On Writing ‘A Different River’
Pia Ghosh Roy
You’re at a desk putting words on paper, but you’re not really there at all. You’re somewhere else. You’re hovering. Writing is hovering. You’re mid-air, with an aerial-view of your imperfect characters living their imperfect lives. And as you spy, you try and document them with as much honesty as you can. Because fiction is nothing if it’s not true. True to the characters, their thoughts, their raisons d’être. And even though you are an insider to the story you write, in many ways you must be an outsider to tell it as it needs to be told.
Away from the writing, I’m also an insider and an outsider to the two places I call home – India, where I was born and raised, and England, where I now live. I’m at home in both countries, and sometimes in neither. This has given me something I find very useful in my writing, even essential: this weightless thing called perspective. I’m close enough to both places to be privy to intrinsic, daily truths, and distant enough to see them with more clarity.
I wanted to write ‘A Different River’ from that cusp; between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Mrs Sen is an elderly Indian woman who had moved to England probably in her twenties. Her background and ethnicity made her familiar to me. Callum is around twelve, he’s white, British, a small-town boy; more unfamiliar territory for me, and certainly an unfamiliar voice.
When I started writing, I thought of splitting the story into two parts, two narrators – one from Callum’s perspective, the other from Mrs Sen’s; two versions of foreignness. I started with Callum, intending to shift to Mrs Sen in the second half. But every time I imagined her voice in my head, it seemed too sure-footed. This was a story about what was foreign, but Mrs Sen was too familiar to me. I wanted to have a sense of walking into a dark room, being able to see only the edges, and not the whole picture.
Callum’s voice helped me to create that distance, and make Mrs Sen an outsider to myself. I could see her better, this brown-skinned lady wrapped in a long piece of cloth with a house that smelled of spice, incense and velvet sofas. I decided to throw Callum and Mrs Sen in together for an afternoon and see what happened. As I wrote, and later as I edited and re-edited, I found myself asking several questions: How would a twelve-year-old talk? What would he talk about? What would he think about, worry about, or do after school? What kinds of things would catch his eye when he looked at the street, or at a room, or into his memory? What would make him happy or insecure or worried? And how would he react?
The story formed as an answer to all those queries. Though it had started with a larger one: What if there was even one rickety bridge of conversation between two people who came from different rivers; how might that change them a little, change their perspectives of each other, make the foreign more familiar?
Pia Ghosh Roy is a debut writer who grew up in India and now lives in Cambridge (UK). Her fiction and essays have been anthologised and published in the UK and US. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Brighton Prize, longlisted for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award, and highly commended at the 2014 Words and Women Competition. She has worked in advertising as a copywriter in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and London. Pia writes sporadically for the Huffington Post, and regularly on her blog Peppercorns in my Pocket, on life, food and travel.
You can read ‘A Different River’ in the new spring issue of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
Copyright © Pia Ghosh Roy, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.