Love and Learning under the Magnolia: Bulbul Sharma's homage to the village Shaya
“A kind of Pride and Prejudice set in the remote, hillside village of Shaya,” is how writer and artist Bulbul Sharma describes her latest work of fiction, aptly titled Love and Learning Under The Magnolia, a sequel to her last novel, Tailor of Giripul. Here, she talks about working with different art forms, what inspires her to write, and how the natural world of Shaya, her home for 30 years, influences her work.
How did the idea for the book come about?
The idea for Love and Learning under the Magnolia came to me when I was doing a weaving workshop with the village women of Shaya. I realised none of the women could read or write thought they managed to work out the measurements in a clever, abstract way in their heads. I wondered what would happen if they could learn to read. How much their lives would change. Love and Learning is also a love story between two people from totally different backgrounds. One old money and snooty and the other self made, super new rich.
As an author and a painter, how do you feel one art form informs the other if at all? Which of the two would you say provides for more freedom when it comes to imaginative expression?
Writing is so much hard work and so lonely. Painting, the process of putting a brushstroke on paper or canvas, allows one much more freedom of expression. I feel I can play around much more with colour than with words. Also, remember, there is no editor! But sometimes being a painter can confuse the issue. You paint these vivid images in your head, write them down as you have visualized them but every often you have created too much in your head and not enough on paper for the reader to engage in. It is quite a balancing act but when you get it right, it works beautifully.
Who are some of the authors whom you admire? Have any inspired your work or writing style?
I admire so many writers but Premchand, Chekhov and Jane Austen have inspired me. I like writing about, simple everyday life and these three writers are great masters when it comes to portraying simple characters and situations with very fine, meticulous brushstrokes.
How have your personal experiences in places like Shaya village influenced your work? Can you elaborate on the difficulties of sketching, as it were, the beauty of places such as Shaya through words?
Shaya, its serene, unspoilt landscape, its people, has had a huge influence on my work. My earlier writing was mainly concerned with my family and childhood home in Calcutta. Shaya made me come away from my ‘formidable aunts’ and helped me create a new fictitious world of my own. Though Shaya is a real place, the people are all imaginary. It is very difficult to truly describe this remote mountain village that has been my home for three decades. The people here think so differently from us city people and it is not easy to get into their heads. In fact, the women here thought I was a strange, odd person when they first met me but now, after 30 years, they have finally accepted me.
They talk to me now as if I am one of them though they find me and other city people, very amusing and often laugh at us in a good-natured way. We all know that there is a huge divide between the people of the villages and we city people, but I find they are more willing to reach out to us than we are to them. Every village home in Shaya is happy to share whatever little they have with us but I do not think we city people do the same.
How has your journey been as an author? What inspires you to write?
I began to paint at a very young age but writing came much later. Now I cannot remember a time that I did not write. Though writing is a solitary profession it takes you out of yourself. It is almost like meditation though you are surrounded by people you have created. My journey as a writer has been full of fun and laughter along with some tears. Life in India, its colour and chaos, my wonderful family, my unusual childhood all help me to create a story.
Tell us about your work with specially abled children. What are your thoughts on the current literature available for children and what more do you feel needs to be done when it comes to matters of representation?
I had no training as an art teacher but jumped into working with special children 15 years ago. I somehow managed and the children taught me as we went along. They all love painting, even if they can barely lift a brush or pencil, and they love story telling sessions. Most of them do not have many opportunities to go out and relay on their imaginations to amuse and entertain themselves.
That is why they love painting. I have learnt so much from them. I love their wacky sense of humour despite their difficult, often painful state of physical or mental health. Working with these gifted children has taught me that if you have a skill, however ordinary, when you share it with others, it helps both of you to flourish.
Earlier, we had only Enid Blyton and a few folk tales but now there are so many delightful, beautifully illustrated books being published for children in India. Popular book festivals like Bookaroo and Kahani bring thousands of children together to share their love of books. Children’s books just need to be more visible in the media and maybe a few more awards for children’s books will help. I am planning to give an award next year for the best nature book for children.
You have experimented with various genres and forms of writing. Which genres would you like to experiment with next? Any upcoming projects?
I have a new book, Travels With my Beloved Ghost, being published later in the year by Speaking Tiger. It is a combination of a memoir and a travel book - the ghost just happened to stroll in. I am about to finish an illustrated book for children set in a Himalayan forest to be published by Goodearth. Then I begin a new series of murder mysteries. I am in Iceland as I write this and am planning to set a new book here!
Westland, INR 399.