Tessa McWatt’s The Snow Line throws together four strangers at a wedding in the Indian Himalayan foothills. Twenty-five-year-old Reema is a classical singer born in India but raised as a Londoner, who has travelled without her Scottish boyfriend. Having recently discovered she is pregnant, she is facing a life-shifting decision about her future. Yosh is a yoga teacher born into a Dalit family in a village outside Mumbai, whose father became a wealthy shoe manufacturer. Renouncing Hinduism and capitalism to become a Buddhist, he is returning to India from Vancouver for the first time in five years to teach yoga at the retreat that is hosting the wedding. Monica has also travelled from Canada, from Toronto, where she has just lost her job in banking as a result of the 2007–8 financial crash. She also has Indian ancestry but is utterly Westernised, down to the SLR camera she wields like a shameless tourist. Meanwhile retired hydroelectric engineer Jackson has lived in many parts of the world without calling anywhere home, and has returned to where he believes he was happiest to scatter his deceased wife Amelia’s ashes. Inside his head, Jackson is in constant dialogue with Amelia, and he is haunted by flashbacks of a gang rape he witnessed and failed to report as a young man in Amritsar, as well as guilt at having built dams that displaced thousands of villagers – including members of Reema’s family. Keen to make the most of their time in India after the wedding, the four agree to go on a road trip together to explore the temples of Palampur, Kangra and Dharmsala, and the mountains beyond. United by their individual quests for spiritual peace and self-determination, they battle distinct conflicts of identity and belonging.

Mark: The easy assumption is that you probably hit upon the idea of this book while on a solo retreat to the Himalayas, where you found yourself accompanied by a ragtag band of spiritual seekers from around the world with their own distinct reasons for being there. Would there be any truth in that?

Tessa: I was in the Himalayas when I was writing this book, but I think that the core of the inspiration for it was Jackson, the older man. When I was there, because my work involves trying to dissect power relationships and imbalances, I thought about the whiteness of a character in this setting, and how that might work. And I was interested in exploring a man who’d had a different kind of colonial history to mine, and putting him in that setting.

Jackson has been restless all his life – his father dragged him all over the world, and then his work did the same, and he never really found a home. I found him a really touching figure, especially as viewed through Reema’s eyes.

That’s great, because I wanted to portray someone who’s irritating, who the rest of the group find difficult and yet are drawn to as well; I wanted to give a complete picture of an older man.

All of them have had various disruptions and end up at this wedding, which is meant to be a moment of unity and celebration, and they’re all slightly out of place. So they come together almost as a result of their lack of belonging anywhere specific.”

The interactions between these unlikely companions becomes a meditation on our common humanity and the beauty and spiritual power of nature. Is that more or less what you were aiming for?

Absolutely, and what you said about Jackson coming from all these different disrupted bits of his past – all of them do, all of them have had various disruptions and end up at this wedding, which is meant to be a moment of unity and celebration, and they’re all slightly out of place. So they come together almost as a result of their lack of belonging anywhere specific. They’re outsiders to that event, and they’re outsiders almost in their own lives, except for Jackson who has to face the rupture of his wife’s death, and has only now been thrust on the outside. At this wedding he’s at the mercy of these young people, and he’s old and needs to be looked after in a way. I do see him a little bit like a King Lear figure, who’s losing power to the three younger people in his group, who have various relationships to him; and there’s Reema as possibly as the Cordelia figure, not in any really structured sense, but just resonances of it.

The coming together of Reema and Jackson is beautifully done and it left me contemplating how we should always appreciate beauty and spirituality where we can find it. A case in point is the Pong Dam reservoir, which the wedding party looks out on. The creation of the dam submerged over 300 villages, displacing over 90,000 residents, and now it’s a place of beauty, a sanctuary for wildlife, despite its chequered past.

Exactly. There’s a dark undercurrent that runs through the book. Jackson’s past and the issue of dams and displacement by capitalism is the underlying dark force. The book takes place just after the crash, and there’s reference to the crash as something pivotal because that’s another rupture for the characters. Monica’s lost her job, Yosh is in transition about getting away from his wealthy father, and Jackson and his world was founded in a sense on that kind of abundance and the extraction of capitalism. The crash marks a burst in the bubble of that expansion and growth, and that’s why I set it at that moment.

At that time there were still thousands of outstanding claims for resettlement. Is that still the case?

It is, and it’s ongoing not just at that dam, but around India with other hydroelectric projects there are still all kinds of displaced people who’ve never been compensated. Because one of the things was that only those people who previously had land were given land. People who were just there weren’t offered land elsewhere, so there are still huge cases ongoing for compensation, in many, many places.

And even those who were offered land were uprooted.

Yes exactly. Not only without consultation, sometimes without much warning. Not on this particular one, but the events of this particular dam are merged in with others that have taken place across India.

Yosh follows the path of politician and activist B.R. Ambedkar, who was the leading figure in drafting the constitution of the Indian Republic, and inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement. What is Ambedkar’s legacy in India, and what would he have made of today’s political leaders?

His legacy is quite disputed, I think. I’m not an expert in any way on him or his movement, and don’t speak as that, but we’re in a moment of a kind of Hindu fundamentalism in India, and his legacy is associated with Marxism and Buddhism, whereas neoliberalism in India is now also at its height. So I think in terms of Dalits he’s still very much a hero, and still very much someone who’s respected, but in other parts of India he’s more contested. For someone like my character, who grew up witnessing the rise of the economic boom – in 1994 the laws changed to allow a kind of economic expansion in India, and so the neoliberal fire got fed, and Dalits could become very wealthy for the first time – for someone like Yosh, he reacted against that even though coming from poverty. He turned to his more spiritual side, and couldn’t be a Hindu anymore if that’s how things were going forwards, and found himself in Buddhism.

