Jane Watson talks about her novel Hindustan Contessa, its themes, characters and concepts, her big break, her previous work and a hint at her next book.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena Ball Tell me about the prologue. In what way is the cave seductive and pleasant?
Jane Watson I think that the prologue’s cave is a metaphorical type of cave. I was playing with the idea of the underworld and subconscious. It is ambivalent – a mirror of the situation Tillie is in. I was trying to make the allusion to Persephone’s decent into Hades subtly. I didn’t want to use a Greek metaphor for an Indian story.
MB: Is the main story’s cave also a kind of metaphor?
JW: What is happening in the book is that tillie is captured mentally. The cave is an external symbol of what is happening to her. She is captured by her jealousy for Milan and his imagined affair, but also captured by her situation in India – the idea of who she is and how she fits. She says at one point that her intentions were good, but that she doesn’t know whether she is bridging the gap.
MB: Is Tillie meant to be a writer?
JW: At one stage when I was writing this book Tilly was a writer, but then I decided to make her a journalist. She wants to record her story.
MB: What exactly is a dacoit?
JW: It is actually a Hindi word. It is basically a robber, but what it describes is a different kind of robber who lives being a robber all their life. they may grow up in a gang, or in many cases the families become very poor. They are alienated from society, although not all dacoits are like that. What I was planning with the idea was to show the contradictions. Tillie dislikes the dacoits, but there is also a type of sexual attraction there that she doesn’t want to admit – she hates it but it also changes her, in a way that isn’t negative.
MB: Tell me about Ranjit’s magic.
JW: What i was interested in looking at was this notion of magic in India. Indians were the first magicians and magic is viewed very differently there. In Indian history there was once a group of Bengalis (my husband is Bengali) who were called The Seven Bengalis and they were very famous magicians. It was only a very small jump between magic and how Indians perceive the world and the way in which the gods behave. In a religious sense Indians believe a lot of things can happen. In the Rig Veda the utterance of sound created the world. I was toying with the idea of how that real magic might be connected to the idea of abracadabra, culturally. There is a link in people’s mind between the tricks of a conjurer and real magic. Magicians are taken very seriously and it can be a big and important career. While I was writing the book I watched a very interesting documentary about a group of magicians in Bombay. Most of them actually lived sad lives and were unknown but the program looked at how they viewed themselves and how they hoped their audience viewed themself. One of them, a coin conjurer, was considered to be very good, and at one time he was viewed as a holy man by people who had been his followers.
MB: Is Ranjit’s sacrifice deliberate?
JW: He may have had an idea of what was going to happen, but he wasn’t totally aware at least not in the moment Tillie and Milan left him. He was simply doing his job which he took seriously – making sure that they were alright – fulfilling his role as the driver and delivering his passengers.
MB: Do the Dacoits in effect, give Tillie a gift?
JW: I think that they allow her to develop an inner strength that she doesn’t have.
MB: What does Milan gain from their journey?
JW: I think he makes a journey back in the past, and faces that part of the past that he needs to. It is very important for their relationship. He needs to move on from that. There is the added advantage of having someone who is an independent viewer. Tillie helps him work through this and in the end she makes a diagnosis of the situation and his unhappiness, as well as the pain that his mother and grandmother experienced.
MB: One of the major themes running through Hindutan Contessa is the notion of circular time: “At any point in your life you can be in several places at at times in your mind and what may seem real or the right point of view may not be in another. Everything is relative to where you feel yourself in the present”. Talk to me more about this. Is this Tillie’s big lesson? Is it a lesson for all westerners?
JW: I was very interested in the idea of how we see things in a linear fashion in the West. We don’t often have a lot of time for the events that might have occurred simultaneously or that don’t have a resolution that we wanted. This kind of circularity allows for things to happen. In India there are many stories about the same goddess. An Indian wouldn’t think that strange, even if the stories appear to contradict themselves or display different aspects or qualities. That is part of the rich pantheon of what was available. I wanted to explore how we see India -people have a great desire to put the gods or goddesses into niches – and then suddenly observers would find out something that was contradictory, but this is really part of the many manifestations of the same thing. Tillie finds it hard to cope with anything that gives us this kind of mixed and uncertain result. She is used to asking a question and getting an answer but Milan doesn’t always give her the direct answer that she wants.
MB: During your own travels did you keep a “book of travel”?
JW: I did keep a notebook but it was just a boring journey of the travel. I wasn’t planning on writing about India at the time. When I came back I wrote a short story that was published in Voices magazine and a bit later on I realised that it contained so many issues I could turn it into a full length novel.
MB: Macmillan is a pretty respected publisher. Was it difficult to get your first novel published by them?
JW: There is actually a story behind that. I had been writing for a number of years, and I decided to go off to a workshop run by the author John Marsden in Victoria. It is a very well known novel writing workshop on his huge estate and everyone comes and stays along with a number of invited publishers. It is copied from an idea in use in the States. We all submitted our work about 2 months before the workhop. The rest of the participants had finished their draft, but I only had 100 pages written. In the end I sent off my 100 pages and I was contacted by the publisher assigned to me Emma Mcfarlane, who had read my pages and wanted to know if I could send her a bit more. I spent the next 3 weeks nearly putting myself in the hospital and turned out another 30 pages which I sent again and then she rang me up to make me an offer. So I went off to the workshop with a contract under my belt and was advised me to take another year to finish. I did finish it at the end of the year, but needless to say it was a tense year.
MB: This is your first novel. Do you feel like you’ve now plummeted into the heart of your own story and that next time you will have to work further afield from your own experiences?
JW: No not at all. One of the reasons I chose this subject was that it had nothing to do with my life. I put in for a grant with the Australia council and was very careful to choose this unrelated topic. Of course that never works – you always come back to your own life. However, this book is pure fiction. I haven’t written about anyone in my real life, but the subject didn’t turn out to be as safe as I’d hoped. I was exploring several psychological reactions, but there was no autobiography – I’m not Tilly and my husband is definately not Milan. Of course it doesn’t much matter what you write, people will imagine correspondences or claim that characters are based on them.
MB: Tell me about some of the writing you have done prior to Hindustan Contessa.
JW: I write a lot of short stories and have been doing so for quite a while. I’ve won the Ellen Marshall prize, the My Brother Jack prize and others. For a while I was just concentrating on short stories but I’ve also written some articles about my teaching experiences, one of which was published in the Age and later made into a film for 150th anniversary of the Human Rights Commission. After I decided to start writing this novel I found that I had to make a tremendous leap in the way I worked. There is a big difference between writing a short story and writing a novel. There is a great desire in a short story to resolve things within 10 pages. The tone and pace are different in a novel – they are much slower and more relaxed. You can’t condense the action. I really had to work at teasing it out and taking the time to develop the story.
MB: Tell me about the upcoming Melbourne Writer’s Festival – is it daunting reading alongside multi-published authors like China Miéville and Drusilla Modjeska
JW: Oh yes it is very daunting! I’ll be doing one reading on two panels – one of which talks about the big break and the other which looks at what it is like if you have family and another heritage overseas. I’m not entirely sure what is going to be covered, but it should be interesting.
MB: Have you started working on the next book?
JW: I’m interested in writing about a photograph that I once had about an Giant Amazonian Lily. I’ll be exploring that and a lot of other ideas. Maybe there will be a writer in this one.