Friday, January 30, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: an interview with Daniyal Mueenuddin

To the cynical eye, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s back-story might read like a very imaginative publicist’s attempt to make an author sound interesting. The son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, he grew up in Lahore, went to boarding school in Massachusetts at age 13, and returned to Pakistan a decade later to help his aging father safeguard an ancestral property that was in danger of being taken over by crafty managers. After spending seven years more or less alone on this farm – 10 hours from Lahore by rough road – living a life that was very different from the one he had known in the US, he went back and studied law at Yale; threw up a job at a large New York law firm to return to Pakistan and write stories that were eventually published in The New Yorker and Granta; and now lives with his wife at the same farm, taking the occasional break for book tours and literary festivals.

It takes a while to realise that not only is this saga entirely true (and Mueenuddin himself quite matter-of-fact about it) but also that his short-story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders really is worthy of the buzz it has created in the literary world – a rare thing at a time when every new book is sold to us as being, in the language of the jacket blurb, “an extraordinary achievement”, “a work of uncommon depth”, “an essential book” or some combination of all these.

The eight stories in this collection shed light on the many faces of contemporary Pakistan, from poor people quietly eking out a living in the rural areas to bored nouveau riche youngsters snorting coke at Halloween parties in Islamabad; from the jet-setting upper class who think nothing of going off to Paris for a quick holiday on whim, to a feudal society comprising landlords and servants playing games of one-upmanship. But no synopsis can convey the richness and fullness of Mueenuddin’s writing, which is elegantly descriptive without ever coming across as self-conscious or as trying too hard. His prose brings to life such protagonists as the enterprising Nawabddin Electrician, a survivor in more than one sense of the word, an upwardly mobile young girl named Husna, trying to bridge the class divide by becoming the mistress of an elderly landlord, and the young couple Leila/Lily and Murad in the moving “Lily”, an outstanding portrait of the many crests and troughs of a relationship (and a story that also has perceptive things to say about people's complex relationships with their own selves).

From “About a Burning Girl”, here’s a sample of Mueenuddin’s talent for pithy yet evocative pen-portraits: a passage about Mian Sarkar, a briskly efficient Jeeves figure in the complicated world of the Pakistani judiciary.
So far as I am aware, Mian Sarkar wore a cheap three-piece suit and a pair of slightly tinted spectacles of an already outmoded design on the day that he emerged from his mother’s womb. When he leaves the office in the evening, exactly at five, he doesn’t turn a corner or get into a cab or a bus, he simply dematerializes. No one knows even what quarter of the city he lives in, much less his address...Before speaking he clears his throat with a little hum, as if pulling his voice box up from some depth where he secretes it for safekeeping. His greatest feature, however, is his nose, a fleshy tubular object, gorged with blood, which I have always longed to squeeze, expecting him to honk like a bus.

That would be a fatal act! There is nothing connected with the courts of Lahore that he has not absorbed, for knowledge in this degree of detail can only be obtained by osmosis. Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived. He sees the city panoptically, simultaneously, and if he does not disclose the method and the motive and the culprit responsible for each crime, it is only because he is more powerful if he does not do so.
I met Mueenuddin briefly at the Jaipur lit-fest and then again in Delhi. Excerpts from our conversation:

As a young man, you returned from the US to manage the family farm and lived alone there for many years. Was the change in lifestyle difficult?

Well, my father was in his late 70s at the time (there was a big age difference between him and my mother), and there were powerful managers who were threatening to take over the farm, so the choice was between losing the property and moving back to Pakistan. It was difficult, yes: my Urdu was good but I spoke no Punjabi, which was the language in which most of the legal dealings were conducted, and I had to pick it up on the job, so to speak. There was an element of personal danger too – these were powerful people I was dealing with, including a Member of Parliament.

It was a lonely life, but there's a stillness to living alone that I grew to love – I wouldn't do it now, but it was fine back then.

Did you develop your writing skills during this period?

Yes, there was a lot of solitude for reading and writing, as you can imagine – I wrote a lot of poetry and read endlessly. But also, I wrote hundreds of letters – there was no telephone, I had to travel to Lahore for that every week – and I kept carbon copies of all these letters; I still have them with me. They helped develop my sense of narrative. It was richer than diary writing, because the tone and focus of the letters changed depending on whom I was writing them to. If I wrote to my mother, I would downplay the danger. If I wrote to my American girlfriend, I would make the place seem really attractive, to entice her to come across and meet me. It added up to a construction of different narratives.

Also, I spent a lot of time observing the people around me – I observed how things worked, the crooked deals, the power-mongering, how people found ways to get around the law and transfer land in their own name. There aren't many people who have the ability to write and who also get to see the things that I have – to live that kind of life over a period of time. I suppose that helped.

Your stories show a dynamic, heterogeneous side of Pakistan, a country that often finds itself stereotyped. Do you see yourself as a political writer, correcting misperceptions?

No, that's not what I was thinking about when I wrote the stories. I do agree that it's important to highlight the diversity of the country – the international media shows only the most negative images of Pakistan – but I'm not very political myself, and in general I object to the idea of writers being too political. It gets them a readymade audience, of course, but I also think it also takes something away from the writing. That’s one reason I think Zola sucks, by the way, despite his great appeal for young people.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of this but, well (shrugs, looks wry), I am!

In general, I don’t think art should be political. Picasso’s “Guernica” is a brilliant political work, but what makes it so successful in my view is the artist’s horror at what has been done to his people, and that’s almost a personal thing. I prefer to write from a human perspective, to observe and to not be judgemental – which is something that political writing invariably ends up being.

Even so, with the attention being given to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, you’re inevitably going to become a spokesperson for your country. Are you comfortable about that?

