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Sex, lies and job loss: Shobhaa De on her weekly lockdown stories

From getting laid to being laid off, the author’s new series of e-books chronicle the mood of the nation under lockdown

Shobhaa De at her residence in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Shobhaa De at her residence in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

While some of us were stirring dalgona coffee, baking banana bread, and fretting about productivity as the lockdown days stretched on, writer Shobhaa De was spending her time vlogging on Instagram, before she got into the mood for writing short stories.

When De happened to mention her latest project to Himanjali Sankar, the publisher of Simon & Schuster India warmed to the idea, and decided to release these tales in weekly instalments as “e- originals". The result is the six-part series, Lockdown Liaisons, three of which are out online so far. In true lockdown-style, the series has also had a digital launch, with actor and philanthropist Sonu Sood reading out excerpts and talking to De about the books.

Drawn out of the chaos into which the country is plunged, these fictional outbursts reckon with the tragedy, frustration and uncertainty in which urban Indians remain trapped since the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic. Set mostly among the rich salaried classes, De’s stories simmer with rage, anxiety, fear and heartbreak. Sex is a pivot to the plots—there’s lust, thwarted desire, even martial rape. The travails of women—locked up with their useless, egomaniacal, and often jobless husbands—are vividly imagined. A wedding is cancelled, a young woman comes out as lesbian and a wily professional laid off from her job hatches a plan to seduce her jiju (brother-in-law).

Barely a few pages long, these stories are like instant noodles—each one packs a spicy and satisfying kick. Narrated in first-person, the stories are structured as internal monologues, deliciously sharp when De mimics urban Indian women who are spoilt rotten by their privilege and are, usually, blind to it. Her attempt at writing in the voice of a migrant worker, in contrast, falls flat.

Having already covered a diverse ground, it remains to be seen what the last three instalments will bring, though the initial response has been promising. “Our overall e-book sale for April was up by 120%. The first book in the Lockdown Liaisons series, Leaving and Other Stories, shot up to the top of the charts right away," says Sankar. “We are putting forth a set of stories every Saturday now (for six weeks). Hope they keep doing well."

Mint spoke to De about the making of these stories. Edited excerpts.

How did the idea to write this series come about?

The suddenness of the pandemic hit us all in different and complex ways. So many of us were taken off guard, and left confused, even lost. The rhythm of our lives was broken overnight. Our own vulnerabilities surfaced with such intensity, that there were just two options left—surrender to the sense of loss, or mine our emotions. The stories came to me in a torrent! It sounds unhinged but I started to hear different voices. As a storyteller, my instinctive response was to start chronicling these voices. And almost as if by magic, a structure appeared—internal monologues.

Writing in the first person was a huge challenge... but also very dramatic and exciting. A writer has to become the character who is speaking to the reader. You can say, I "became" 30 characters during this period. When I started writing the stories, I had not planned to have them published. It was more a therapeutic or cathartic exercise. Perhaps it was a way to deal with some of my own demons.

How long did it take you to finish each book?

I am still writing the sixth and final book! On a good day, I can finish a story quite comfortably. I have already written more than 18 stories ... that works out to approximately 40,000 words of pretty focused and intense writing. The language reflects the character who is 'talking'— it goes from crude and abusive to reflective and philosophical. Shifting relationships and sexual tensions provide the foundation for most of the stories.

What were the challenges of working in this shorter, episodic form?

I am in love with the episodic form! I had written a collection of short stories years ago. It was called Small Betrayals. The lockdown demanded a shorter narrative. Immediacy was the key. I was writing while immersed in this strange new world order of masks and social distancing. Isolation creates its own dynamics. The stories needed to be shared while we were still experiencing the lockdown. They were written as it was—and is—unfolding.

To what extent are the characters and situations drawn from life?

To a very large extent, the characters reflect common anxieties and universal experiences. No matter where we are in the world today, we are connected by a fear of the unknown—we have zero control over our next breath. Insecurity remains a constant.

What, according to you, has been the defining influence of the lockdown on middle and upper middle class India?

Financial ruin! Everybody is thinking of a bleak tomorrow, and how to ride the money crisis. The lockdown has spared nobody. We are all staring at a pretty grim scenario. Our coping mechanisms are being tested on a daily basis.

How have you spent the lockdown, apart from writing these stories?

They say 'productivity is an over-rated virtue." Well, then, I plead guilty! The lockdown provided several triggers and threw up so many creative opportunities. I used the time in a way that suited me. No judgments! If baking banana bread and whipping up dalgonas worked for someone—great!

I turned vlogger for 60 non-stop days by launching 'Lockdown Chronicles' on Instagram. These were unstructured, unrehearsed daily 'conversations' with my followers. I really enjoyed the experience, but decided sensibly to quit while I was ahead and focus on my e-books, Lockdown Liaisons.

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