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Finding Humour In Suffering: Tushar Rishi On Writing A Deeply Personal Novel

In this interview, Michelle D’costa, the Managing Editor of Bound talks to Tushar Rishi, the author of ‘The Patient Patient’ (Westland, 2016). We found out more about his debut YA novel, and his writing journey since then. 

‘The Patient Patient’ is not only a young boy’s tale about cancer, it is also a story of the peculiarities of life, and his attempt to handle it with courage, dignity, and humour.

Your novel ‘The Patient Patient’ stood out to me for its title. Can you tell us how it came about?
So as you know, the novel is about a young boy who gets diagnosed with bone cancer, has to undergo chemo, surgery–his whole happy-go-lucky life is turned upside down. And cancer treatment is a long, indefinite process – it can go on for years without any guarantee of survival. On top of that, he is admitted in AIIMS, Delhi, which runs on its own time. So the title is a play on the two meanings of ‘Patient’ – someone who is receiving medical treatment and someone who can bear problems or delays without complaining.

Your book is a semi-autobiographical novel. How did you decide what to draw from life and what to fictionalize?
Well, the hospital parts are more or less drawn entirely from my own experience as a cancer patient in AIIMS. The rest of it is fictionalized, I would say. Though I don’t think any piece of writing can maintain these supposedly strict boundaries of reality and fiction. So even the scenes drawn from life have fictional elements in it that didn’t ‘really’ happen and vice versa.

You wrote this book in your teens. Since when have you been writing and what helped you write a complete novel?
My earliest memory of writing is of this unfinished action-packed thriller I wrote when I was in 6th standard. I think my mother still has that notebook safe somewhere. As for writing The Patient Patient, I was journaling during the one year of treatment, and started working on the novel after I returned home to Ranchi after the last chemo. I was also ‘restarting’ my life in a way, studying for my 10th Board exams which I had to miss the previous year, so at that time it felt like a great way to escape the drudgery of studying Chemistry and Biology. I would just sit and write for a few hours every day.

What books did you read while you were writing your novel? Any YA novels?
Some of the books I read back then: Looking for Alaska and other novels by John Green, The Kite Runner, Wonder, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, then some works by Jeffrey Archer.

I loved the characters in your book, for how supportive they are of Sameer. Can you tell us how you created character sketches for each of them?
Most of the characters are inspired by people I know. They are all supportive of Sameer, but in their own unique ways. I wanted to explore how different people respond to these sudden changes in life in their own different ways. I was fortunate to have such supportive people around me; I am well aware that it’s not like that for everyone.

I was curious about the choice of narration. Why didn’t you pick the first person point of view to narrate the story?
I wanted to show points of view other than the protagonist’s, like how people around him–his parents, his brother, his friends, the extended family–were affected by the whole thing. So while most of the narration stays close to the protagonist, there are scenes in different cities from other characters’ point of view too. I found the third person narration more suitable for this, which is not to say that it can’t be done in other ways.

The dialogues in the book sound authentic; they keep the reader hooked. Here’s one ‘Kamaal karte ho, Pandeyji!’ the young patient from across the hall said. ‘They have just come to visit the boy. They will leave in a few minutes. Load na lo. Don’t tense yourself.’ Did you have a journal to keep a track of events as they happened?

I did journal during the treatment, and it definitely helped shape the novel, but I never noted dialogues or anything for future reference. I didn’t know I was going to write a novel when I was journaling; that came later.
And I am glad you liked the dialogues. It’s something I am always struggling with – English prose, multilingual characters, the question of ‘authenticity’. 

“I don’t know what will happen to my novel. The rights will revert to me in a few months, but I don’t have an agent, so it will be really difficult to find a new publisher for a five year old work. Westland, and Deepthi, my editor there, gave me a chance when I was in school. It changed my life in so many ways. I don’t think any other major publisher would do something like that.”

The book is a very fast read. How did you manage the pace of the book?
I get this a lot. My cousin, who is not really a reader, told me that he finished my novel in one sitting. I don’t know how to respond to this. Maybe it’s because I try to write short chapters and simple sentences? And the pace of a book depends on the reader too.

Your story though very realistic, has humour too. Here is an interior monologue of Sameer, can you tell us how the humour came about?

He wanted to gift her something as a token of gratitude, but all he had inside his small cupboard were clothes, his camera, a few magazines and a pair of tubes containing his own blood. He doubted if she would like his blood. What if she is a vampire, Sameer thought and laughed loudly inside his head.

You said my story is humorous despite being realistic, but I think it feels realistic because it has humour. This is something I learned at the hospital, where we used to joke about the most painful parts of the treatment. I think we need this now more than ever. Not some kind of toxic positivity, where you can make everything bad go away by ‘focusing on the good things’, but silly humour that is conscious of and never separate from the underlying tragedy. I believe we are a doomed species if we can’t laugh at ourselves.

