It was an awesome time reading all the entries of the ‘Dad I’m Gay’ writing contest, and choosing is always hard, as talent is everywhere! But after great deliberation, our judges have finally settled upon one entry which triumphed over all the others to rise as the winning entry of the contest. The winning entry is The Weed Grows Without Water by Malavika Selvaraj.
The Weed Grows Without Water by Malavika Selvaraj
When all of Kochi looks at Gayatri and Leela, they see two girls who have an enviably close friendship. Is that really all they are? Soudamini doesn’t think so. Gayatri is suffocating in the silence of taboo that her mother has created around love. With her free-spirited older sister gone to college, who can she turn to?
Editor’s note: Writings about marginalized communities is usually pathos-ridden. But this story stood out for bringing out the excitement of discovering something new about oneself, the thrill of a close friendship evolving into something special and the warmth between three generations of women. Instead of an assumed trauma (whose existence can’t be denied of course) the story explored another aspect of coming out of the closet.
Juggernaut had a little tete-a-tete with Malavika about her story and her passion for writing.
Your story is the winning entry of the contest. Please tell us more about it, and its inspiration.
A wisp of an idea had been flitting in and out of my thoughts for weeks, about two secret lovers who hide in plain sight because they’re both women. The family is central to our lives, and there are many families who completely condemn sexuality. There is a tacit understanding that it’s something shameful that should lurk in the darkness. Paradoxically, it is in this repressed environment that homosexual love can bloom uninhibited, because these people don’t know it exists, and therefore don’t see it even when it’s right before their eyes.
The Weed Grows Without Water is about one of those families. Sindhu, the mother, enforces the status quo. If she says something’s bad, it’s bad, and that’s it, no more discussion on the subject. She’d be furious if she found out that both her daughters are subverting her absolutist principles.
Gayatri is Sindhu’s youngest daughter. She’s bratty, and she doesn’t see beyond the cocoon of her privileged life. But she’s also carrying around the secret of her sexuality, and it’s getting heavier as time passes, because she knows that she can’t live like this forever. With Akhila, her older sister, gone away to college, she has nobody to confide in.
Soudamini is the grandmother, and she’s come to stay with them. She might not be able to put her finger on it, but she knows that something’s up with Gayatri. Her curiosity is restrained only by her compassion.
At the heart of the story is Gayatri, who is experiencing the thrilling highs of being in love for the first time, but this is happening inside a complex web of family tensions. The giddiness of the former is juxtaposed with the dreadful uneasiness of the latter, as both play out simultaneously.
Do you think India has a long way to go with regards to the LGBT community?
India does have a long way to go. Unlike in the West, where homosexuality is recognized (and vilified by homophobes), a lot of people in India don’t know what queerness is, or that it’s even a possibility.
What really bothers me is the lack of queer visibility in mainstream discourse. The more we talk about it, the less alone queer kids and teens feel. It’s such a powerful, validating feeling to know that there is a name for who you are, that there are other people like you.
When schools and colleges hold “assemblies” about inclusion, it usually involves some moron Other-izing queer people in his invariably longwinding speech. There is a need for attitudes of empathetic acceptance towards people who are queer, differently-abled, trans or gender nonconforming. Educational institutions should be safe spaces where you can be proud of your identity, but also be treated as a person in your own right.
The new generation of wealthy, urban Indians are pro-LGBTQ+, but in most cases, it’s more a consequence of Westernization rather than actual ethical enlightenment.
Do you have any particular rules or rituals you follow as a writer?
I always start in a notebook. In the beginning stages, nothing is set in stone, which also means I don’t want anything to disappear forever. Often the same scene has several layers of writing- alternative phrases, and other changes I’m not yet sure about. The only rule is to be as messy as I want. At the end of this stage, an amorphous mass is born. Once it takes some sort of shape, I start typing.
Other times, it doesn’t work out with the notebook. After several abortive attempts at a beginning, I abandon paper and skip straight to the computer.
What got you interested in becoming a writer? Where do you go for inspiration?
I don’t think I ever decided to be a writer. I have been writing for longer than I can remember. It’s just been one of those things I do without thinking much about, like doodling in the margins of all my math homework. (My math teacher was broad-minded enough not to mind little trivialities like that.)
I think real life is more than enough inspiration, if you give it the opportunity to be. There is such a dazzling variety of humanity on the streets, in the public transport, everywhere. To dismiss everyday interactions with people (vegetable seller, bus conductor, co-passenger, taxi driver, and receptionist) as quotidian is the deplorable waste of valuable resources. To write, it is necessary to live. Living is experiencing the world around you. Why are things the way they are, and not some other way? Inspiration is everywhere- you don’t have to go looking.
What’s that one piece written by you which is your all time favourite?
After I feel that something I’m working on has become what it was meant to be, I move on to the next project. Whatever I’m working on at the moment is my favourite, and it occupies all my time, attention, and energy. The Weed Grows Without Water will probably become my favourite again, because I plan on returning to the story to dig deeper into the characters and their motivations.
Your bestselling authors and books list. Why do they make it to your list?
There are some books which have such realistic depictions of people that you can’t believe they’re figments of the author’s imagination. All of the following books share this trait, despite being topically diverse: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the Harry Potter books, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and its marvelous sequel The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate both by Jacqueline Kelly, Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
Then there are the authors who created wondrous universes: The Ear, the Arm, and the Eye by Nancy Farmer, the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi.
Finally, there are the books that told stories so powerful I will never forget them: The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
I love G.B. Shaw because his plays provoke thought and epiphany while being extremely enjoyable. Recently, I finished Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. It is a taut, poignant, beautiful book but it must be consumed in small doses, preferably with a P.G. Wodehouse close by. Wodehouse is the best cure for literature-induced misery.
Any writing tips you’d like to share with fellow writers?
True writing cuts to the heart of emotion. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it just because you like the way it sounds, or because you’re imitating an author you admire. Express yourself in the manner that is unique to you.
If you’re not enraptured by the process, if you’re not thrilled, excited, and stimulated by it, then you’re forcing something. Stop and think about why. Writing should be fun- if it starts to feel deadening, stop dying. Take a short break, and come back to it.
Slow work is good work. Take your time to let it come together, because it will end up having more depth than if you finish it for the sake of finishing something. The ultimate aim is to produce something worthwhile, and for the work to realize its potential. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve worked on it already- sometimes, it’s still not enough. Try taking the plot along a different path, and see where that leads.
Finally, ask yourself: why do you write? Set a timer for five minutes, and begin answering that question immediately. Introspection helps you know yourself better, and when you do, you’ll write much better.
Malavika Selvaraj is an elderly teenager, referred to as “the wise old lady” by her younger cousins. Her writing has appeared most notably in The Hindu.