A “bloviator”, you mean? (Laughs) No, I most certainly don’t want to be a spokesman for Pakistan. My hope – and of course, practically speaking I know this won’t happen – is to be left alone, to not be seen as representing one position or another.

I know that writing and publishing a book is a very public act, and I have to resign myself to that, but personally for me, writing is my play. It’s something I have enormous fun doing, I don’t have to try too hard or get worked up over it – this is probably not a reflection of my skill so much as of my approach to writing. And I hope it stays fun. One thing I dread is that it might become harder for me to do.

It’s interesting that you say it’s such fun, because your stories give the impression of being carefully polished over time, looked at again and again until you’re perfectly satisfied with them. Do you make several drafts?

Oh yes, multiple drafts for every story. The polishing, the careful craftsmanship, is something I owe to the reader. I mean, if a guy makes a car you don’t expect the wheels to fall off when you take it for a drive. Writing is no different. The least I can do is to write the story as well as I possibly can. If people are spending their time and money on the book, I owe it to them.

But that doesn’t take away from the joy. What I meant about the writing being fun is that I sit down and do it and enjoy it, and if I’m not in the mood I don’t do it and I don’t worry about it. I can’t understand this idea of people getting a whiff of the “midnight oil” and then sitting down to work. I can’t write unless I have a song in my heart. And I’m perfectly okay with not writing anything at all for six months if I don’t feel like it.

Is the short story your chosen medium or are you also looking at longer-form writing now?

Well, I have written a story that's around 110 pages long – it's a work-in-progress – and I'm now working on a novel. Different forms of writing have different disciplines...there's a cliché about everyone starting out with poetry, then moving to short stories and then – once you realise you've failed at both! – working on a novel. But seriously, I think that as you gain in confidence you become more extravagant. A short story has a fixed narrative line – it's like an artillery shell, which is fired out, goes up and lands at a fixed point – but a novel can be more discursive. And I’m looking forward to long-form writing now, because I’m keen to carry on telling the stories of some of the characters who appear in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. People like Husna, for instance (from the title story) – her story ended on a downbeat note but I want to see her triumphant in the next aspect of her life. I’d like to try and emulate what Proust does – bring unexpected turns and trajectories in a character’s life over time.

Since you mention Husna, she’s an example of a person trying to bridge the class divide, by making herself indispensable to a rich landlord. However, by the story’s end, she has been “put in her place”, so to speak. Are class struggles and upward mobility big issues in Pakistan, as they currently are in India?

Well, the class divide is really the human condition, isn’t it? In each strata of society, the complexities are the same. Thankfully for the world though, the majority of people are more or less content with their place – they aren’t in a desperate rush to “better” themselves (and I do put “better” in quotation marks). But Husna is an outlier, she isn’t content. She could have married a nice boy and settled down, but she doesn’t want to.

In another of the stories, “A Spoiled Man”, there’s a character who becomes a victim of lack of understanding of foreigners – people who, with the very best will in the world, end up causing damage because they fail to understand the circumstances of Pakistani lives. And there’s no getting away from that cultural disconnect. One thing I admire about Henry James is that he so precisely described the ways in which different cultures don’t understand one another. Of course, he did this in the context of British and American relationships, and you might think those cultures are relatively close to each other...but then, as Dylan Thomas put it, they’re up against the barrier of a common language!

Anyway, to get back to what I was saying...for me, one of the more interesting aspects of writing is trying to personify different voices; trying to capture the many ways in which people completely fail to understand one another.

That sounds bleak, but there’s a warm, humanist quality to these stories.

Well, I strongly believe that one thing an artist is not allowed to do is to despair. We all have our own dark nights of the soul, but if you take bleakness and desperation far enough, you basically have nothing to say: you might as well just say “Fuck it!” And writers are entertainers, no different really from the guy who juggles or blows fire out of his mouth. We’re all looking for an audience, and no audience will accept a narrative that’s utterly dark. Even if you look at someone like Kafka, whose work is seen as so pessimistic, within his darkness there is the lightness of humour – he’s very funny! There’s an affirmation present there. I don’t think unremitting negativity works.

You’ve mentioned Proust and Henry James, and your stories are written in a cool, classical style. Has most of your reading been from the 19th century?

I have to admit I’m lazy – which means that I mostly read writers who have been winnowed by time, rather than seek out new stuff. That’s probably been one of my failures – not reading enough contemporary writing.

What's your favourite story in this collection?

The longest one, "Lily", probably because it's the one I wrote most recently. As they say, the most recent child is the dearest one. It's also reassuring to have done something very recently – it lets me know that I'm still a writer!

(A version of this conversation appears in this week's Tehelka)

Festival notes 6

Some final scrapings from the Jaipur-fest barrel:
People loved Aamir's Ghajini because it laid everything on so thick – it's like eating vada pao and tikki. Incidentally, everyone talks about it being a Memento copy but hardly anyone pointed out that the scene with the blind man is a straight lift from Amelie
(Chetan Bhagat, discussing popular taste and in the process revealing that he watches French films)

You can be a magpie when you write in English. If I were writing in Bangla I don't know if I would have been allowed to use non-Bangla words
(Tahmima Anam)

I like my friends! They call me a gregarious hermit.
(Vikram Seth, in reply to Sonia Faleiro asking if he was a solitary writer who wasn't too keen on making friends)

Before coming here, I was told that pleasure was one of the characteristics of Hinduism. Well, we certainly had a lot of that here!
(Scottish poet Meg Bateman, discussing the weeklong "Found in Translation" workshop for poets in Neemrana)


More Nadeem Aslam:
I'm told that it's a good time to be a Pakistani writer – people are interested in your work. Well, I feel the opposite: I'd much rather that my country wasn't burning and my books didn't sell.