The story covers a lot, illness, friendship, family, love, the state of the medical system in the country and more. What’s your process of plotting and how did you manage to say so much through the story?
I didn’t know anything about plotting when I was writing it, so I just wrote the first draft chapter by chapter and revised it later. All I knew was that the protagonist was not going to die at the end, that cancer was not going to be a synonym for death like it usually is in so many contemporary narratives.

Have you reread your book post publication, do you want to change anything in it?
I never felt the need to revisit it post publication until this April, when the second wave was just beginning. This was around the third week of April, with the whole crisis of hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, everything. My own cousin was struggling to find a bed for my uncle in Gaya. I don’t know what made me do it, but I was sorting my bookshelf around this time when I found a copy of the novel, and I revisited some scenes, especially the hospital ones, and it reminded me that our country’s healthcare system has been like this for years. The whole discourse on social media was around this shock, that ‘oh, how could the government let this happen?” As if it was happening for the first time. If you visit the cancer hospital at AIIMS, or any other department for that matter, you will realize that we as a country have been letting it happen for a long, long time. I wish we didn’t need a pandemic to talk about these things. Revisiting those scenes, meeting those characters struggling to get dates for surgery and chemotherapy, made me think about the current situation in a broader context.

Coming back to your question, yes, when I revisited it, I did feel the urge to edit parts of it again, but I was also surprised by some of the things I had done there. I mean, it has poems, blog posts, text messages. As a student of literature, I found it really intriguing.

What was your publishing experience like since it was your first book and what kind of editing went into it?
It was really exciting. I didn’t know anyone in the publishing industry so it was quite surprising that I received a reply from a publisher like Westland at all. Usually it doesn’t work like that. But I am glad they saw potential in my story and decided to publish it.
About the kind of editing that went into it, all I can say is that I would have hated to work on a novel with seventeen-year-old me. But the team at Westland, specially my editor Deepthi, was really patient with me throughout the process.

You have written poetry too, you were longlisted for the TOTO Creative Writing Prize 2021. What do you enjoy writing more, prose or poetry and why?
Poetry–I don’t really know why.

You’ve also made short films, what’s that experience like?
I made a short film this year as a course requirement – an experimental adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story ‘Patol Babu, Film Star,’ where I tried to explore the fictional story along with the real life of my friend Samay, who’s a struggling actor in Mumbai. We were working in this covid situation, without a script, set, equipment, or budget. Just three friends and a phone camera. It was an amazing experience. It was also recently longlisted for the TOTO Short Film Award 2022.

You have dedicated your book to teenage cancer-fighters, have you heard from readers who have read the book?
Yes, mostly positive comments.

Novels that have made an impression on you and why
That would be a long list. I will mention the ones I read recently which left an impression on me: The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Kashi Ka Assi by Kashinath Singh, Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, and Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A lot can be said about each of these works, but here I would say that all of them, in their own unique ways, challenged my ideas of what a novel can or cannot do.

One thing you would like to tell writers who want to publish a book in their teens.

Three things: One, learn to enjoy the time you spend writing. Two, don’t think a lot about getting published. And three, don’t take advice from someone like me.

What do you think about Amazon’s decision to shut down Westland? Do you see a future for your book?

When I first read about the decision on Feb 1st, I didn’t really believe it. It was only after the official email from Westland the next day that it dawned on me that my novel was really going to be out of print soon.I don’t want to speculate on why Amazon did this. I am sure their fancy business team saw it as a profitable decision. But the entire community of readers, writers, booksellers, scholars, critics, everyone is at loss. And, I also wonder, what about the characters?

I don’t know what will happen to my novel. The rights will revert to me in a few months, but I don’t have an agent, so it will be really difficult to find a new publisher for a five year old work. Westland, and Deepthi, my editor there, gave me a chance when I was in school. It changed my life in so many ways. I don’t think any other major publisher would do something like that. I have no idea what other Westland authors are going to do, but I hope it turns out all right for everyone.

What are you doing now and what’s next?

Currently I am pursuing my Masters in English from JNU. Apart from that, I have been working on a story for some time now, but it’s too early for me to say anything because even I don’t know where the story will take me. Let’s see how it turns out.

Tushar Rishi is a writer from Jharkhand, India. His novel, The Patient Patient (Westland Books, 2016), was shortlisted for Best Debut English Novel 2016 at Pune International Literature Festival, and was translated into Hindi in 2018. His poems have appeared in The Medley, Prologue, Narrow Road, and Parcha. His short story was recently longlisted for the TOTO Award for Creative Writing 2022. He is currently pursuing his MA in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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