Candid and articulate. These two words could best describe the charming and beautiful Rheea Mukherjee, Bengaluru’s newest author who recently launched her first book Transit for Beginners. A woman who loves to pencil in all her thoughts without any fear or hesitation, Rheea is set to carve a new avenue for people who are passionate about good reading material. RITZ chats with the woman who loves to explore and experiment through her writing, and does not like being ‘politically correct’.
“I’m 32 now and I started working on this book when I was 22.” This is how Rheea opens the conversation as she sips from a glass of chilled lemonade. So that’s 10 years before Transit for Beginners saw the light of day. At 22, Rheea was pursuing her masters in creative writing in San Francisco. “I had worked on a few stories and had them distributed to the college magazines. But I was slapped with rejections. Nine out of 10 times, my stories got rejected.” But she remained resilient, as writing is what she is truly passionate about. “I have always been a fiction writer at heart and I treasure the craft of short stories.” Working around this passion, she wove together a set of 15 stories over the years that convey a sense of urban angst and collectively constitute her first book.
A quiet reading of the book brings to the surface characters, narratives and situations that are dark. Stories that dig deep through the crevices of depression, loneliness, sexual violence; as well as the euphoric joy that emerges through random human bonds.
“Issues such as mental illness, depression and loneliness intrigue me and I like exploring them through my writing,” says the feisty woman who often sucks on cubes of ice and lemon while writing. “Yeah. I love sucking on ice and lemon. It keeps my creative thoughts flowing.”
As we munch on crisp watermelon and feta salad with arugula, the conversation veers towards Indian fiction writing. Indians are an uptight bunch finding it tough to cope up with “choices, liberation and sexuality. Indian writers tend to be politically correct,” feels Rheea. And subjects that writers are uncomfortable exploring remain taboo. Sexuality comes foremost to the mind when the term ‘taboo’ is mentioned. “Even topics such as mental illness, gender problems are taboo for writers to explore and experiment with.”
Like the taboo subjects, the concept of italicisation is another big bone of contention in Indian English writing. Indian writers in English often italicise words they think a global audience won’t be able to comprehend. “Did British authors ever italicise words like ‘scones’ or ‘apple pie’? We as readers still understood what a scone or apple pie was as we understood the context of the story. So why should Indian writers in English italicise words like idli or dosa? Italicisation takes a reader out of the story context,” says Rheea, a half Mangalorean-half Bengali who is a vegetarian (by choice), while biting into a crunchy mushroom samosa.
So is there an Indian writer in English from the current crop whom she truly admires? “Jhumpa Lahiri.” Rheea likes Jhumpa’s craft of short story writing, but feels the Pulitzer Prize winning author could get thematically repetitive and “is scared to experiment.” Anyone closer home? “Well…my favourite book is The Last Song of Dusk. I feel Siddharth (Dhanvant Shanghvi) owns himself as an author. In that book, he did what he wanted to do with his style, his language and his story.”
In an effort to create an ecosystem in Bengaluru where good writing and reading thrives, Rheea co-founded the Bengaluru Writers Workshop in 2012 and Write Leela Write in 2014, which is a content and design laboratory. “We hold workshops and discussions where people of all ages participate. I’ve noticed that for many people, writing is therapeutic.” Besides running this lab, Rheea is busy researching for her next book, a novel that traverses through the Bangalore of the 1970s. This could certainly make a good read, considering there aren’t too many fiction novels centred on the city, unlike the multiple ones on Mumbai, Kolkata or Delhi. “Bengaluru is unsexy,” proclaims the writer. Bengaluru is a boring IT city, which was earlier perceived as a pensioner’s paradise, says the proud Bangalorean. “Authors don’t usually find a wholesome narrative circling around Bengaluru This city does not have the sex and violence of Bombay, nor does it have the British hangover of Kolkata, or the elite arrogance of Delhi.”