I find it very difficult to define people in terms of a religious or nationalist identity. I have 51 first cousins – yes, I know, that's the BJP's nightmare! – which means that right since childhood I've known 51 different ways of being a human being. One cousin is a non-believer, another is devout, one is happily married, another is divorced, another is unhappily married but sticking to the marriage...I can go on and on and on, there's a whole spectrum right there.

And on a completely unrelated note, two blog posts I recently read and enjoyed: Scott Adams' very moving post about his beloved cat Sarah; and Roger Ebert on...many different things, including parthogenesis, the Donald Duck family tree, and the mathematics of the hereafter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Festival notes 5: chatting with Chetan

“That was a fun session we had yesterday,” said Chetan Bhagat as we sat on the Diggi Palace front lawns watching Pico Iyer talking with William Dalrymple, “but I wish they had scheduled it for Saturday or Sunday instead of a Friday morning. Most of my readers are working-class people – they don’t have the luxury of taking time off on a weekday to come for an event like this. Still,” he said thoughtfully, “it was nice that they thought of inviting schoolchildren, and that the teachers brought them along. It livened things up.”

The last sentence is an understatement. The “Chetan Bhagat in Conversation” session at the Jaipur lit-fest was a huge success that ended with the author being mobbed by autograph-seekers and media outside the Durbar hall. The last time I saw such frequent and enthusiastic applause inside this hall while a discussion was in progress was three years ago, when Shobha De held court over an audience that included several college-girls with giant stars in their eyes.

Chetan was also being modest when he gave the schoolchildren credit for livening things up. Actually, it was all him. He was spontaneous, witty in his distinct, earthy style, and connected with his audience in a way that few public speakers manage (it helped, of course, that the hall was filled with people who had read and enjoyed his books). Namita Gokhale and I were co-moderating the session but we were redundant, which is something I thoroughly approve of being when up on a stage. Before the session, I had prepared a token list of questions: about Chetan’s fractious relationship with critics, the vehemence that he seems to invite from people who are obsessed with preserving the Integrity of Literature, and the kneejerk inverse snobbery that he himself has sometimes responded with. But once the session began, I realised that this was not the time or place to discuss these heavyweight matters. What the audience mostly wanted was for Chetan to speak about himself, and to ask him their own questions.

There were lots of quotable quotes from him, most of which I neglected to take down. Commenting on his spurts of defensiveness, Chetan said, “I’m a sensitive person, and I do sometimes react if people keep saying ‘He sucks. He sucks.’ It’s almost like a style statement for me now!”

During the session, I brought up my conversation with Tushar Raheja a couple of years ago (see this post about mass-market fiction) – about Raheja wondering why anyone would spend Rs 400 or Rs 500 on a book when he could go out for a meal with his girlfriend for that money, and how this indicated a growing willingness among some readers and writers to look at a book as a product like any other. It was, of course, the decision to price Chetan’s first book Five Point Someone at Rs 95 that directly led to the opening up of a new market.

“Well, yes, I always say love comes first,” Chetan quipped. “If there’s a book priced at Rs 500 and you can have a meal with your girlfriend instead, that’s what you should do – unless it’s a book about how to get new girlfriends!” Loud cheers followed. But on a more serious note, he immediately pointed out that for many of his readers in smaller towns, Rs 95 in itself is a fairly substantial price for a book. “And the margins are still big – large bookstores like Crossword keep 40 of those 95 rupees.”

“I’m learning new things about this country all the time,” he said, “Someone who had read one of my books wrote to me from a town called Durg, and I didn’t even know where that was. I’ve also learnt that my third book, The Three Mistakes of My Life, has been more popular in smaller towns than the first two books were – because those readers can’t relate to call centres and IIT campuses.”

While we’re sitting on the front lawn the next day, a group of girls come up to Chetan and shyly ask for autographs. One of them haltingly says that she loved all his books, but that she wishes there wasn’t so much abusive language in Five Point Someone: “I wanted my father to read it but he got angry and said he could not read something with so much bad language.”

“I’ll try and get the publishers to produce a U-rated version,” says Chetan, smiling.

When they leave, he says to me: “See, reactions to any book take place on so many different levels. Literary critics think my books are so safe, and that they don’t challenge anyone at all, but the fact is that these books often shock the middle-class people who are their primary readers. Whether you like it or not, you have to take into account the responses and feelings of even naïve readers. In Five Point Someone, when I had the two lovers engage in pre-marital sex, I got so many responses from people who said they liked the book but felt that Neha should not have “given up” her virginity. There have even been readers who know so little about novels that they don’t realise this is fiction: I get letters reproaching me for ruining Neha’s life by telling this story. ‘Tumne Neha ki zindagi barbaad kar di, ab uss se shaadi kaun karegaa?’ (‘You’ve spoilt Neha’s chances of getting married.’) I don’t know how to explain to them that this is a made-up story.”

I’ve known Chetan for a few years now, and have always thought of him as someone who thinks a lot about the issues surrounding his writing – about why critics feel the way they do about him, about what his success tells us about the nature of English-language reading and writing in India. Of course, I don’t agree with some of his views, and I suspect that he doesn’t have much time for my stance that reviewing is an essentially personal act, not a public service; that you have to be honest to your own feelings about a work rather than try to extrapolate what it might mean to “the majority” of readers or to a hypothetical reader with different tastes. Whenever the subject has come up in the past, the talk has gone nowhere.

But here’s a straight transcription of some of what he said to me the other day. These are not the words of someone who doesn’t think about what he’s doing, or about his place in the larger picture:

“A lot of people don't realise that taste can be used to run other people down. But all of our tastes are a product of our environment, the families we were born into, our upbringing. If I’m from a sophisticated background I might have exposure to the finer points of Japanese cuisine. But a traditional Jain family won’t know anything about it – does that mean these people are dumb?

