Between Two Cities: Shubha Sunder on Finding a Place in Fiction
“Boston and Bangalore don’t live within me in hermetically sealed compartments; rather, they permeate each other.”
In college, I wrote a story set in Paris, inspired by my first visit to that city the summer prior. I felt very sophisticated typing out the names of streets and bridges I’d walked, and conjuring, with astonishing ease, the character of a lovesick Impressionist painter living in Montmartre and dabbing at his canvas. I was studying in the United States at the time, and writing about Paris was part of my grand adventure of leaving India, where I’d grown up.
I shared the story in a creative writing workshop, my first. The professor said something like, I see you can write. But shouldn’t you be writing about where you’re from? and I bristled at the suggestion that an Indian person wasn’t allowed to tell a story set in France. I thought of myself as a world citizen, free to travel wherever I wanted, both physically and in my imagination; to be anything less seemed restrictive and provincial.
I was shamed. I came to see the shallowness of that story, and my failure at being caught trying to be something else—worldly—dealt such a blow to my self-image that I took refuge in the familiar: I resolved to write solely about where I was from, namely my hometown of Bangalore. I was out of college by then, teaching physics at a high school and living in Boston, Massachusetts. Occasionally, I took writing workshops in the evenings.
Despite the claims of inclusivity at my place of work and the international feel of my neighborhood, I was constantly aware, as an immigrant, of the need to explain my origins in ways that would make sense to and not alienate my hosts, an awareness that became especially acute in my writing workshops, which were populated mostly by white Americans. The things they liked or tended to find intriguing about my stories were often details of places that were simply part of my consciousness growing up, like fumes of garbage burning on the streets mixed with smells of fresh jasmine. Why are they burning garbage on the streets? an earnest white woman asked me. I absolutely love the detail of the jasmine, another said. I want more!To be over here while writing about over there has been an exercise in defining who I am.
While trying to navigate the minefield that is Western readers expecting exotic India, I faced another challenge: how to properly represent my home city and country as they slipped further away from me. The place I knew—where I’d grown up—was the Bangalore of the nineties, an era of accelerated transformation from leafy backwater to India’s Silicon Valley.
As a teenager, I witnessed the felling of ancient trees and British-era bungalows to make way for widened roads and multistoried malls; I breathed the ever-dirtier air on my way to school and was wowed by the explosion of branded jeans, electronic gadgets, and Baskin Robbins’ stores. Since I left for college, the destruction and expansion have only increased. Homesickness is something I experience not in Boston but there, when I spot a vestige of the Bangalore I grew up in: an old shop, a monument, a friend’s house, with the surrounding trees and low walls replaced by endless stretches of glass, steel, and concrete and am reminded of Carson McCullers’s famous saying: “I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror.” The city I visit is always so radically different from the city of my childhood—even its name is no longer what I continue to call it.
After six years teaching physics, I enrolled in an MFA program. My first semester, I wrote two new stories set in Bangalore that were praised in workshop not only for their evocations of place but also their characters: restless souls with ambitions distorted by the shadow of British colonialism and the false promises of globalization. Emboldened by the warm reception to my writing, I tried my hand at a story set in Boston.
I’d been in America ten years at that point and felt compelled to write about my adopted home. Cold, said my professor, who had a reputation for bluntness. Your India stories are warm and full of life and feeling. I felt not a bristling this time but a sinking. It was sobering to think that my heart as a writer was still only accessible through my hometown.Though I kept writing about Bangalore, I did so as both an outsider and an insider.
So, I continued to write about it. For the next seven years, I revised the stories I’d begun in graduate school and wrote some new ones. Each story surprised and impressed me by the time and effort it took to finish. I told myself that I was a slow writer and there was nothing to be done about that, but in retrospect, I know that part of what I was facing—aside from the challenge of learning the short story form—was the difficulty of writing about the place of my childhood, a place that didn’t exist anymore.
I knew enough at this stage to not give in to Western readers’ demands to explain things; what I had to be conscious of was the influence of my deepening ties to America on my imaginings of India. The sensory memories: the garbage, the jasmine—these may be with me for life; what changes is the perspective I bring to them, a perspective that belongs increasingly to a foreigner. I drafted three separate Bangalore stories before realizing they all centered on a relationship between a white American woman and an Indian man. Perhaps I found it natural to write about the experience of a visitor to Bangalore because that was becoming more and more my own experience.
When I wrote from the perspectives of Bangaloreans, they tended to be characters who felt alienated from everything around them: a young girl who runs away from home, a medical student who wrestles with her decision to become a doctor, a retiree disgruntled by everything he encounters in a new clothing store. Though I kept writing about Bangalore, I did so as both an outsider and an insider. Boston and Bangalore don’t live within me in hermetically sealed compartments; rather, they permeate each other so that it’s impossible to write about one without the other exerting an influence. To be over here while writing about over there has been an exercise in defining who I am.
In the spring of 2020, during lockdown, when a planned trip to Bangalore with my then-one-year-old son had to be canceled, I hunkered down to finish my story collection. I’d recently left my marriage, become a US citizen, and was ready for a new phase of life, one in which I would give myself permission to write freely about America.
Two years later I would finish a novel set Boston and centered on an Indian character questioning who she is in the eyes of the West, but at the time, as ambulances screamed outside my window, ferrying the sick through newly deserted streets, I was reminded of how the book I was assembling conjured a place and time—Bangalore in the 1990s—that existed once, but no longer. It takes form again in stories that will give my son a glimpse of the bygone city where his mother was raised, and a trace of how I found my way back to it.
Boomtown Girl by Shubha Sunder is available from Black Lawrence Press.