Any sort of group, any kind of nation state, or even football team, comes with a kind of ideology that if you say you are that, then you buy into it… My belonging is more fluid. I’m privileged to have a fluidity of belonging.”

You were born in Guyana, grew up in Canada, live in London, and have a wildly mixed heritage that embraces Chinese, African, Indian, Scottish, Arawak, Portuguese and French culture. You say in your memoir Shame On MeAs I once longed for a singular place, a singular ethnicity or plot of land over generations, I now long for its opposite, for a space beyond belonging. I’ve travelled to many places in order to scope a sense of ownership or repatriation, but as I try to square my politics with my privilege, it seems that my only true inheritance is that I am always running somewhere else.”

Which cultures do you identify most strongly with? And where have you felt most displaced?

You know, I feel displaced culturally or ethnically – or nationally, if you want to talk about national belonging – I feel displaced everywhere. I was born a Caribbean, grew up in a Caribbean family but moved to Canada and so was a Canadian, and now I’ve been in Britain for twenty-three years and I’m a British citizen, so as for national identities, that’s something I kind of move fluidly between. Caribbean Canadian British author, you could call me – or not. Or just call me an author, I don’t mind! There’s an article that I wrote called ‘States of mind’ in The Bookseller in which I talk about belonging as something that, as I say in that paragraph you just read, comes with ideology to the place, to the thing that you’re belonging to. Because any sort of group, any kind of nation state, or even football team, comes with a kind of ideology that if you say you are that, then you buy into it. And what I’m saying in that paragraph is that that kind of belonging no longer interests me because my belonging is more fluid. I’m privileged to have a fluidity of belonging, that I can choose to stand outside of some of those categories.

The title of this book evokes creeping global warming that is causing the snowcaps and glaciers to retreat. How do you rate our chances of preventing catastrophic climate change and the widespread displacement of coastal communities?

I don’t rate it very highly at all. I’m despondent every day about our climate chances at the moment. In fact, my new book is a non-fiction book that is about climate anxiety, and it’s about trees. My sense is that we have to live with anxiety in a way that we haven’t had to live with before. Every time I’m in the street for whatever XR or Kill the Bill reasons, I feel quite hopeful, but when I’m not and I just watch what happens and what’s said and not done about the climate crisis, I feel more and more despairing. But I’m trying to hold onto hope. As I wrote in Shame On Me, my friend John Berger said hope is a form of energy rather than a promise, and so I’m trying to hold on to the energy of pushing back against that kind of despair, because who needs to live like that? So I’m working on my hope.

I had a moment of mixed hope and despair like that just recently while watching the football, when an ad for Qatar Airways popped up saying ‘Fly Greener’. What does that even mean?

Exactly. That’s the thing about capitalism, it’s this huge monster that kind of chomps everything in its path, so if the latest thing that people are into is the environment and ecology, it will just chomp that up and spit it back to us and regurgitate stuff back to us that allows us to feel like they’re doing something, and they’re not. Capitalism and the climate are incompatible.

The Snow Line put me in mind of a book I read last year called Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup, which connects stories from different eras along a geological fault line running from the Andamans to the Himalayas. I really recommend it.

OK, great, I’ll make a note of that.

What have you read recently that you have particularly admired? And are there books on the horizon you’re especially looking forward to?

I read Leone Ross’s This One Sky Day, which I really, really enjoyed. It’s beautiful language, and exciting and full of energy and hope – it’s a kind of very Caribbean romp, and even though there’s darkness underneath, there’s always hope and laughter and sexuality in it. I also read Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which I loved, and I’m reading some poetry, and I just started Natasha Brown’s Assembly.

Have you managed to travel at all since the first lockdown?

I have. Last summer when we opened up briefly I went to France, I have friends there, and to Greece, to the Peloponnese for the first time, which I just completely loved. And then at Christmas I went back to Canada, I quarantined for two weeks and sprang myself on my family on Christmas Eve, so that was great, and I’m going back there again next week.

So you’ve been quite the voyager then, compared to most.

I have been. This time last year I was meant to be on tour with Shame On Me in Canada, and obviously I ended up being here from March until those few weeks in the summer, but normally I’m there at least once, sometimes twice a year. My air miles are bad. I plant trees in compensation for my travel across the Atlantic.

How has lockdown affected your role at UEA?

It’s been an extraordinarily difficult year. We did everything online, so I’ve been in this one room at home for the whole academic year. At the MA level, people missed out on a lot of contact and readings and things that go on in Norwich that are really exciting on a literary level, so that was a little bit disappointing, and it was difficult to be online twelve hours a day, which I was sometimes. But it’s interesting, the first years were the most engaged first years that I’ve ever had. I think that’s because they didn’t go out to bars and get drunk, they were just at home with their parents, you know, picking up their clothes in the background! I had the most joy in teaching them that I’ve had in years of teaching. They were attentive, they really wanted to be there, they had no distractions. They were just at uni for the first time, and I feel bad for them that they didn’t have all that other experience, the partying and getting to know people and being adults on their own. But as students they were really wonderful.

That’s an unexpectedly positive outcome, and great to hear.

Yeah, I don’t know what they would say about it, they might say, “it was terrible, I had to stay home, I didn’t get any of that university life, I didn’t get to party,” but for me they were so switched on that I was really thrilled.

And finally, how far in are you with the climate book?

I need the time to write it. I’m just working on it. I’ve got very little, it’s mostly outlined, and I haven’t yet set a time to finish it.

 

Tessa McWatt is the author of seven novels, two books for young people, and the memoir Shame On Me (Scribe, 2019). Her work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Toronto Book Awards, and won the OCM Bocas Prize and the Eccles British Library Award 2018. She is Professor of Creative Writing at UEA. The Snow Line is out now in hardback from Scribe.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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