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In Conversation With Shona Ramaya, on her new book "Operation Monsoon"

Nirmala Garimella

Stranded at a Bay State Area Mall, with a packed luncheon crowd at Panini’s Sandwich Cafe, author Shona Ramaya and I settled for the next best thing-an almost empty Chinese restaurant at Framingham for an interview. Located among a spate of small shops in this crowded strip, it offered a convenient lunch buffet on a sunny and bright Monday afternoon.

I know Shona Ramaya’s latest collection of short stories will make a good read because I caught a glimpse of the book blurb and have seen the fascinating book cover sometime in early summer. After reading the reviews that she has received for this collection, it is evident that Shona serves up her stories just as good as a refreshing meal.

Shona’s work has been praised by Booklist as “a memorable collage, a complex picture of history and tradition overlapped with the modernity of the present”. Another reviewer calls her stories where “Pop culture and history fuse in tough, lyrical, and ironic stories of a globalized India.

Shona’s previous works include a novel, 'Flute' and a collection of stories, 'Beloved Mother, Queen of the Night'. She has taught literature and creative writing at Hamilton College and has been a writer-in-residence at Trinity College. She is also the co-founder and senior executive of a new literary magazine called 'Catamaran': South Asian American Writing, the first issue which is due early October.

As our eyes grew accustomed to the dim atmosphere, we were joined fairly soon by the only other occupants on the next seating table,two Chinese waiters busy peeling green beans and whole peas piled up high. After an amazed look at this unusual activity, we began our discussion on Shona Ramaya’s latest book ‘Operation Monsoon’, interrupted only by the waiter who came by, enquiring perfunctorily about the food, before we continued.

Can you give some details about your foray into writing?

Shona: I had dabbled with Fringe Theatre for quite some time and then moved on to teach creative writing at Hamilton College. I seriously thought of writing when an advisor of mine gave me the idea of publishing my book and suggested UK as a good place for it. At that time Syracuse University had a program in London and so I went there as a graduate student that summer. I had only five manuscripts of my writings with me, so I randomly sent them to five agents. One of the replies that I received was a handwritten note. So I sent back a letter and in a week, I got a reply. We met and discussed the book and it was accepted soon enough. It was a wonderful experience. My second book was also published in UK. I must say, however that I have had a great experience with my agent here too in the US for ‘Operation Monsoon’.

Monsoon seems to be the catch word now for many South Asian writers. Any comments

Shona:The title story ‘Operation Monsoon’ was written a long time ago much before this word had become so popular. My agent and the Editor liked the title at that time. This was in 1995. Two of the present stories are from my previous collection. The other three have been written for this book.

Are they based on real life experiences ?

Shona:The stories are not strictly autobiographical. Some of the stories and the families involved have certain similarities with situations in my life. I have taken some conversations but I have reimagined these in different ways. For instance, I read this article in ‘India today’ long ago about a town in South India where almost every adult had sold his or her kidney. It was shocking at that time ! I wondered as to why are they doing this? Then it struck me that we have had this age old Tantrik tradition of rich people transporting their suffering to the poor. It is a folk belief interpreted- about who decides who is to die. And it has been reinvented in contemporary society.

Are your stories trying to convey something?

Shona: As a writer you are always trying to convey something. For me, it is how life seems to me in India. I go there every year, so I not exorcising or mystifying anything from my imagination. India now seems to me as not so far away any more. Many Indians come here to live temporarily. They don’t want to integrate here. Immigrant culture is a culture that is about roots. For some Indians, the roots are still in India. There is the whole globalization and a transnational population who keep moving. As I said earlier, I would put my work in a different category and as breaking away from these trends and examining/exploring life in a transnational space. South Asians who are a floating population, traveling constantly, back and forth between the home country and America, or doing business over the internet. Addresses are not relevant anymore. It also, as stated earlier, presents merging instead of clashes, in a culture that has remained the same while being perpetuated more aggressively by the coming together of the old and the new.

Why do you choose to write this particular genre?

Shona: It all started as an idea for a short story. I am comfortable writing any length and duration. It just so happened that they are from 35 to 90 pages. 'Gopal’s Kitchen' and 'Destiny' are from my previous collection. I added them on because they would be otherwise missed by the reader here. 'Matchmakers' came from stories in the media, 'Operation Monsoon' is about a terrorist, 'Re:Mohit' is a story told in email form. I am presently also working on a novel. I have been inspired by so many writers like Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham. They are all great story tellers. Other favorites are Thomas Hardy, Jane Austin, and many contemporary Latin American writers like Paramo and Allende.

Your future plans? Any other Hobbies? Pet Peeves?

Shona: (Laughs) I think only two weeks in advance. I will, of course finish my novel. Apart from that, you know things change, so you can’t really plan ahead. Hobbies, well I like to read. I used to do fencing before, and of course I thoroughly spoil my dog Jay who is a Rescued Greyhound. I would love to write for films and be involved in doing screenplays.

What I would like to see is when a South Asian writer comes out with a book; I think all other South Asians should run out and buy it. In this way they will themselves be helping a writer from their own culture and ethnic background. Why are we so dependant on the mainstream public to make us prominent? What is happened to the rest of our kind? We have two million Indians in the US and many in the Bay area alone. How many books do you need to make it a bestseller? I am sure many do buy, but it seems to me it is not enough.

Shona Ramaya, a Grafton resident has book readings of ‘Operation Monsoon’ at the following places.

1. Newtonville Books (Newton) on Sept. 23
2. Bentley College, Waltham, Sept. 29
3. Odyssey Books, South Hadley, Oct 10
4. Blacksmith House, Cambridge, Nov. 3

For more information visit:
To read A book review of Operation Monsoon click here

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Shona Ramaya with Jay

Operation Monsoon

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