mountains in Canada. This does not matter for they will not mind. I do explain the tents though. Mothers in France are very particular that children not get cold. However this worry decreases as the children age. These boys are beginning to become men. They shall sleep in tents under the stars, cook over a fire and it shall be grand. For at least one of them it will be the first time, sleeping in a tent. So I bring them in some way to Canada, but in the Auvergne. The night will be cold, even though the day is warm. But I assure the other mothers that I will provide duvets to add to their own sleeping bags. Later I will forget, this one thing I promised.

 

===

I have created a new version of the email to Akarsh. I almost send it but then the two middle children of the six come in with new requests. May he sleep here as well. Yes of course he must! I agree delightedly. For I have meditated on that (while hanging laundry, or perhaps for the past year) already. The two middle children and my youngest shall sleep inside. Yes they are okay with that. At first they are petulant but I explain to them I will worry for them and perhaps I can not manage all that worry. So then our beloved neighbour boy, who is ten-and-a-half, understands and he generously says, in French of course, that it is far more prudent to sleep within doors in this case. Thus proving himself the perfect guest.

===

It is dark now. The third load of laundry is in the dryer for I did not hang it on the line in time. To many things were going on. My second child generously is making pasta for dinner as I type this. The aroma of the glutens entering the boiling water, the pasta softening, fills the sun-warmed air with a cosy hunger. I have made a fire in the woodstove, to heat the house for the night. The wood is crackling merrily but I cannot hear it because the dryer is just near me now, ka-whumping softly with its load of heated clothes. I feel very lucky.

I did something else incredible today. I asked my old/new? friends to join us tomorrow. For the dinner by the fire, in the fading Auvergne dusk. Unbelievably, they said yes. It will be the first time they come here, in nearly one year. I have asked them at least five other times however. In the end it was a matter of dialling the number. Or rather, choosing the number from the contacts list on my phone.

Allo severine, ca va?

Oui ca va.

Donc comme les enfants vient de te demander, Nathan est invite pour une soiree avec les autres gars… (I tell the rest of the story).

But I am afraid they will not come if they are asked at the last minute. So I tell the truth…

The weather was just so beautiful and so I just decided it today. And I was wondering…

oui….?

If you would like to come as well. It’s a little feu dinatoire. We can have a glass, and a bite to eat by the fire. (I am careful not to say “dinner”). Always undersell, over deliver.

===

19:15 Xan is straining the pasta. I will set the table.

===

20:55 Xan set the table I decluttered the kitchen stoked the fire got the littlest one to change into pyjamas. We said the grace. “Each of us say a gratitude, one sentence.” The oldest and youngest speak at once. “I am grateful —

===

In France dinner would mean something far more fancy than a Canadian-cooked meal. Especially one cooked by a mostly-vegetarian.

===

21:23 I am sitting by the fire (I am filling this line in at 21:54. All I had there was the time to mark the place). My computer has shut down because I did not plug it in properly. I restart it, boil water for tea. Pull a chair by the fire. First the wooden one from the table set, then the softer one, an outside garden chair, though now it is inside. The seat is made of grey webbing. There is a flat, square turquoise cushion. I wrap an old fringed, woven blanket — the one from Mexico, perhaps our honey moon trip, or perhaps a different one — the one with a burn hole in it — around my shoulders. (I don’t think of either trip, nor the burn hole, at that moment. I think of them now. The blanket is beside me now. I sit on the sofa.) The kettle’s lever has clicked, there was the thunderous, bubbling crescendo of gas and air. I pour the boiling water into a teapot with a pyramid-shaped tea-bag half-full of herbs. I bring the teapot to the table just behind the comfy chair by the fire.

The room is about 25 metres square, or 250 square feet. It is oblong. It was built in 1881. The fire in the woodstove is on the northwestern end. I face the northwest. I pray that when WordPress shut down it saved this document. This document is 4142 words. It is saved. I cheer in my heart. But while I wait for it to fully load I can’t resist opening a second window to check notifications. I want the distraction, I want the company, I want the connection. I watch the bell icon expectantly. Wait for it…. pink dot. Ah. Like a small little candy popped out of a machine. I eat it up. The candy sits in my mouth, dissolving quickly, even as I enjoy its fading sweetness. But I don’t even check the notification yet. While waiting for the bell, I am already skimming posts in Reader. A new one from theacquiescentsoulblog.wordpress.com. Title: Right Now

I click, I read, I comment

https://acquiescentsoulblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/right-now/

