by Terry Hong
Let me begin with a reader’s confession: Without a doubt, Shobha Rao’s debut, An Unrestored Woman, is the best short fiction collection I’ve read this year. These dozen stories are savage and empathetic, brutal and lyrical, mournful and celebratory as well.
At the narrative center is the August 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, when the British Empire cleaved the Indian subcontinent into two separate countries before its departure: India would retain a mostly Hindu population, while Pakistan would become home to a Muslim majority. Families, communities, millions—somewhere between eight to ten million—were displaced, transferred, forcibly ejected on either side of a newly established border. Almost a million people—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs—would lose their lives in the violence of history’s largest mass migration.
“As with the majority of conflicts,” Rao writes in her introductory “Author’s Note,” “women and children during the Partition of India and Pakistan were often the most vulnerable.” If “official” numbers are reliable, some 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan were abducted, Rao explains. India’s Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act of 1949 legislated the return of these abducted women, making them officially “recovered,” if not, in Rao’s view, “restored”: “I believe that while the recovery of a person is possible, the restoration of a human being to her original state is not.” Those unrestored women populate her collection, revealing anger and forgiveness, resignation and hope, devastation and the rare delight.
Presented as six interlinked pairs, Rao’s stories reverberate beyond borders, cultures, countries, and generations. In the inaugural couplet, which includes the titular opening tale, a 13-year-old’s would-be widowhood spent in a refugee camp is remembered as the best part of her difficult life, while her fellow refugee later experiences international adventures in “The Merchant’s Mistress.” The British officer in “The Imperial Police” reappears decades later as a New York City high-rise doorman in “Unleashed.” The madam in “Blindfold” who claims a young girl with “a down payment of sorts” at age 4 or 5 for her brothel reveals her part in a tragic matricidal sacrifice in “The Lost Ribbon.”
In “The Opposite of Sex,” a cartographer obsessed with a woman because she “seemed happiest,” flees an angry mob with his boss, nicknamed D6 for his extra sixth finger; that extra digit becomes “lost” more than a half-century later in “Such a Mighty River.” In “The Road to Mirpur Khas,” a recently married couple forced to migrate from India to Pakistan never quite reach their destination, becoming trapped by desperate circumstances into working at a roadside bar; the bar’s owner reveals how he ended up using others to service lorry drivers in “The Memsahib.” The final couplet features a massacre survivor in “Kavitha and Mustafa” whose mourning granddaughter visits Italy with her British husband in “Curfew.”
Crafting her stories for decades in between a legal career that she eventually abandoned, Rao earned the recognition that kept her writing, including an Elizabeth George Foundation fellowship, a residency at Hedgebrook, and the 2014 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction awarded by the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.
Last year, the collection’s penultimate story, “Kavitha and Mustafa,” was included in The Best American Short Stories 2015—the hundredth volume of the annual publication!—curated by guest editor T.C. Boyle. This year, Rao’s full collection should find itself on many, many best-of, notable, must-read lists.
Terry Hong: Partition looms throughout your collection—directly and indirectly in every story. You weren’t even an apple in anyone’s eyes when the violent cleaving happened. Why Partition? And how did you do your research decades after the events?
Shobha Rao: I chose Partition because I wanted to find a moment in time, history, human conflict in which to explore the many themes that I was already exploring in my work. These include exile, violence, especially against women and children, migration, displacement, and the fragility of life. And so Partition emerged as that moment for me … not only because of the toll it took on the life of the two nations involved, but also because of the individual costs, on the human scale, that it extracted.
I focused my research on studying the political and geographic history, but then I put all that research away and listened to oral histories, read countless accounts of the lives of women (not just in Partition, but in other conflicts as well), and then actually sought out people who had survived the conflict and spoke to them. It was after that that I began to write.
TH: Given the vastness of the material, do you think you will write more about Partition in the future?
SR: I think I will always write about conflict. And I will always, I think, choose moments that sever the body, test the spirit, edify and destroy our souls. That is a promise I’ve made to myself as a writer. So yes, maybe Partition. But then, its vastness is also its universality. Don’t we find our hearts and our selves partitioned on a daily basis? Don’t we simultaneously live in the various countries we have conjured?
TH: I hope you don’t mind the intrusion here … but might I ask, were any members of your family Partition survivors?
SR: No. No one in my family was involved in Partition. I am from South India, and most of the events of Partition occurred in North India, so my family was not affected—and by this, I mean, violently—by the events. But Partition was a global event, and it is seared into the consciousness of all Indians and Pakistanis. To this day—very much to this day. The two countries have fought three wars since Partition, been involved in many skirmishes, and there continues to be incredible distrust and outright hostility between them. And now, they are both nuclear-armed, so a very dangerous and unstable situation persists, not just along the border and the disputed regions, but in the hearts and minds of citizens of the two nations.
TH: You mentioned above about “exile, violence, especially against women and children”—and now this promise to continue to write about “conflict.” All such incredibly challenging, wrenching topics. Why? What drives you to those dark places?
SR: I think those dark places are the places we are most human. The places where we are challenged, forsaken, left for dead … these are the places where we are strongest, weakest, where we cry our truest tears. That is where, as a writer, I am tasked to go. Nothing else will do, as far as I am concerned. There is no courage otherwise.
TH: I would also add, those dark places are also where we are certainly also the MOST INhuman. How do you deal with that violence, tragedy, such horrors? How do you keep the nightmares at bay?
