Shree Ghatage Talks About New Novel ‘Thirst’ and Drawing Inspiration from the Past

When people talk about arranged marriages, it is usually to disparage the cold, business-like, procedural nature of the act and the lack of love involved. However, in Thirst, the second novel from Calgary-based writer Shree Ghatage, the surprising complexities of human relationships are examined through a young couple that meet on their wedding day and fall in love despite the circumstances and the tumultuous time in which they live.

Born in Mumbai, India, Shree Ghatage moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada in 1983. Her collection of short stories entitled Awake When All the World is Asleep was published in 1997 by House of Anansi Press and subsequently, after moving to Calgary, Alberta, with her family in 1998, her first novel Brahma’s Dream was published by Doubleday Canada in 2004.

As part of the Harbourfront’s Authors at Harbourfront Centre series, Ghatage is in Toronto to participate in a reading on Wednesday, June 13 and to promote her latest novel, Thirst, alongside other authors, including Katrina Onstad and Grace O’Connell.

On Monday afternoon, at the Toronto offices of publisher Random House of Canada, I met with author Shree Ghatage to talk about her new novel, a story about unexpected love set in the 1940s during World War II and crossing between India and Great Britain. With her characteristic insight into the portrayal of human relationships, with all their beauty and flaws, this is a story that provides an intimate look at themes of love, war, migration, and coming of age.

When I meet her, a gentle smile, youthful face, and open curiosity about me (my unusual name, my braided hair, which she admiringly compares to a beaded curtain) combine to give a lasting impression of a graceful and elegant personality. Despite having won the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award for her short story collection, Awake When All the World is Asleep—as well as being nominated for several more—Ghatage retains a disarming sense of humility. When asked about her inspiration to write, she says she is driven by a desire to write well, and to produce good books.

“I love writing, and I think, partly, it’s the creative exploration, maybe, that I find very interesting,” she says. “I just feel I want to learn how to write well. And maybe that in itself is an inspiration, just to write well, to write nice sentences, to, you know, write a good book.” She laughs as she says this, but it’s difficult to imagine that the writer who has been compared to such literary heavyweights as Rohinton Mistry and Carol Shields could ever write a bad sentence.

Her latest novel is set in World War II, skipping back and forth between India and Great Britain. The protagonist is a young man who has just entered into an arranged marriage, right before leaving for England to study. Like Ghatage’s other works, Thirst examines the complexity of human relationships, especially when put to the test by difficult circumstances. However, that’s not the only thing they have in common, as this book is actually a loosely linked sequel to her previous novel, Brahma’s Dream.

“My previous novel, Brahma’s Dream, had a character who was off-camera. He was just mentioned in it, that he goes to England to study,” she says. “So after that novel was published, I started writing my next one, which became Thirst. I was just fascinated by his story and wanted to know what happened to him. So I started writing about him, to explore, and that’s how that came about.”

With Thirst, as with all of her writing, Ghatage says she did not follow a plot, preferring instead to explore her characters’ lives and allow the plot to unfold from that starting point.

“I think the theme comes from the exploration, when I start writing about a character,” she says. “The theme emerges as I’m writing about him and as I’m getting to know him—or her, whatever the case might be—and my novels have a lot of people in them! So all the people, and all the characters I’m exploring and writing about, I think the theme kind of finds itself, rather than me imposing it.”

What emerges from this process is a story that draws from extensive research into the England and India of the World War II era, a process she says was pleasurable for all of the knowledge she gained. It also touches on the immigrant experience common to so many Canadian writers, which Ghatage herself has experienced, having moved with her family from India almost thirty years ago.

This experience, particularly as an Indo-Canadian writer, has led to comparisons drawn between Ghatage and other notable Canadian writers of East Indian descent, such as Rohinton Mistry and Michael Ondaatje. But she does not find much commonality with these writers in terms of themes or subject matter, noting that the only common ground appears to be where they each respectively came from.

However, she does note that the themes in her own writing of migration and relocation are influenced by her own experiences. She acknowledges that who you are as a person is informed by what twists and turns your life takes; and as a writer, this by necessity, determines what you are interested in writing about.

“As people we are evolving all the time, right? And part of evolving is time and place; what time you were born in, and what place you are at, and what’s happening at that particular time in that particular place,” says Ghatage.

“So I have been living in Canada now for almost 30 years . . . definitely my travelling and my having moved here from India does inform my writing, because it’s informed my day to day life, which evolves my thought processes and makes me interested or not [interested] in certain things. So as you start writing, obviously whatever interests you is what you write about. And what is interesting you is informed by the kind of person you become.”

She also notes that the books she reads, and particularly their style of writing, inform the way she writes.

“I love British-born authors; I don’t know why. Maybe it’s kind of a leftover thing from my childhood where I was reading British authors all the time. I tend to read books that are also set [in the past]. . . . For instance the most recent book I read was Middlemarch, which is set in the 19th century. Then I also read Thomas Hardy very recently. So I do tend to go back, and I find those authors tend to inspire me. Maybe it’s because I grew up with them, so they’re very familiar to me as well.”

This year is bound to be an eventful one for Ghatage. To promote her new novel, she’ll be reading it at the Harbourfront on Wednesday, June 13 as well as participating later in the year at Calgary’s WordFest literary festival in Banff. But she is not one to waste time, it seems, as she reveals that she has already begun work on another novel.

“I’d like to think it is part of a trilogy. I haven’t written the third—the third is in the process of being worked out—[but] there is this kind of loose connection [with Brahma’s Dream and Thirst], even though they are standalone books.”

So fans of her work can hope to see more soon from this talented, compassionate voice in Canadian literature.