“And I have a fundamental understanding that it is in the Now that I can experience a connection to my Higher Power.” That is beautiful. I love this so much… and I want to tell you something. I have spent this day mostly in the Now, and yet also as necessary in the planning for the near future (actually doing the exercises, the house work, the cat-herding involved in being a good parent, also hosting neighbour kids, arranging for a sleepover for my kids and their friends and so on…) and today, for the first time in a very long time, I have written about what I was doing in every spare moment (i.e. between the cracks). The sounds around me, the interruptions, the lack of writing during the interruptions, what I believed I should be doing instead (i.e. further to-do list items that were not getting done), everything — but with such sense of *connection.* And I felt so happy and quietly joyful. And yet was a high-functioning, (alcohol-free for this day) human being. I sort of was so awed by your post… you punctuated these good feelings for me somehow. Now I sit by the fire, laptop on lap, blanket around my shoulders, and a nice message from an acquiesant soul, elsewhere in the world, but yet in the same place, here, Now. Thank you

===

It was the truth in that moment.

====

 

irritated that I spelled acquiescent wrong. And that comma. But not really a big deal.

 

====

The phone rings. It’s my mom. “I tried to call your land line, but I got a strange whirring sound…” she effortlessly imitates the brrrrrt sound with a rolled frontal /r/, an alveolar fricative native to her native language, which is the Dutch from 50 years ago. (When I go to Holland this is the Dutch I speak, which cousins’ spouses find hilarious. She left Holland on a boat, a boat to Australia, where she met my dad. My dad, from Canada, a small town in southwestern Canada, hitchhiked across the country to the east, with four dollars and ten cents, took a boat to Australia. Or maybe he flew? When a parent tells us a story 1000 times, how can we not know these things that they have told us?

===

 

===

and dad has dentures and it’s going quite well, but you have to keep it clean, says my mom. She herself went for implants. It took two and half years, from the first consultation. “You have to really want to do it,” she says. She uses a water pick to clean between the teeth. “What about floss?” I ask. Some are touching together, she says. “He’s such a good dentist,” she says, “and so nearby.” They had to extract remaining teeth. They did not use general anaesthetic. Just needles. And bone meal.

 

===

22:30 I am tired and I must go to bed.

I keep forgetting that I have been trying and trying to find the train post on Akarsh’s site. But Each time I try I get distracted by something.

Here I have hit the “Time” keyword in his keyword cloud and saw this post,

 

“Feeling deceived by the time, he smiled and told his grandson, “I should have known this all my life that no matter what I was doing, I was at no point in time outrunning the time itself. While I was snatching a second away from it, in the same span it was seizing a second away from everyone I cared about. Now lying here in my bed, waiting for it to take its final toll on me, which I must say it definitely did on a number of occasions by taking away my beloved ones, it deceives me yet again with its inexorable prowess of playing ping-pong by taking me back to the times I cherished the most, and throwing me back here the moment I start reviving them”.
So, make sure you live the most in the present.” — https://akarshjain.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/the-time-and-a-few-lessons/

===

22:41 ahh. I have found it. There is a search icon in the top header of his blog, I search “train.” This is how I found it before. I remember now. https://akarshjain.wordpress.com/2018/12/15/trains/ “Of Making Babies and Driving Trains…”

Here is where I left off from the last time I was reading it:

“Both the drivers were now fanning themselves by the newspapers before them. Ravi bent down and picked up a novel from his bag and put it in front of him. He knew that any sorts of distractions were prohibited inside the driver’s coach. But if the train moves at the rate it was moving it was bound to kill no one else but himself, by boredom. He flipped through the pages and reached the page where he had last stopped reading the book.”

I am eager to continue now but I simply cannot. I am making wide owl faces at the screen, trying to stay awake, yawning repeatedly. And I must be on my best game tomorrow. My new/old/new friends are finally coming. For the first time in nearly a year. Plus I will have not just four but now eight boys sleeping here.

22:47 4861 words

p.s. Though the email is prepared, I have not sent it yet. Why not? Because I want to finish reading the train story first. How many words is it?

==

I skimmed to the bottom of his post to see if there was a word count, no, but now I see that half the elevator is comments. Very enthusiastic comments. One from one man particularly fixates me:

===

the word count is 2298.


“. Mr Nothing 

January 14, 2019 at 12:13 pm 

A wonderful skill, a gift you have, to activate your reader’s imagination with an enviable command and control of the language and the flow. A most enjoyable experience is the use of metaphors and similes. I often find reading Indian bloggers heavy going, I cannot assimilate easily, you, however, are a master at making a story evocatively interesting.

Like


Reply

”

“. Akarsh Jain 

January 14, 2019 at 7:16 pm

 This, Mr Nothing, although, I believe, I deserve to know your name at least, is the best thing anyone has ever written to me about my write ups. I’ll try to bring many more stories with both humble and a few arrogant characters alike…
Thank you for the motivation…

Like

”

===

I am frustrated that I cannot like WordPress posts from the front end. I have not the eye power to find it through the back end Now

23:09

 

Think this post was always set to private.

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