I don’t have a problem with criticism, but some of it gets nasty and personal, and then I do feel like hitting back. When you condemn me, you judge my reader, and my readership is huge. It’s like saying that the democratic choices that have been made by a whole lot of people are wrong.

Many people don’t understand that my books are read by government-school kids, for whom English is very much a second language, and who know that they have to learn it if they want to get anywhere in life – beyond a point you can’t be successful if you don’t know English. And my books often provide them with an entry point into that world. They would be scared if they picked up a more literary work and saw complicated sentences in the first paragraph.

Let me give you a hypothetical situation – try to visualise it. Imagine that for whatever reason, your life takes a turn where it suddenly becomes very important for you to know French in order to get ahead in life. So you start learning it, work hard at it, persevere for weeks and months. Once you’re done with the basics, someone gives you a French novel written in a simple, conversational style and you get through it – this makes you feel like you’ve got somewhere, gained some sort of acceptance into a world that used to be closed to you. Then you pick up the newspapers the next day and see that critics everywhere have written that this book is utter crap, that only an idiot would like it. How do you feel then? And what service is such a review doing?

If you’re a critic, you at least owe it to yourself to be aware of how art connects for different people. But there is so much nastiness directed at my work. A reviewer writing about my third book for a prominent newspaper began by proudly announcing ‘I haven’t read Chetan Bhagat’s previous books but I went to my editor and asked if I could review this one, because I wanted to slam it.’ That was the first sentence of the review!”

(More on Chetan soon. In full disclosure, he wasn’t the festival’s biggest draw on the day of his session: that honour belonged to a certain Mr Bachchan who made an appearance on the front lawns an hour or so after our session got over.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Festival notes 4: knick-knacks

A few fragments of conversation overheard at the Jaipur lit-fest:
At the airport here I saw people sitting about reading newspapers. In California they would have been looking at themselves in little mirrors. In Japan they would have been playing on those handheld videogames. When you’re in India, it’s almost possible to believe that reading and writing make sense in the modern world. I mean, come on, we’re literally sitting on the same stage that Amitabh Bachchan was sitting on yesterday!
(Pico Iyer, during his front-lawn discussion with William Dalrymple)

Things started happening to English literature in the mid-1980s. Suddenly it was about Rushdie and Ishiguro and Ondaatje and other strange-sounding foreign names. Before this happened, it felt like you were walking into a closed, stuffy room in Miss Havisham’s house - it was still all about Dickens and Eliot.
(Iyer again)
Good books get praised in the first year of their publication, bad books get praised, good and bad books get ignored. You can’t take all this too seriously.
I approve of sponging off your parents...People always say a book will come out of you no matter what, but that isn’t true – you can’t write if you don’t have money.
(Vikram Seth, in conversation with Sonia Faleiro)
There are so many Indias, it really should be possible to write about India at several different levels.
(Vikas Swarup, discussing the controversy about poverty-depiction in Slumdog Millionaire, based on his novel Q&A)
I had just read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with its six intersecting narratives, and I thought I’d try to write Cloud Atlas Lite, so to speak.
(Swarup again, this time discussing his second novel The Six Suspects. Actually, “lite” doesn’t begin to cover it. Here are my reviews of Cloud Atlas and The Six Suspects)
In Afghanistan there are people who are so cut off from modern knowledge that if they see a shooting star or satellite movement in the sky they say, look, Allah just moved that star from there to there.
(Nadeem Aslam, talking about his new novel The Wasted Vigil)

Aslam again, tongue-in-cheek, responding to a question about how traditional Islamic people view technology: “Actually, some of them use it very well! Bazookas and other weapons, and Google Earth to plan terrorist attacks, even though they wouldn’t allow you to take a photo of the women in their house.”
Some people thought I was being offensive to the generals’ families through my book – but then they were offensive to 130 million people for 12 years. You have to look at the scale.
(Mohammed Hanif, on the reactions to his writing about real-life Pakistani generals in his political satire A Case of Exploding Mangoes)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Festival notes 3: Shakespeare's unconsidered trifles

You know a literary discussion has been successful when you come out of it wanting to immediately pick up the book at the centre of the talk. More so if the “you” in question happens to be a weary professional reviewer like yours truly, who already has a backlog of hundreds of unread books that will require multiple lifetimes to get through. The “Shakespeare Wallahs” panel in Jaipur between Charles Nicholl and Michael Wood whetted my interest in Nicholl’s The Lodger, an investigation of the time spent by William Shakespeare as a lodger in the house of Christopher Mountjoy in 1604, and the possible effect his experiences there had on his writing. (Full disclosure: I didn’t see all of the session, since it was on at the same time as another one that I wanted to follow.)

As Nicholl put it at the start of the talk, he and Wood count among the Shakespeare aficionados who “challenge the idea of Shakespeare’s facelessness – the idea that very little is known about him”. The Lodger is based on a remarkably well-preserved piece of paper that dates back to 1612; a court document from a case where one “William Shakespeare, Gent” appeared as witness. Nicholl showed us a print of the paper on a screen, focusing on Shakespeare’s signature ("William Shaks") at the bottom – “hurriedly scrawled, much like a busy writer signing away on book copies at a literature festival like this one!” – and called it a valuable relic, an immediate representation of a moment in the Bard’s life, of “his voice coming down to us through the centuries”. The document is a record of the questions put to Shakespeare in the court and his answers, and Nicholl was boyishly enthusiastic about it: “When I first saw it, I speculated about the possibility of retrieving fingerprints from it – or, more far-fetchedly, a DNA sample.”

