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Navigating the “Desi Multiplicity” with Author Abha Dawesar

Babyji cover art, published by Anchor Books

Those of us who are imports to this country, even several generations removed, often feel as though we exist in multiple spaces, multiple cultures, and multiple realities, or, more often, in the spaces between them. For desis, that can be a lot like cooking up some aloo, gobi, or chaat—a varied blend of spices that, somehow, tastes great.

Author Abha Dawesar, whose most recent novel, Babyji, was released earlier this year, navigates this multiplicity with utmost grace—in more ways than one.

Born in New Delhi in 1974, Dawesar studied political philosophy at Harvard before turning her eyes to the business world. After an eight year career in the global financial services industry, Dawesar changed course again to pursue writing full time. At 31, the range of her experiences would make most senior citizens envious.

When asked how this educational and professional diversity impacts her writing, Dawesar notes, “The time I spent in the [business world] has helped me appreciate [my life as a writer] more. The idea that I might have to go back to a regular job someday motivates me to get more out of the life I have right now.”

Though life as a writer is fulfilling, that’s not to say that it’s always easy, especially early in the writing process. Finding the spark that gets a new novel or story going is tough. “I do my best writing when I am already well into a novel and the story has momentum,” she explains. “Before that it’s hard for me to get the writing done anywhere at all.” Once she really gets going with a story, though, Dawesar says it progresses on its own, and can happen anywhere at all. “It has its own flow and I could probably write it in the subway if I had to,” she jokes, adding, “In general I favor writing at home.”

Once upon a time, a few years back, publishers were eager to get their hands on anything with a little masala in the title or the content. South Asian writers were a hot commodity, and it wasn’t uncommon to see bookstores littered with “monsoon” and “mango”-filled texts. In today’s literary climate, however, the “trend” that began with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things seems to be coming to an end. Dawesar scoffs at the idea that literary fads will impact her longevity as a writer, though.

“Sure there are always trends in any industry but to get out of bed and write every day takes some serious motivation beyond the idea that such-and-such writing might be trendy,” she muses. “Anyone serious about literature can’t afford to really think in terms of fads because by their very nature they are short-lived. Writing is a very long term activity. It takes months or years to write a novel and then the same amount of time to find an agent and publisher and eventually to see a book produced.”

For Dawesar, then, the masala is in the variety and diversity of her life experiences, which carry over into her writing. Unlike many writers of South Asian descent, Dawesar does not focus strictly on “culture clash” stories about desi characters coming to America or the U.K., nor does she find it necessary to feature the subcontinent in all of her work. Her first novel, Miniplanner, was written in the voice of a white, gay man.

“One can only write about whatever one finds inspiring…
In that sense writing is like love: It’s hard to fake it.”

Dawesar doesn’t worry about alienating certain groups of readers, though. “Each book pulls in new readers and pushes away some former readers,” she explains. “Also, different subject matters appeal to different people in different phases of their lives. I write about whatever I want to write about at a particular time and then hope the right readers will find the book.”

As a writer, Dawesar does not believe she has an “obligation” to write about particular topics or themes, such as religion or politics. “There are great books written around social themes and not so great ones too,” she says. “In the end, a writer’s business is to reveal life and anything that touches a human being in the end can reveal life. Take a love story for example; more have been written than we can count. It’s easy to scoff at it and say it’s not important, but if you look at mythology you can find instances of countries going to war and people being killed because a man loved a woman. So a love story tells you about the human condition no less than anything else because in the end our inner most souls come out in how we live our lives and everything is connected. Some people are interested in exploring the connections, others are driven to ex-amine the root cause, yet others the effect. One can only write about whatever one finds inspiring or desires to examine at a certain time. In that sense writing is like love: It’s hard to fake it.”

Though she may be a chameleon of sorts, Dawesar is not a woman who tries to hide behind her words or work. Her website, www.abhadawesar.com, show-cases her zesty personality and all its quirks. Nestled between reviews from The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, site explorers can find a recipe for risotto stock, photographs Dawesar has taken around the world, and the lines of her first poem, written as a young child: “ the one who eats hay is none other than a cow/ he must have been a cow sometimes or he is a cow now.”

True words of wisdom.

All joking aside, Dawesar’s words in her books and her website reveal that she is someone who is not afraid to be herself. And though she doesn’t always write about the desi experience, her background is unmistakable to those who share it—a pinch of this, a handful of that, and the whole dish comes out quite nicely. – VANDANA MAKKER

5 thoughts on “Navigating the “Desi Multiplicity” with Author Abha Dawesar

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