Call It Desire: Asha Pandya Interviewed by Shruti Swamy

A conversation with the author’s mother—the novel’s central inspiration—about dance, desire, and more.

Book cover of  The Archer by Shruti Swamy featuring an Indian woman dancing in a circle.

Book cover of The Archer by Shruti Swamy featuring an Indian woman dancing in a circle.

There was a time in my mid-twenties when photographs of my mother, Asha Pandya, in performance, took on a new glamour; her feet a blur of movement, her eyes legible, indelible, outlined in thick eyeliner—a stark contrast to the practical mother of my childhood, who never wore makeup and no longer danced. My mother has lived many lives: a kathak dancer, aerospace engineer, physics teacher, and, later in life, a lawyer. But it was her dancing that began to interest me, and with it, an intense, inexplicable curiosity to know the woman my mother had been when she was young. I began asking her questions about kathak, a dance she studied, taught, and performed, and about her childhood, including the beautiful, unreachable Bombay she lived in. Somewhere along the way I found that I was writing a novel.

I assembled The Archer (Algonquin Books) in part from the pilfered memories of many people, including my own, but most of all from my mother. I coveted these little shards of story, imagining them with language, distorting them through fiction, until they were mine. Still, my mom read drafts and made copious notes in the margins, explaining the proper order for a full kathak performance or drawing me a map of her college hostel. Since she was so generous with allowing me to interpret her experiences and ideas, I wanted to give her the chance to let her speak in her own words.

—Shruti Swamy

 

Shruti Swamy Can you tell me about your first experience with dance?

Asha PandyaYes, I remember this very clearly. I was probably around four years old, and I had a cousin who had just started dancing that year. She was showing me what she was learning. I tried doing those things and it just felt very good; I felt so graceful and so pretty. 

Once I started seeing the real performances and got to dance in some of them, then I was really drawn to it. That was a magical world. You get transported into a very different frame of mind.

SS In that frame of mind, does it matter if there is an audience? 

APWhen you’re practicing, you’re always striving to do better than yesterday. But when you’re on the stage, you’re putting it out in the world and you’re saying, This is the best that I have. You are making a final statement, not for your life but just up to that time. This is the best I can do.

Practicing, you are watching yourself; you’re very acutely aware of every minute detail of your dance. But when you perform you’re not observing yourself from outside; you’re just one with yourself. You’re aware of the audience, but you can’t see them. They’re in the dark; only you are in the light. So, there’s no difference between the dark of the audience and the darkness that is beyond in the sky. You’re part of that whirling universe. You forget about the audience, you forget about everything.

Kathak is not flashy. Flashy is not the right word— 

SS Kathak can be very flashy. Well, maybe not “flashy,” because it has a kind of negative connotation, but it can be dazzling.

APYeah. It can be very dazzling, but it is very austere. It is not always eye-catching right away. It’s more subtle. The hardest thing to do, learning kathak, is the nikas. It’s a very, very, very slow tempo, and the dancer shows something—just the slightest movement of the wrist or the eyebrow, and the breathing. To an indifferent observer, it would seem like just a person is standing still. It’s not dancing, nothing is happening over there because there is such a long pause between the beats.

But being in that pose and having your breath in sync with everything, you have to be aware of your body, your surroundings, of the entire universe. You can bring it with practice. That is the ultimate aim of kathak, or any art form.

Photo of Shruti Swamy, the author of the book, smiling, with medium length parted hair, and round glasses.​

Photo of Shruti Swamy by Abe Bingham.

SSAmit Chaudhuri writes about the khayal, a form of North Indian classical music, that it “furthers, especially in the twentieth century—where speech is sound rather than meaning in a conventional sense. …by the twenties, we’re witnessing a radical non-representational shift whose inclinations are modernist.” I have had this sense too about the nrita (“pure-dance”) sections of kathak, the idea that, and here’s Chaudhuri quoting T.S. Eliot, “poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Can you tell me about kathak’s non-narrative elements from this perspective? What do its abstractions, the emphasis on movement and rhythm in the nrita sections, communicate to us? How does it feel different to dance them compared to the more narrative sections? 

APNo one ever talked about it that way. The shastras [the treatise on which all classical Indian dance is based] didn’t describe or codify this. I don’t know if there is some additional knowledge that has been lost over the centuries, or if it was never codified at all. It just had to be experienced. I experience it: when you’re dancing this very complicated rhythmic piece, you get some level of resonance, as though you’re tuning yourself to all the different rhythms and frequencies of the universe. All inessential narrative is gotten rid of. And there it is. You feel the resonance. And the observer feels this resonance too.

The narrative sections are important too. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why we were telling and dancing the stories of Krishna. I slowly understood as I grew up that I form different relationships, and Krishna was the representative of all these various relationships that we have in our lives. 

Say you have decided to meet with your beloved at the bus stop somewhere and they’re late. You look at your watch numerous times and even if the person is one minute late, it’s painful, the intensity with which you desire that friend. Or you are a mother who is watching her child take his first step. And you are calling to him, Krishna ne bhegane: “Come quickly to me, Krishna.” Or imagine a child waiting for her friend to come home from vacation. There’s no one else she wants to play with, and the whole summer feels like an eternity. You embody these emotions while the music is playing; the singer is singing that one line of the thumri. But at the end, when the music fades, the lights dim, the curtain falls, what remains is this intense longing for Krishna.

In the end, you call it desire. Slowly, slowly, I started to understand that Krishna was not some imaginary God. He represented all the relationships in life that are based on love.

