Annie Zaidi, is one of those rare writers who wears many hats with ease. Her body of work includes reportage, essays, fiction, drama, poetry and graphic storytelling. She is the author of ‘Gulab’, ‘Love Stories # 1 to 14’, and the co-author of ‘The Good Indian Girl’. She is also the editor of ‘Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing’.
She has won several awards – her play ‘Untitled 1’ won The Hindu Playwright Award 2018. A radio play, ‘Jam’ was the regional (South Asia) winner at the BBC International Playwriting Competition. A collection of essays, ‘Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales’, was nominated for the prestigious Crossword award.
As if this wasn’t impressive enough, Zaidi works as a filmmaker too. Her first documentary film, ’In her Words: The Journey of Indian Women’ traces the lives and struggles of women as reflected in their literature. She has also written and directed five fictional short films.
Zaidi is a keen observer of her own society, and her writing is guided by a strong sense of social justice: she has written about problems associated with India’s democratic process, its bureaucracy and infrastructure, and its cultural and caste prejudices.
In this interview, we delve into Annie’s body of work, and better understand her contribution to each form.
Since you work in so many forms, which speaks the most to you?
I don’t spend much time thinking about form or genre. I start writing something and let the work itself guide me into choosing a form that seems most natural for its themes. Sometimes I find out a bit too late that I chose badly, or that I don’t actually have a story to tell, and then that work has to be abandoned. This is also how I approach reading. I don’t go looking for fiction, or essays, or poetry. Whatever comes to hand, I’ll read it.
Do you have any advice to give to young writers/artists who wish to dabble in various forms?
The advice I have for anyone who wants to write anything at all is: read. Read like mad, and very widely. Read plays and poems even if you want to only be a screenwriter. Watch movies if you want to only write essays. Go to art exhibitions and dance shows. Form is not a hidebound thing. Art is not insular. People are.
The inaugural Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation in memory of your maternal grandfather, was announced in 2016. Can you tell us how he has influenced your life as a writer and how you view the world in general?
My grandfather, Ali Jawad Zaidi, was a man of wide scholarship and deep sensitivity, though he wore both lightly. When I was a child, I don’t remember him talking to me about books, for instance. His influence was mainly demonstrative rather than academic. He offered his affections to all his grandchildren constantly and his loyalty to his family was relentless. He wrote close to 80 books while holding down a full time job most of his life. He would get up very early in the morning and read or write for nearly four hours. Then he went to office. He put in at least three more hours in the evening. So, he did not have to tell me that writing involves discipline and a certain sacrifice. He just showed me that you still have to earn a living apart from being a writer. He also encouraged me to learn typing, and I did, using his old typewriter. I didn’t yet know that I wanted to be a writer, but certainly working on the typewriter gave me a sense of the physicality of writing, of the gaps between thought and the transfer of thought. It taught me to engage with words in a different way.
His house was always full of books. My mother tells me that when he got a chance to travel to the USA for a training, he did not bring back gadgets, baubles or clothes for his children. He bought books. That filtered down, so that we were often given books as birthday gifts. Everyone in the family read for pleasure. My mother and her sisters also painted, embroidered and sewed. Not just for school assignments but for pleasure. Craft and creativity was sort of normal. There was no money to train or workshop anything. But art and reading was not something they did in order to achieve goals, or prepare for the future. It was part of the making of happiness, almost as normal as cooking.
I didn’t realise then how different this made us, especially the books. It was a privilege, of course, since India is incredibly book-poor. But even within the middle class, my schoolmates whose parents earned thrice as much, were not gifted books. Their parents spent more on clothes or eating out. My clothes were often homemade. Perhaps, as a result, the material instinct was not as strong as the creative instinct. Even after the 1990s, with the opening up of the economy and consumerism settling rapidly into middle class homes, books and other kinds of culture have remained at the center of my life. I believe quite firmly now that there are few things more valuable in society than words, visual art and cultural experiences.
Congratulations on winning The Hindu Playwright Award 2018 for your play ‘Untitled- 1’.
The judges mentioned that the play is set in a dystopian future while commenting on the existing times we are in, while you argue in your acceptance speech that it is for ‘all times’. Can you tell us a little more about the play?
The play is set in an undated future, where the authorities closely monitor all communication, both private and mass, and books are especially monitored. Not just after publication but through the process of writing. The play is about surveillance and freedom of expression, and specifically about an authoritarian State’s attitude to artists. It is impossible to think and write with any authenticity if an artist feels that s/he must watch every word, how much is said – or how little – and if there is a feeling of someone looking over your shoulder. Pre-censorship or self-censorship is the end of art.
Read the excerpt about ‘Untitled- 1’ published in Scroll here.
Ms. Ratna Patak Shah, who presented the award to you mentions that “the final test of a play is in its performance”. Can you run us through the process of writing a play? Do you imagine it being performed or ask your trusted circle to enact it for you to see if it works?
