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An in-depth conversation with Ranjana Joshi about her latest book The Tales Next Door

The magic and timelessness of short stories

by Vaishnavi Singh


Ranjana Joshi is a Computer Engineer, a business graduate, and a published author. Having spent over ten years in corporate strategy, she decided to write for the world during the pandemic, whereas before, she only wrote for herself. Ranjana has loved books ever since she was a kid. She is forever grateful to her sister for introducing her to Enid Blyton, the gateway into the world of reading for generations of Indian children.



Novelist Sandip Roy commented on Blyton’s influence in India. He wrote about how she had “opened up my mind to the possibility of another world beyond the one we saw around us…Our garden did not have primroses and buttercups and foxgloves but I had no trouble re-imagining her stories using hibiscus and jasmine and rajnigandha.” Blyton’s descriptions of adventure tempted the average Indian child who lived a sheltered life. Her books were a way to daydream about secret islands and magical trees within the bounds of one’s home.


Blyton’s magic worked on Ranjana as well, as she was taken to a “world of adventure and fun.” Ranjana’s love for books eventually translated into a love for writing. She used to write in school and was even a part of her school magazine’s editorial board. When she grew up, she started writing opinion pieces for online journals. Writing is a cathartic process for her. She writes when she has to let go of things.


In an author interview with Ukiyoto, Ranjana talked about her maiden short story collection The Tales Next Door. It is a collection of ten short stories depicting various slices of Indian life. As Neil Gaiman expressed, short stories are “tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” Short stories are the equivalent of stumbling upon a surprisingly profound movie on a boring day.


  • On the inspiration behind The Tales Next Door


Ranjana very rightly explained how sometimes we meet people, or experience some things, albeit, for a brief time, that leave a great impact on our lives. She has faced and met many such events and people. Her inspiration came from different sources–“a small incident I might have read, a story that a relative told me, gossip from my neighbour, a newspaper article.”


As a writer and an observer, she has always questioned why people do what they do, and why they make certain choices. Ultimately, every story that has ever been written reflects some aspect of human life. Ranjana’s short stories, too, are a result of this human life.


  • On the Indian influence in her stories


The setting of any story is crucial to the way readers experience and visualize it. It affects the social and cultural values of a character as well as their patterns of thought and behaviour. One of the main reasons why Blyton’s novels attracted Indian readers was because their settings, in secluded farms or mysterious castles, were beyond the reach of a child brought up in a traditional Indian household.


The blurb on the back cover of The Tales Next Door mentions that these stories are “slices of Indian life.” Ranjana told Ukiyoto, “my characters are very Indian in their thinking and actions.” Most of her characters are North Indian because that is where Ranjana grew up. The settings and environments of the stories are very Indian; they are based in villages and small Indian towns. They are stories about “typical Indian people.”


  • On her process of creating characters


Like any successful author, Ranjana too observes a lot. While creating the framework of a story, she focuses on bringing the characters alive. Every little detail about a character matters–their looks, speech, hair colour, childhood, biggest fears, and strengths. For Ranjana, the character comes first. She asks herself, “What would an interesting day look like in this character’s life?” She finally builds her story around this formulation.


One of her characters, JD, is a very dedicated person. He has high integrity and always claims that he ought to do the right thing no matter what. He is a character based on Ranjana’s dad. Similarly, another character, Sita, is a beggar in a railway station. She was inspired by a girl Ranjana used to often see in Haldwani. She would draw on the mud and it was a sight that stayed with Ranjana.


The stories featuring these two characters are also Ranjana's favourite from her collection. ‘To the Station Artist’ is grounded in reality. JD’s character shines in ‘The Perfect Alibi.’ Ranjana claimed that she would “want every policeman to be like him.”


  • On her favourite and most challenging part of writing the book


Writing itself was the part that Ranjana cherished the most. It gives her peace; as she said, “it is almost meditative.” The act of writing has been associated with freedom of thought for centuries. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Writing has a healing quality because it gives a safe passage to the burdens of one’s mind.


On the contrary, writing was also the hardest part of completing the book. “Every time I write,” Ranjana explained, “I am always learning and adapting” A creator’s reflections go in multiple directions; it is not easy to maintain a linear stream of thought. In the beginning, she tried to hold the reigns of her thoughts. However, she soon realized that if she let the characters take the story forward, “the stories came out much better.”


  • On the themes she wanted to reflect


No single theme binds these stories together. Ranjana never intended to focus her collection on one theme. The genres range from fantasy to romance to crime. “There is a whole range of people and settings,” she said. Every story is interesting in its own way and reflects Indian life in some manner. “I have lived most of my life in India. These are people I’ve met every day.”


The Tales Next Door is bound by its universality, despite being “Indian” in essence. The houses, streets, and landscapes change, but emotions remain the same everywhere. Fiction is perhaps one of the few things that can unite people from various backgrounds simply because it reflects humanity. It transcends the time and place in which it is created, connecting people and generations through a magical web.


  • On the pandemic’s effect on her writing process and some tips for aspiring authors


For Ranjana, “the creative process is an ongoing thing,” so the world shutting down did not affect it enormously. But it did give everyone a lot of time to think about their past experiences and to give life to them. Spending time with the self brings with it an urge to put one’s feelings down on paper.


The pandemic was a very isolating time; loneliness was widely felt. Solitude, removed from loneliness, can often shape something beautiful in human beings. Writing, as a form of expression, is just one of those beautiful things. As terrifying as solitude may seem at times, it often proves to be a good and much-needed friend.


Ranjana Joshi is currently working on a thriller novel about a badass woman who is a karate champion. As her advice for aspiring authors, Ranjana quoted a saying by Stephen King: “If you want to be a writer, there are two things you must do above all–read a lot and write a lot.” Reading and writing require discipline. One does not exist without the other; one who does not read cannot be a writer.


Contrary to popular belief, short stories are not solely meant for children. As Tania Mehta writes in Sahitya Akademi’s Journal of Indian Literature, experiencing life is always done through “small fragmented, fractured narratives…Life and its constituent experiences can never be a long narrative but a mosaic of short ones.” Short stories hold the essence of life. It takes an immense amount of creativity to convert mere events, one thing after another, into significance.


[Watch the interview with Ukiyoto publishing here: LIVE WITH RANJANA JOSHI]

Get a Copy of THE TALES NEXT DOOR by Ranjana Joshi.

References:


Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. First, Mariner Books, 1989.

Mehta, Tania. “The Changing Configurations of the Indian Short Story: Sites, Space and Semantics.” Indian Literature, vol. 48, no. 2 (220), 2004, pp. 151–60. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23341275. Accessed 18 Jul. 2022.



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