Madhuri Vijay on Cruelty as Righteousness

“I’m fascinated by cruelty in all its various guises—cruelty as negligence, as sadism, as self-protection, as misguided kindness, as accident, and, increasingly, as righteousness.”

A blue-green, stylized photo of the author Madhuri Vijay, with pixelated pink, yellow, and green squiggly marks around her
Manvi Rao / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Madhuri Vijay’s new short story “Hill Station.”

Hill Station” is a new story by Madhuri Vijay. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Vijay and Katherine Hu, an assistant editor for the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Katherine Hu: Your short story “Hill Station” features an unhappy marriage where both parents have surrendered to their middle-aged fate. The detached tone of the story appears to echo their discontent. Why did you tell the story in this way?

Madhuri Vijay: The tone, in this case, evolved naturally. And while I don’t think an anesthetized syntax is necessary when writing about depressed or lonely people (just look at the morbid glee of [Ottessa] Moshfegh’s narrators, or the filthy exuberance of [Philip Roth’s] Portnoy), it did seem appropriate to keep the prose severely controlled for this story, and also to deny it some of the usual narrative release valves: humor, extended dialogue, long flights of description. This allowed me to exaggerate the pressure under which the family exists, even during moments of ostensible leisure.

Hu: At the core of the narrative is an unfulfilled mother. She’s described as lacking “the hot urgency of maternal love.” The Far Field, your 2019 debut novel, similarly centers on a mother who hides her inner complexity. What draws you to this type of character, and to the mother-daughter relationship?

Vijay: I don’t think I’m particularly drawn to the mother-daughter relationship. I do, however, think that mothers and daughters often embody the kinds of turmoil to which I am attracted, and which can be summed up in a handful of subjects: obligation, resentment, pity, the flimsy nature of the self, and, above all, cruelty. I’m fascinated by cruelty in all its various guises—cruelty as negligence, as sadism, as self-protection, as misguided kindness, as accident, and, increasingly, as righteousness. But I’m perfectly happy to write about these subjects using whatever is at hand.

Hu: This story is set near Bangalore, where you were born and raised. How do you choose which lines to blur between reality and fiction? Is there a risk in borrowing from your own lived experience?

Vijay: For the most part, the story takes place in Kodaikanal, a hill station about 500 kilometers south of where I grew up. I visited Kodaikanal a few times as a child, but apart from a vague sense of setting, I haven’t borrowed much from those visits. As for blurring lines: I confess I don’t see the business of writing in those terms, as a mere balancing act between the true and the untrue. No writer’s mind is so perfectly bifurcated, with Reality confined to one side, Fiction to the other, and a line down the middle that she must decide how and when to cross. The same is true for me. I regard my life and my experiences as sources of material, as skewed and untrustworthy as any document in a library. They are to be used only insofar as the work demands, and then with as much care and linguistic rigor as possible. As for the risks, they are the same as they’ve ever been. On the page: writing badly. In life: pissing people off. Perhaps one day I’ll regret saying this, but I’m far more afraid of the former than the latter.

Hu: Two animal motifs are woven throughout the story: the sweet white rabbit, and murderous tigers of various stripes. How do these animals function in the story? When choosing motifs, how do you avoid clichés while heightening their symbolic value?

Vijay: One always hopes to avoid cliché, but it’s never a certainty. One of the ways to sidestep it is to upend the values with which these symbols are normally associated. Rabbits and tigers would seem to point to the age-old confrontation between innocence and danger, but in this story they are tied to wholly different notions.

Hu: You’ve spoken about fiction being an “imperfect medium” that allows us to honor the “nuance and complexity” of the world. What, to you, is the purpose of your fiction? How does that relate to the purpose of fiction more broadly?

Vijay: I’m mortified to have ever said something so pompous, so let me replace it with something equally pompous but, I hope, less trite. I find it odd how easily some writers talk about the purpose of their work, how quick they are, in interviews and on social media, to emphasize the social or political utility of their fiction. Far more honest to my mind is Zadie Smith’s sheepish admission: Writing? It’s something to do. For me, it’s something to do, but, occasionally, it’s a bit more than that. Like all forms of art, writing is an act that, in its purest state, serves no discernible agenda—neither social justice, nor the battle against climate change, nor self-improvement, nor representing one’s community. (It can be strong-armed into serving any or all of these, but the art that results is necessarily mutilated.) On the very best days, writing is, simply, itself: self-contained, guileless, full of play. And for that reason, it is sublime.

Please don’t mistake me. Sublimity is not my natural state. Like most writers, I’m riddled with envy, self-reproach, and an outsize quota of bitterness. All I’m saying is that if I declare, here and now, that my writing is for something, some identifiable social purpose, bounded and finite, then I will lose the possibility—fleeting and faint and elusive as it already is—of knowing that sublimity from time to time. And I’m simply not willing to take that risk. My work would be the poorer for it, and in the end so would I.