Mis(S) Adventures Of A Sales Girl
International Women’s Day Special
Meet Aashisha Chakraborty. She is probably one of the youngest novelists writing in English in the country. Her language is beautiful, dotted with a lot of humour, satire and love through a novel focussed on a young sales executive’s tracing a family secret that has been chasing her when she first chances upon it at the age of 25.
Chakraborty was chosen as one of the 75 pan-India authors under 30 for the PM-YUVA scheme for her work of historical fiction with National Book Trust, India. She was the winner of Times of India’s ‘Write India Season 2 for Shobhaa De. She wrote for various Readomania anthologies and e-books by Women’s Web and Inside IIM.
A winner of Kaafiya (the Delhi Poetry Festival), she showcases her short stories on Readomania Premium. An MBA from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi, and a computer engineer from Jamia Millia Islamia, she reads and travels compulsively, and blogs on her online diary—The Mind Bin. Her debut novel by Rupa Publications released on September 1, 2022. Here are excerpts from a candid conversation with the author.
Why the title Mis(S) Adventures Of A Salesgirl?
The title happened spontaneously. I initially wanted to keep it as ‘Twenty-Five’ for the story centred around a 25-year-old girl and a 25-year-old secret, but eventually, the current title jumped out at me. The extra S in brackets refers to ‘Miss Adventure’ like a pseudonym and, the ‘Mis’ refers to the misses and the misadventures that the youngish MBA grad had while doing sales. I wanted to have the word ‘salesgirl’ in it to de-stereotype the profession and to normalise the presence of women in sales.
What was the main trigger for the novel? Or can you write without one?
A few years ago, I was making marketing models for products, writing college blogs and partying when my life changed with an internship at this telecom firm. It took me to Chennai and made me do things I had never done before.
I was going from shop to shop selling SIM cards, drinking buttermilk and juices from roadside stands, eating meals on-the-go, walking for miles under the scorching sun and working in the office till 11 pm. I had never before heard people screaming at each other, demanding sales numbers. Frankly, I was terrified and triggered enough to pen this novel.
How do you plan your time, between your job and your writing?
Yes, I have a full-time job and this career-slashing (writing, blogging, speaking, aashisha.com, The Mind Bin) can be taxing. Sometimes, I feel like flying off to an unknown land and starting over all over again. Then another day begins and I forget it.
Time-management is the most challenging and also, the most exciting. Although a bit of a workaholic, I try to ensure that I find time to do the kind of work I love, even if that time is snatched from a chilled-out gathering, Netflix-bingeing or my precious sleep, at times.
I can guess that parts of the novel, and the characters, are borrowed from real life. How much of it will you say is true and how much fiction?
The novel is drawn heavily from my experiences as a sales intern so the mapping of Chennai- the places mentioned along with the sales anecdotes. The hustle, questions, rejections, heat, dirt, 2 am meetings, Pondicherry tales, are all true. Of course, the love stories aren’t, nor the nicknames or the 25-year-old secret. I satiated the romantic in me by concocting colourful details around the place and the story.
Since you are hyper-busy, how do you combine more than two roles in your young life?
Someone told me to take it slow lest I burn out. I realise that burnouts happen easily at this stage of life. I am learning to take a few breaks between demanding tasks, focus on self-care and not fret too much if things don’t go my way.
More than time management, it is the management of expectations that trumps me, the expectations I have from myself and others. I am trying and learning as I move ahead.
Your language, style and fluidity in writing is brilliant. Has this been a natural trait? Or, did your English medium schooling help you acquire a good command over English? Or, do you take guidance from someone else?
I strongly believe in command over language. I have been a voracious reader feeding off of Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse, JKR, Dickens, Orwell, Stephen King, Arundhati Roy, Ruskin Bond, and so on. I have had amazing English teachers, some of whom are still connected to me and I have mentioned them in my acknowledgments.
My mother, teaching for over 30 years, has been a great force in helping me discover this fantastic literary world. I have been scribbling since high school so I guess spontaneous and organic is who I am, both as a person and a writer. I don’t know what to do if not write.
I have never chanced upon a lead character in a novel suffering from OCD. How did this idea strike you?
I have an obsessive personality myself. At least the germophobic part is true and I wanted to explore the possibility somewhere. My first novel seemed a good enough place for that, especially because a germaphobe in ground sales is an anachronism and ideally should be avoided at all costs. I had a horrid time trying to keep my messed-up mind quiet and obedient to work on the ground.
Do you follow a discipline in writing such as setting a deadline, with a place to sit down and write, put on music as you write and so on?
I wish I had the discipline to write every day. But I like variety every day, want something new to work on and that too as per my own desires. It is difficult to fit such expectations so I keep my ideas reserved for special days or weekends. I let the creative hose pipe loose. But when I have a commissioned work to complete, I work on a strict deadline-no distraction, no food, no calls. Lo-fi music or Daft Punk and Radiohead are welcome to get my creative wheels running.
You have classified your chapters in a unique way, beginning with headings and then going on to a number of days. Is there a purpose?
I have always wanted to write a novel spanning over a day, hour or month, so you will find my debut novel has a timespan of two months. The headings are for comic relief and to give a feel of what is to come next. I even added sales tips, because they are quite common-sensical and true. Besides, being quite finicky about order and coming from an engineering-MBA background, I like lists and order and everything in a certain way.
It is quite a thick book running into 242 pages. How long did it take you to finish the novel?
It was an even thicker book at first. I am very verbose. It took me about three months to write the first draft. I went back to it after another three months. I rewrote the book a couple of times, slashed chapters, added characters, kept experimenting till I got the deal in 2020. I went about it in an unstructured but intuitive way. I could have done a better job if I had more time or read it more, but that is a learning I am going to reserve for my next novel.
Does Enakshi haunt you still, considering that she lived with you for so long?
Haunt, no. A part of me is her, only a part. I am quite hyper and move from story to story quickly, shrugging off characters and creating new ones. For me, there is a constant character creator somewhere inside, that helps me imprint my imagined characteristics on them. But once I get back to the book, I know I will feel new things about the characters and would have more to do with them.
Looking back, how do you react to your own work?
My initial reaction was jubilation but eventually it turned to a wary feeling about being judged. I haven’t read my own book post publishing. It gives me the jitters. I am afraid of finding something unpardonably wrong with the book and then I won’t be able to show my face to the world. Right now, I am planning on writing more books while mustering up the courage to read the ones I have already written.
Which writers do you hold close to your heart and why?
Classics like ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen, ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte are my old favourites. Of course, being a true-blue bong, I swear by Tagore’s works. Among contemporary writers, I hold the works of Philip Roth, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood in high esteem.
Your next novel?
My second novel, ‘The 13-year-old Queen and Her Inherited Destiny’, published by the National Book Trust, was launched by Nobel Laureate Annie Ernaux at the World Book Fair on February 25.
It is a fictionalised account of the life and times of Rani Gaidinliu, one of the bravest freedom fighters from the northeast, who spent 14 years in prison for her land and people. I wrote this as part of the PM-YUVA scheme wherein 75 authors under the age of 30 were selected by the Ministry of Education to write about the unsung fighters of the Indian freedom movement.
Given a choice, would you consider quitting your job to become a full-time writer?
I love to do multiple things which keep the thrill going in my life and ensure my sanity. Some of the things on my bucket list are running 100 km someday, visiting the Poles, living in different countries.
I understand being in a staid job may not enable me to do the above things, so, if quitting my job seems like the right thing to do sometime in the future, for instance, if I get enough book deals to keep me busy, or if some alternate career strikes me, I will happily leave my job.