I don’t know that the process of writing a play is very different than, say, writing a story. You need to understand structure and be familiar with how a text is (or can be) performed. But once you approach the blank page, the process is similar. At least that’s how it is for me. I have written one play which came out of work-shopping with actors, director and a choreographer. But that was because I had been approached to work with the group. I do not usually think about how it will be performed. That is not the writer’s task. I do think about tautness of the lines, and believability of characters etc., but I would have to pay attention to that no matter which form I chose.
‘Untitled-1’ will be published by Dhauli books along with two other plays of yours- ‘Jam’ and ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’. What do you think of the readership of plays in India now? Can you tell us a little about the other two plays?
Almost nobody reads plays (at least in English) except those who work in theatre, or other writers. It is a little strange because, even now, Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw are prescribed on school and college syllabi in India. So one would assume that both familiarity and affinity for the form is established early in life. It could be a publishing problem too. Most of the bigger publishing houses avoid plays or poetry, and most bookstores no longer bother to stock the ones that are published, except for a few classic texts. Dhauli is quite new, and is focussing on these neglected genres so that’s good. Seagull is another notable exception. They did publish some very important play texts, including those translated from other Indian languages. I find that where the books are available, there are readers too, even if their numbers are small.
‘Jam’ was originally written as a radio play. It is about two friends who share a guilty secret meeting after many years, and being caught in a traffic jam. ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ Is about an upper middle class family, and its relationship with the child who had been brought to the city from a distant village and who has now grown up into a young, and educated woman who does not want to remain a domestic worker.
Who are the playwrights/plays that have influenced you?
Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Mohan Rakesh, Mahasweta Devi, Manjula Padmanabhan are all modern Indian playwrights whose work I have admired. Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen among the western writers, apart from Shakespeare and Shaw, of course.
Can you run us through the process for those who aspire to make short films, things you found out only while working on a film?
There is too much of a “process” with filmmaking to run through it briefly. There are multiple processes going on simultaneously. The first step, of course, is being able to write a script. For those who are interested in making films, I would suggest just pick up a camera and start fooling around images and words. That’s what I did.
I believe quite firmly now that there are few things more valuable in society than words, visual art and cultural experiences.
What, in particular, do you enjoy about filmmaking?
Being able to think visually. Writing the vision on paper and then watching it turn into something new, through the work of actors, through the simultaneous distance and intimacy of the camera.
In your short film ‘Ek Red Colour ki Love Story’ we don’t really get to see the heroine’s face completely. Especially in this shot, where we see the camera chasing her from behind.
What do you think of photographing/filming people from behind? I’ve been following Claudia Tremblay’s artwork, especially those of which are just back profiles of people. Here’s one which led me to read more about it. Do you think it represents mystery, or perhaps timidness…?
I don’t have a definite opinion on faces being seen or not seen in art. My decision was to keep the protagonist semi-visible partly because the story is about seeing the city through her eyes, and partly because she herself is being watched, obviously from a distance. I think it was annoying for some viewers, judging from the comments they’ve left on YouTube.
Any short film recommendations for our readers?
There are many good ones online. Of the Indian content I’ve seen, I liked Jyoti Kapur Das’ Chutney, starring Tisca Chopra and Rasika Dugal. Also Nagraj Manjule’s “An Essay on the Rain”. I also like Gitanjali Rao’s work. Her animated short, Printed Rainbow is lovely.
I loved your memoir ‘Embodying Venus’ in Griffith Review, you have clearly expressed your feminist views in your non-fiction writing. You have also written an open letter to Honey Singh about the objectification of women in his songs. What is your take on the recent Me too movement in India?
That work places should be safe and sexual harassment is abhorrent goes without saying, of course. Women have, by and large, been silent about harassment for fear of further punishment in form of job losses and hostility from colleagues. Those who are speaking up, are speaking after years of discomfort and sadness. It was a social conversation that society needed to have with itself. It’s just beginning. The real battle for change, as always, is in the unorganised sector. In general, I think that sexual harassment is a sub-set of power abuse and ties into the abuse of all labour laws. The abuse of power in our country is widespread, as is corruption. Transparency and faith in institutions is low. We cannot hope to fix just one tiny sector of abuse without fixing the whole organism. I, as a woman, cannot hope for truth and justice to prevail in my office, if that is not the norm in the law courts, and other processes that keep a democratic nation free and stable.
You have a collection of short stories published that recently has been translated into Marathi, a novella and more. I loved your short story ‘Registered Post’ published in The Caravan in 2015.
Can you tell us how the story came to you?
If you mean what got me started on the idea, it was the South Asian problem of trying to control children’s marital choices, sometimes through violent and illegal means.
Short story writers in India who have got your attention?
Among the writers that are particularly devoted to the short story, there is Ismat Chugtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Premchand, and Paul Zacharia.
I loved a poem of yours titled ‘City Nights’ published in Verve India.
“The city comes pouring out
of her mouth like sleek brown rivers
of discontent, her hands flat
against pink café walls and
the round-faced waiter in his purple apron,
On her fleshy back, a hand
rubs in the city’s truth –
Is the city here ‘Bombay/Mumbai’?
It was written after I saw a woman throwing up in the bathroom of a café in Mumbai. But I don’t know if it is about this city. It is about the city that each reader carries within herself.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.