Interview with Phidalia Toi
Phidalia Toi is the author of many books which she has written over the time in English as well as the regional tongue of her native place in Meghalaya. Other than being an experienced author, Phidalia is a songwriter, composer and also a filmmaker. An active social activist, she has written books in fiction and non-fiction genre with her latest one, The Dawn: Marathon Race of Acche Din, which focuses on the governance of Modi and the pre and post-analysis of the 2014 general elections in India.
Alok Mishra: You have written books in the past but those were entirely different from the current one – The Dawn: Marathon Race to Acche Din, which is a political work. Why this swing in the mood, Phidalia and what was your motivation?
Phidalia Toi: Yes, indeed I have written books in various genres in Pnar, Khasi and English languages. “The Plight of a Mother” is one such book (written in Khasi and English) after a personal encounter in 2005. In 2014, while I was in Mumbai, the rise of Modi, a “chaiwala”, to become the most powerful man in India grabbed my attention and hence I wanted to follow his journey and his style of functioning.
Alok Mishra: Talking about your journey as an author in general, I can only speculate that it started with your first book which I am sure is wrong. Please tell me when did the life as a writer begin and how it has been over the years?
Phidalia Toi: Writing had always and will always be my passion and my solace. I started writing articles for college magazines, apart from writing drama and songs since my college days.
Alok Mishra: And from the beginning to The Dawn, you have done so many things! Tell me about the other books which came in between and the stories behind them.
Phidalia Toi: Like I said, my books ranged across various genres – both fiction and non-fiction. My 1st novel was a fiction in my local language. My 2nd novel was about the role of the youngest daughter in a family based on our traditional custom, titled ‘DIAHMAI’. In between these two novels, I had written a drama, composed songs and wrote scripts for films.
Alok Mishra: And about The Dawn, is it just an observation on the election 2014 and first year of Modi government or you had other things in mind when writing this?
Phidalia Toi: Social issues have always been close to my heart. While I was in Mumbai in 2014 for some personal work, I had ample free time and I could watch TV. Narendra Damodar Das Modi, a “chaiwala” taking on India and the whole world by storm made headlines in India and abroad as well. It fired my imagination and expectation – I said to myself, here is a man who can transform India. And then I decided to write about his years in government.
Alok Mishra: Phidalia, you have decided to bring four other books in the series Marathon Race to Acche Din. The first one is here. Since you gather your facts from the media reports, one can simply allege the media hasn’t been trustworthy over the years (in recent times particularly when people just judge media – pro or anti Modi). How would you respond to that criticism?
Phidalia Toi: Yes, the subject of my book required of me to do research. I made intensive research on current affairs. No doubt, the various news channels, debates and newspapers had eased my access to information and I got to know more about my subject. However, I chose only reliable sources for this project. Although, I must admit that I am a fan of Modi, when I write, I am truthful to my observations which is reflected in my work.
Alok Mishra: What are your views on the writing industry in India today? We are looking the non-sense fiction most of the times while serious fictions happen rarely in a year. On the other hand, we are looking at non-fictions as biased as a boy writing about the class teacher who beat him! How do you see it?
Phidalia Toi: The writing industry in India has grown a lot in recent years. Writers now have a wide choice of platforms to publish from and this is good for writers and authors. But of course, democratisation of the writing and publishing industry including social media exposes the reader to the bias you speak of. While discretion of the reader is demanded the author cannot avoid responsibility for his work. On the other hand, one person’s nonsense may be another person’s point of view. The smallest event in life, which a decade ago, would remain private has the possibility of becoming public in a very short span of time. But, a good or bad read gives me insight and I appreciate books without distinction. All writers are influenced by the personal, social and political climate that they are exposed to. How the readers take it is beyond the author’s control. For instance, a boy who writes about the teacher who beats him – if the teacher is open-minded, it would rather help the teacher to see from the boy’s point of view. Hence, the bottom line is tolerance and being open to criticisms even from a student or a junior will make a person wiser and more mature to handle all kinds of situations.
