Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress
by Mohan Sikka
Issue #94 • June 20, 2007•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Uncle Musto had hired the services of a female secretary. In our slow-paced colony, news like this gave the street a charge, with its hint of juicy developments, its premise of slowly revealed impropriety. The secretary’s name was Rose: a Goan lady, dark complexioned, with two pigtails tied in bouncy red ribbons and looped on top of her head, the arrangement embellished with rhinestone brooches and Little Mermaid hairpins.
“Trimmings suitable for a girl of thirteen,” Grandma remarked at dinner with a sniff. She’d seen Rose when she’d paid a bedside call on Uncle Musto’s wife, but there’d been no introductions. “Skitting about here and there like a doe, eyes made up with too much kohl, Sir this, Sir that, running circles around our Prince Musto. She has taken up quarters in the room above their garage, rent free!”
“Why are we discussing Musto’s affairs?” Grandpa said gruffly, over his plate. “He works hard to put food in many mouths. Leave him alone and eat your own meal.”
Grandma cracked off the end of a radish. “Arré? His welfare is our welfare. I don’t say he shouldn’t have an assistant. But that sort of person? And live-in? How does it look?”
Mohan Sikka’s fiction has been published in the Toronto South Asian Review, Trikone Magazine, and in the anthology, Takeout: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America. In 2006 he graduated with an MFA from Brooklyn College, where he received the Hiram Brown Award and the CUNYarts First Prize for Graduate Short Fiction. Before his MFA, he worked on a series of semi-biographical sketches about being queer and South Asian, which he performed as one-man pieces around the country. Mohan is currently working on a collection entitled “The Fruits of Marriage”, which deals with how alternate desires and the immigrant experience are stretching and redefining the institution of marriage. For more information please visit www.mohansikka.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MS: From a conversation with my father, actually, during a visit to India some years ago. We were discussing an excellent social history by Prakash Tandon called Punjabi Century—about the emergence of the Punjabi middle class in the 19th and early 20th centuries. My father elaborated on a reference in this text about how, in the “olden days”, extra-marital entertainments and affairs for middle-class men were socially tolerated, if not sanctioned. In fact, there was an entire class of women who were skilled musicians, entertainers, and sex-workers. I began to wonder what shape such desires at the edge of social sanction might take in a contemporary, “modern” context, with its updated notions of appropriate behavior; how the fulfillment of these desires would relive and reflect historic mores; and what the consequences would be for the people, especially the women, involved.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MS: To manage the different characters, to make each one matter, and to be sympathetic to all of them, even when they are behaving badly.
HT: Grandma is an extremely funny and compelling character. Did you base her on anyone in real life? Or did her voice just come to you on its own?
MS: I plead the Fifth! Glad you enjoyed her.
HT: Rose ends up being quite sympathetic in this story. Was there a reason you made her Goan? And did you intend to make a connection between her and Sanju?
MS: I went on intuition here, and a little bit of stereotyping, I confess. Many Goans are Christians, and were thus an early group to be considered “Westernized” by other Indians. For some this suggested a looser sense of personal morality coupled with a fun-loving attitude—quite a caricatured view of a complex community, and of Christianity, for that matter! This is a theme that you used to see in 60s and 70s Bollywood movies like the blockbuster Bobby. Nowadays, of course, with Business Process Outsourcing (aka “call centers”), many more people in India lay claim to being Westernized, whatever that means, not just people from Goa!
I think the connection between Rose and Sanju was there and became more apparent through revisions and edits. I’m especially grateful here to my many excellent readers, and to your thoughtful editing, Hannah, for helping me pull out this thread.
HT: Can you talk a bit about life in a colony, and how the setting influences this story? Do you intend to use this setting again, in other stories?
MS: Well, simply put, middle-class neighborhoods in modern Indian cities are called colonies - at least in North India. So, in Delhi, you have Defence Colony, South Extension, Golf Links, etc. Some of them have become quite posh—little gated communities. Still, because they are a microcosm of the city itself, with many sorts of people living and “serving” in close quarters, there is a bit of the “watching what other people are doing” phenomenon that goes on, or at least it did before satellite and cable TV arrived. For me, growing up, the street life and neighborly curiosity made life in the colony interesting. Of course, I have exaggerated these effects into a pathology in this story—the perpetual search for a scapegoat that preserves everyone else’s sense of normalcy and propriety.
HT: Much mention is made to the idea of being a self-made man and the responsibility that comes with social stature. Did you set out to explore class in this piece?
MS: Hmmm. I didn’t see the self-made man theme so clearly when I wrote the story, but I did consciously set out to explore class. The middle-class social practice of being served by others continues to be a rich area for literary exploration, even though so much has been written about this already. The tensions and conflicting desires are just so loaded, obviously, in servant-master relationships.
HT: What do you imagine becomes of the narrator, Sanju, after this encounter?
MS: Good question. I would imagine he grows up quickly, given what he’s seen and been part of. When he is reunited with his parents, I imagine that that he will find a great deal of distance between them and him, emotionally, psychologically.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
MS: The first draft was written quite quickly in workshop with Michael Cunningham. Then I reworked it endlessly over the course of a year or so, working intensively with Meera Nair and my little writing posse from Brooklyn College, for whom I give a shout out!—they are all such great writers and readers. The final polishing, of course, took place with One Story’s help, and every week I have another idea for making it tighter.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MS: Gail Sher’s “Four Noble Truths of Writing”: (1) Writers write; (2) Writing is a process; (3) You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process; (4) If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.
Oh yeah, and the Passover Question: Why is this night different than all others?
HT: What are you working on now?
MS: A collection of short stories that I believe will string together well, and that I hope someone will find interesting enough to put into print. The stories look at how relationships (and the institution of marriage) are being stretched and redefined by the immigrant experience and by queer and alternate desires. It’s called, tentatively, “The Fruits of Marriage.” Wish me luck finishing it—and wish me the Four Noble Truths!