Book Challenge Series: Neelum Saran Gour

Interview with author Neelum Saran Gour, on her body of work over four decades.

Neelum Saran Gour is an accomplished Indian English writer of fiction that depicts North India’s small towns and their cultural histories. Born in Allahabad, Neelum is the child of a Bengali mother and a Hindiphone father and was exposed to an array of languages and cultural influences in her childhood. She has a long association with Allahabad University and retired as a Professor of English Literature two years ago.

Neelum is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories and one work of literary non-fiction. She has edited a pictorial volume on the history and culture of the city of Allahabad, where she lives and works, and has also translated one of her early novels into Hindi.

In this interview, we explore how Neelum’s childhood of a make-believe world led to a lifelong pursuit and passion for writing, and how different phases in life have and continue to shape her work.

The “inside-outside paradox of good writing”. What is it? Can you elaborate on this part?

Being an insider to the stories one tells is the very core of writing, even when one seems to be looking on as a witness, as someone who is viewing people, experiences and events from the outside. When you tell someone’s story from the inside you don’t necessarily have to be telling your own story in inverted or reshuffled form.  All it means is that you have to temporarily suspend your own self and become someone else, rather like an actor does. This involves imagination, of course, and above all empathy.

During the course of our growth as writers we all develop our individual authorial voice, something special to us, just as our individual perception and the slant of our life-view is. But equally important for the writer is the art of disappearing as a substantial presence and allowing his or her characters to find embodiment and manifest in as palpable a form as possible.

This is the inside-outside paradox of good writing – using your own vision and voice but staying as invisible as possible. It is in this sense that a writer is an insider to the stories he or she writes.

You have always been a storyteller, and enjoyed writing since the age of six. Your debut collection was launched in 1993 by Penguin India, and you have never looked back since. Could you recall the journey leading to that first book, Grey Pigeon and Other Stories? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment?

Yes, it’s been a memorable and meaningful journey. As I said, I started writing as a small child. I was an only child, with working parents, so I was left alone to read and amuse myself in my own way, though there were nice and caring aunts and uncles around and also a very loving granny. But I loved my own company as much as theirs. Reading opened up worlds distant and interesting, characters who became close friends, episodes which my mind lived with personal intensity. I lived in a make-believe world, with imaginary friends. Even my dolls and pets were characters with a complex, happening life. All this meant a rich and eventful inner life which effortlessly found expression in poems and stories. My parents were appreciative and encouraging and so were some of my teachers. That was important because I wrote in a very enabling climate. So, a sort of mini-identity as a writer had started forming around me even as a school-kid. I wrote plays for our school’s puppet theatre, playlets for school functions and stories and poems all the time. By the time I was in university I had made up my mind to devote my life to the world of letters, unlike many of my friends who went in for the civil services, banking, medicine, and positions in the corporate world. I found myself teaching literature in my university and although I wandered into the academic life by chance not choice, I loved it. I had by then given up writing poetry because fiction attracted me more and I didn’t like my own poems any more. In those days there was a vibrant magazine scene. I began sending my stories to magazines, typing them out at my portable Remington typewriter, making three carbon copies, and sending them by post. So many came back with a polite rejection but a few were accepted. There were some hurdles. I had to make time for my writing in the hurly-burly of child-rearing and home-making and preparing lectures and teaching and also working on my Ph.D. My husband lived in Kanpur and I used to travel weekly to-and-fro between my city Allahabad and Kanpur and I found the four-hour long train journey particularly meaningful. It allowed me time to think, to be by myself but it also brought me in contact with lots of interesting travelling companions. Those days – I speak of the 1980s – people struck up conversations with fellow passengers in trains and spoke without inhibition about their lives with total strangers – precisely because they were strangers. I found this almost decade long travelling experience very enriching. I did a lot of my reading, both for my Ph.D. and for my creative writing, on the weekly train journey between Allahabad and Kanpur. I love the bookstalls on railway station platforms because I have memories of standing in front of their display, poring over magazines and choosing those which carried stories.

Writing, at this stage in my life, had peculiar challenges. With toddlers bent on tearing my typed pages out of the typewriter, I discovered that typing standing up with the typewriter placed on top of my medium sized fridge wasn’t too difficult, so I did a lot of work that way. Also, reading while pacing up and down the length of my room kept the child from pouncing playfully on my books. I kept a notebook in the kitchen and while I worked my mind was busy elsewhere and I frequently jotted down ideas and promising lines or phrases.

In fact, I have always had a parallel current of ideation going on in my head alongside the immediate thought processes involved with the business in hand. So, my writing is a constant thing, keeping pace with the rest of my life, even when I am not physically writing. This parallel interior life has been my constant alternative mode of being. It has been my retreat in times of personal pain and stress. It has been my reserve of fortifying energy when life has been hard. To return to my journey, my first stories appeared in various magazines and then something remarkable happened.

