Ashim Shanker is an American-born novelist of Indian descent and author of “Don’t Forget to Breathe,” the first in a series of surreal fiction novels following the exploits of a character named Bunnu and his immigrant family. Weaving elements of Hindu mythology and Japanese folklore into the narrative, Shanker has created a unique story that is largely theme-based, rather than plot-based. The characters and their endeavors tend to be vehicles through which larger, metaphysical concepts can be explored. The fragmentation of cultural identity plays a large role in his characters’ search for meaning, to the absurd extreme that they find themselves continually at odds with their own perceptions and at the whims of forces far beyond their comprehension, or capabilities to resist.
A free e-book of “Don’t Forget to Breathe” is currently available in PDF format at the following address: http://www.lulu.com/content/5286844. Print versions are also available on Amazon (US, UK, CA, DE, FR, JP), BarnesandNoble.com, and Lulu.com.
Shanker was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania to a family of Indian immigrants. Though all of his schooling was in the United States, he often spent summers in Delhi with his relatives. He went on to graduate from Pennsylvania State University and lived in New York briefly before moving to Tokyo, Japan, where he currently resides. He is now working on his second novel, “The Deplorable Expatriate.”
David Hoenigman: When and why did you begin writing?
Ashim Shanker: The question of ‘when’ is a rather simple one. I wrote my first short story at the age of eleven. No one pushed me to do it. No single person inspired me to do it. Somehow, writing just felt like my natural state. It might have had something to do with the fact that I had a rather active imagination. In fact, as I entered my teenage years, I started to realize that those moments in which I didn’t write—or wasn’t otherwise absorbed in my own imaginative ventures—I was left to contend with the tedium of everyday existence…and often with the pangs I can only associate with growing up in an Indian family in rural PA. In fact, to cease to write or to fight my urge to do so, felt as though I were obstructing some sort of flow that originated from an indeterminate point elsewhere outside of me. I realized that there was something that possibly existed beyond me—something much larger in scale which I couldn’t quite comprehend that was impelling me to be this way. Which brings us to the ‘why.’
I descend from a subcaste called Kayastha, whose exact place in the Hindu caste system is a matter of some dispute. Regardless, it is said that the Kayastha’s role is that of a scribe. However, very few Kayasthas are able to see the practicality of this function anymore. And perhaps, they’re right. Modern Indian society has long since started to favor pragmatism over spiritual necessity. Self-preservation over self-discovery. The primary directive has become more about preserving one’s social status than abiding by its metaphysical meaning. As such, it’s no mistake that, these days, you will find no shortage of Kayastha lawyers, engineers, and doctors. Perhaps, they are all scribes, as well.
As for me, at a young age, I was pushed by my parents and older relatives to become a doctor. I had to suffer a nervous breakdown or two before I could realize that perhaps I was?never meant to go in that direction. For me, on a personal level, something about the whole situation just felt so terribly wrong. And so, I started to tread my own path instead, ignoring the advice and criticism of my elders…and I would like to think that if this is what has allowed me to continue writing—and hence, to be in my natural state—it could be no mistake.
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?
AS: I can pin down numerous sources of inspiration from my early childhood to even my most trivial daily experiences here in Japan. However, I think it was during my second year in Tokyo that it started to become clear where this was all starting to lead. I had just been excommunicated—in a manner of speaking—from a congregation of brutish and unsavory reprobates with whom I had been running around, wreaking all kinds of havoc on the local citizenry. Nothing serious, really, aside from the occasional bout of unchecked belligerence. I can’t say that my behavior as a member of this sinister order had been born of my own natural inclinations, but then again, perhaps it was. Regardless, there is something about being in a group of such men that renders the discriminating and austere mind all the more malleable to suggestion. One runs afoul of his own principles in favor of embarking on misogynistic crusades and the temptation to proceed further becomes too stupefying to dismiss casually. My allegiance to the tenets of our collective reprobation was, at best, mysterious and my behavior uncharacteristically aggressive—albeit not violently so. Eventually, it all culminated in my visitation upon them of a betrayal so inconceivable, the shock waves are still, years later, readily apparent. The details of the betrayal, much less the maxims it violated, are irrelevant, except to say that I had simply gone too far.
