It started out as a very simple idea – of this girl who is struggling with body dysmorphia, and she begins hearing this voice in her head. It promises to give her everything she wants – weight loss, acceptance from her family, even a proposal from her boyfriend – as long as she does what it says. The more I thought about this voice – that I imagined as a supernatural extension of an eating disorder – the more chills it gave me. I kept thinking of its timbre, who it would belong to, what it would ask this character to do, and how far would she go?
The thing is that body dysmorphia and body shaming can be very, very destructive, but that destruction is always so neat and it’s always channelled inwards. It’s always restricted to the woman being shamed. I wanted to see what happens when you take these issues into the realm of the absurd and the fantastical, by introducing a demon, and see what happens when that pressure to have that perfect body, to be that perfect ‘good little girl’, etc makes a woman truly explode.
We have seen zombies ruling the western market be it books or movies. Were you worried about bringing about the demon angle in Indian readers?
I was worried about presenting demons in a stereotypical way – like they have been in Hollywood and Bollywood movies like The Exorcist or Bhoot or a Ramsay film. I didn’t want Pia’s head revolving 360 degrees, and her crawling up walls throughout the book, or a tantric coming and exorcising her with a jhadoo. I wanted it to be subtle, until it wasn’t. Because so much of the book is really about looking at the psychological impact of being constantly judged and shamed and criticised – and how it alters an individual – through the lens of a demonic possession. I was excited to present demons like this – in an urban South Delhi setting, minus all the other tropes and cliches.
Till the end you have managed to sustain the suspense of whether the demons are real or not. Did you do any research in terms of the psychological side?
I definitely did my share of research on the various theories in the book – be it Rorschach or Freud or Jung. I also read up on many psychological case studies on possession, dysfunctional relationships and so forth. I wanted this book to be rooted in reality, because so much horror in it comes from the real… from that ‘it could happen to you’ element. At the same time, I couldn’t be psychologically or supernaturally absolute about Pia’s diagnosis till the very end. So, I played with many open-ended psychological theories – ones that have been argued and debated, like Freud, and moulded them to Pia’s condition.
Anando’s character stands out from the overall mood of the book, which is refreshing. Was that deliberate?
Oh, yes! Apart from Kabir, I imagined Anando as this figure who really tried to understand Pia and was on her team from the get-go. I don’t think he’s the best psychologist out there. In fact, he is someone who is quite flawed and messy, with hardly any sense of boundaries – but still, I think he’s a respite from all the South Dilli-walas, and he doesn’t see Pia through that warped and superficial lens that everybody else in her life does.
There is a familiar trope of bad girl protagonist amongst a perfect family. Was that a conscious choice?
While I don’t think I was deliberately taking on a familiar trope, I did know that Pia would have to be the black sheep of the family, definitely. This is someone who is on the outskirts and margins of all social groups – family, friends, work, etc. It’s what builds up her desperation and makes her inner demon(s) so powerful – this desperate need to fit in, to be ‘normal’, to be like everyone else… to be an idealised image of that ‘good girl’.
You have touched the childhood trauma part at one point. Do you believe childhood trauma could make people vulnerable?
I think we are hugely defined by our childhood traumas, and it impacts and permeates every single aspect of the person we end up becoming. Everybody has their own set of traumas, of ranging severities. It could be something like a comment on your appearance that changed how you saw yourself forever, or it could be abuse – the magnitude of which your young brain could barely wrap itself around. It could also be a constant barrage of criticism, rejection, being told you weren’t ‘good enough’ – and now you see that playing out through a toxic romance or in your office setup. It’s constant work to move beyond these traumas, to undo and unlearn their damages. But I think that work is important.
Do you really believe in demons?
No, as much as I love a good horror book or movie, I don’t really believe in demons, or anything supernatural in real life!
What’s your next writing venture?
I am looking at exploring a horror novel about toxic romances.
Wow! That’s exciting. So, when did you decide to sit down and actually start writing?
I have always written – ever since I could remember. It’s the only way I have known how to express myself as a person, since I am not much of a talker. But usually, I have limited my writing to diaries, journals, blogs, memoir-type musings in my email drafts, or articles for work.
Once I got this idea, I found myself writing this book constantly. But every now and then, my Imposter Syndrome would kick in, and I would abandon the drafts for a month or two. Then, I would force myself back to the laptop, because a part of me also wanted to know how this story would play out and I would constantly wonder what would happen to Pia? Regardless of whether this book was published or not, somewhere I felt like it would be supremely unfair to me o not see this story through!
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
To write like no one’s reading. Write for yourself first, and let it all out. Accept that your first draft will probably be crap. And that you can always write a second and a third and a fourth. You can always find better words, better sentence structures, or add and subtract from the story.
I probably junked two-thirds of the first draft of Batshit and wrote it all again from scratch. And I am so glad I did! Some of the best parts of this book only came to me in the second and third drafts. One of my favorite parts, in fact, was written right before Batshit went to press!