In Translated from the Gibberish, writer Anosh Irani questions the idea of home, experienced through longing
Anosh Irani in his short story collection titled Translated from the Gibberish, explores the function of short stories and the significance of single moments that are pivotal to them. In an interview with Firstpost, he also talks about how his concept of home has developed since writing this collection.
In his debut short story collection Translated from the Gibberish, Indo-Canadian author and playwright Anosh Irani embarks on a quest for the meaning of home.
Irani writes of pivotal moments that define otherwise seemingly ordinary lives.
According to Irani, 'Short stories are built around single moments.'
In his debut short story collection Translated from the Gibberish, acclaimed Indo-Canadian author and playwright Anosh Irani embarks on a quest for the meaning of 'home'. Through seven characters across a range of premises and situations, he writes about the state of mind through which each understands home and feels a sense of belonging. The collection also explores, simultaneously, the permanence and innate fragility of that state of mind.
From a swimming coach committed to recreating John Cheever's 'The Swimmer', to the fateful cricket match of an illegal immigrant in Canada, and from a chef who has a breakdown on a cooking show to a woman who is convinced that a zoo penguin is her late son reincarnated, Irani writes of pivotal moments that define otherwise seemingly ordinary lives. The collection also offers some of his most personal writing yet; the first eponymous story, divided into two parts, sits as the first and last of the collection, following the protagonist Anosh Irani — being deeply personal, but not autobiographical.
In an email interview with Firstpost, Irani talks about the function of short stories to explore single moments, how his concept of home has developed since writing this collection, the difference between Bombay and Mumbai, and the power of art to offer compassion and hope in times of unrest.
Translated from the Gibberish is your first short story collection. What, according to you, were the benefits and challenges of this form, compared to the novel and the play?
The novel is a means of meditation and reflection. Through narrative, I wrestle with the themes that I am exploring — it takes me years to write a book. I can meander – not off course, but just off centre a bit – if the character demands it. In other words, the novel demands time and provides space. Do I need to use all that space? Perhaps not, but it’s there. With the short story, the common perception is that it is a compressed form. This is true. However, the challenge for me is to keep things tight without letting the reader feel that compression. Sometimes, when I read stories, I can feel the writer suddenly realising that they are running out of space, and the writing suddenly gets too constricted, too rushed. The challenge is to create tension and keep the writing relaxed. Prose is like a muscle. If it’s too tight, you might pull something. If it’s too loose, it has no strength.
Plays are completely different beasts. Perhaps the most dangerous things to write, in my opinion. Because one needs perfect harmony for a production to work – the writing, direction, performances, set design, sound, lighting, and so on. If even one element is out of alignment, the play suffers. The benefit that a play has, for me, is that when you get it right, it is the most electric feeling ever.
In different ways, your protagonists share a certain rootlessness and experience claustrophobia. Each story explores a different meaning of 'home' and 'belonging', and the state of mind that allows for that contentedness. Through writing the book, how has your idea of 'home' developed?
I wrote this collection because I started questioning the very idea of home. Being away from Bombay has certainly taken a toll on me. I left out of choice, not because I had to. But I did not realise the impact it would have on me, both positive and challenging. I write from the centre of that displacement. I do not write out of nostalgia. I write out of longing. Nostalgia is the notion that the past was better; it’s sentimental. A weak place to write from. Longing leads to a search, a search for truth. And this longing to understand home is one of the most primitive things ever. It is an ancient quest. Long before there were borders and such, we looked up at the stars and wondered, “Is that home?” The idea of home as land/earth/sky, home as memory, as grief, as the human body itself, these were things I was grappling with. After writing this book, I have now realised that perhaps I shall never feel at home. Anywhere. Is home even necessary?
With Translated from the Gibberish, how did you choose which characters to write about? Could you break down the process of character development for us?
For me, character is the most important aspect of literature. It is about the human condition. So I find myself writing about wounded people, trapped souls who long for freedom. If I can feel the character’s wound, it is an entry point into their inner lives. That is the landscape of literary fiction, this vast inner life. I don’t write a word until I have traversed that region for a long time. I try not to write for as long as I can, until the damn breaks open and the characters unleash themselves. So the key to character development is patience. Far too often, books end up being clever but have no soul.
So the process is simple. Get down on your hands and knees and dig. Until you find that gaping hole that makes us human.
In the final story you write: “What is a short story collection? Writing about characters who don’t deserve novels. Lives so insignificant that they can be summed up in a few pages.” Your stories touch upon some of the most significant moments of these characters’ otherwise ordinary lives. What made you want to focus on these moments?
Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with windows. Windows in buildings that allowed me to view the everyday lives of strangers, even for a fleeting moment – an image, a sound, a smell, a piece of music, accents – when they come from people you don’t know, and will perhaps never encounter again… it somehow got me thinking about their inner lives. The richness therein, the sadness, the dreams they might have. I have no interest in writing about kings and queens.
