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Tejaswini Apte-Rahm on why the short story is an important literary form

By November 13, 2017No Comments

Source : The Indian Express

Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s debut book of fiction, a collection of short stories called These Circuses That Sweep Through The Land, has won praise for its dark humour and ability to exaggerate the quirks of daily life to nightmarish proportions.


The short story, frequently dismissed as mere training for the real business of writing novels, has a staunch champion in journalist-turned-writer Tejaswini Apte-Rahm. Her debut book of fiction, a collection of short stories called These Circuses That Sweep Through The Land, has won praise for its dark humour and ability to exaggerate the quirks of daily life to nightmarish proportions. It has been shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2017 as well as the Tata Nexon Literature Live! First Book Award (fiction) 2017. Excerpts from an email interview:

Writers are often told to focus on novels, not short stories, as some sort of ‘market wisdom’.

I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, ‘So you’re writing short stories? When are you going to write a novel?’ – as if short stories are merely a stepping stone to a higher art form. I think there is a misconception that short stories need less skill than writing a novel, simply because they are shorter. In fact they are two different genres of writing which call for different, though overlapping, skill sets. Short stories provide a differently textured narrative experience. Life is not experienced like a conventional novel with a ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure, though one can create this kind of narrative with hindsight. I think we experience life as a series of fragments, where, for example, loose ends don’t always get tied up, and episodes may find closure only years later, or indeed never. Short stories are uniquely placed to mirror that fragmentary experience of life.

What were your earliest attempts at writing fiction?

My first story ever was one I wrote for Target magazine as a 9 or 10 year old, about a boy stepping onto a passing cloud from his high-rise building in Bombay. He could never come home because the cloud drifted endlessly. I remember experiencing a horrified fascination as I wrote it. It frightened me, because I lived in a skyscraper myself. Unfortunately, I never posted the story to the magazine. I had no skills in practical matters at the time.

What does it take to be a full-time writer?

I was an environmental researcher for several years, which required a lot of travel, often at short notice. I had also been working intermittently on some short stories in between research projects. After my daughter was born it was not possible for me to lead that kind of lifestyle anymore. So I decided to focus on writing fiction and working from home. I am a very hands-on mom. I like to be at home with my daughter. When she was a baby I wrote in the early mornings before she woke up. Now I write when she is at school. The most important skill for a full-time writer is self-discipline. Sitting down at your desk at a set time every day, for a set number of hours, is half the battle won.

Book Cover

Which was the first story you wrote that eventually went into These Circuses that Sweep Through the Landscape?

The first was Homo Coleoptera written many years ago. I made a careful plan of it before I started writing. As a beginning writer, this helped me to concentrate on the writing itself because I already had a road map to tell me where I was going. The story won a runner-up prize in a competition in the UK and was published in Himal Southasian magazine. But it was almost 10 years before I wrote fiction again because I was working full-time.

The spirit of Roald Dahl floats over the book.

Roald Dahl’s short stories are probably the reason I started writing seriously. The economical use of words, the wit, the ruthlessness with which he gets to the dark heart of a character, are all delicious to me. And the beauty of it is that he does it in the simplest language. I’ve learned a great deal from him about using language with precision and how to build up tension in a story.

As a writer, what details do you make note of in your daily interactions?

I tend to observe the cadence of speech and people’s mannerisms. Both go a long way in showing a person’s character. Deconstructing speech is important to me – why did a person use this word and not that one? Why did he pause? Is that expression on her face deliberate or unconscious? Why was she looking at that particular person when she said that sentence? Such observations feed into creating characters that look and, more importantly, sound different from each other.

Apte-Rahm is participating in the panel discussion ‘Poor Cousins’ as part of Tata Literature Live! 2017, at the Little Theatre, NCPA on November 19 at 5 pm.

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