Do we sacrifice emotions at the altar of practicality? Are we who feel too much too crazy? Clutching her diary tightly, debut author Raisha Lalwani’s protagonist walks unsteadily into a mental facility with all those thoughts—the only difference between her and us being we walk instead into the everyday world clutching close our perfect masks, walking with the perfect gait. Raisha’s book, The Diary on the Fifth Floor, addresses some important questions about the courage to express and face our deepest emotions instead of pretending they don’t exist. We speak with her about this important and intriguing work.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you began your journey in writing.
Having lived in Bombay, Jaipur, Delhi & Dubai, life has been one long travel tale! I went to a bunch of schools in different cities and most of my experiences, friends and memories revolve around these cities. After having graduated from the University of Delhi, I decided to test the waters of International Business.
When I started writing, it was without any distinct goal in mind. Some write for money, others as a hobby, I write for the peace and quiet it brings me. Writing was how I could express myself and it has made me braver than I thought I could be.
It is funny how ‘nocturnal’ was the first word that came to my mind when I thought about who I am. Whether it was studying for my Board exams back in 2004 or working on my book all these years later, I feel my mind is more active during the later hours of the evening. Like my husband says, I am a ‘homemaker by day and a writer by night’.
What inspired Diary on the Fifth Floor?
Well, I guess it is time to address the elephant in the room. The Diary on the Fifth Floor is not just a story about a girl dealing with her issues. This book is about our society and how we are all going through similar experiences. The book is about the lack of emotions in our everyday interactions. It is about our inability to emote and express ourselves. We hear stories from friends and family, from our neighbours. They aren't pleasant so we express our sympathy and then forget about them. Writing gave me an emotional outlet to express these deep-seated feelings of our everyday struggle, of our joys, of our loneliness and our longings.
“In my book, I have tried to use psychiatry as a tool to connect all the short stories because somehow they all come down to one point and that is the lack of human emotions today.”
Can you give me a blurb on the book in your own words?
The Diary on the Fifth Floor is a tale of a 25-year-old woman from the moment she enters the hospital; more precisely, the fifth floor. Visibly terrified, she clutches at her cloth bound Diary, caught in the horns of a terrible dilemma— whether or not to hand over the diary to the doctor. She fears that she will be declared insane if her tangled web of thoughts, unspooling in dark mysterious stories, is read by the dissecting eye of a doctor.
Tell me how you found and built your characters—the two women who seem intriguing and interconnected in a strange way.
All of the stories, the diary entries have been inspired by true incidents. These are actual lived experiences and therefore, I built my characters on these men and women whose stories became a part of the moment they shared those with me.
The two main protagonists in the story share one thing in common. They have both lost faith in humanity. For them, we are all tainted.
Psychiatry features as a prominent subject in your story. Tell me more about the role that it plays in your plot—why were you drawn to include it as an important element?
In our country, the act of going to a counselor is seen as a social taboo. People who visit a psychiatrist are labelled as ‘crazy’. On the contrary, I personally feel that it is healthy and should be encouraged. It’s a relief to see that a lot of schools nowadays have a counsellor for the kids to come up to and talk to, in these pressing times.
In my book, I have tried to use psychiatry as a tool to connect all the short stories because somehow they all come down to one point and that is the lack of human emotions today. It talks about how all these true stories are affecting this young woman, so much so that she is unable to move on. She needs help and though she is reluctant at first, she realises soon enough that she needs guidance and takes the first steps towards it.
“I do not claim to be a revolutionary. I’m just trying to say what needs to be said and acted upon.”
The sound of the backdrop reminds me vaguely of Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die. Who are the authors that inform and inspire your own unique voice?
I’m surprised how you mentioned the one writer who changed the reading experience for me, and I’m sure for many others. Like most girls in their teens, I too spent my nights reading love stories by Danielle Steel and Cecelia Ahern. But when I read Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes, it changed the way I processed things. I find his style simple yet gripping and honestly, I’m flattered the backdrop of my book reminded you of one of his finest works.
Whether it was Maria from Eleven Minutes or Veronica from Veronika Decides To Die, I always felt drawn towards stories that had a female protagonist; maybe that’s the reason I have one in mine.
What inspired you to venture into the dark for your first book?
Being an extremely emotional person, it is what came naturally to me and I felt if I made this attempt and made it well, it could bring about a change. I do not claim to be a revolutionary. I’m just trying to say what needs to be said and acted upon. The intention was simply to pause and think, do I like this version of me? Do my actions have consequences? Do we sacrifice emotions at the altar of practicality?
What was the biggest challenge as this work shaped up?
The stories I wrote were short and crisp. It was a challenge to pin them all together into a single theme in a way that it would all come together in the book. It was interesting to explore the non-linear technique of going back and forth from the diary entries to the current day events that take place in the protagonist’s life. I really have given my heart to this book.
“After having written the first 60 pages, I realised that this woman I’m writing about has picked up a few of my traits without any deliberate attempt on my part.”
What does a diary stand for, to you? Do you think it is an art now lost to blogs and social media smatterings? Do you keep a journal yourself?
I’d like to answer the latter part first. Yes I do keep a journal. I have been keeping one since I was in grade six. For me, it started as a fascination to begin my own diary and I did not realise when it transformed into a habit. As I grew up, it became my way to vent and made me feel better. Lighter.
It is true that writing comes with a creative bent of mind but it is also a discipline. It is very easy to get distracted in this era with social media ruling our lives, but how we choose to make use of our time is completely up to us. I don't think writing a journal is a lost art. May be people don't write in ink anymore, they might write blogs, but the point is that they still document their lives.
How have your roots and your personal history impacted this work?
I come from a close-knit family of four women. We lost dad when we were very young and since then it has been mom and her three daughters.
It was a part of our daily routine to eat together and all four of us strongly believed that communication is the key to a strong family, the foundation that this book is built on.
After having written the first 60 pages, I realised that this woman I’m writing about has picked up a few of my traits without any deliberate attempt on my part. So yes, I feel somewhere there are glimpses of one’s personal experiences in some fractions of the narrative.
Can you take me behind your creative process?
I don’t know if I should call it a process. There are times when I really want to write something but I can’t move past the first sentence. At other
times, even when I’ve had a really long day, suddenly it all comes to me and I sit down to write in earnest.
What is next from here?
Well, someday when the couch is comfortable and the coffee is hot and I have finished working on my book, I shall definitely share that.
TEXT Soumya Mukerji