Prasanthi Ram’s debut work of fiction, Nine Yard Sarees, is not a short story collection. It is instead a short story cycle—a far less commonly seen format where individual stories connect with and build upon one another, woven together by an overarching narrative which gets incrementally richer from start to finish.
In a sense, a short story cycle is greater than the sum of its parts—and so are the Srinivasans, the Tamil Brahmin nuclear family at the centre of Nine Yard Sarees. Through their distinctive voices (and a host of related characters who sprout from one another), Ram traces the intricate dynamics that shape a family through generations, evoking tender nostalgia and painful awakening all at once.
Ram’s unconventional choice of format becomes her superpower for bringing across nuance. Her characters—undoubtedly the biggest pleasures of the book—grow from page to page, bursting with multi-dimensionality and colour. Where in one story, a mother’s insistence on lugging a rice cooker all the way to America turns out to be the only reason her vegetarian family is able to enjoy a meal on their holiday, in another, the same stubbornness which was once a protective force turns into an ugly, destructive one.
With visceral writing and razor-sharp characterisation, Ram masterfully traverses the grey areas that surround our family lives. Here, she shares the process behind building the 11-story pilgrimage and what she hopes to leave readers with.
Why did you choose to write Nine Yard Sarees as a short story cycle instead of a novel?
When I started writing Nine Yard Sarees, I realised that I had several trajectories instead of just one plot. My PhD supervisor, Boey Kim Cheng, suggested that I consider the short story cycle since I’m looking at both the individual and the unit. It benefits the reader because while they have the freedom to take each story individually, there are small details—I would call them Easter eggs—in each story that wouldn’t make sense on their own but have impact as a whole. I like the idea that this might entice my audience to pay attention to the little things and be more active as readers.
The stories in the book are built around different characters from one intergenerational Tamil Brahmin family. Where did this idea come from?
I knew from the start that I wanted to base the book on a family. Interestingly, a family is often assumed to be monolithic. But, in fact, we can be diverse. The idea began with the Srinivasans and organically grew around them. I wanted every story to introduce a unique perspective. If you compare, say, Padma with her younger sister Prema, you’ll find that their relationship with religion is fundamentally different. And there’s a reason for that which is explored in the book.
“Culture can be empowering because it gives you a sense of belonging, but it can also be a trap when people use it to impose a particular way of being onto you”
Under the surface of the narrative, was there a wider goal or intention behind how you wrote the book?
I chose to present nine main characters with the goal of showing how individual these people are and how heterogenous and diverse the community can be. I also wanted the stories to speak against any idea of orthodoxy or conservatism. Culture can be empowering because it gives you a sense of belonging, but it can also be a trap when people use it to impose a particular way of being onto you.
Given the breadth of perspectives you portray in the book, how did you approach writing characters whose belief systems are fundamentally opposed to yours?
I struggled with Padma as she has several problematic ideas I cannot condone. I ended up taking a month-long break during the writing process, but came to the conclusion that if I am intending to give voice to the women from this family, that includes her. My choice was ultimately to let her be as honest as she could. By showing her real thoughts that the other characters are not privy to, it sets up the possibility for some level of growth eventually.
Who is the one character from the book you relate the most to?
The answer to this changes every day. For today, I’ll choose Shweta. Shweta is in her 50s and running her own fashion business. She refuses to get married because she’s not interested in being a wife or a mother. She faces a lot of resistance and judgment from others, but the truth is that she’s super cool.
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