Alok Mishra: As an author with so many books to your credit, what do you think is the responsibility of a non-fiction writer who is writing a book as serious as yours?
Phidalia Toi: Thanks to freedom of expression, I can be unbiased, pen my views fearlessly without any favours needed. Politics is a serious matter, a knife that can be utilised to wound or to cure the society. So, on such serious subjects, my approach has to be holistic. Any non-fiction writer has to be true to facts, no matter how contradicting to one’s own personal views. And to me, I feel that putting across facts without any bias is the main responsibility of a non-fiction writer.
Alok Mishra: You are quite vocal about the social issues and scanning your social media pages can easily reveal this. How do you see the society in India today? Do you think it has changed dramatically during the Modi regime or this is just a media hypothesis?
Phidalia Toi: The present social problems are immensely hazardous. The seeds sown over the decades have fully grown, rooted deep and have multiplied. These problems are the toughest tasks for the Modi government to combat before irreparable damage is done. Of course, media’s competition for TRP and Breaking News aggravate the problems. But at the end of the day, there is no smoke without fire. However, in this age of information technology, misinformation has also spread freely. People readily share unconfirmed news and facts through social media. This is an alarming trend which requires responsible restraint. Our country has already suffered from irresponsible posts and fake news on social media and the internet. Even Media houses need to exercise restraint and not be guided by sentiment – personal or otherwise.
Alok Mishra: What are your plans after the five book series on Modi’s government at the centre? Are you also planning some other books?
Phidalia Toi: I will continue my journey as a writer. When the 5 series on Modi’s government is completed, I plan to complete the three non-fiction series of my previous work. I had completed the first part: The Plight of a Mother – it is about the family agony when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The Second part to be written is about the trauma I underwent when my husband was struck with meningitis and the third will be about my personal battle with colon cancer.
Alok Mishra: And what you like to read as a reader, Phidalia? Fiction or non-fiction? Who are your favourite authors from India? And which foreign authors you read the most?
Phidalia Toi: Books draw me. Any book on any subject has the power to keep me engrossed as long as it is written in a language I can understand.
Alok Mishra: Before I wrap things up, one final question to you, Phidalia. You do so many other things other than being an author. The part of India that you come from, there must had been challenges in your ways. How did you face them and what were those?
Phidalia Toi: Geographically, 98% of India’s North East Region is connected with International Borders. Only one door as small as the chicken’s neck (the Siliguri corridor) connects the North East states to the rest of the country. I can still remember the fear I had had when I was still a 5 year old – how my father carried me to assemble in one place, to pray in the darkness without a lamp. I cannot forget the trench dug in the backyard and the terrifying horror of the warning sirens. I was carried to the trench with my entire family hiding face down inside the trench. The bits and pieces I could gather from the discussion of my parents and friends over the years even long after the war ended were my memories of the Indo-China war in 1962. Then came the Indo-Pakistan war (1971-72). That time, I was about 15-16 years old, a reminiscence of long time gone. Later, insurgency was one of the issues prevalent in almost all the states in the North East Region. The hate-speeches and atrocities which have become a daily routine in the mainland have added ammunition to the insurgents’ weapons here. The insurgents in all the states of North East look at themselves as the Nationalists, aiming to protect the interest of the indigenous people in the region. Their common ideology is that the people living in the mainland consider the NER just as an appendage – ‘the parasite Indian citizens’, while on the other hand, the self-reliance enjoyed by the NE states was cut off from the business trades with the five neighbouring countries that our fore-fathers were used to long before Independence. After that, the ban on timber and coal business did not help either (I am not against that). What bothered me was that when the government or the Supreme Court banned anything without offering any alternatives, it made lakhs of people jobless and I was jailed for 10 days for voicing this concern. Consideration should be top-most to provide an alternative for the people to survive. People can be pushed to the wall but not beyond that; then gradually they become vulnerable to all kinds of anti- social elements.
Alok Mishra: Thanks for your valuable time and vocal answers, Phidalia! I wish you all the best for your writing career and all other endeavours you take up.