| Roopa Swaminathan | Interviews | Amita Basu |

Roopa Swaminathan is a woman of many hats – National Award winning writer, filmmaker, scholar, daughter, professor, grief grappler…the list goes on. Her shape shifting career trajectory and vast oeuvre are testaments to her resilience, fierce passion and above all, her conviction as an artist.

We’ve had the pleasure of publishing Roopa’s short stories twice on MeanPepperVine– Pinkie Swear (April, 2023 Issue) and The Reluctant Reunion (January, 2024 Issue), and we are delighted to take our creative collaboration further with this generous, thoughtful interview.

In this interview, MeanPepperVine’s Interviews Editor & Columnist Amita Basu chats with Roopa about her piece Pinkie Swear, her writing practise & literary influences, teaching creative writing to Chinese students, her experience in the film world, and her thoughts on and experiences with optimism, misogyny, bereavement, among other things.


Roopa Swaminathan

The rhythm of your piece ‘Pinkie Swear’ – the long, rolling sentences, the many ands, and the spare use of punctuation excepting the fullstop – reminds me of Hemingway. Some time ago I read a writer (whose name I can’t remember – I’m awful with names) saying that the rhythms of a writer’s work are key in explaining which writers we’re drawn to, that we’re drawn to writing whose rhythms in some way echo our idiosyncratic biological rhythms. Fascinating thesis, isn’t it? Tell us about the influences on your prose style. Have these changed, or remained fairly stable through your writing career? How do you respond as a reader to rhythms in writing?

Wow! That is such an interesting thesis! And I wonder if subconsciously that is true. Consciously – my biggest issue has been that I am drawn to any and all kinds of writing. I am also one of the few from my writer-set of friends and my peers who is interested in the inane art of social media writing as well. One of the main reasons why I have never found the impulse to write a novel in recent years (I wrote two a few years back that I’ve been too lazy to try to get published. One got a publishing offer that I turned down because the publisher low-balled me on the contract) is because my interests are so varied that I find that impacting what I write as well. I LOVE lit fiction and lit non-fiction as much as I love throwaway airport fiction. I read the Grishams and Baldaccis and Lee Childs with as much interest as I do Hemingway and Joan Didion (esp. her writing on grief), Rushdie, Philip Roth, John Irving, Jhumpa Lahiri and so many more. I particularly ADORE Haruki Murakami. It’s my biggest regret that I don’t know Japanese because reading his writing in his native language would be the best ever.

Apart from poetry that I never got into when I was younger – I love all genres as well. The novel, the novella, the short story, and essays – personal and otherwise – and humor – I pay attention to rhythm and beat as much in my attempt at lit fiction and non-fiction as I do with my own social media posts. The right word, the right intonation, the way my writing sounds when I read it out loud – I am ANAL about all of it. Unfortunately, one of my key regrets is not having gotten into poetry. The conciseness of that art form can be so helpful to someone who essentially only writes prose. The poet knows just which word to use and how few words to use for the most impact – that is something that all prose writers should learn from. I am continuing to learn the power of using fewer words, and using rhythm and tone to full effect in my prose – but the fear is not knowing whether they’re impactful or just prosaic and/or banal. Which is why I sigh with relief every single time a piece of mine gets picked up for publication!

On a purely personal level – one of my biggest drawbacks has to do with not just different genres of writing but also my interest in so many different things about what we call life! That’s why I always start something intending for it to be longer because that’s what publishers tell me sells. (Unless you’re a celebrity author and then anything sells!) But my mind is so full of thoughts and ideas that once the basic story/premise is done – I lose interest in pursuing it and I move on to something else.

Pinkie Swear so densely detailed, reads as autobiographical. How much does your life influence your writing in general? Are you drawn to writers whose fiction is significantly autobiographical? Do you feel curious about the lives of writers you admire? In my case, I tend to feel zero interest in writers’ personal lives – all I want to know is how they write, any strategies they use that might work for me.

Hmm…that’s interesting. It depends on the writer for me. If I were a reader reading something by ‘Roopa Swaminathan’ – I would have ZERO interest in her personal life. But when it comes to writers like Didion and Murakami…I want to know more about them and their backgrounds and how that impacts their art. Then there are some writers like Elizabeth Gilbert whose writing itself is OK but I love hearing her talk about the art and craft of writing, her influences, and what she ‘chooses’ to write about.

For me, again – I go through the gamut. I definitely do dig in from my own experiences (write what you know, right?) but then I also write about what I don’t know. Or write about characters I know nothing about. Interestingly, I’ve had five stories of mine published so far on Outlook India and every single one of them is a story based on characters that have absolutely nothing to do with my life or what happened in it.

