Which Indian Stories Get Told? Diksha Basu In Conversation With Ravina Aggarwal
BY Emily Johnson, December 10, 2021
On November 18, 2021, Writing Program students interested in the lineup of professors for the Spring semester had the opportunity to get to know incoming Assistant Professor Diksha Basu, as she joined Ravina Aggarwal, Director of Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai for a virtual installment of Indian Stories on the Global Stage.
In conversation with Aggarwal, Basu was frank, funny, and generous. Their talk ranged from family, home, and belonging, to Basu’s experiences as an actor in Mumbai and as a student at Columbia.
Basu’s novel The Windfall, published with Penguin Randomhouse in 2017, centers on a New Delhi family moving up in the world and reckoning with their values among their new ultra-wealthy neighbors. Her latest novel Destination Wedding, also with Penguin Randomhouse in 2020, follows a woman from New York to a family wedding in New Delhi, where she wrestles with family drama and her own sense of belonging.
Basu herself is originally from New Delhi, but now splits her time between New York and Mumbai.
She and Aggarwal began the evening talking about the “global possibilities of movement,” both geographically and socioeconomically. Aggarwal’s background as a sociocultural anthropologist really shone through in nuanced questions about Basu’s experience of place and identity, and how this emerges in her fiction.
“A lot of dramatic tension in your work comes from that risk of movement,” Aggarwal said. She pointed to Tina, the protagonist of Destination Wedding, who explores the possibilities of identifying as a Delhi-ite or a New Yorker, not ready to leave either sense of home behind. “You explore the nuances of that movement, or the aspiration for that movement, and your characters display that very very strongly.”
“You’re like my dream reader!” Basu said, “In The Windfall they’re not even moving countries, they’re moving neighborhoods, but it’s still a global change.”
Basu’s characters, Aggarwal noted, are compelled by seeking out an aspirational lifestyle, rather than by economic necessity, which is the immigrant narrative so often represented to global audiences.
“These complexities and nuances about who writes and who represents is something that you bring up a lot, “ Aggarwal observed, “Bringing different realities to the global stage, telling Indian stories differently, and who can tell those stories.”
Basu talked about her experiences writing The Windfall while at Columbia for her MFA. “I was writing it to make my parents laugh.”
At the time, the only kinds of Indian stories which received interest were “the vulnerable diaspora story, or the slum story,” Basu said, “Why would anyone want to read what I think generations of white American writers have been allowed to do, which is just a regular middle class Indian family? No trauma, no tragedy, not great poverty, not great wealth—simply the world I knew.”
The faculty in the Writing Program, Basu said, were immensely encouraging: “I got feedback from faculty, sort of giving me permission to write about it, giving me permission for my main character to be a 54 year old Indian man, which is obviously not me—I loved that freedom so much.”
She was convinced the novel wouldn’t sell, and was surprised by the enthusiastic reception from the publishing industry, “editors saying, this could be my family in Connecticut, this could be my family in California.”
Basu initially had a successful career in Mumbai as an actor prior to pursuing her MFA at Columbia. “What made you decide to move to writing?” Aggarwal asked.
“I was starting to get frustrated in Bombay as a woman, a woman who was opinionated, and who was intelligent, I was starting to get annoyed with a number of people—men—who tried to put me in uncomfortable situations, who were basically sexually harassing me.”
After signing onto a film project that got shut down, though not before the project’s producer made an inappropriate advance on her, Basu reexamined her prospects.
“I’m never going to have the voice that I want to have trying to be an actress,” she recalled, “I did not feel like it was going to be a field in which I would feel empowered at any point. So I started writing.”
Basu’s candor in remembering her mindset was invigorating: “I want to be isolated, I want to be alone with my laptop, I don’t want to be in a room full of these men with bloated egos.”
Columbia’s MFA program, Basu said “was hugely beneficial for me. It turned me into a writer.”
Faculty like Gary Shteyngart, whom Basu credits with encouraging her to write humor, to write a middle-aged male protagonist, and supporting her in continuing to write, as well as David Ebershoff, Heidi Julavits, and John Freeman, were all important to Basu’s growth.
Aggarwal asked if Basu had any advice for students in taking feedback and criticism. “That’s one thing I’m so grateful to my acting career for,” Basu laughed, “it gave me the thick skin I needed for the rest of my life.” The acting industry is so ruthless, “the publishing industry seems tame in comparison.”
For her students, she advocates for a certain kind of thick skin, necessary to deal with criticism and the industry, but at the same time “a thin, porous skin, to let the world affect you.”