Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Stories without borders: Rana Dasgupta interview

Met Rana Dasgupta at his Def Col flat, having finished his book Tokyo Cancelled in a marathon Sunday reading session. He looks younger than his 33 years and has a clipped accent that I somehow couldn’t place as being exactly British (which is what it should be; though he’s lived in France, the US and Malaysia, he grew up in Cambridge).

There’s something to be said about reading a book and then, very shortly afterwards, hearing the author’s thoughts on it: what he wanted to accomplish and whether he was satisfied by the final result. Of course, this can be a grey area for a professional reviewer - you don’t want to let your own impressions be diluted by any new insights the author has to offer. But when it’s an honest, open-ended exchange of views and ideas, it can be rewarding.

Must add that I probably would’ve avoided meeting Rana at all if I hadn’t been impressed by his debut novel (I made the profile suggestion to my editor only after I’d finished the book). But I was, on the whole, and I think a second, closer reading might be in order. The conversational flow is forced in places and I thought the linking device - the interplay between 13 people stranded at an airport, who tell each other stories to pass the time - was a bit patchy. But the stories themselves make for compelling reading. They move between degrees of strangeness -- a young businessman falls in love with a doll; a changeling tries to redeem himself by helping an old man find a word; two malcontents discover how to transubstantiate matter with the help of a packet of cookies -- all the while questioning our conventional notions of time and space. A cartographer works on a map of the world that is based on velocity - the speed at which things move across the globe - rather than on conventional geography. Another character visits Manhattan for the first time and is surprised by the verticality of its skyline: "his map had only shown it on the horizontal".

I told Rana he was in danger of being defined by that most eye-rollingly tedious of lit-club prophecies -- the Next Big Thing in Indian Writing -- and he, well, rolled his eyes. This isn’t because he belongs in that (equally romanticised) category of reclusive, non-worldly writers who don’t care whether their work sells. He’s marketing-savvy, on the ball with his publicity and launch dates and even freely distributes bright red "business cards" with review blurbs on them.

It’s just that compartmentalisation goes against the grain of everything his debut novel stands for. Tokyo Cancelled is a book that sets out to defy the universal tendency to romanticise foreign places and to put countries and cultures into little boxes. "Too much of contemporary writing," says its author disdainfully, "derives its frisson from the neatly packaged cultural differences between people and places." One of the striking things about Tokyo Cancelled is that there’s no attempt to exoticise a place -- be it Osaka, Buenos Aires, Paris or Delhi -- for the reader.

It was Rana's reading of medieval literature, especially Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, that created an interest in the idea of global space. "The events described by Chaucer may have occurred in far-flung places, but they were all centres of medieval Christendom," he said. "Consequently, even when his characters travelled far and wide, they were essentially moving within comfortable, homogenous spaces." That, he believes, is a reflection of what the world is like today, as the globe continues to shrink. "The Delhi elite is scarcely different from the New York elite in terms of their values, the houses they live in and their lifestyles. So it’s strange that people talk about other countries in exotic terms."

Apart from medieval literature, which he finds fasinating for its use of people as symbols ("the language is completely emptied of psychology"), Rana admits - almost apologetically, given his antipathy to stereotypes - to being a Rushdie fan: "He showed that contemporary writing didn’t have to be banal or unliterary." And folktales have always been an influence, as anyone who reads Tokyo Cancelled will see. "My friends and I used to write fairytales and gift them to each other," he says. "In fact, one of the stories in this book was originally written as a birthday present."

It’s clear that their author has the storyteller’s gift himself.


  1. aware of prowling eyes, the modest jabberwock sheds its claws.
    the book sounds really cool, though. will be reading it in half an hour.

  2. Sounds very delicious. The only thing better are 'stories within stories' (nested stories?) -- a genre I fell in love with since I read a Folk Tales of Raja Bhoj book my grandmother gave me when I was little (seven degrees of nesting).

  3. no! i want a good BS review! i apologize profusely and publicly! the honesty of the jabberwock is even more searing than the marks of its claws!

  4. Too late, dude. Remember the final sentence of my Last Song of Dusk review, which was cruelly excised - "Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi has worked as a kennel boy, but who's going to clean up after him?" Well, that's nothing compared to what I do to you...

  5. in that case...pshaw. pfui. and other wodehousian expressions of disdain.

  6. one of the best books i've read, in oh so long... great stuff!

  7. I wish young new writers wouldn't behave like rock stars. Rana Dasgupta's work is okay, but this whole self-congratulatory tone can get out of hand. I love Wodehouse's expressions of disdain, ove him actually, but must agree with Jabberwock.

    Dasgupta's stories are okay, but the puttin together is so, so so patchy. We need to get humble guys.

    Rupa Bajwa, the no-nonsense l;ady, reigns supreme as far as first-time writers go. If she could self-promote like all these guys (Shanghvi and Dasgupta), she'd be going places. I like her work very much, just wish she were less unrealistically idealistic and more market savvy and hardselling.

  8. Tired: I think Dasgupta deserves better than to be clubbed with Shanghvi (at least in terms of the writing). Btw, can you give me an example of this "self-congratulatory tone"?