The case in question pertained to a marriage that ran into trouble because the father – Shakespeare’s landlord Mountjoy – had withheld his daughter’s dowry; what adds spice to the tale is that Shakespeare himself had presided over the ceremony seven years earlier where the young couple plighted their troth, to use the language of the time (put differently, he “made them sure”). All this was happening around the time that he was writing King Lear in an upstairs room in the Mountjoys' house, and Nicholl remarked on the opening Act of that great play, with its reference to Cordelia as the old king’s “dowerless daughter”. He also made connections between the goings on in the household and other Shakespeare plays of the time, such as All’s Well That Ends Well.

“That single court document,” Nicholl said, “reveals intimate biographical details about someone who has always been an enigma, along with many links between life and art." Pointing out that a character in The Winter’s Tale is described as "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", he said, "What we see here is William Shakespeare himself snapping up unconsidered trifles from his landlord’s house and using them in his work. We see him in the full flow of life, drawing from the life around him, a picture that’s very different from the usual portrait of the reclusive writer.”

He also joked about a maid at the Mountjoys' house referring to the playwright as "One Mister Shakespeare who lay [lodged] at the house." "She probably couldn't understand what this man was doing alone in his room all day, keeping these odd hours," Nicholl said, "and perceptions about writers haven't changed much all these centuries later."

[More on The Lodger here]

Festival notes 2: Diaspora Lite with Kunzru, Anam, Aw and Aslam

The term “Diaspora writing” has become something of a cliché in any discussion involving authors of south Asian origin who are settled outside their home countries. Implicit in its use is the assumption that these “Diaspora writers” must be angst-ridden, torn between cultures and at all times preoccupied with questions of identity. This is, to say the least, a simple-minded assumption. To some extent it might hold good for first-generation immigrants, but there are many younger writers who don’t much care to be straitjacketed and who think of themselves as citizens of a shrinking, multi-cultural world – their thoughts and feelings influenced by too many factors to count.

As a books journalist long jaded by the D word and the banalities surrounding it, I would normally have stayed very far away from the Jaipur festival’s panel discussion “Defining Diaspora”. But the panelists – Hari Kunzru, Tash Aw, Tahmima Anam and Nadeem Aslam – were all dynamic, interesting writers and I had a feeling they would bring a lightness of touch to the topic. This proved to be the case.

As moderator, Kunzru began by asking his co-panelists to identify why they might have been chosen for this session. “Well, I’ve done Double Diaspora,” joked Tash Aw, explaining that he was of Chinese ancestry but that he and his family had stayed in Malaysia long enough for him to think of it as his own land, and that he currently lived in London.

He was starting to elaborate when a deadpan Kunzru interjected. “Just a minute,” he said, “let’s make this as simple as possible for the audience. Why ‘Diaspora’?”

“Okay,” says Tash, “Chinese origin...”

Whereupon Kunzru holds up his index finger and goes “One!”

“...grew up in Malaysia...”


“...and now live in London.”

“Three! There you go!” says Kunzru.

The “One, two three” format was repeated for the other participants and it perfectly set the tone for a discussion where the authors joked about the widespread tendency to label them (“Why are we lot up here, and expected to orientate our lives around this word? Why not Ian McEwan?”) but also found time to reflect on their personal journeys and the journeys of their families. The soft-spoken Nadeem Aslam, one of my very favourite speakers, described how he had shifted from Pakistan to northern England at the age of 14 and now thought of himself as a British Pakistani. “But as a writer, my only nationality is my desk.” He mentioned that his English had been of the “This. Is. A. Cat variety” when he left Pakistan (where he had studied in an Urdu-medium school), but subsequently developed enough to become his principal language of expression: “I could have written in Urdu but I would have been nervous about the quality.”

Nadeem also movingly discussed how and why his parents’ feelings towards their adopted country were different from his. “Even after living in England for so many years, they discuss the weather by saying, ‘It’s quite cold here today, I wonder what it must be like there’ - the ‘there’ being Pakistan. And I can understand why that is. It’s much easier for me – I had my parents with me, in England. But they had left their parents behind, and that made such a difference to how they felt about life in the new place.”

Kunzru’s life has followed a somewhat different trajectory: the son of an Indian (Kashmiri Pandit) father and a British mother, he has lived most of his life in England and is more “English” than Nadeem is. But he recalled that when he was growing up he would often be asked “Where are you from?” and that he soon learnt that the
expected answer was not, for example, “Bedfordshire”; the question was code for “Who had sex to make you?”

This was followed by banter about exotic book jackets – the sort which feature hennaed hands, saris and flowers - which, again, have the effect of labeling South Asian writers and giving the impression that they can only write about certain things, and in a certain way. Tahmima Anam recalled how one of her publishers had homed in on a jacket with a woman in a pink sari... for a book where the protagonist was a widow who only wore white. “When I pointed this out to them, they said, Don’t be so literal!”

“I get houses on stilts,” Tash Aw quipped. “Maybe we should set up an Anti-Orientalising Jacket Collective!” replied Tahmima.

Despite the panelists’ agreement about the D-word being restricting, they had different views about the role that their home countries play in their writing. Kunzru’s last (and in my view, best) novel My Revolutions doesn’t have an India connection at all (which is something I had discussed with him during our panel the previous day). In a similar vein, Tash Aw said that he didn’t feel any particular responsibility towards Malaysia when he wrote his novels, but Tahmima admitted that she felt a strong responsibility to Bangladesh, “perhaps because there are so few writers there who are presenting the realities of the country. I’m not saying that I want to write a history textbook but I do have political stakes”.

I spoke with Nadeem Aslam later and I think he feels the same way about Pakistan. More on that soon.

