The keeper of secrets
Nandita Chakraborty, an Indian-Australian author. Her new book is a memoir, called the Dirty Little Secrets, in which she walks us through her journey in life. She is also a writer for Melbourne’s leading Indian newspapers The Indian Weekly and G’day India. She spoke to Akasha Usmani.
Nandita Chakraborty says it took time for her to breakthrough as a writer of Indian origin but now she and her stories are welcomed everywhere in Australia and in India.
Akasha Usmani (AU) - You have often called yourself 'the accidental writer', can you tell us the story behind this?
Nandita Chakraborty (NC): An unintended pun, that followed with me, through the next years of my life and it was just coincidental that everything in my life happened for a reason but all ‘accidentally’. In 2007-8 I took a creative writing course just to beat the mundane bank job and I never knew that a decade later it would become the only career that I will ever follow from there on.
One of the biggest turning points in my life came very unexpectedly, with a horrific rock-climbing accident. On 5 November 2011, I was out on a rock-climbing expedition in Mount Cathedral. Situated on the northern face of the Cathedral Mountain Range in Central Victoria, what should have been an exhilarating day of glorious views of nature took a turn for the worse when I fell 40 meters.
The trail was difficult to begin with, and I found it very hard. The others in the group were very patient with me. I knew I shouldn’t have but I detached the rope and removed the harness, and I was taking the easy route to cross over to the other side of the hill, but there was a gap and my legs weren’t long enough to make it, so I slipped. I was airlifted to the hospital with multiple head and body injuries. After all the surgeries and months of rehab, I was left with a disability.
AU: You have written three successful novels, the recent one Dirty Little Secrets is a memoir, it's an honest account of your life experiences. What motivated you to write this?
NC: Well! The black mail and the time leading to the accident was the turning point in my life and of-course how the accident changed my entire life. The scam made me as a person displaced again and I once again went back to my roots in India to be connected again. It was difficult and I started a journal, as if I was telling myself what each journey was becoming of me and the toll that it took on me. I had to write this because as if I was coming to all the fears in one point where nothing more than honesty mattered. Also, sometimes the truth is uncomfortable and it's very difficult for people to sit and fathom the truth. It is very important at times to shake things up so the fantasy world we live in is unmasked.
The cover of Nandita Chakraborty's latest book.
AU: In your book Rosemary’s Retribution, one aspect you have covered is the cultural differences between Australia and India. Can you tell us one or two main differences between the two countries? Has it changed over time and how do you think Australia and India have strengthened the cultural ties over time?
NC: In every country, there are always stories of human displacement, whether levels of domestic or family violence, divorce or mental health; the most important stories that stem from removal are migrant stories. The difference between the two countries is the cultural differences when a new student or migrant comes to settle and the lack of support that one finds when they land into problems like work, finances and even relationships.
Students and even new migrants need an organization that they can trust. It is changing with NGOs and community organizations, but the dialogue should be more transparent so students can find it less challenging and comfortable. It's changing, but community leaders should make it wholesome to work with the local councils to give that extra support.
The other thing I find lacking in Australia and India is the cultural exchange or platform for new Australian Indian authors, or Indian authors that have exposure,in writer's festivals and any literary festivals . We struggle unless we find our foot in bookstores,or in any press,interviews or unless it's picked up by someone prominent. Lastly, have an agent here in Australia, or if the writer is second-generation Australian Indians. Then sometimes, it makes me wonder if there is an Indian Writers festival in Melbourne that needs to start.
Also, I feel writers from every career level, whether emerging, mid-level or established groups, need to unite from both countries. It's hard to be recognized as a writer because there's a myth that Indian writers from India only have stories and because the story that I have told belongs to that displacement and carries all the nuances of both countries. We have stories that need to be heard too. Everyone should be given a chance and not fight their way to leading bookstores and be tossed in the back of a shelf; and that needs to change, and both countries need that exchange. In India it's all about celebrity, starstruck stories and in that myth the whole point is lost. Let the dialogue begin creating pathways to new cultural exchange programmes with writers, poets and emerging socio economic leaders.
AU: You have given a modern twist to the mystical queen of India, Mirabai. In your book Meera Rising you have talked about the extraordinary life of Meera, living in Australia and India. With the growing Indian diaspora in Australia, Indian culture seems to have a presence in Australia too.. What influence do you think India has over Australia?
NC: Not only will India be the most populous country in the world by 2023, it will still remain the biggest source of skilled workers and one of the largest sources of International students. So if anything that India has exported well other than Information Technology, clothes and food was the creative industry. India is now not only known for bollywood films but also for Indian cinema as wholesome films from different parts. of India.
Since time the world knows about Tagore but what I see is lacking in this generation is these names in a literature class or even in a film school. I see us being invisible and a lot of great names from India are talked about. For eg the likes of Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen or modern Indian authors.
I think the world is getting smaller daily, and the two countries are economically getting more robust with the exchange of skilled migrants and students. There is also a need to create a platform for all levels of careers emerging to establish artists, writers, singers, poets and actors to unite and start an exchange program of culture and artists. Give a platform to new artists to strengthen bilateral relations. As many storytellers are brilliant. For screen, the writers need to engage with audiences; books will never die; they were a refuge to so many people during the recent pandemic, and libraries were the haven for many to stay engaged as a society, and that's why libraries will continue to exist.
AU - You have been vocal about the challenges that come with being an immigrant. What are the challenges that you faced and how did you overcome that?
NC: I came 20 years ago, and it was challenging to be heard because everything was so displaced and scattered. Standing out in a bold red sweater amidst a sea of people dressed in black, I always felt different and different from the numerous curry jokes that were made at my expense. The cultural cringe continued until a decade later when the community united to form specific change with the rise of community leaders. But, then, there is always that leadership control that makes it impossible for others to thrive and champion their creativity.
There were roadblocks, and then to break into the market simply because no one had heard about me and the dilemma continued until I decided to publish my first two novellas independently simply because people noticed my work. It has been challenging, too, because as a writer living with a disability, I was ticking all the boxes for others, but when it came to the crux, it was all a standard line, you are not suitable. But when famous authors like thriller writer Mark Dawson and Indian author Amish Tripathi I decided to let it be.
I struggled with agents; one was kind enough to be honest and came back later, while others decided to change the memoir because they thought it sounded pretty Indian. But I stuck to my gut and found an agent in India who found me a new independent publisher in India who was willing to put that trust in an unknown author. I also struggled with the noise, whether self-publishing or traditional publishing, that became more prominent than the story I wrote. Once the book was published and picked up by the media channel, Australia did a story on me. People began to notice the book and me in India as being voted one of the most notable writers by Hindustan chronicles to being interviewed by Tweak India. It's always a promising sign when people talk about the book, and the writer comes later.
People began to see the story, and everything didn’t matter. So, I think books are being published, but great stories are being lost, especially in this day and age; in this mass communication culture, culture versus culture cringe is now vital; and so everyone’s story is as essential. Given the current climate, mainly the economic climate, people are forming unique styles to tell their stories. Tik Tok is one example, and people also have that need and want to hear and see stories from whatever platform is possible.
So, writers or creative artists should be greeted with the gift of writing rather than the followers they will bring and leave it to the masses to judge their creativity. The process should be simple for everyone. Let us unite as a community.