Not a Storyteller: An Interview With 'Quarterlife' Author Devika Rege

"As I understand it, the novelist’s task is to make meaning of the ideas of an epoch through a textual form that is uniquely spacious and versatile. To think of fiction as anything less is to underestimate its potential."

Kozhikode: Devika Rege’s debut novel Quarterlife is an exploration into the minds and lives of young India in the years around 2014 – a time which saw political shifts in the country, and around the world, that we’re all still living under. Starting with with the narratives of three protagonists, each experiencing and living the shifts differently, the novel then expands to create a multi-character narrative that feels like an expansive journey into the protagonists’ lives and minds, approaching all the different stories with a familiarity and sensitivity.

The novel opens with Naren Agashe, who decides to come back to India after working at a multinational in the US because of the economic opportunities he believes are opening up, and because an isolated life in the States was making him unhappy. He is joined on his journey home by Amanda, a college classmate who wants to volunteer in India. Naren’s younger brother, Rohit, is an aspiring film producer with boyish charms who is looking for his purpose.

The book’s perspective isn’t limited to the three of them – it grows to encompass their friends, families and the people they encounter, including Omkar Khaire, a filmmaker and a karyakarta for the ruling right-wing party.

Rege spoke to The Wire about the choices she made in her book, how its central theme emerged, and more.

Your book is set in a very precise moment, right after the 2014 elections. That’s a moment I think everyone would agree was pivotal, though they may have different opinions on it. And that moment still feels exceedingly present, because we’re still feeling the impact of it, it’s still continuing. What drew you to this as the setting for your book? 

The moment might be precise, but I hope the novel feels relevant to a much longer arc. 2014 brought to the fore widescale moral, cultural and economic changes in Indian society that had been afoot since the nineties, if not before. There was also much in the air that had echoes with other democracies, like the rise of conservative forces, the fallouts of late stage capitalism, and a fatigue with liberal ideals. As a writer, I had been feeling into these anxieties with my early work, and the election clarified how they were connected. That said, the overemphasis on the novel’s setting often makes me uncomfortable. The moment was merely a frame through which I wanted to explore something deeper…like the psychology underlying our political or economic beliefs and how these are mediated by our conscience.

Devika Rege
HarperCollins, 2023

Why does the novel open with the perspectives of Rohit, Amanda and Naren? I was especially curious about Amanda as an American in a story set in India. What is her relevance to the novel?

Each character was an occasion to explore a certain worldview and dimension of the times. At the start, Rohit, Amanda and Naren also offered a useful triumvirate of perspectives in the form of the insider, the outsider, and the insider-outsider. That Amanda is an American with English ancestors is not irrelevant because the dynamic between East and West has shaped our identity for centuries. Since liberalisation, we’re more taken up with the US than the UK. A lot of middle-class kids in the ’90s grew up on American movies and music. The brain drain to Silicon Valley was at its peak. Wealthy cousins who went to the States for a summer came back with an accent. We don’t like to admit that now. There’s been a cultural shift, and we are desperate to destroy the white gaze with an urgency that both Naren and Rohit suffer. But there is a person on the other side. What happens when they are dehumanised? Does it liberate us? To explore such questions, Amanda had to have a full life. It also felt important that she isn’t simply an instrument for the Indians to know themselves better. The novel may be set largely in India, but it isn’t about India alone. If it was, it would be a simpler novel.

There’s a scene in the book where all the characters start arguing about politics. Fault lines that were already starting to show come out starkly, and the argument ends badly. Would that conversation have looked different today? Would it have happened at all?

There were more such conversations at the time, I think. Whether it was 2014 in India or 2016 in the US or Brexit, several democracies were witnessing a period of acute polarisation at the level of friends and family. Suddenly, whom a person voted for seemed to betray something essential about their character. Whether or not this is true, those of us who came of age then will remember how such inflection points made us aware of the differences among our closest. Now the filters come on earlier. A college student recently told me that unlike the characters in Quarterlife, he would not make friends who hold such different views in the first place. There are subjects that families have banned at dinner and on groups online. Dialogue has entirely broken down.

Your book delves into the interiority of all its characters, often telling us what is happening externally through their perspective. What drew you to this exploration of interiority as a feature of the narrative?

 The choice was instinctive at first. It may have had to do with what I find interesting about people or the form, since no medium allows you to inhabit the minute-to-minute thoughts of multiple characters in language quite like the novel. But as I kept at it, I also found the technique especially relevant to what I was attempting with this particular book. It pushed me past my own assumptions about people by forcing me to understand them more fully than if I had written them only from the outside. It also raised uncomfortable questions about representation, the tension between empathy and judgment, and between ethics and aesthetics, many of which felt relevant not just to art but to our responsibilities and moral dilemmas as everyday citizens.

The voice changes a little with each character’s perspective. In places, Amanda’s voice comes in anecdotes, almost like diary entries, while Naren’s feels more like an interior monologue. There is also a change of literary form and the number of voices with each section. Did that come naturally as well?

The book grew organically in that each movement was a response to the last. To state the rationale for every gesture would flatten the reading experience, but I can share something my editor said the other day. She described Quarterlife as a novel that endlessly mushrooms outwards. Most novels introduce a set of characters in the first half and resolve their arcs in the second, but in Quarterlife, new characters keep appearing in even the final chapters and reference still others beyond. Some readers have found this exasperating. I suppose it defies the usual tenets of storytelling, but frankly I don’t see myself as a storyteller. Everyone is peddling stories these days, whether it’s celebrities, politicians or brands, and there is something violent about a too-tidy narrative of human consciousness or history. As I understand it, the novelist’s task is to make meaning of the ideas of an epoch through a textual form that is uniquely spacious and versatile. To think of fiction as anything less is to underestimate its potential.