With Pinkie Swear, the relationship between the father and daughter is very, very much like what I had with my dad. The love between them is real. There are definitely parts of it that are inspired by my life’s experiences. But the majority of it is fiction. Especially the mother’s character and the daughter’s relationship with her!

Pinkie Swear addresses insidious misogyny: a realtor assumes that the prospective buyer of a flat must be your father, not you. How has your experience with sexism varied between India and the US/UK, and over time? What is your general approach to handling misogyny, which is so ubiquitous and can be so draining? I’m often tempted to just ignore such things because I just don’t have the energy to deal with them. And then I feel guilty: because how can the system change unless we speak up against injustice whenever we encounter it?

The world is truly borderless when it comes to women facing rampant misogyny. The degree of misogyny varies depending on where you live but it’s always there. And it doesn’t even pretend to be covert, it’s in your face! So that misogyny exists is a given. And it does affect me that people like us have reached the stage where just moving on with our lives seems like a better option than fighting the good fight. With incels abounding online…the struggle has gotten even tougher. This constant pushback against ‘woke culture’ where ‘woke culture’ is all about equality and equity – it is exhausting! I’ve reached a stage where I pick my battles. The day-to-day minutiae – I just let go, but if it’s something profound…I do push back. And I’m OK with it. I mean…I am an insomniac otherwise but this choice of mine doesn’t have anything to do with my lack of sleep. My conscience is clear. There’s only so much we can fight.

As far as the story itself – it’s so funny. In fact, when I did buy my home in Pune, my real estate agent knew I was the buyer and was the coolest dude ever! I was a little irked with myself for making him a misogynistic asshole but the story warranted him to be one. So I did!

I tried a few times over the course of a fortnight to access your website, The Messy Optimist. Tell us about this phrase. How does it relate to the narrator’s father, in “Pinkie Swear,” embodying the phrase that “All will be well”? I’d also love to hear your thoughts on this quote from George Carlin: “Inside every disappointed person, there is a disappointed idealist.” What, to you, distinguishes idealism from optimism?

Optimism comes from a deep sense of peace within you. Look, once an idealist, always an idealist. When you’re young and raring to go and think that the whole world owes you something and inevitably it doesn’t – the idealism turns to anger and bitterness. But once you live life and see the world around you – see others who don’t have a millionth of what you have and how privileged you are – when life gives you perspective – then the idealism goes through a change. It is still there and deeply peppered with disappointments but you are also sorted enough by now to realize that in the larger scheme of things, it’s no big deal. You still have a roof over your head, a bathroom with a flushing toilet, and the ability to order pizza and make your own Bloody Marys…so STFU and move on. Sure, you’re still a disappointed person and a disappointed idealist, but you’re also someone who will continue to fight the good fight and not overthink it too much, and become more of an optimist in the long run. I hope this makes sense?

I think it’s that part that I wanted to show through the father’s character in Pinkie Swear. In so many ways – that scene is my imagination of what I now hope would’ve been my own goodbye to my dad. Which did not happen. So, in a way, writing that final scene where the dad says ‘All will be well’ is me making him say it to me – albeit in my story! Sorry! I know you don’t like the personal details but this one came from that unfulfilled space in my life!

Roopa’s National Award winning book – Stardust: Vignettes from the Fringes of Film Industry (Penguin,2004) 

Pinkie Swear movingly describes the narrator’s lifelong relationship with her father, who is extremely supportive while also allowing her to find her own way in the world. What role do you believe parents, especially fathers, need to play in this world which continues to be so hostile to women?

I honestly really lucked out on the parents’ scenario. I’ll admit – my extreme levels of ‘independent’ behavior were not easy for my – not conservative – but a traditional Tam Bram woman like my mom. It was tough for her. So there were some hiccups between us. But we eventually became besties. But dad…uff, man! I have NO idea what I did to deserve that man as my father. Who I am today – an unapologetic woman who lives life entirely on her own terms, someone who understands the importance of putting her foot down but also learning when to give in and let go, who has no issues apologizing even when it’s not her fault only so the other person can get a win, the importance of being financially independent (especially as a woman), someone who never questioned why she wanted to be single and travel the world instead – every part of me is because of my father. He raised me to be a strong woman without ever letting go of my femininity. He instilled in me the importance of not just being financially independent but also being emotionally independent. When I see other women – even in my own family and how dependent they are and compare them to how and who I am – I cannot quantify how important it is for every girl/woman to have a supportive father in their lives. I can honestly say that I am now at that very enviable stage where I ‘want’ people in my life but I don’t ‘need’ them.

