How Much Does Your Job Shape Your Identity?
Jenny Bhatt's short story collection "Each Of Us Killers" revolves around the working lives of a diverse array of Indians
“You think you’ve known someone for a long time,” a character in one of Jenny Bhatt’s short stories says of her Indian colleague shortly after he’s shot dead by a white man in a bar. “Maybe he never really took to us. Never really became one of us.” Turn by turn, each of his white co-workers talks about the deceased man, sometimes dismissively, sometimes pityingly, their accounts stitching together to form a patchwork of a man surrounded by bigotry. It’s not the story that lends Bhatt’s book its title, but the subtle insinuation lingers. It’s also the springboard for a perceptive, moving, and enriching debut collection.
The 15 stories that make up Each of Us Killers range dramatically across location, themes, styles, and tone but are all united by Bhatt’s astute understanding of her characters and the worlds they inhabit. From a yoga teacher who feels something uncoil within her after she learns to take a risk to a sari shop employee who dreams of a life beyond his immediate reach, these characters strain against the roles and norms assigned to them.
Mostly set in India, Bhatt centers these stories through the work that her protagonists perform—they include a bartender, autorickshaw driver, college professor, maid, architect, street vendor, and more—with the pursuit of their professions offering keen insights into aspiration, morality, power, and most crucially, identity. It’s something the writer has grappled with herself. After nearly two decades, Bhatt quit the corporate life, dedicating herself to writing full time, much to the consternation of a world keen to fit everyone into an easy slot, often dictated by what they do. “So much of our identity is not about how we see ourselves but how others see us,” she wrote in an essay about emerging as a writer at the age of 40.
A literary translator and critic in addition to being a writer of fiction, Bhatt excels in her incisive understanding of the complex intersections of gender, class, caste, and race that determine so much of not only the work we do but also how we navigate our lives. I spoke to her on the phone about what work reveals about us, navigating the tropes expected from fiction set in India, and balancing aspiration and realism.
Harsimran Gill: I would love to hear more about why work has been such a big preoccupation in your fiction. I’m thinking of the lovely essay you wrote about emerging as a writer after 40, and it seems like these stories were being crafted at a time when the very definition of what work meant for you was changing? Do you think returning to India after so many years also played a part? Seeing the many different types of work that people are engaged in here, particularly informal labor and its constantly shifting nature?
Jenny Bhatt: I had left my corporate job, which was such a big part of my identity. Because as a single woman, your career is your identity—if you’re not a mother or wife, you are your work. I was a workaholic for the last seven years of my career in the U.S., when I’d been working in Silicon Valley. That’s one of the reasons I burned out and eventually left. So all of a sudden, I found myself without some anchor, some identity to say, “Okay, this is who I am now.” It was certainly me trying to figure out what was going on.
I was born and raised in India till I was 18 but I’d been away till I came back in mid-2014. Narendra Modi’s government had just come into power and there was all this talk about “Achhe Din” [a popular campaign slogan of Modi’s BJP party, promising “good days” to come], how we’re going to have all these jobs. Yet, almost every other day, I was hearing about farmers committing suicide because the monsoons were ruining their crops or they couldn’t pay their debt.
I lived in Gujarat, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, so I got to see many migrant workers from Rajasthan coming and doing all the construction work. I got to see many housemaids who were from Rajasthan. I talked to them a lot because I lived alone and they were my company. I could literally write a whole other book of stories on working people from all that I heard. Being in India just changed a lot of what my preoccupations would have been had I stayed in the U.S.
HG: Having written about it in so many stories, what do you think approaching fiction from that lens of work can do thematically or reveal about characters?
JB: I think for me, it’s certainly about how class and caste and gender play into our own sense of our working identity and what others think of us. The people I’ve written about come from different parts of society, and I wanted to explore what that meant to their trajectory in their workplace, what that meant to their luck or circumstances. And through that I guess I was understanding a bit of my own past because as you’re excavating the lives of your characters, you’re obviously learning about yourself. If you’re in India, you can’t write a story without getting into these socio-cultural divides, right? You just can’t.
HG: And yet we constantly hear that work isn’t really such a central preoccupation for most fiction writers. That there’s more interest in the “personal” like an editor said to you about this collection. Do you think that’s really true? Why doesn’t work feature more prominently in fiction, despite being such a large part of our lives?
JB: You know, when I gave up my job and I was going through this whole “what is my identity” question, I was looking for fiction that was focused on work, and I found very little. Maybe that’s why I wanted to write these stories so I could explore it more.