The group cast me away and I plunged deep to the limits of a humility that tore me apart before building me anew once again. And then, began a year of intense reflection as to the nature of my actions. The nature of a so-called individual. My year of torment and self-loathing fostered in me an already festering mistrust I had had of groups and a fearful regard for the nature of group identity. To think I had allowed myself to commit actions I would otherwise deem unthinkable (again, these details are mundane and irrelevant). I could only say, “I had not been myself.” Or had I?
Our nature is, in many regards, an overlapping of group identities. We exist as cultural, religious, political, and familial parts to the anthropic whole. Then, what are we outside of this amalgamation of identities? What are we, when it clings to us, but we feel no connection with it? When I go to India, why does it still seem so alien to me? Since my childhood, I had always had the feeling of missing out on something that I simply knew was a part of me.
In retrospect, I feel that maybe this had all been an illusion. I could only hope for a greater Truth than that which exists in our vain and self-aggrandizing approximations thereof. It was musings and meditations of this nature that impelled me to start writing “Don’t Forget to Breathe”
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?
AS: When I was young, my brother and I would often spend summers in Delhi with our relatives. It was there that we could listen to the many stories of our ‘Shot Nana.’ Shot Nana was an old friend of my grandfather’s. At a relatively young age, he had decided to renounce marriage and most of his worldly possessions to seek the life of ascetic simplicity, otherwise reserved for Hindu mystics. In fact, he never actually made it to the mountains, as one might typically expect, but only got about as far as my grandfather’s living room, where he lived for over 30 years, doing horoscopes and telling stories to anyone willing to listen (much to my grandfather’s chagrin). And yet, regardless of how the rest of my family felt about him, it was his stories that sparked my imagination: the tales of his travels throughout India and beyond to places I could only imagine; stories of ghosts and psychics and mystical creatures that wrought my mind with possibilities.
It was these kinds of possibilities that obsessed me and further led me to what would become my future literary influences. At first, it started with science fiction with the works of H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. Slowly, over time, it progressed to satire and absurdist humor by imaginative authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Voltaire, Albert Camus, and Tom Robbins; and then to the surreal, the magical realist and the metaphysical, with the writings of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, William S. Burroughs, Italo Calvino, Comte de Lautréamont, and Alfred Jarry.
Naturally, over time, my tastes have changed, as has the way I view the world. But I still believe I can trace it all back to Shot Nana.
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?
AS: My style has come to infuse elements of each of the aforementioned genres with philosophical musings—often intentionally absurd— into the nature of existence. All of my characters seek to know the answers that they simply can’t have…and so they improvise, with typically humorous results. They are all somehow drained of their identity, deprived of their roots, and made to reason their way blindly through circumstances in which they have to contend with inscrutable forces, unlikely allies, and absurd outcomes. I use elements of surrealism sparingly and merely as a tool for metaphysical inquiry. The protagonists are sometimes likely to make false assumptions about the situations they are in, as they are given to being excessively subjective and incapable of coming to terms with the objective elements of their reality. It is in exaggerating these personality flaws on the part of the characters that I often seek to highlight humankind’s inability to understand the constructs of its own existence without resorting to some degree of subjective idealization.
Having grown up in an immigrant family in the United States and now living in Japan, I understand just how much people’s perceptions of reality are skewed by the culture in which they live. It is something from which we try to separate ourselves, though we are constantly overpowered by it, no matter how hard we try. If there is a truth to be had beyond subjectivity, it cannot be found without first deconstructing all of which we have come to see as fundamentally true. This is the central paradox that underlies a lot of my writing.
DH: What projects are you currently working on?
AS: Right now, I am working on the sequel to “Don’t Forget to Breathe” called “The Deplorable Expatriate,” although the title is subject to change at a later date. It’s a little early to say very much about it, except that it is not a sequel in the traditional sense. In the first 50 pages, heroes have already become antiheroes, mock cannibalism has become a franchise industry, and an erstwhile Beastslayer has taken on a more practical profession—that of a podiatrist. I’ll say no more than this.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.