One fun anecdote – when I won the National Award for Star Dust – I was in the US. I could have easily come back to India to pick up the award. Instead, I made up a story about how I could not come back because that meant my dad could go to Rashtrapathi Bhavan and pick up the award on my behalf from one of our favorite presidents of India – Dr. Abdul Kalam. It was a way for me to honor my dad for all that he had ever done for me. My dad told me that when President Kalam handed him the award, he asked my father why I wasn’t there. When my dad explained I couldn’t come from the US, President Kalam told him, “You are such a lucky man, Mr. Swaminathan, to have a daughter like Roopa!” I swear to God – my dad would tear up every time he narrated that story!

Roopa’s father receiving her National Award for Star Dust from President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam

I always say “Everyone cannot have everything.” All of us pay a price and have to sacrifice something to get something else. In my case…my being so insanely blessed to get the father I got, I knew – very early on – that I would pay a price for that in other ways throughout my life. And I have. And this includes not getting the kind of success I had hoped for as an artist. But today – I can 100% hand on my heart say – it’s OK. I got the bestest dad. Maybe I don’t deserve anything else. And I am cool with that.

Your piece is about sexism and anti-sexist allies. I’ve been following, with astonishment and pain, the ongoing incel movement, and the antics and criminal trial of swamp animal  Andrew Tate. I’ve heard TED talks by youth counsellors worried about preteen boys getting into this craziness, gratuitously insulting their female classmates. What do you think draws boys to such loathsome figures? What spurs young men to such crimes? Is it simply wanting vengeance for being dethroned by feminism from their “rightful” place in the world? What’s the way forward?

Yes. Yes. And YES. Yes to all of it. Honestly, I think, circa 2024 – things are starting to get worse than even a few years back when I thought things were changing. The more opportunities women are getting, the more financially independent women are becoming, the more threatened men seem to be getting. And things will get a lot worse than they get better.

On a personal level – what I try to do is less about ‘making the men understand.’ Instead, I empower the women around me. I am so gratified that post the ‘Me Too’ movement – there is a very tangible rise of the sisterhood – whether it’s the women you know or don’t know. Women are coming together and I try to do more of that within my own circle. My pushback against incels and the rise of incels is to make them irrelevant – at least from my life. One step at a time, right? The more women empower other women and make the incels irrelevant…hopefully, things will change.

I also make it a point of publicly applauding men who do support women. I don’t think men deserve a medal just for being humans. But that’s where we are today. So…that is something I do as well.

You’ve written candidly about your experience with bereavement. What’s one thing about losing a loved one that most surprised you?

That you will never ever – not ever – ‘get over’ your loss and that ‘time will never be a healer.’ “This too will pass” never actually passes. What I have learned is that you will – at some point in the grieving process – learn to live and navigate your life with your loss. You will go about your life, and your routine, and maybe even start to smile and laugh – but that hole in your heart will stay.

Billy Bob Thornton said something so profound about grief. He said, “I’ve never been the same since my brother died. There is a melancholy inside me that never goes away. I’m 50 percent happy and 50 percent sad at any given moment.” That’s exactly how I feel every single day. 

Roopa’s directorial debut ‘Five by Four’ produced by NFDC & Doordarshan

You’ve worked in film; your book, Star Dust: Vignettes from the Fringes of the Film Industry won the National Award in 2004 for the Best Book on Cinema. Tell us more about your involvement and experiences in film.

Films were, are, and will always be my first love and passion. I gave my Oscar speech for Best Writer and Director at 7 to my dad. Going into details of my ‘film life’ would be like writing a novel. And it’s still too hard for me to talk about. For a while, it all looked like I would be the next big thing to come out of India. And then – just like that – things fell apart.

Suffice it to say – I assisted Mani Ratnam for a year, wrote, executive produced, and directed my first and only English language film for NFDC called Five By Four, wrote Star Dust and won the National Award, and followed that with another book called Bollywood Boom. In between I wrote a few Coffee Table books as well.

I needed and took a break from writing for close to a decade. I slowly started to write back from the end of 2021. I am delighted that given the very little time I have to devote to writing, everything that I have written so far has been published. From fiction to satire, from essays to snarky humor pieces – I write when I can and I write them all.

Oh…one interesting thing happened to me last year. A very big film production company plagiarized one of my screenplays and made a film! I fought the good fight for a bit with them and thought about going on social media and blitzing them, but they brought down the might of their legal department on me. And so I just let it go. I was too tired to fight.

