I’ve written about my admiration for M G Vassanji’s work in these posts. He was in India for his book launch last week and I got to meet him for a Q&A session that lasted only 15-20 minutes. Would’ve liked a longer interaction but his schedule was packed – in fact, 10 minutes into our conversation, we were interrupted by a journalist from another newspaper who had been given a similar time slot. She agreed to wait at a nearby table for us to finish, but I get distracted and self-conscious when this sort of thing happens, so the rest of the interview wasn’t too satisfying.
As if this weren’t enough, I returned home to find that the tape recorder had malfunctioned – so had to rely on memory and on the few words I had scribbled in my notepad during the interview. Here’s what I could salvage of the Q&A. (It should preferably be read as an appendage to the earlier post about The Assassin’s Song.)
Why is your work so low-profile in India?
Well, I've always fallen between places – first as an Indian growing up in a colonised Africa, later as an Indian in Canada. And I write about real people in ordinary situations, which is not necessarily the most fashionable sort of writing. Some high-profile writers of Indian origin cater to the idea of an exotic India – I’m not saying that the use of stylistic devices is bad in itself, but it can lead to a certain type of posturing, which detracts from what you’re trying to say. I’ve observed that this is true of some African writers also: sometimes there is a pressure to play games because we don't automatically have a market in the West.
So you believe some writers just give Western readers what they want?
Possibly. Of course, you have to consider the reader – you can't say "I'm writing only for myself", which is a line you often hear from writers who are just starting out; perhaps this attitude is a defence mechanism, in case their work doesn’t get appreciated. But at the same time, you can't let the audience dictate to you. Every writer must be honest to himself.
The Assassin's Song is your first novel to be set largely in India. Do you visit the country often?
My first real visit here was in 1993, though I could have come here as a youngster when the "spiritual India" was very much in fashion in the West. The longest I've stayed here was three-and-a-half months – in Shimla – but it takes me very little time to feel at ease in this country. It's like the bond I still have with Africa, despite not having lived there for decades.
At your book launch you spoke about being influenced as a youngster by the revolutionary movements in Africa. Could you elaborate on this?
I was influenced by the politics of equality and colonialism. The early 1960s were a heady time for a young, impressionable boy to be growing up in – lots of businesses had just started, there was hope for a glorious future. I didn’t know much about world politics at first, but gradually we heard about these international leaders like Nehru and Nasser, and the policies of non-alignment, and there was a feeling of optimism in the air.
Incidentally, the language of the media in Africa then was not unlike the way it is in India today – there was similar sloganeering about the country's potential, etc. [Note: This interview took place on August 15, marking 60 years of India’s independence.] I'm not making any absolute comparisons, simply talking about the mood. But the Africa we had such hope for was eventually betrayed by bad politics and other social factors. I don't believe India will go that way – it's a more dynamic country, there is more energy here, and if there's corruption there are lots of hard-working people too.
A theme that figures prominently in your work is that of the individual constantly being dwarfed by larger forces…about the suppressing of personal choices and dreams.
Yes, and in The Assassin's Song this takes the form of the protagonist Karsan carrying the burden of events that occurred 700 years before he was born. These themes are important to me. But you have to see that there is also a progression here: the crushing of the individual voice can be extended to the suppressing of small communities, and then even to the suppressing of small countries. When I was growing up in Tanzania, the country was being bullied by everyone, even West Germany!
In Karsan’s case, of course, it’s more complicated. He is being bullied by the burden of tradition, by a force he has no control over. But turning his back on that tradition means that he has to betray his own parents, and that’s an equally heavy burden.
There is a powerful passage where he goes to the US to study and feels liberated by his newfound ordinariness on the MIT campus. Back home in his little village, he was revered as the future Pir, an avatar of God, but here in this foreign university he’s just another student – and it’s even possible for him to joke with friends about his “divinity”.
Yes, it’s a freedom to discover yourself – to step out into the world and find that you and your background are a very small part of the larger picture; that the world doesn’t revolve around a single tradition, or community, or village. It can make you feel very small and uncertain, but it can also liberate you. In Karsan’s case, it liberates him enough to make his own choice at the end. And he does return to his roots, because he has to consider his family, his people.
I sometimes feel that way with respect to my community: over the years I've moved away from them intellectually (I'm more interested in history than in spirituality), but they are after all my people and I can't turn away from them. There's a continuous process of self-discovery at work here.
Who are your literary influences?
As a child I was nourished by ginans – verses and songs from the Sufi tradition – and learnt about music and mythology from them. Otherwise, there was the usual childhood garbage – Enid Blyton and such. Later in life, Western writers like Conrad, whose moral ambiguities I have high regard for, as well as Grass and Coetzee. I also admire Philip Roth – he over-writes and lot and it’s difficult to read too much by him at one stretch, but he has a great sense of human complexities.