Penguin India had just opened its office in Delhi and their dynamic young CEO, David Davidar, happened to pick up a magazine that happened to carry a story of mine. I received a letter care of my university address. It said that he had read my story with interest and asked if I had any more stories and whether he could consider them for publication. The rest of my writerly journey is history for me. I wrote back that of course I had a bunch of stories and I would be delighted to submit them for his perusal. That was my first book, “Grey Pigeon and Other Stories”. Did I have a sense of accomplishment? No, I had a sense of sheer magic happening in my life. This magic has happened repeatedly in my writing life.

As though my very intensity of engagement in my art has generated positive forces that have taken charge of my destiny. Penguin signed up book after book, after that very first one, and I found myself growing in confidence and stature as my books received appreciative reviews and a small circle of loyal readers began developing.

You have balanced a full-time career, family commitments (particularly as the primary caregiver for children and older members of the family) and continued with your passion for writing uninterrupted. It takes a lot of hard work, focus and discipline to accomplish them. What are some lessons along the way, particularly for women with similar commitments today?

I managed to balance a job, constant travelling, family responsibilities and writing only because I entered into each item of my work with a sort of naïve enthusiasm and a sort of bouncy optimism which many people found unsavvy and even unrealistic. I do not doubt their practical wisdom and I still don’t have any cut-and-dried formula for achieving this balance. But I believed I would pull it off and it happened. My books got written, my teaching got done. My parents were an enormous help with my kids and my husband was extremely supportive. This was in the initial period. Later, when my parents grew older and my husband developed certain health issues, it was my turn to take over the steering wheel.

I was lucky and maybe there was some divine help for me because things always turned out well sooner or later. Cliches like ‘believing in yourself’ and ‘the universe conspires to help you’ might have been reduced to platitude with over-usage so I am wary of using them but I plunged into the work in hand with full, uncynical commitment and I wasn’t disappointed. That’s been the main lesson I’ve learnt on the job.

In fact, a stage has come when I don’t have to chase anything. I do my job to the best of my ability and things happen, offers come. For books, films, theatre adaptations of my books. There’s a sense of the miraculous in it all. But this is after four decades of intense engagement.

Talking about nostalgia for the city you live in, Prayagraj (and until recently, Allahabad), you said only retired people recall its cultural history and roots, and that you write to “keep time alive”. Do you think cities still offer a canvas for more creative writing? Do you have a favourite among books set in urban India?

By now my city, Allahabad as it was called till recently, and my personal identity have converged. Because so many – though not all – of my books are framed in the location of this city and its former rich cosmopolitan personality. And when I use the word ‘former’ I usher in the nostalgia factor and the action of memory.

We in our silver decade carry such a wealth of detail about a world which is receding into the past or has already vanished except in our collective recall. This is a genuine advantage which writers in their senior years enjoy. We have a many-layered past to source our inspiration and we have a like-minded readership out there because there is nothing quite so heart-warming as shared memories of a lost world.

That accounts for the proliferation of nostalgia sites on social media. To remember together is like breathing life into empowering dimensions of our dormant inner worlds. To revive things and ideas of value is to enhance the tone of the present. I enjoy the present with all its technology-enabled augmentation of our horizons but it is the past which gives depth and perspective to the totality of my experience. And I imagine that this is true of many senior persons. Those who pick up the pen to mine the rich veins of their past recall give the panorama of their life’s solidity and permanence. A very satisfying achievement, even if it is not done for commercial gain or mainstream recognition. I have several friends who write wonderful vignettes of the life left behind, or memoirs of eventful careers on social media and readers find their own memories resonating in shared pleasure. The worlds we build through our interactive recall give comfort and joy and companionship and also precious insights into life. Cities with individual cultural personalities provide a psychological location, a context in which multiple memories can collaborate and orchestrate and that which has changed and is lost can activate again, unlocking doors to the vitality we once possessed and which we might still summon up under the creative pressure of collective memory. But a correction in the phrasing of your question: it isn’t just retired and elderly people who are involved in the cultural history of my city. Scores of young people have formed heritage societies and conservation and culture-intensive groups and online sites and it is refreshing to see how a city’s essential identity can reincarnate through their explorations. My all- time favourite book of fiction written in English, set in an urban milieu, has to be ‘A Suitable Boy’.

The Book Challenge is for aspiring first-time authors over 50 years. If you were to challenge yourself to something new, what would it be?

If I were to challenge myself to undertake something new it would be film-making. My novels move in cinematic mode, as it is, so it would be fascinating to tell stories in a medium which offers such exciting possibilities.

You can buy Neelum’s books on Amazon and Flipkart. To know more about Neelum, and her body of work, please visit her website.

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