[A few more thoughts about the Diaspora thing in this old post about Rishi Reddi's book Karma and Other Stories. And an earlier post about Aslam's quiet eloquence here]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Festival notes 1: general reflections

Back from Jaipur yesterday. Had a very good time at the festival, which was extremely well-organised despite being bigger and more crowded than ever before (note: I attended the 2006 and 2007 editions, couldn’t make it last year). Given the large number of authors, moderators and journalists whose schedules had to be coordinated, the big crowds that showed up each day, and the many events running simultaneously, plenty might have gone wrong but everything ran quite smoothly – credit to co-directors Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy, and their teams of efficient young people responsible for the festival’s daily functioning.

I have ambivalent feelings about the literature fest having grown into such a big event from the cosy little thing it was in 06. It’s very good for book-lovers, writers and publishers, of course, but the current scale can get overwhelming if you’re anything other than a social animal who thrives on human company round the clock. At almost any given time during the four days I was there, the lawns of the Diggi Palace were packed end to end with bodies – socialising, conducting interviews, watching the evening concerts, eating and drinking. On balance, I think it was a wise decision to leave for Delhi on Saturday afternoon and miss most of the weekend madness.

I was a bit frustrated when two or more sessions I wanted to catch were running simultaneously (on at least one occasion, much flitting occurred between the three venues - the Durbar Hall, the Mughal Tent and the Baithak -
during the space of an hour), but this isn’t really something to complain about. The variety of the programme only made the festival more eclectic, and it also makes sense because none of the venues is built for a huge audience; it's better to spread things out a bit.

With so many members of the “literary community” being present, most of the writers, publishers and journalists spent their time catching up with friends or making new acquaintances, rather than attending the talks. (I plead guilty: I only saw three sessions in their entirety, not counting the ones I was directly involved with. Caught some of the others in bits and snatches, and on the TV screens that had been set up outside the Durbar Hall.) Most of the seats inside the halls and tents were filled by book-enthusiasts who aren’t lit-circuit insiders, so to speak – including the groups of schoolchildren and college-goers who had been invited for some of the sessions. This is a good thing; these discussions and readings are meant primarily for people who don’t have regular access to literary events. I thought the response to most of the sessions, including the low-profile ones, was very encouraging.

If I’d gone alone I might have become restless after a point, but Abhilasha came along too (and got more journalistic work done than inefficient little me did, despite the fact that she was officially on leave and I wasn’t). The Diggi Palace is a comforting, homely place even in the midst of such hustle-bustle, and a non-literary highlight of our trip was renewing contact with the canine members of the residing household, including the little Jack Russell terrier whom we met on our last visit more than a year ago. Here’s a picture:

Bindiya is the small one on the left; pictures of her as a puppy in this post. The Diggi Palace is a very animal-and-bird-friendly place. Even with all the human activity on the lawns, the feeding bowls for the sparrows, parrots and squirrels were in place – except, perhaps, during the Amitabh Bachchan session, which the birds and squirrels watched intently from up in the trees.

(More posts coming soon)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Snippets: Shonku, Tagore, Daniyal, Kamila

Before heading off to Jaipur, a quick mention of some books I’ve been enjoying recently:

The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories (Satyajit Ray) – 12 stories about the adventures of Ray’s most endearing character, the eccentric scientist Professor Shonku. The stories feature, among other things, a Mars expedition, an encounter with a Chinese hypnotist, a colour-changing sphere that turns out to be a tiny living planet that’s slipped out of orbit, reflections on what makes a robot truly lifelike, and trips to Egypt, Baghdad and Norway. Also such inventions as the Omniscope (a telescope, microscope and X-Ray all in one) and the Neospectroscope (used for summoning ghosts). One of the stories, “Corvus”, about a very intelligent crow, was translated into English by Ray himself; all the other translations are by Gopa Majumdar, and she does a fine job of conveying Ray’s gently intelligent, non-instructive style. I imagine this is superb comfort reading for Bengali readers who first experienced these tales as children, but it’s also an eye-opener for those of us who didn’t.

Nationalism (Rabindranath Tagore) – from Penguin’s Modern Classics series, the text of three lectures on nationalism and internationalism delivered by Tagore in Japan and the US in 1916-17. Ramachandra Guha’s elaborate Introduction is vital to a deeper understanding of this book, especially if you’re not too familiar with Tagore’s humanist views, his concerns about the very thin line between nationalism and xenophobia, and how his beliefs contrasted with Gandhi’s more insistent patriotism. Guha also comments on the sad undermining of Tagore’s status as one of the most important figures in the construction of modern India, a man who had a strong impact on the thinking of both Gandhi and Nehru. The style of the lectures
themselves is a little quaint in places, and they are (inevitably) repetitive, but they powerfully and movingly convey Tagore’s anxiety about the construction of narrow domestic walls everywhere in the world, and also carry a strong resonance for our own times.

(Note: Penguin Modern Classics also has a new edition of Tagore’s novel Gora, an ambitious work about the darker side of nationalist awakening, as seen through the eyes of a young orthodox Hindu struggling with questions of identity. The book’s cover is a lovely illustration by Tagore.)

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: this short-story collection is one of the most anticipated debuts of the year, and with good reason. I’ve read four of the stories in the collection so far (on the computer, on a PDF file, which is always difficult – otherwise I would have finished the book by now) and they provide fascinating glimpses of the many faces of contemporary Pakistan, including the complex social interactions in the feudal parts of the country and the lives of high-society types; almost essential reading, one might say, for anyone who tars the whole country with one brush. One of my favourite stories here is “About a Burning Girl”, a fine, succinct portrait of compromises and deal-making within the Pakistani judiciary. (More about this book and its author soon.)

