An Interview with Maria Chaudhuri

Growing up in Bangladesh, Maria Chaudhuri burned with a passion that separated her from her family. As she matured, the author came to understand her desires as an inheritance from her loved ones — whom she still struggles to understand.

An Interview with Maria Chaudhuri

Your memoir is called Beloved Strangers, and you refer explicitly to your mother as one such beloved stranger. I wondered if there was a double meaning. Are you also a beloved stranger, perhaps, even, to yourself?

That is a really great question and one that has not been posed before. Every important character in the book is a beloved stranger of sorts, though some, like my mother, more so than others. But yes, the title does include myself, as well. I was a stranger to myself in so many ways during the timespan that the book covers. I hardly knew what I wanted because I was too afraid of my choices. I still manage to baffle myself at times, but now I’m comfortable with it. The constant process of self-discovery is no longer a reminder of my limitations, but a way of moving forward.

Your memoir moves back and forth between the past and the more distant past. Why was it important to tell your story in this way?

One natural reason to tell the story this way had to do with the chapter themes. Each chapter has an overarching emotional theme, such as Shame or Fear, and I chose the specific scenes in those chapters in accordance with the theme rather than any chronological timeline. Secondly, I also wanted the story to read the way memories come to us, shifting, mosaic-like, non-linear in their impact.

There is a very disturbing passage where you are sexually molested at 9 years old in a crowded market. You feel a hand and turn around to see that it’s a grown man carrying his small child in one arm, while putting the other arm up your skirt. You’re holding your mother’s hand the whole time, but she’s oblivious to what’s happening. So there is this image of a father protecting and caring for his own child, and not seeing the continuity — that YOU, too, are someone’s child who needs protecting. And then there is your mother, less than a foot away, and she has no idea what’s going on. This read as an honest and bleak depiction of parental failings. Is this how you interpret the event as an adult?

That scene, though it has my mother in it, is not meant to be indicative of my direct relationship with my mother, though I can see the reader connecting the dots, and rightfully so. What I really wanted to depict there was how farcical adulthood always seemed to me. All around me, it was adults who were always committing the crimes, and yet it was adults who were calling the shots. From where I stood, adults were simply grown children who were constantly caught with their hands in the cookie jar, but just weren’t accountable for it. That, to me, was “the unsavory promise of adulthood.”

There was so much ambition in your family (your father wanting to work for the World Bank; your mother wanting to be a star; your sister’s academic dreams of Yale; your own deep sense of curiosity about the world and commitment to the arts). Ambition is what you all had in common. And yet your ambitions keep you apart. Do you think driven people lack the capacity for being part of a community in some fundamental way?

Ambition needs inward focus and lots of it, and perhaps that can prevent a fundamental level of engagement with one’s immediate surroundings. As a society, we applaud ambition because of whatever greater good it brings to the larger community. But in and of itself, constant, obsessive ambition can be stressful and damaging to a person, and while some are able to push through and move forward, others, like both my parents, suffered from the unhappy push and pull of their personal lives versus their (ambitious) professional ones.

So much of your book explores the difficult relationship between you and your father. For instance, you write of distance and “shadowy spaces.” Do you think father-daughter relationships are naturally fraught?  

Not for me to say if father-daughter relationships are naturally fraught. But I do think they are oftentimes artificially fraught because of the pressures and expectations of society, culture, and religion. All of these institutions give men the roles of caretakers, decision-makers, and defenders, which obviously tip the balance of respect and equality between the genders. Fathers may feel that sons can carry on their legacies, while daughters are not meant to. Interestingly, I think that my own father actually strove to make sure that my sisters and I would become independent women who could take care of themselves. The only problem was that he had a very traditional and inflexible vision of what it meant to be good, independent, and successful individuals. He imposed rigid rules and set impossible standards on us to reward us with future happiness, but overlooked the fact that we were already little individuals with minds of our own, minds that had already started spinning a different vision of the future.

There are images in the book that hold great meaning. There’s the image of a candlelit room, which was a domestic ideal for your parents, one they never reached. And for you, there is a moment of singing with complete abandon in front of the bathroom mirror, a “high” that you never seem to reach again. All of your family had romantic ideals left unmet. Was this the central conflict in your family? 

It certainly is a central conflict. It is hard to visualize what would have been if my mother wasn’t always chasing stardom, and my father wasn’t always looking for an invisible God, and if my own head wasn’t full of images of myself singing in front of an audience. It is even harder to imagine how things would have played out had each one of us managed to get exactly what we wanted. But in hindsight, I cannot help but wonder if we were, each one of us, seeking refuge behind our “ideals” because we had never quite learned how to communicate with each other in a vital way.

You mention the “philosophical impossibility,” which is a type of eternal return to self-improvement. For several years, you cleaned and ordered your things obsessively in a quest for perfection. Do you think focusing on self-betterment robs people of lasting contentment? And on the other hand, would you credit your need for perfection with the success you enjoy now? 

To be perfectly honest, I think my entire notion of success has gone haywire due to all the childhood confusion over some elusive form of happiness that apparently comes with success. But I am wary of equating self-betterment with success. To me, the definition of success is largely determined by culture and society, whereas self-betterment is a deeply inward and lifetime process of understanding and correcting oneself. As for perfection…well, it seems to me now that real perfection is in being happy, and real happiness just cannot be a wild goose chase for success as determined by others.

