Tashan Mehta's latest fantasy novel, Mad Sisters of Esi, imagines a world of two sisters, living in the cosmic chambers of the belly of a whale. The novel beautifully explores the tension in the sisters' relationship, where one desires to see the world beyond the whale and other wants to remain in the belly forever. With use of academic papers, a museum of collective memory, a festival of madness, the book transports you into an ever-expanding universe, much similar to our's. In this conversation, Mehta tell us what inspired the sisters' dichotomy, the real and imagined, and the wonders that the world has to offer.
One of the sisters doesn't want change and other one desires for change. What attracted you to represent such a dichotomy of desires?
It feels like such an age-old dichotomy: wanting comfort and stillness, versus desiring movement and change. I went through a patch in life when I wanted both those things simultaneously. Dividing those desires and giving one to each sister allowed me to explore the tension it can create in a relationship—and the questions it throws up. What do you do when the person you love most in the world wants the opposite of what you want? What does it say about your own desires? There is a passage in the novel that deals with this, where one of the sisters talks about two knights and their quests.
“I don’t understand,” Blajine says.
“It is the quests. There are two types of quests—moving and waiting. The first kind of knight moves in search of what she wants. The second...she waits. I’ve spent my time being the first knight. But Laleh always said the wise ones were the ones who waited. Who sat under the tree until they became the tree, until knowledge came to them.”
How did you think of making the belly of a cosmic whale as a home?
I can’t say too much without spoiling the novel, but I will say it took a while for me to arrive at the figure of a whale. In early drafts of Mad Sisters of Esi, the “whale of babel” was originally a tower, inspired by the tower of babel. But the book developed a preoccupation with human and non-human relationships, and how non-humans impact our concept of a collective. Thus, the whale was born.
Figuring out the inside of the whale was a challenge, though. I still have the first sketch I drew of the “interconnected chambers” in its body, like linked soap bubbles; I remember the joy of finally cracking it. I shared the sketch with an editor friend later that day, and he was hilariously underwhelmed. Clearly, my sketching skills weren’t impressive.
Tell us why did you come up with a museum of collective memory.
Ah, I love the museum of collective memory. It was born of two things: a new love for sound and an old love for archives. When I started writing Mad Sisters, I’d just gotten together with my partner and he has a deep love for music. Listening to him talk about sound and cadence inspired me, and led to the creation of a museum that wasn’t spatial in the traditional sense, but rather sung across the cosmos. As for archives, they’ve always fascinated me. One of the themes in the novel is the concept of a collective and how the collective moulds the individual—both in real time and through memory. A museum of collective memory was the perfect way into that theme, especially in a novel that asks how reality changes shape through time. It was also just incredibly fun to write. A museum of collective memory! I know so many arguments in my large, rowdy Parsi family that would be solved (and instigated) by a museum like this; I know so many memories I would cherish if I could stumble across them in a room of my ancestors. It would hold so many pieces that explained the story of myself.
How did you think of using academic papers as a narrative strategy in a fantasy novel?!
Writing those papers was great; I’m so delighted they made it into the final draft! Honestly, this book is one big attempt to capture wonder and awe. To do that, I had to think about the last time I felt those things. The first contender was the fantasy stories I read when I was younger—the fables, the fairytales, the magic. And the second was…academia. I know it sounds insane, but some of the happiest moments of my twenties were spent reading literary theory. It was like learning the secrets of how the world works, of looking at something with so much attention and care that it blossoms under your gaze. What is more magical than that?
I never did a PhD, though, because academic language can be obtuse—a bit like talking with marbles in your mouth—and because it has a rigorous idea of what is acceptable when it comes to evidence (as it should). So I wrote academic papers for this novel that followed my own rules. They kept the wonder of theory, but stretched the limits of acceptable evidence to include myths, fables, dreams, visions, prophecies, patterns of animal behaviour that teach us about human history. I just went where the delight took me.
How do you think an imaginary fantasy world changes our desires and emotions? How do you mix the real and the imagined?
What a great question. I’ve actually tried to write the real without the imagined – just normal literary fiction – and I’ve found I cannot. The fantastical always finds a way in. Conversely, of course, there cannot be the imagined without the real; every book I’ve written was born from a seed of my life, some emotion I must capture or question I needed answered.
Ultimately, I’ve come to see the imagined as Julio Cortázar does: as not separate from reality but as an extension of it. He says much better than me; here is his explanation from Literature Class, Berkeley 1980:
There's a universe within a universe, why did you think of an ever-expanding universe? Does it have any similarities with the nature of our universe?
A very obvious theme in Mad Sisters of Esi is plurality. You can see it in the structure of the novel, which jumps between different modes of storytelling and ways of looking. You see it in plot, which explores the many shapes that memory, truth and reality can take. You even see it in the characters’ preoccupations with a collective, and the many selves buried within a single person.
A universe within a universe is an outward manifestation of that theme. What fascinates me about our universe (not the ones I made up) is that its plurality is both horizontal and vertical: it expands consistently, but it also has depth we cannot begin to fathom (black holes, quarks, particles that don’t like to be looked at). It’s very similar to the nature of personal change: outward (in movement, and new experiences) and inward (in the evolution that comes from sitting still). Which brings us back to the sisters’ dichotomy, and my honest quest for the answer to this question: in which path does wisdom lie?
Words Paridhi Badgotri