Currently reading: Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows, an epic story that moves from Nagasaki in 1945 to Delhi in 1947, and eventually to present-day New York and Afghanistan via
1980s Pakistan. Very engrossing so far; an early chapter contains a short, chilling description of one woman’s experience of the Nagasaki bomb, but the prevalent mood of the next few chapters is that of a sprawling multi-generational saga, with the paths of several characters intersecting over the decades. Will finish it soon.

(Not sure if I’ll have time to blog about the festival in the next few days, but will try)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A chat with Abhay Deol

[A profile-interview I did of actor Abhay Deol for the Sunday Business Standard. It was done in 20 minutes on the phone – wouldn't have minded a longer and more indepth conversation, but maybe next time, after Abhay has done a few more films]

How long does it take for an actor to reach the point where his name is automatically associated with high-quality (if low-key) cinema? Abhay Deol is just six films old (the seventh, Dev D, releases next month), he’s played the lead in most of these films, and there isn’t really a weak link among them. Serious movie buffs – the ones who can look beyond box-office collections – know exactly what “an Abhay Deol film” is code for: a strong script, a fresh but confident director with a willingness to explore new terrain, and an understated but very effective lead performance. The growth of his career graph has been equally understated; though his films haven’t been smash hits so far, most of them have already developed a cult following and will probably have a long life on DVDs.

During a telephonic interview with Abhay, I mention that this career trajectory is especially notable when one considers his family background. As an impressionable young boy growing up in the 1980s (he was born in 1976), he would have watched the mainstream pulp that his paternal uncle Dharmendra and his much-older cousin Sunny Deol were doing at the time. A certain amount of hero-worshipping must have taken place at that age. (“Yes, yes, of course,” Abhay says.) So how did he get from there to where he is today, a standard-bearer for small, script-driven movies?

I'm expecting Abhay to underplay the Deol family connection; to steer the topic in a different direction. Not a bit of it. “But that's just the point,” he says, “As a child I had wider exposure precisely because I was from a filmi family.” His voice is warm and open (it reminds me of the young Sunny Deol in movies like Betaab and Sunny, though Abhay is speaking in English), he talks fluently and somewhat faster than I had expected – rarely pausing for breath, never stumbling over a sentence. “My taayaji and brothers travelled all over the world during their shoots, and through them I got to know about other cinemas, the possibilities of other types of movies. Most Indian youngsters didn’t have that kind of exposure before satellite TV came in, but I was lucky.”

Of course, this in itself doesn’t explain Abhay’s choice of roles; after all, most other star-children his age are doing big-banner movies with assembly-line screenplays. But he developed a varied taste in films at an early age, he explains: he was watching regular kiddie fare like Star Wars and Indiana Jones all right, but also more offbeat films such as Brazil and Blade Runner. “I was too young to understand all the nuances back then, of course,” he says (while I shake my head to dispel floating visions of Dharmendra bringing home video-cassettes of Terry Gilliam films for his little nephew along with Toblerone packets), “but I loved the look of these movies, and the music, and they motivated me to explore further.” His viewing habits are eclectic but he admits to a particular fondness for Iranian cinema. “Given the limitations on what they can portray, it’s amazing how much they’ve achieved. It’s a conservative culture, like ours, but they put subtle emotion ahead of gloss.”

Subtlety is the hallmark of Abhay’s own performances. As the engineer Satyaveer in Navdeep Singh's excellent “Rajasthani noir” Manorama Six Feet Under, he was the epitome of the inconspicuous, small-town Everyman, getting by from one day to the next, vaguely sensing that he can go on to better things but not driven enough to do much about it. Occupying a very different world from this character is the go-getting thief Lucky Singh in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, but Abhay brings a fine shade to even this inherently flamboyant role. Lucky is a charismatic rogue who lives by his wits, but we can see the effort that goes into his facade of self-assurance; he’s what one might call a fully realised character, created from the inside out.

“Well, I liked films where I could relate to the characters – where I found them tangible and real,” he says, “As you know, most of the Hindi movies we grew up with were full of larger-than-life characters. I would watch all that and be entertained by it, but I didn't feel a connect with it. For me, exploring my creativity as an actor has meant staying away from bigger-than-life roles.” Asked for examples of actors who have inspired him, he rather unexpectedly mentions Charlize Theron in Monster. "Now there's a performance that could make you feel empathy for a serial killer, a woman who's monstrous on the surface. She puts the viewer in the character's shoes, showing us how cruel and isolating society can be – how it can push you into a corner. I'd love to do work like that, which opens your mind to other lives."

It's interesting that the very first performance he thought of was by a female actor, I remark (and also non-Deol-like, I think silently to myself, though I've told myself to get those simplifications out of my head). “It isn't about being male or female, it's about performance, it's about something that strikes a chord with you,” Abhay says, adding, almost as a concession, that he was a big Peter Sellers fan too, “in Dr Strangelove, and many other films.”

He enjoyed playing the title role in Dev D, an updating of the Devdas story, written and directed by that most individualistic of filmmakers, Anurag Kashyap. Having only worked with relatively inexperienced directors so far (including the debutants Imtiaz Ali, Navdeep Singh and Sanjay Khanduri), was it intimidating to be helmed by a man who is among Bollywood’s few genuine auteurs? Did he feel constrained as a performer? “No, Anurag has been a friend for a long time – since before I joined films, in fact – so there was nothing to be nervous about,” he replies, “Besides, in my view, an actor is a tool in any director’s hands. For that matter, a director himself is a tool – I think of a film as one big jigsaw puzzle, which everyone contributes a piece to.”