At your father’s funeral, you and your mother and sisters (and all women present) are prevented from going to the burial. The reasons given are that women’s menstrual blood could attract evil spirits and that women are thought to be less in control of their emotions, and if they “break down” in tears, it could disrupt the soul’s journey. I had trouble squaring this with my own world view; not the spiritual aspect, but the part where women are treated like second-class citizens. Were you afraid to reveal this aspect of your tradition and how it might impact Western views of Islam?

Every bit of my memoir was hard to talk about, as well as relieving to do so, and this passage was no different. I wouldn’t say I worried about impacting Western views on Islam, because my story is just too personal to make any definitive statements on the actual religion. What happened to me at my father’s funeral and how religious values affected me in general is not meant to be a depiction of someone else’s experience within the same faith.

Throughout life, you have yearned for a perfect blend of East and West and, later, you find it symbolically on the Bosphorus Bridge in Turkey — a physical dividing line between East and West. This got me thinking about some of the smaller conflicts in your story, which seem to be between a sort of “Roman Drive to Progress,” if you will, versus, please excuse the term for lack of a better one, “Oriental Balance.” Are these qualities irreconcilable? Can the world learn something at the Bosphorus Bridge?

Because I lived in two different continents for long periods of my life and straddled two very different cultures, both of which I relate to in various ways, “home” to me is somewhere in between these two worlds which I broadly referred to as East and West. So when I came to know of the history and geographical significance of the Bosphorus, I really felt as if the universe had placed me, poetically and metaphorically, exactly where I needed to be. I wish, in vain I’m sure, that the world could stand at the Bosphorus and feel what I felt — that all the division stems from our hearts, just as all the unity occurs there, too.

You have a beautiful line in your book about “facing ourselves more candidly.” Why do you think it’s so difficult for us to face who, and what, we really are?

It is difficult to face the unknown. Most of us are neither completely familiar nor comfortable with our truest selves. No one would be “afraid” to write a memoir if they were. We all want to be perfect daughters, mothers, wives, sisters, professionals, and so on. Facing oneself with candor may well reveal that we are far from being all of those. This is where I think self-assessment and self-correction are so much more important than any traditional stamp of success, such as “No. 1 Singer or Bestselling Author.” Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with such accolades, as long as we don’t hide behind the labels and let them overshadow our identities.

My favorite line in the book was about your father. You write, “I wish to see him without the burden of his life.” Rationally, this isn’t possible because we are,in fact, nothing more than the burden of our lives in the strict material sense. But I understood your greater spiritual meaning. You wanted to know the undistorted essence of your father, of who he was before the world deformed him. Have you ever known anyone in this way?  

Indeed, it is quite impossible to see anyone this way. As you point out so aptly, we are, in fact, nothing more than the burden of our lives. The closest I’ve come to feeling the undistorted essence of another human being has been in watching my son grow up. He is only 3, and so much of what he feels and says is already distorted by the world around him, but he is still young enough that I can sense his core and spirit for what they really are.

You write very candidly about having an affair while you were married to your first husband. What’s interesting is that you paint your first husband as a lost person, but not a bad person. I assume that outing your affair would make it tempting to “villainize” him in order to show that he deserved it. Instead, he is rendered rather sympathetically. How hard was it for you to write about this situation?

This was actually one of the hardest things to write about. I wanted the reader to understand that I never quite fell in love with my first husband, before or after our marriage. To this day, I do not know which was my greater crime — not being able to love the person I married, or marrying the person I didn’t love. But either way, he wasn’t a villain. He was lost, and so was I. My sympathy for him grew stronger in hindsight, as I understood exactly what it felt like to lose sight of oneself, flailing to find a corner to hide, rest, or call home.

Your mother dreams of stardom (being a singer) and views her children as obstacles. You write: “It unhinged my mother to think that she was to dole out affection rather than reel it in.” How do think your mother’s self-obsession impacted your romantic life? Do you draw a direct link between her aloofness and your willingness to marry someone you didn’t love?

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, which is probably to say that there is a kind of link, but I don’t think my mother’s self-obsession is the only reason I walked into a loveless marriage. In other words, I wasn’t trying to spite my mother or prove a point by marrying someone I didn’t love. Rather, my mother’s self-obsession left very little space for my own self-awareness and self-esteem to grow and develop fully, which is why I didn’t stand my ground and break off the engagement like I wanted to in the end. But it really could have gone the other way, too, if I think about it. My mother’s desperation over the loss of her “self” within her marriage should have and could have made me more wary of consenting to a marriage that didn’t feel right to begin with.

You live in Hong Kong. Did you find your perfect balance between East and West, after all?

You know, I am amazed at the depth of observation and curiosity in all your questions. In fact, the very reason I like Hong Kong, a small, crowded, not-so-scenic or historic city (that I just cannot get my friends to like), is precisely because it brings me that mixed sense of East and West I talk about in my book. Perhaps because it is a byproduct of British (being colonized until very recently) and Chinese culture, the city reminds of me of myself — of being neither this nor that. Women give birth in ultra-modern, Western-style hospitals, but come home to the traditional Chinese custom of having Confinement Ladies help them get through the first weeks of childcare. I love that. In a more physical sense, I thrive on the narrow, buzzing streets and marketplaces that teem with the kind of boisterous, raging life force that I only feel in Asia. But I am always flabbergasted by how, at the end of every such excursion, I am able to walk into a steely skyscraper with a chic, beautiful lobby of glass and chrome where a black-suit-clad concierge will nod at me with an otherworldly English formality. Here in Hong Kong, I love knowing that the others who walk beside me are similarly grounded and uprooted. 

Dorothy Reno is a DC-based writer from Canada who’s been published by Red Tuque Books. She is at work on a collection of stories called The One That Got Away.

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