Set in mid-century India and England against the backdrop of WWII, Thirst, by Shree Ghatage (Doubleday), tells the story of unexpected love born out of an arranged marriage between Vasanti and Baba and how their worlds fall apart after Baba decides to study abroad in London.
49th Shelf talks with Shree Ghatage about desire—"the lynchpin that separates humans from animals"—and her story of a passionate marriage, arranged then torn apart.
Julie Wilson: Thirst is set in India and London, in the early 40s, against the backdrop of World War II. What drew you to this time period?
Shree Ghatage: Thirst is the second novel in a trilogy that began with Brahma’s Dream. There were two characters in Brahma’s Dream—Vasanti and her husband, Baba—who stayed with me even after I had finished working on the book. So when I began to write the first draft of Thirst, the character of Baba, almost unbidden, came foremost to mind, and I was quickly drawn into developing an account of his life. The fact that my first novel was set against the backdrop of India’s 1940’s independence movement meant that Baba’s story would also play out during that era. As it happens, England in World War II became a prolific setting and time period in which to explore the nuances of memory and repression and loss.
In Brahma’s Dream, Baba is off the page. He has long since left for England, for furthering an education that is expected to last for two years; and readers of the first novel know that Vasanti is firmly and desolately convinced that mysterious circumstances surround him during the time London is about to experience its second bombing blitz. When I began writing Thirst, I wished to explore Vasanti’s suspicions and doubts; I felt compelled to get to the bottom of the presumed mystery. My exploration took me to from Nagpur in India to North Wales and London, and in researching Thirst I also had the very rewarding experience of learning about WWII and its impact on that island nation.
JW: What are the forces at work behind the title?
SG: Thirst refers to the craving, the desire, the longing, and the yearning that every individual experiences, sometimes overtly, but largely covertly as each person attempts to manipulate life such that his or her thirst may eventually be satisfied and quenched. Fathers long for their progeny to be robust and well provided for; mothers desire to raise children that are well-adjusted and at peace; separated lovers yearn to embrace yet again; betrayed wives wait for errant husbands to return home; desolate women crave the touch of a man if only for a while; sons are eager to bring prestige to themselves and honour to the family; the deceived feel the need for revenge; separated friends hunger to recover the closeness of former days; and so longing regenerates, on and on and on, and the sometimes concealed, other times discernible thirst for something better, for something additional continues to take shape.
JW: Thirst displays itself in Vasanti's parting words to Baba as he leaves for London: "I began to say goodbye the very day you told me you were leaving. That was also the day I began awaiting your return." And throughout Baba turns to an inscription in his mother's prayer book, a reflection upon accepting one's circumstances. Talk about the tension between desire and realistic expectations.
SG: I think desire is something primal, the lynchpin that separates humans from animals. Animals don’t have desires; they only have needs. And it is the waywardness of human desire, its unpredictability, its ever-present demands, its ability to create more want and ultimately its need for fulfillment, for satiation, that places the "I," the ego as being most important and above every other consideration. Those who have yet to learn from experience the significance of not always giving in to desire find themselves at odds with the honesty and sanity contained within the concept of realistic expectations. Baba’s desire to leave for England in the midst of the war, heedless of the dangerous consequences that may result from pursuing a higher education at that particular time, and in fleeing Nagpur hoping to resolve some vengeful and stubborn demons, finds him at a crossroad where he must choose between leaving for London or remaining home with his beloved wife. His unrealistic expectation that in the long run everything will turn out well impels him to leave her; Vasanti’s realistic expectation that all may not go as planned causes her to be on tenterhooks even before he has left; and so the ever-present chasm between genuine desire to achieve something and realistic expectation widens, and in the end, for Baba, the integrity and new-born selflessness with which he accepts and acts upon his circumstances is timely and honorable but comes at an enormous cost.
JW: Talk about arranged marriages. It would be easy to suggest that it's unlikely, if serendipitous, that two people who meet on their wedding day could fall in love. In Thirst, have you created an opportunity to offer comment on the function of marriage and commitment?
SG: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
This opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice brilliantly summarizes the ever present need in families and societies to get young girls wedded to suitable young men. Whereas the giddy and high-strung Mrs. Bennet in Austen’s novel dreams of marrying off her daughters into great wealth while leaving the choice of the groom to each of them, in the Brahmin culture of India of the 1940s, although sufficient resources that would keep a daughter in reasonable comfort was most definitely a criteria while seeking a groom, what was of equal and sometimes greater importance was the reputation of the boy’s family and its general standing in society, and the character and education level of the boy. The girl and boy often had no say in the final decision of whom they were chosen by the elders to marry, and marriage was a pact where both bride and groom were expected to remain committed to each other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for the rest of their lives. And so it was with Vasanti and Baba. Falling in love at first meeting or soon after was and remains in arranged marriages an ever-present possibility, but true love was seen to be the pragmatic, enduring kind of love that learns to tolerate differences while enjoying commonality, and in the case where there are children, that which remains rooted in the commitment of attempting to provide a secure and nourishing environment for them. Then, as now—where falling in love before the wedding day has become the accepted norm—marriages did not always work, they crumbled and fell apart, but unlike today the couple did not have the option of leaving the union.
JW: You envision Thirst as the second book in a trilogy. What's next?
SG: The reader will meet both Baba and Vasanti in the final book of this series. I envision their longing and desire to be together once again to be a compelling force that will shape their quest to find ways to slake this thirst to reunite. The last novel is largely set in Canada and will span several decades. Or at least that’s the way it is taking shape on the page as I continue to work on it.
Calgary-based writer Shree Ghatage is the author of the short story collection Awake When All the World is Asleep, winner of the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, and the novel Brahma’s Dream, a Kiriyama Notable Book. Her most recent work, Thirst, tells the compelling and unexpected story of finding love in a WWII-era arranged marriage. Visit her at www.shreeghatage.com.