In The City of Good Death, author Priyanka Champaneri weaves a layered story around a death hostel in Varanasi 

Champaneri's inspired work juggles the natural and the supernatural, the ghats and the grief that abound in Kashi as well as the rites and rituals surrounding death, with ease.

Mallik Thatipalli May 10, 2021 10:01:19 IST
In The City of Good Death, author Priyanka Champaneri weaves a layered story around a death hostel in Varanasi 

Priyanka Champaneri. Photo by Lauren Brennan

Debutant author Priyanka Champaneri took about six years to finish The City of Good Death. A deeply engrossing work about a death hostel in Kashi [Varanasi], it weaves into it, the pull of relationships, the deeply embedded belief of ‘a good death’ and the power of the supernatural. Rejected by almost every publisher in the US and India, it was given a fresh lease of life when the author won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing in 2018.

The book shares the story of two cousins whose lives takes different turns and how their stories overlap when one of them passes and in death accomplishes what was not possible in life. Simple unhindered sentences, a deep understanding of human frailties and an unbridled play with the lyrical mark the tone and tenor of the book.

This inspired work juggles the natural and the supernatural, the ghats and the grief that abound in Kashi as well as the rites and rituals surrounding death with ease. The author tells Firstpost about her journey of 10 years and why writing is a process of discovery for her.

You have worked on this book for 10 years… can you tell us about the process of writing the book, and your experiences?

Because I work a full-time day job, my writing is limited to a few hours in the evenings, but my process is also admittedly quite slow going. I am an organic writer, meaning I don’t work from outlines or have an idea of where the story will end. Writing for me is about that process of discovery — excavating who the characters are and what fears and motivations drive them, and then feeling my way into the story and following it to the end. Writing this way takes time, especially when I realise that scenes I’d been working on for months no longer work and I need to backtrack and start over. But when the writing is flowing, this process is also incredibly thrilling, because I get to experience the story unfolding in a way that I hope is very similar to a reader’s experience in wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens next.

How did the idea of setting a story in Kashi, and the premise of using the age-old belief, that death in the city will free one of future births come about?

In between college and graduate school, one of my coworkers sent me a link to a Reuters article titled “Check in and Die in Two Weeks, or Get out.” That article was my introduction to the death hostels of Varanasi, and it piqued my interest immediately. I had grown up in a Hindu household and from an early age had been surrounded by books of philosophy, Indian mythology, and fairy tales. The part of me that was firmly ensconced in that faith saw the death hostels as something necessary and practical, as ordinary as a rest stop along a highway.

But I’d also been born and raised in the US, in a culture more centered around a Judeo-Christian way of thought, and from that perspective I could understand how a death hostel could appear to be incredibly unique. That contradiction between necessity and novelty was immediately intriguing to me, but it’s a very big leap to go from reading an article to deciding to write a book centered around that place. I set the idea aside for many years until I finally felt confident enough in my ability and the research I’d done to give the writing a try.

What I found striking was the atmosphere of the city, its religious practices, and its narrow lanes…and you haven’t even visited the city!

While I have visited India previously as a tourist, I have not yet visited Varanasi. My lack of firsthand experience with the city was one of the biggest reasons I hesitated to start writing this book. But I was intensely interested in the city of Varanasi and the death hostels, and I began to read more about both just to satisfy my curiosity. The more I read, the deeper I fell into the rabbit hole of research. And then as the months went by, bits of dialogue starting popping into my thoughts, as well as snippets of scene. Slowly, a story began to grow within me.

I felt I knew this imagined version of the city quite intimately, and it was vivid enough, rich enough, for me to finally gain the confidence to begin to write. And I was also able to pull from other areas where I did have firsthand knowledge — my lifelong experience with Hinduism, and the intensely visual memories I’d stored away from my trips to India, all informed the book.

Dying a good death is a significant part of Indian culture, and is an important constituent of the book. Though the book is about loss, it has an optimistic and uplifting tone about it…

I wanted to approach death in as neutral a manner as possible, and that meant writing each death scene as if I were a bystander dutifully recording what I saw while keeping my own emotions out of the narration. My goal was to give the reader the freedom to approach the material and come away with their own feeling without the encumbrance of my perspective bogging them down. So in some instances it might be that the death was celebrated, while in others it’s a grave loss that paralyses — no matter who I was writing about, I surrendered to the characters and simply followed them around and wrote down their reactions.

And while certainly some of the characters experience a paralysis because of grief, life does go on — so I was equally intent on showing these two things side by side.

