Kangkang Kovacs Interviews Shubha Sunder, author of Boomtown Girl
KK: Almost every story in this collection happens in Bangalore, and several stories deal with change. As a reader, I often get a sense of confusion and hurt juxtaposed with nostalgia. Tell us a little more about how you feel about Bangalore, its development, and the clash of generations as the writer.
SS: I was a teenager in the 1990s, when India’s economic liberalization fueled the transformation of my hometown from a low-key city informally known as “Pensioners’ Paradise” to the country’s Silicon Valley. It was a time of excitement and turmoil. My friends and I were excited by the new glass-fronted shops selling Western brands—Adidas, Levi, Baskin Robbins—and the fact that our city had turned into an international destination, where global firms were setting up shop and hiring college graduates by the thousands (at starting salaries that struck our educated, middle-class parents as unimaginably extravagant). At the same time, we were horrified by the destruction that this sort of development was wreaking—the encroachment on green spaces, the seemingly indiscriminate felling of trees and demolition of old houses, with their courtyards and gardens, the razing of open-air markets to make way for multistoried malls, not to mention the polluting of the air and the rapid depletion of the region’s water resources. While it’s indisputable that Bangalore’s rise has given education and opportunity to millions, it’s sad to me the rising toll that unbalanced development takes on people’s lives and the environment. The gross injustices of globalization leave a country like India, with its long, traumatic history of British colonization, especially vulnerable to the rapacious impulses of Western-style capitalism.
KK: I have had the words “rain tree” stuck in my head since I read through this collection. The rain tree feels like a repeated motif, almost a through line, and it mesmerizes me. There are so many lush sensory details describing the streets of Bangalore: “guavas sprinkled with chili powder,” “the smells of jasmine and rotting garbage,” the “overhanging rain trees, whose roots have warped and cracked the paving stones…” As a place, Bangalore feels so much more significant than a mere backdrop in these stories. Why is it important to you, and how do you immerse the readers in the sensory details of Bangalore?
SS: The rain tree, along with many other species, is ubiquitous in Bangalore. (Though rain trees are not native to the region, they’re a popular choice for lining boulevards–I suppose because their wide spread makes them good shade trees.) Trees were fixtures in my life growing up. I remember individual trees as if they were people. An outdoor summer art camp I attended as a child (and that was partly the inspiration for “Dragon Girl”) took place under the canopy of a single banyan tree and its army of prop roots. I knew many people whose yards were home to mango, papaya, pomegranate, and guava trees, and who, come harvest time, would have plenty of fruit to share. In general, the details you list are my portals into Bangalore, my madeleines de Proust. I re-enter that time and space of my childhood through memories of what things smelled, sounded, and tasted like.
KK: Three stories in this collection: “The Western Tailor,” “The Footbridge,” and “Jungleman,” evolve around the romantic relation or sexual tension between a western woman and an Indian man (or boy). In “The Western Tailor,” the tailor is a local man, and the western woman is a painter. Unbeknownst to the tailor, she observes him while he works for her. In “Jungleman,” the female protagonist is a photographer – once again, she plays the role of an observer, and the Indian man appears unknowingly in her lens. I find this choice fascinating. Tell us a little more about this approach.
SS: Yes, I ended up with that trio of stories centering on a primary dyad of a white woman and a brown man—or boy. It wasn’t intentional! But I had an intuition for the inevitably complex power dynamic of gender and race in such a dyad. While putting this book together, I thought these three pieces make for a sort of sub-collection that explores how white people—and white women in particular—are seen in India. As women, they’re vulnerable the way women in general are to sexual harassment and violence—and their status as foreigners can in certain situations even heighten their vulnerability. At the same time, they might be unaware (the way white people often are unaware) of their intrinsic power over brown people. They feel, like the photographer in “Jungleman” and the painter in “The Western Tailor”, an unequivocal right to travel around India documenting what they see and not troubling themselves about the problematic Western gaze they inevitably bring to their work. In “The Footbridge,” we see how a white woman surrounded by English-speaking, middle-class Indians unconsciously benefits from her perceived fragility and is unaware of the power she has over a young Indian boy’s imagination. In “Jungleman,” I found myself impressed with Lorrie’s courage and tenacity in the South Indian wilderness even as I empathized with Varun’s irritation at her. And in “The Western Tailor,” I was able to explore, through Ramesh, how self-hatred, a consequence of British colonialism, can prime someone like him to sacrifice everything to gain the approval of a white woman.
KK: Another theme I’ve noticed in this collection is violence, particularly sexual violence against women and girls. Even when this theme is not fully manifested, as in “Dragon Girl” and “A Man After All,” it is often looming in the background. Your characters – men or women, locals or westerners – are all unique and layered. The men in your stories are complex and endearing, like the father in “Dragon Girl” and the pilot in “A Very Full Day,” but there is also the random beggar and the stranger who would molest a little girl. There is a sense that the world is not as welcoming and safe as the girl protagonists in the story might think, which is a sense many women could very well relate to. I would love to have you expand on this.