Honestly, that’s about all the film experiences I have in me to talk about for now!

You talk about the difficulties of getting a tenure-track faculty job in the UK, a problem that is becoming increasingly prominent worldwide. Long story short, academia has an abundance of overqualified candidates, and a dearth of tenure-track vacancies. I’ve been hearing about the need for non-tenure-track, part-time careers in academia. My colleagues who’ve stayed in academia and gone abroad are spending many years doing a series of postdoctoral fellowships. What is your perspective on this – and is the situation any different in India? My own stint on the faculty of a private university here in Bangalore suggests that the pressure to keep publishing – along with teaching and other duties – is relentless, often leading to an assembly-line approach to research. What career advice would you offer the growing numbers of young people in India and globally who are pursuing PhDs? And in what ways does the system need to change?

So…I’ve never had an academic job in India. As in I have never taught in India. Only in the US and then in China (Shanghai). Speaking purely from the American perspective – it really is a very difficult space to be in. Especially with the relentless pressure from governments – local and federal – as they cut funding to the Humanities. Combine that with faculty members with tenure who have no intention of quitting even when they can (the US no longer mandates a ‘retirement age’ – people can work for as long as they want and can as long as they do it without it affecting their job performance) – the assembly line of adjunct professors who get paid a whopping $3000 for an entire semester of teaching a class…the situation is beyond tough.

The situation in China is different. There is no scope to be on a tenure track position there. Most international faculty are on yearly contracts (that get renewed) and there are straightforward rules that unis have to follow.

In terms of advice…my practical side always wins over my ideological side and I tell my students that the reality of pursuing an academic life is very grim. So unless this is something they cannot imagine not doing – I encourage them to look for ‘practical’ careers and write on the side. It’s what I did and still do.

Roopa on holiday in Dubai

You teach creative writing to college students. What’s that experience been like? I taught an open elective in creative writing for one semester during my brief stint as an educator: I went in with a syllabus I’d carefully put together, fun modules on Story, Character, and Setting – but, in the event, the class was largely undermined by students continually missing class due to other obligations, vastly varying levels of talent and enthusiasm, and my concerns about whether the pieces students were turning in were in fact attributable to ChatGPT. I did, however, enjoy getting to build my critiquing muscles, and encouraging the one or two students who showed definite talent and/or passion. How do you approach teaching creative writing in 2024?

Two things I do to combat Chat GPT. First, I follow my professor from Grad school who told us during our first lecture that every single person in class has an A. She said the only way your grade will fall is if you don’t turn in your work and if you plagiarize. So essentially, she never graded us on the actual ‘writing’ itself. That took so much of the pressure away from the class. When we workshopped our stories with her, she was ruthless in her comments. But that only made us want to do better because we weren’t worried about her ‘grading’ us. I think that was brilliant. I don’t think any creative art form should be ‘graded.’ Art is so subjective. And what is complete and utter trash to me finds its audience in the millions sometimes. So, I try not to judge art. That has really worked for me.

Second…I try to have more in-class writing assignments. No phones. No laptops. A paper and pen. That allows me to gauge a student’s writing skills. So when they suddenly turn in an impeccable story courtesy of our friend Chat GPT – I know. And more importantly – THEY KNOW.

As far as getting kids to be interested – here’s one more place where I lucked out. Teaching kids in China is unlike ANYTHING you will ever experience. They are so polite, so driven, so academically inclined and so respectful and mindful of their teachers and their education – that what you have described – I have never experienced! In the US – again, these classes are taken only by the writing majors. So barring a handful here and there – I’ve been very lucky to have kids who are interested in the art form.

If I were to teach in India and faced the same issues you faced – I guess my fallback would be to take solace from the 2/3 students who are interested in what we as teachers have to say as opposed to worry over the ones for whom the creative arts is a fall back elective class they took because ‘nothing else was there.’ Getting older has taught me to not take things to heart and to let go. I use that both personally and professionally. I am also not above using the fact that I am a fairly successful artist who has ‘accomplished’ a little something with my art with my students. I use my marginal success in my favor. I always tell my kids that I am not the teacher in the saying, “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.’ I tell them “I can and I do. I also teach to make money on the side!’ I find that the Gen Z crowd really goes for my attempt at swagger!


Amita Basu is the Columnist and Interviews Editor of MeanPepperVine. She loves Captain Planet, barefoot running, and George Eliot. If dozing in the sun all day were a viable career, she’d be a world-champion sunbather. Her superpowers are befriending any dog on earth, whistling tunefully (while being totally unable to sing), and combining five bright colours in one outfit. Five is the limit, though.


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