At the core of the book is a supernatural visit by a character which takes the story forward. How difficult was it to ensure that it blended with the idea of the book, without overpowering it?

Among the things that influenced my writing were fairy tales. I still read such stories now whenever I’m feeling unmotivated or uninspired. One thing these stories have in common, no matter their provenance, is this easy coexistence of the spectacular with the everyday. For example, a woman goes on a journey and suddenly meets a talking fox who gives her advice and a magic charm, and the woman takes these and goes on her way. The question of why or how the fox is talking is never broached, it’s just assumed that this is a thing that happens in this world.

I tried to take the same approach when writing about the supernatural in this novel. While the characters are certainly affected by the presence of this thing in their midst, they never express shock in a way that suggests such an occurrence is outside their realm of possibility. Their feeling is more one of coming to terms with this very unfortunate problem, and then subsequently moving toward a resolution.

The choice to have a ghost manifest its presence using a common household object, in probably the most practical room in a dwelling, was also intentional. I wasn’t looking for this haunting to be overly dramatic or jarring, as you might expect in the horror genre. But it did have to be frightening and carry a sinister quality. And I tried to accomplish those things by taking a mundane object and then twisting it to do something it should never be doing, because what is more frightening than that? Anything that upends the reality to which you are accustomed is terrifying, because it makes you reassess all the other things you thought you knew to be true.

In The City of Good Death author Priyanka Champaneri weaves a layered story around a death hostel in Varanasi 

The City of Good Death was given a fresh lease of life when Champaneri won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing in 2018

The relationships in the book are at the heart of it: husband and wife; brother and brother; friends and neighbours…

Very early on, I knew this book was going to be about two men who were cousins but had grown up essentially as brothers. Family relationships and dynamics are things I’m centrally preoccupied with as a writer, but I’m particularly attracted to sibling relationships.

Out of all the human connections a person has, via blood or via choice, a sibling is the one person who potentially has the privilege to see you from the earliest stage of your life and then experience all the subsequent stages alongside you, in real time. And as you get older, a sibling is the one person you can never completely hide from, because they saw you from your earliest days and have full knowledge of the arc of your growth as a person.

That unique knowledge can be either freeing or stifling. There is just so much to delve into — obligation, loyalty, the generosity it takes to let each other grow, the animosity that can develop when one refuses to let go. I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of exploring that dynamic.

The setting of the book is timeless, there is no clue as to when it is set. It can be any time in the last century (before mobile phones and the internet). Was it a conscious decision?

I was intentionally unspecific regarding the time period of this book for a few different reasons, including the one you just mentioned — I wanted the reader to be able to see this story happening in any decade. Part of this was my own limitations — I did not want to be tied to a specific time and consequently have this book pinned to the historical events surrounding that time. But also, I was delighted to find in my research that one of the reasons Varanasi is said to have this effect of freeing a soul from the cycle of reincarnation is the notion that time simply does not exist in the city. I really seized on that idea and ran with it, initially out of necessity and convenience.

But as the years went by and I fell deeper into the story, I felt more confident about the decision because it seems truer to the ways in which we all live our lives — we’re far more wrapped up in our own personal dramas than the larger events around us.

I found the book to be labyrinthine with its store-well of stories. Ghosts, the ghats and grief give each character a back story. How difficult is this to achieve this while writing?

The process of creating these stories individually was so much fun for me. It was also an effective diversion tactic, especially if I was stuck with the main narrative — I could choose to write a little side story, and in that way still be productive even if I couldn’t figure out how to move the larger plot forward. And then, when I was able to get to a place of once again writing the main narrative, I had these additional seeds planted with these other stories that I could pick up and weave into the main story as I went along if the opportunity arose.

None of this was easy — it was an intense and laborious process. I’m often blind or willfully ignorant to what should stay and what should go. But I don’t think I could have written this book if I’d known from the start how everything was going to fit together — it would have been too overwhelming.

The book deals about Hinduism, in all its generous expanse. We live in a time when majoritarian forces have construed a narrow narrative of the religion. How do you view this dichotomy?

Every religion has, at some point, been twisted to suit the interpretation of the loudest, most powerful voice in a room. This has been happening for thousands of years, and Hinduism is no exception.

From my own reading and experiences, I’ve found that there is so much richness to absorb and so much to be learned from every religion and belief system. And ultimately, spirituality is about the individual. No matter how loud or how powerful a voice might be, it’s up to the listener to choose to absorb that rhetoric, or to instead walk away and trust in their own instincts and interpretation.

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