Because no life is ordinary. And all lives can change in a matter of seconds. Those pivotal decisions that we take, or acts of fate, come in a flash, in a single moment. Short stories are built around single moments.
The stories in Translated from the Gibberish focus on a temporary state of flux, often ending with a tragic revelation that decidedly changes the protagonists’ life. You have a shockingly calm, quiet way of delivering these revelations. Tell us a little about your writing style and choice of prose.
I think it goes back to what I said earlier: about being relaxed when it comes to writing about tense moments. If the writing is too tightly coiled, it attacks the reader in an uninteresting way. But if the prose is relaxed, calm, then the storm itself (the fatal ending, for instance) is like a punch to the gut. You don’t see it coming. And even if you do, it hurts more.
You’ve wrapped these stories into two parts of the semi-autobiographical eponymous story, offering the entire collection a deeply personal lens. What inspired this?
I wanted to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction. The title story is my most personal writing ever. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s truthful. I almost never write about myself. But as my twentieth year of being in Canada approached, this story oozed out of me. Even though I have been thinking about these characters for years, when I wrote the stories I wrote them fast. I’d like to think of each story as a single breath. This is a collection of seven breaths, seven exhalations.
As an Indian immigrant living in Canada, you simultaneously have two homes, and a sense of displacement or no home. How has this duality affected your identity, and you as a writer?
As a writer, it’s a blessing. Because I am an insider and an outsider at the same time. I can swoop in and out of worlds and lives. I am both observer and participant, and the distance between the place I write about (Bombay) and where I live (Vancouver) offers me perspective. As a person, it has made me appreciate family and friends so much more. I have developed some wonderful bonds in Canada as well, but at times it can be a lonely and isolating existence. Again, great if you want to write a novel. Not so lovely if you long for human connection. In terms of identity, my family has always been from “somewhere else.” My paternal grandfather moved to India from Iran, and now I have moved to Canada. Nationality is just one part of identity. At least that is what I have realised. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but in a way moving away from home, losing contact with friends and family, losing land, shedding memories, all of it reminds you of how temporary life is anyway. It is a constant reminder that one day everyone has to leave.
Rootlessness is perhaps not such a bad thing because it is a kind of death.
You’ve often expressed a preference for the name Bombay over Mumbai. What does this name signify?
Bombay is a state of mind. It is home, it is memory. I do, however, use Mumbai in my writing now. There are Bombay stories and there are Mumbai stories. It’s hard for me to tell you exactly what the difference is, but I can feel that difference when I write. Mumbai has a tension, an undercurrent, the feeling that something might erupt suddenly. Again, I can’t put my finger on it.
Given the political unrest in the country and the sense of loss of home many are experiencing and fearing, how can art process the chaos, the 'gibberish' as you refer to it, inside oneself?
“Inside oneself,” as you have mentioned in the question, is the only place where any real change can take place. The function of art is to disturb, to challenge the status quo, to reflect inequality and injustice, and also to celebrate love and beauty. Once we get unsettled as readers (because of the power of literature and stories) we will hopefully go on a search that will raise our consciousness, make us more compassionate. Through the inner lives of the characters that we encounter on the page, our inner lives transform. But one has to allow that. Lately, however, I have been questioning the power of literature in terms of its ability to fight anything in the outside world. For instance, when I was researching the red-light district — the transgender community and sex trafficking — for my novel The Parcel, I had this feeling of outrage and utter helplessness. Was my novel going to make any difference? Would it change anything externally? Not really. But it did move people.
Compassion is tender, it is subtle. Corruption and the capacity that human beings have for cruelty are, unfortunately, too powerful right now. You cannot stop a war. But, through art, you can tend to the wounded.
Tell us about the writers and works that have most inspired you.
Some of the literature that has inspired me over the years:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. That one shattered me. The Collected Stories of Naiyer Masud. In my opinion, one of the most unique, mysterious, brilliant short story writers of all time. His work can be frustrating, but in a beautiful way. The poetry of Wislawa Symborska and Anna Akhmatova. The plays of [Eugène] Ionesco, Tennessee Williams.
Here are some other names: Junichiro Tanizaki, [Vladimir] Nabokov, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, [Anton] Chekhov.
The many hues of love: Abhay K's Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems is a delightful atlas of the emotion
Abhay K’s meticulously curated book is a cornucopia of passion spanning millennia and encapsulating an astonishing array of Indian languages and personal preoccupations.
Books of the week: From Suchita Malik's The Nest of the Recluse to Vaasanthi Sundaram's Rajinikanth, our picks
Our weekly roundup of books that should be on your radar.
Author Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me is a suspenseful page-turner, soon to be turned into TV series
Dave often writes about women adapting to some change in their lives but suspense is a new genre for her and it works.