Q&A with Shubhangi Singh

A square photograph of Shubhani Singh is set against a banner, with a patterned black and grey design of a zoomed-in photograph of weeds. Shubhani wear a green sleeveless top, worn off one shoulder. She has curly brown hair tight up, and dark eyes. She looks to the side of frame, with her cheek resting on her hand, which is holding a face-mask. ‘Weeds, an interview with Shubhani Singh’ is written on the banner, to the right of Shubhani's image. The letters of ‘Weeds’ are capitalised, and filled in with the photographed lacework of Maggie Hensel-Brown that is featured on this issue’s cover.

SHUBHANGI SINGH writes content, copy, as well as social commentary. She has written opinion pieces for magazines and local newspapers, most notably Tehelka. Her short stories have won local awards and been a part of an anthology by Asian Literary Society. She is an erstwhile embedded programmer, and forever a consumer of the written word. Life has taken her all over India, from Varanasi to Chandigarh via Mumbai. At present, she resides in the idyllic city of Chandigarh—perfect for random musings about illusory existential dilemmas.

Our Associate Editor Megan Payne talks to Shubhangi about her fiction piece, ‘Mother versus Mother, published in #27: WEEDS

Your protagonist captures and reveals details of her sensory world, her pain, with a sharp, detail-oriented lens. So many of these details speak volumes about her inner landscape. I’d love to know more about your approach to writing characters and how you practice seeing and feeling out for the particular things they notice?

I am an observer. Even before the start of my professional writing journey, I used to compile people’s behaviour and tried to deduce their motivations. While writing, I usually select the theme of a story first and try to pair it up with behavioural quirks I have come across. So even though my characters are not based on real people, their reactions to stimuli may mimic certain real-life observations. Extensive character mapping helps too, even the parts that don’t concern the tale being told. It’s like befriending my characters for the duration of their story, so that I know their appearance, likes/dislikes, motivations, and even their guilty pleasures. We know our best friends well enough to predict their behaviour. More often than not, I know what my characters were doing before the timeline included in a story, as well as their fate after my story ends. Sometimes, I personify their surroundings to lend an extra avenue of interaction. Drawing parallels between separate physiological experiences helps me relate to my characters. I am scared of heights, and I gulp ice cubes for fun, leading to shivers. These two experiences together can stitch a character who is so scared of another person that they start shivering.

For me, ‘Mother vs Mother’ explores themes of one’s body being against them, being a cage, problem, or limitation, being separate from the self. And then you handled these themes with tremendous care. Your protagonist was attuned, and remained connected, to the experience of her body, even when her body seemed to be the ‘thing’ bringing her pain. And this enduring connection felt caring, and dare I say, healing. I’d love for you to speak to these ideas in any way that interests you.

In Indian context, we have a strong concept of soul: the mind, the body, and the soul are three separate entities that have to function in harmony. I feel nature has given all living beings an internal radar that keeps us attuned to our native environment as well as our own physicality. Any animal in the wild must stay mindful of its body at all times, in order to survive. Newborn babies cry if they feel pain or hunger; they smile to convey pleasure and warmth. As we grow older, we are bombarded with man-made cues of how, why, when to express these emotions. In hierarchical and patriarchal societies, we are taught from a very young age about appropriate emotions, dress codes, etiquettes etc. Thereafter, our bodies become mere tools to adhere to these rules. 

Especially for women and gender minorities, patriarchy has pitted our bodies against us. But men do not go unscathed. In ‘Mother vs Mother’, while the protagonist accepts the painful journey with her body, her partner Ansh Sinha hides behind his own by treating it as a shield against societal pressures. 

When I was young, I felt ashamed of my extreme period cramps because I felt I was the only one. Now every other woman I talk to has experienced similar pain and shame. How did we manage to grow up completely clueless, thinking we were the only defective ones suffering, when almost half the population was experiencing the same things? Similarly, reproduction has become another vehicle to control women’s bodies. There is rampant quantification, commercialisation, and overt glorification of a routine natural phenomenon like motherhood. Does a woman not possess the sole rights to her body? The life and death of a human foetus can affect that body, and the person inhabiting it, in different ways. That’s why I wanted to address these ideas through the eyes of an expecting mother in an intimate first person narrative. I want my readers to experience this physical journey with the protagonist and then choose their own sides.

What else are you working on currently? This could be in relation to, or beyond, writing!

At present, I volunteer as an admin of Chandigarh Critique Group in my city. Through this vibrant community, we critique unpublished prose, collaborate with local writers, and mentor amateur literary works. Freelance content pays my bills. The current passion project is my first book, which will be a collection of short stories exploring the various facets of mortal life. Death fascinates me. It comes in many forms and from many sources. I want to create a collection of short fiction that aims to explore the macabre along with the mundane. The only constant of death is life––death springs from life, follows the living, and leaves its mark on the lives left behind. I want the book to raise a mirror to a world in a constant state of decay, and its diverse people, with deeply local but always humane stories. Its characters will consume their quietus with a pinch of seasoning: hope, humour, horror, harmony. In 2022, as technology and globalisation clash with roots of identity and ideology, what is the cost of life?