SS I like that you said that, mom, because I think so much of The Archer is about desire. Vidya desires her mother’s attention, desires free time to pursue kathak, desires the ability to make her own choices, desires true intimacy with another person, desires freedom in her art. I wonder, when you were growing up, were you able to talk about desire? Do you feel like Vidya is able to talk about or understand her own desires?  

APSome desires in the book, I thought they were very well articulated, and when I read them I recognized them, though I had never put them into words. When Vidya goes to meet her dance teacher in Versova, and you talk about Vidya’s longing to be touched, how good it feels when her teacher embraces her. I have felt that. 

When I was young I had many desires like Vidya; those desires were so close. But because many of my desires were blocked by the way the world was, I could not express them without feeling very angry. I was angry about the injustices. So, I never found a way to very effectively talk about those desires.

SS Did you think the way Vidya is able to articulate her own desires is realistic?

API don’t know if I can call it realistic. I had no model for how to express these things. But Vidya shows us a way of expressing oneself. I think it becomes irrelevant, whether it is my experience of reality or not, because that is reality for Vidya, and it gives someone who is struggling to express herself a model.

SS In some ways, Vidya does have a model for an unconventional life, a life in art—her dance teacher. Did you have any women in your life like that growing up? 

AP No. No one except for Valentina Tereshkova. 

SS How was she a model for you? 

AP The first woman in the world to go in space and to go solo! I mean, she was my role model for breaking all the norms. 

​Photo of Asha Pandya as a young woman dancing in traditional garb, turned to the side, holding her hands out.

Photo of Asha Pandya courtesy of Shruti Swamy.

SS What did you make of the relationship between Radha and Vidya?

API thought it was beautiful. That relationship has so many shades. In my college hostel, we were a very close-knit group. Those relationships had a lot of depth. You could find someone who is very brilliant, someone who is very religious, someone who thinks the way that Radha thinks. In the book, you combined all those people into one and created something new.

SSOne surprising aspect of writing this book was getting a sense of my own privilege as Brahmin. Since you were an extreme minority as a woman at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, you always had this narrative about yourself as someone who was triumphing against all odds—and there were considerable odds you were facing. But when Radha, who is lower-caste, came into the book, I think we both had to consider that Vidya was actually privileged compared to Radha, which led to some really interesting conversations between us about that. Do you want to say anything about this?    

APYeah, until you brought it up, I had never thought about it before. I always had this idea that my college was very egalitarian, because there were boys whose fathers were managing directors of these big companies or just in high government positions, and boys from the village or the chaali. When we discussed this, and then there’s also the current case against Cisco, I started thinking about it. And it was you who pointed out that part of being privileged is not having to think about it, or even notice it was there.

SSAnd then you did some research. You actually wound up sending me a really helpful article about discrimination in the IIT system.

APIt really hit me hard. I really had to look at it.

SSWere you surprised when I started working on this book?

APA little bit. I didn’t know what form it was going to take. I didn’t know what the story was going to be. But as you were writing and asking me questions, I realized that you would have your own take. And I was very happy. Exhilarated.

SSI wanted to ask you about that. You gave me details when I asked for them, but you never tried to direct the story. When you read the first forty pages, you said, “Some of the details are wrong, but the essence is right”—you gave me permission. And even as the story really started to diverge from your life, you kept reading; you kept saying, “Keep going.” You weren’t attached to a certain representation, even though you were very generous with the details of your life.   

APWell, that’s the fun part of reading a book, right? Because if it was my story, then we would call it biography. It was sometimes my story, but it was not just my story. It is the story of all artists who are struggling to find themselves in their art. 

I feel like I gave you some colors and you made your own picture. The whole experience was like going window shopping. You see these beautiful things in the window, and you don’t possess them. You just try them on in your mind. You can try out this life. And also, that element of suspense was there. I always wondered how it was going to end!

SSWhat did you make of the shift from third person to first person in the book? 

API think the goal of art or music or dance is finding your true self or finding the ultimate liberation or enlightenment. And finding the “I” is the quest for all artists. When she finds the first glimpse of “I” during that performance, I said “Aha!” For me, that is the essence of dance.

SSAs my mother, and also a daughter, what did you make of the depictions of motherhood?

APAny concept is a very flowing thing that changes over time. And it’s like you have this whole wardrobe full of different clothes. You can put them on; you can change them. The book has gone through my wardrobe of the idea of motherhood. Because of age or ambition, someone might not want motherhood, might not want to get pregnant. Or, as a child, really wanting your mother to understand you, and then it doesn’t happen. These are the kinds of things that I have experienced as a mother and as a daughter. But it’s not like it remained the same or stayed with me all my life.

SS Besides this book I have written, you show up in several of my essays. Why do you think I write about you so much? 

API guess mothers influence their children. I don’t know if other mothers have influenced their children as much. You have understood me more than anybody else, and understood with compassion. I’m fortunate that I have that bond with you. 

We named you Shruti, which has layers and layers of meaning. In Hindustani music, the shrutis are the microtones, the notes between the notes. The literal translation of your name, Shruti, means something that is heard. All of the scriptures, the Vedas, are called shrutis because they were not just written by some sage, but this was the knowledge that was revealed to them. The later things like Mahabharat are not shrutis because they are stories that have been told, smruti, they come from memories. So Shruti means something that has been revealed. You didn’t become a singer like Shruti Sadolikar, but you did become a writer, someone who listens. So, you also lived up to your name.

SSThanks, mom. Love you.

APLove you too, kanna.

The Archer is available for purchase here.

Shruti Swamy is the author of The Archer and the story collection A House Is a Body, which was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was longlisted for the Story Prize. Her work has been published by the Paris Review and McSweeney’s, and anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in San Francisco.

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