What I think is happening—and I’m just speculating here—is not that people don’t want to write or read stories about work, because, like you said, it’s a huge part of our identity. Why wouldn’t we be interested? I believe that maybe publishing gatekeepers think other types of writing sell more. It’s like how some of them wanted more Indian tropes in my stories. They wouldn’t say that outright of course but you know they want those Indian stereotypes. Everyone I’ve talked to ever since this book has been announced has found it very interesting when I tell them the stories are about work. So people are curious.
HG: Yes, this problem of publishers only wanting a certain type of story to come out of India—there’s definitely an almost blinkered search for stereotypes. But that can also make Indian writers wary and prescriptive about what should or shouldn’t be written about when it comes to “tropes”. Which is why I was fascinated by the story “Mango Season” in the book, where we have all of it—mangoes, slums, poverty…
JB: Saris! Spices!
HG: Yes! All of these things which are overrepresented in the Indian fiction that gets championed by international publishing. But they are simultaneously very much a real part of India. Were you thinking about redefining or subverting those tropes with the story?
JB: Yeah, that story is very on the nose for a reason.
Right about the time when I started to write ”Mango Season,” I came across several essays—they hadn’t all been written around that time but I came across them while going down some rabbit hole. One of them was a conversation at Granta between Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, and Daniyal Mueenuddin about how not to write South Asian fiction. They were like don’t put mangoes in there! Then there was an interview with Jeet Thayil saying the same sort of thing, that this is all just exoticizing. And then an essay by Jabeen Akhtar.
And then finally Soniah Kamal wrote an essay titled “When my Authentic is your Exotic” and I was like “yeah, exactly!” If you live in India, you do wait for mango season. You do have long conversations with friends about what’s the best mango. You do have long discussions about saris and how best to take care of them or about new patterns. So why is this considered exotic? If it’s necessary to the plot, it shouldn’t be exotic.
So I sat down, literally made a list of the tropes, and decided that I’m going to write a story that has all of them in it but they’ll be essential to the plot. The story’s protagonist, Rafi, actually works at a sari shop. Mangoes are an important aspect of the story—for him they symbolize something he cannot have very often because he doesn’t make that kind of money. And with the food and spices, this is a man who went to bed hungry; all he had was this juicy mango, so yeah, of course he’s going to dream about food. And then finally, I wanted to be realistic and not end on this weird note. So Rafi’s life is what it is, even though he’s older and wiser for it.
HG: Yeah, so after toying with all these tropes and this character’s flight of imagination, where he dreams about a life of vastly improved circumstances, the ending is much more pragmatic. It had me thinking a lot about restraint when it comes to the endings of your stories, and short stories in general. This fading out instead of a big boom.
JB: In the beginning of “Mango Season,” Rafi is on the bus, and he’s seeing all these billboards. He’s had a hard day at work, but then he’s looking out and sees these things that he can someday aspire to—a tea seller becoming Prime Minister, or Bharat Matrimony promising you the bride of your dreams. But this is social realism, and at the time of writing this story, I was very disillusioned by what was happening in India politically. That the government was filling people with all these dreams and hopes, but then weren’t able to follow through with those promises. So what happens to a guy like Rafi? What happens to a young aspirational man like him who works hard, slogging every single day in the heat and dust?
With endings, what I love, and would love to be better at, is what I once heard Mohsin Hamid say on the BBC World Book Club podcast. He was talking about the ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist—most of his novels are pretty short, they’re more like novellas—and he talked about how he likes to end on this two-beat. Where he gives one beat, and then he wants the reader to engage and figure out what that second beat will be. I went back and reread the ending of every single novel of his to see how he does that! It’s so terrific and works for short stories, even more than a novel.
HG: You have a wide diversity of characters in this collection, and the different stories assume different voices, whether its the collective first person in the titular story, “Each of Us Killers” or multiple first-person narratives in “Return to India,” which tells the story of an Indian man who is the victim of a racist murder, told from the point of view of his white colleagues. How do you decide what voice to take on as the narrator, especially when writing about characters of different identities and vastly different levels of privilege—race, caste, class, gender?
JB: You know, I don’t have an MFA. I went from being a management consultant to writing. So, to be honest, when I started writing these stories in 2014, I was actually approaching them as a DIY MFA. I would have a goal for myself about what I needed to get better at, whether it was a point of view, a voice, or a setting. But of course, the story itself dictates this to some extent. I hate it when a writer says, “well, the story told me what voice was needed.” No, it’s a very conscious decision.