SS: My friend, the novelist Shilpi Suneja, and I have talked about how we’re made to feel like brown people in the West and like women in India. Different aspects of our identity become our greatest vulnerabilities depending on context. There’s a certain base level of harassment you expect to feel as a woman when you’re out and about in India. Catcalls, Eve-teasing, and the like. As a teenager, I wanted to ignore these unpleasant realities and just do the things young people do—hang with friends, go to the movies, etc., and I remember the relentless reminders and admonitions from my mother and teachers to dress conservatively and not invite unwanted attention in public. It speaks to the toxic patriarchy of Indian society that girls and women are made to feel responsible for the harassment they receive from men. And much more extreme violence against women happens all the time. A news story I read about a techie who kept a girl locked in his apartment so he could rape her after returning home from the office every day was part of the inspiration behind “A Man After All,” though in the story the man is not quite so awful, and the woman has an agenda of her own.
KK: In several stories, there is an interesting dynamic between parents. In “Dragon Girl,” the father comes across as westernized, more doting and lenient, while the mother scrutinizes and disciplines. Are there particular reasons behind this choice? Do your parents bear resemblance to this pattern? I know mine actually do.
SS: To some degree! While both my parents are highly educated, with careers of their own, the responsibilities of housekeeping and childcare fell largely to my mother. This was the scenario in a lot of the educated, middle-class families I knew growing up. Mothers tended to be the ones who scrutinized and disciplined, while fathers, since they were at work all day and therefore had limited interactions with their children, tended to be more indulgent.
KK: In “Dragon Girl” and “A Very Full Day,” science, particularly physics, is featured. As a Chinese American immigrant, I come from a background of physics research, and I really enjoyed your portrayal of the role of science plays in the life of a child who grows up in another country. We are all familiar with the trope of Asians being good at math, or the Indian engineers, etc. People often don’t look beyond the selection bias – the fact that immigration policies favor certain career choices – and just use it as a stereotyping tool. There is also the fact that first-generation immigrants are much more likely to pursue practical careers as opposed to artistic endeavors, because of the lack of safety net and social connections around them. At the end of “Boomtown Girl,” Koo’s grandma says, “not everyone can afford to be dreamers.” Koo was a dreamer, but her friend Mal had to be pragmatic for her parents, for herself. She would go on to medical school. That line from grandma touched me deeply. I would love to hear more about it.
SS: I grew up in a family of engineers, math teachers, scientists, doctors, and other highly skilled, science-oriented professionals. The idea that the arts were for dreamers—and that dreamers were irresponsible and lacked pragmatism—was very much part of the air I breathed. Though I knew—or at least suspected—from early on that I wanted to be an artist of some sort, I couldn’t really say this aloud in front of my family and not expect to be mocked. Music, painting, dance, writing—these were acceptable pursuits alongside a career as an engineer or some equivalent. But on their own? It wasn’t simply that those around me saw the arts as not lucrative. I have no quarrel with people’s worries that it’s hard to make a living as an artist. What I found to be pernicious and damaging was the idea that you weren’t smart unless you could hack it at science. In college I majored in physics to prove I was smart. It’s not a decision I regret—physics, like any discipline, equips you with an interesting perspective on the world, a valuable thing for a writer—but I do see a lack of appreciation for the arts and humanities as being tied somehow to the particular form of development and progress that has transformed my hometown in, to me, a largely negative and destructive way. The fact that Mal, a studious, eager-to-please sort of child is attracted to Koo, a born artist, shows how even those who may not consider themselves artists still have the impulse to dream and create. After Koo is quite literally swallowed up by the developing city, Mal has to reckon not only with the loss of her friend but with the desire that Koo ignited in her—not to be an artist per se, but to transgress rules and boundaries that Mal used to accept. Koo’s grandmother’s reminder to Mal that she might not have the luxury to be a dreamer acknowledges Mal’s desire and gives her permission to return to the world without Koo. The final scene, in which Mal and her friends traipse excitedly through the now-finished building where Koo died, is to me both hopeful and sobering. The girls are entering a world that demands a certain hardness to survive, yet while Mal, like her friends, needs resiliency and ambition to succeed in Boomtown, her brief friendship with Koo might help her see that the successes within easy reach are not all she’s capable of realizing.
Shubha Sunder’s debut short story collection, Boomtown Girl, won the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award and is now available for pre-order from Black Lawrence Press. Her stories and essays have appeared in places like Catapult, The Common, New Letters, Crazyhorse, and Narrative Magazine, and received notable mentions in Best American Short Stories. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Short Story Award, the Hudson Prize, and the New American Press Fiction Prize. She is a 2020 recipient of the City of Boston Artist Fellowship Award and a 2016 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship. Other distinctions include the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, Narrative “30 Below,” and awards from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and from the Corporation of Yaddo.