SR: I find writing about these moments immensely cathartic. Though most of us, fortunately, will probably never live through an event as inhuman as Partition, I believe we all have endless wells of despair, rage, beauty, and mercy. I only have to get to the deeper places, and there they are: the demons. I exorcise them by writing. By saying to them: if I give you expression, I give myself freedom. There are no nightmares more frightening than the small and large ways we destroy each other, and ourselves, on a daily basis.
TH: That’s quite a deal you’ve made with the devil! And courageous indeed, especially for us readers who get to appreciate the results. In addition to facing nightmares, one of the other binding themes throughout your stories—to which you earlier alluded—is migration. Not just forced movement, as with Partition, but the immigration choices made decades later by new generations. Did your/your family’s immigration to the States from India provide direct fodder for some of these stories?
SR: Yes, absolutely. Migration (chosen or forced) is never a complete process. Every day, the migrant is faced with questions of what is home, what has been left, what remains to be found. And even when I moved here—at the age of 7—I understood that something profound was being lost. I couldn’t name it, but I sensed it. And the years have only confirmed that the state of drift, the longing for home, is my constant companion. Of course, this is not unique to migrants, but it is somehow more poignant, more fragmenting.
TH: Having left India at such a young age, and living now across oceans in San Francisco, how connected do you feel to your birth country as an adult? How often do you go back? Do you still have strong ties there? Where is that ‘home’ you long for constantly?
SR: I still feel very connected to my birth country … all I have to do is look in the mirror. One of the best things my parents did was to insist that my sister and I learn Telugu, our native tongue, once we emigrated to America, and that has lent a connection of language, poetry, music, and it has humanized a distant place, made it mine. I used to go to India more often as a child and adolescent, but I do try to go back every few years. Whenever I do, I find that the plane doors don’t even have to open—even while we wait on the tarmac, the heat, the scent, the ancestral longing of India begin to seep into me.
As for ties, yes, extended family, but the ties I have within me, the ties that flow in the veins, those are still the strongest.
Where is home? That question, above all others, has no answer. Don’t we, as sweet and broken beings, all search, all our lives, for that one answer?
TH: I think that’s certainly true for immigrants, and the children of immigrants, caught between cultures and comfortable—nor fully accepted—in none. Perhaps when you’re immersed in a world you’ve created on the page, might that feel like “home”?
SR: Yes, perhaps the greatest home. The only one. When I am writing, and when I am in love: these are the homes I have found.
TH: Let’s go back to your writing … You’re currently in your early 40s, a bonafide Bloomer since your book debuted earlier this year. Why now for publishing your first book?
SR: Oh goodness! I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I’d been writing for 15 years (and my work rejected for 15 years) before I found anything even remotely encouraging. But there was never a question of not writing (the demons, after all, would be disappointed). So I kept at it, began the short story collection after a few novels, and finally found an agent.
TH: And once you started creating the short stories, how did you decide on the interlinked- paired format?
SR: I wanted to explore the path of trauma. I was reading an article about how not only the wiring in the brains of the survivors of the Holocaust had been altered by the trauma, but also the wiring in the brains of their children and their grandchildren. After reading that article, I became interested in how trauma travels across space and time. How does it alter those around us, those we don’t even realize we are altering? So the linked stories seemed a good way to follow sorrow, trauma, tragedy, and watch it over generations, or sometimes only days or hours.
TH: Why did you choose to become a writer those many years ago? How did you begin your writing career? What else did you do, have to do, until this first book sold?
SR: I had always been a voracious reader. Growing up, reading was a way for me to understand this new world I was living in, to make sense of this new country. To remedy the distance between what I had lost, and what was before me. And so I read. Eventually, I realized I wanted to tell the stories, not just read them. But that knowledge comes slowly at times, at a trickle. I went to law school, and practiced for a time, and at some point, I sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper, and thought, “Now, write something true.” I don’t know if I’ve managed that yet … it’s not for me to know, but that is how it began.
TH: And are you still a voracious reader? Do you draw inspiration from reading other writers? Who are some of your favorites?
SR: Absolutely! I think most of a writer’s job is to read. I read not just for inspiration, but for instruction, guidance, joy, ecstasy, understanding. My favorites … a difficult question because mood and loneliness and where we find ourselves in life have so much to do with what writer happens to resonate in that moment. But certainly, Roberto Bolaño, Flannery O’Conner, Michael Ondaatje, John Cheever, Virginia Woolf, and poets, lots and lots of poets.
TH: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered now that you’re a published author? And any disappointments?
SR: The surprise I think is also the thing that is the most obvious: seeing my book in a bookstore or a library. You would think that one would get used to it, maybe even anticipate it, but no. It is always a moment that catches me unawares, quickens my heart, reminds me that humility is the greatest virtue. Who am I? What did I do to have the glory of such a thing: a book on a shelf? I have no answer, and that, too, is part of the magnificence.
I suppose the disappointment, too, is obvious: the everyday. I still have to figure out what to have for dinner, I have to pay the electric bill, run errands, go to the dentist. I imagined the whole world would change, and it has, and yet in its own plodding way, it hasn’t.
TH: And, of course, the must-know final questions about our future as readers—what are you writing? More short stories? Might you resurrect any of the older novels you mentioned? Something else entirely? And most importantly, how fast can we read what’s next?
SR: I am currently working on a novel. I have no idea about the publication date, but it is an early draft, so probably not next month. It is not a resurrection of an older novel. I read through them recently, and I realized I have grown immensely as a writer since their writing, so in the end, it was less painful to start with a blank page than to try to edit an older work. Besides, I want to complicate and make finer the web of my writing life, not return to the web I abandoned, knowing, after all these many years, I can weave something even more beautiful.