“I have been stung several times by wasps,” author Anita Nair says with a conspiratorial laugh, “If there is a wasp in the room, it’s sure to make a beeline for me.”
Her latest novel Eating Wasps is out and, in a chat with BL ink in Mumbai, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award winner describes what it was like to write it, and the demands it made of her.
Nair (52) is no stranger to new releases. “I started writing very young,” she says, “I wrote secretly for a very long time, and when my first book, a collection of short stories was published in 1997, I was 32.”
Following that, she went on to write eight novels, many of them bestsellers, in addition to the screenplay for a National Award-winning film adaptation of her book Lessons In Forgetting , as well as numerous travelogues and a play. She is at that enviable stage where introductions are unnecessary.
In this wide-spanning corpus of her works, she returns to some concerns time and again. “The stories of women, their everyday lives, are things I constantly evoke in my writing,” she says, recounting how the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was once shunned as a dilettante, her identity reduced to being the wife of painter Diego Rivera, rather than being recognised as an artist in her own right.
“This patronising, dismissive attitude — that a woman’s life is worthy of respect by whom she is related to or married to is ridiculous,” Nair remarks, “I want to celebrate ordinary women who deal with life in their own way, even if it is not on their own terms.”
This comes across in Eating Wasps , an interconnected set of stories that weaves in and out of the daily lives of women who come in contact with an oddly macabre object — a tiny calcified bone of a woman who committed suicide 52 years earlier.
Set in a hotel in Kerala, which also formed the setting for her earlier novel Mistress , the narrative switches between the past and the present, adopting different tonal registers to denote the stark differences in the lived realities of the various characters in the book.
About the title, Nair says, “It’s a metaphor for taking on life, for having the courage to seek out the things you want.”
The key protagonist, Sreelakshmi, is shown as a child with a fondness for honey, who reasons that bees must be swelling with it. But since she doesn’t know the difference between a wasp and a bee, she chomps on a wasp buzzing near her face, only to be stung. Sreelakshmi earns the epithet of ‘the girl who ate a wasp’ — meaning both crazy and courageous. People around her use it to explain many of her life decisions, such as remaining unmarried, turning the personal into the political, being financially independent, all of it unthinkable in the newly independent India.
Sreelakshmi’s character is loosely based on the Malayalam writer Rajalekshmi, who won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1960 for her novel Oru Vazhiyum Kure Nizhalukalum . A lecturer in Physics in addition to being a rising literary talent, she committed suicide at the age of 35. Her writings evoke the restrained disquiet of a woman who sought the solace and strength of words to challenge social norms.
Eating Wasps was a very difficult book to write, says Nair, more so because of her approach to writing.
“Just like how some people are method actors, I’m a method writer. I need to become the person I am writing about,” she says. That means she often experiences a deep-rooted melancholy that is derived from the characters’ circumstances, and it is mentally exhausting to identify so completely with her characters, she says. By the time the book has been written and published, and the characters ‘leave’, she has to come to terms with a sudden emptiness. “I feel very, very lost. It has always been like this,” she says.
Since, for her, writing is more like a passage into other states of being, she only begins a novel when she has everything in place, down to the pen and the notebook. She writes in longhand, unlike many other writers who have made the switch to electronic devices. After carrying an idea in her head and letting it grow, the story takes shape gradually, but the writing itself begins with a specific moment. “The first sentence just hits me like a wave. That is all I need,” she explains, “My fiction is sacred to me.”
While working on her writing, Nair also makes time to sing. She has been studying Carnatic music for the past four years, and practises for an hour every day.
Insisting that there are no professional aspirations to the singing, she says, “I want something in my life to be free of scrutiny, and I want something that gives me as much joy as my writing does.”