“Each of Us Killers”, for example, was based on a real-life incident: the Una floggings of Dalit men. All the accounts that I was coming across were journalists’ voices reporting what happened, and the writer in me wanted to know about the people who were left behind. You’ve just told me that three people swallowed acid and killed themselves, but what about their families? What happened to them? Initially, I tried to take one person’s voice—the friend’s voice, or the father’s voice. But I didn’t know anything about the friend or the father. So I went to Una, and I remember sitting there on this cot with these folks in front of me while I was writing notes, and thinking, “okay, this is the point of view—it’s the collective”. Because they were all speaking almost in unison. They had a story and they were going to stick to it, and nothing more.
On the other extreme, you take the first story, “Return to India”, which was also inspired by a real life incident—Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a tech engineer, was shot dead in a bar in Kansas. And, again, we saw a lot of stuff in the news but what I didn’t hear as much was about the people that he worked with. I lived and worked as an engineer in the Midwest for 10 years. I know the microinequities and the microaggressions. Nobody thinks they’re being racist, but they are sometimes and they don’t even realize it. I thought of his colleagues all sitting there, probably saying prayers and feeling that the guy who shot him was terrible, but I wonder if they realized how many times they killed him over and over again. I wanted to tell that story. Through the point of view of all those well-meaning people who thought they were so good to him.
HG: You also have this story in the collection called “12 Short Tales of Women At Work”, with these really short glimpses of the harassment faced by women at the workplace. Was that always meant to be a part of the collection, even before you realized what your theme would be?
JB: Yeah, that came out directly from the #MeToo movement in 2017. I’ve obviously experienced some of that, as has almost every woman I know in the corporate workplace. And yet I had not written a single story about it because I just couldn’t figure out how to write about it without being on the nose. I had been dancing around it, trying different things, I had unfinished drafts on my computer. Then we started to see #MeToo blow up in the west and then in India. That’s when I asked myself why I was bothering to say all this nicely or thinking about the best way to present this in fiction—look at what’s happening! I actually went to my Twitter feed and typed the stories out in tweet sizes, because I wanted to see how short I could get, and because so much of this was playing out on Twitter, especially in India, so many of the stories were being told there. I ended up writing 12 individual tweets.
HG: I’d love to talk a bit about “Journey to A Stepwell”—it’s one of my favorites in the collection. The story has two nested narratives. A mother and daughter are traveling to visit a stepwell that is important to the women of the family, and the story goes back and forth between their bus ride there and her mother’s recounting of the folktale associated with the well–about four sisters who have stutters and are deemed unworthy their great beauty and talents. And then of course, an eligible distant relative visits, and they have to showcase their cooking skills but not reveal their stutter. Was this a folktale you had heard as a child?
JB: It is a Gujarati folktale that my mother used to tell me, because we’re four sisters too. It was one of our bedtime stories from a very young age. The Gujarati folktale tradition, like in many other Indian cultures, has of course been passed down orally from generation to generation. So she would tell us the story every few weeks or every few months, but she would change a few things here or there depending on the moral she wanted us to take away from it that time.
Obviously as I grew older, I wasn’t happy with the story and asked why the sisters have to suffer. Isn’t it bad enough that they have a stutter and they have to slave away in the kitchen and wait hand and foot on this stranger just so he’ll marry one of them? I would argue with my mother and she hated that but I did not like the ending. So of course when I got the chance, I had to tweak that!
HG: Yes! And the main narrative in the story is about the daughter, Vidya, summoning up the nerve to tell her mother that she wants to choose a promotion at her job over the marriage that’s been set up for her. Even the sisters in the folktale have all these unparalleled skills—sculpting, animal care, weaving— but like in most of our folktale, these talents are only considered useful as a way to make them more “marriageable” as opposed to legitimate forms of work. Were you thinking of rewriting these traditional folktales with this contrast?
JB: Yes, definitely. In the original folktale, as my mother used to tell it, the four sisters did not have any skills other than cooking. But I wanted to make sure that each of them had something unique that came from within and nothing to do with marriageability. I also didn’t want this to be a story within a story for no reason. I wanted to make sure that it connected back to the present-day story. As we learn of each of the sisters’ skills and how they were employed, we switch back to the bus where Vidya is with her mother—it’s giving her more food for thought. It was subversion, but I also wove the story in to allow the conversation with her mother to evolve.