This said, he’s excited about the adrenaline, the originality of treatment, that Kashyap has brought to a familiar tale. “Our setting is modern, urban and gritty,” he says, “but deep down this is very much the Devdas story as it was originally written nearly a hundred years ago. When I read the Chattopadhyay book – we all did, before starting the film – I was fascinated by all the angst towards social norms, which has been poured out through this one character. We haven’t tampered with that spirit at all.”

“I tried to dig deep into Dev’s psyche, and I hope I’ve succeeded. Right now he’s the character closest to my heart, though I also enjoyed playing Satyaveer – a common man forced into submission – and Lucky, who represents the idea that we can all be extraordinary on some level.”

A couple of decades ago, Naseeruddin Shah – the thinking man's actor for another generation – decided to wriggle out of the “Serious Actor” straitjacket and have a grand old time in entertainers like Karma, Tridev and Jalwa. Does Abhay see himself doing something similar down the line? “But you know, my intention even now is to make films that are commercial,” he insists. “It's not like I'm trying to select movies that won't do well.”

Very briefly, he gets defensive. “I don't know why my uncle and brother got singled out for doing the sort of cinema they did,” he says. “Everyone in mainstream Hindi cinema was doing the same thing back then – if you wanted to make a film that would have a decent-sized audience, the possibilities were limited. Today, things have changed. International films are released immediately in India, we have movie channels that show foreign-language movies, people are more aware and spoilt for choice. It’s possible now to make a film with a strong, original script and still have it seen by a large audience.”

“I don't much care for this division between commercial and non-commercial films – I don’t think it’s relevant anymore.” Strong scripts are what attract him and in the final analysis “the only distinction to be made now is between a good and a bad film”. Going by his record so far, it's likely that he'll maintain that distinction.

P.S. See this blog post by Abhay on Passion for Cinema.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lit-fest update

A quick reminder about the Jaipur Literature Festival (earlier post here): updates are still being made and session timings might be tweaked over the next few days, but most of the schedule is now in place. Among other recent developments, Australian author Thomas Keneally – best known internationally for the Booker-winning Schindler's Ark, filmed as Schindler’s List – has confirmed his participation, though his session (a discussion with journalist Sunil Sethi) is slotted for the same time as another very high-profile event, the launch of the book Bachchanalia: The Films and Memorabilia of Amitabh Bachchan. Mr Bachchan will be in the house for this one, and in conversation with OSIAN’s Neville Tulli; it should be fun to see the Big B mingling with the crowds on the Diggi Palace lawns, as other superstars (Salman Rushdie, Aamir Khan) have done in past editions of the fest.

Some other sessions I’m looking forward to:

The “Jugalbandi” between Gulzar and Pavan K Varma

“Moonlight’s Children”, a discussion featuring the Pakistani writers Nadeem Aslam and Daniyal Mueenuddin

“Scripting Bollywood”, with actress Nandita Das, documentary filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir, director Shekhar Kapur and author Vikas Swarup

Full programme here.

P.S. My discussion with Hari Kunzru has been shifted to the 21st evening, 5-6 pm, though that update hadn’t been made on the site last I checked.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thoughts on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

[Didn’t have to do an official review of this film but it was one of my 2008 favourites and I wanted to write something about it – so I’ve managed to spin a column out of this post!]

Delhi loyalists who follow contemporary Indian writing often complain about the absence of a Great Delhi Novel – a book to rank alongside the many epics that have been written about Bombay (Shantaram, Sacred Games and Maximum City being only a few recent examples). But the Great Delhi Film has been even more elusive. Mumbaikars have access to hundreds of movies that have recorded the development of their city's best-known vistas over the decades – adding up to a historical document in the form of moving pictures – but we Delhiites must make do with blink-and-miss glimpses of our past. Watching Sai Paranjpe's Sparsh recently, I caught myself rewinding and re-rewinding a scene to try and figure out if the Shabana Azmi character lived somewhere near Golf Links. And that shaded lane in the background, on which a solitary Fiat was zipping along like a race-car...could that possibly be the 1980 avatar of Lodi Road?

Dibakar Banerjee's delightful Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is a Delhi movie that doesn’t much linger on the city’s physical landmarks but captures many vital aspects of its mood and character. At a basic level, this film is about the (improbably) charmed life of Lucky Singh, a Sikh lad from a middle-class West Delhi household, who grows up to become a master thief and gets away with one audacious theft after another – often doing nothing more strenuous than sauntering into a house and sauntering out again with a TV set tucked under his arm. This makes for a lightheartedly amoral story, anchored by a superb Punjabi-rap soundtrack and by that earsplitting old song “Chahiye Thoda Pyaar”, but Oye Lucky! is also a film that understands the spiraling nature of class aspiration and upward mobility. It knows a thing or two about surviving in a dog-eat-dog world where the kindly, “God-fearing family man" who befriends you and encourages his little son to call you “maama” might well have a dagger ready to plunge into your back.

Consequently, even the most flip scenes have undercurrents that are threatening, or poignant, or both; this tone is set by an early sequence where the young Lucky and his pals gape at the body of a friend who was killed by local hoodlums, and offhandedly remark that they too could end up with cotton in their nostrils.
At times this movie feels like a more cheerful cinematic cousin of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which was about a lower-class man deciding to become a “social entrepreneur”; the scene where Lucky and his friend Bangali buy “classy” (or gaudy, take your pick) clothes to gain access to a hotel discotheque mirrors the passage in The White Tiger where Balram Halvai gets to see the inside of a Gurgaon mall. And the line “Yeh Gentry log angrezi bolte hain par karte hain desi” sums up the showy behaviour of the nouveau riche whom Lucky simultaneously mocks and aspires to be like.

A notable thing about Abhay Deol’s performance as Lucky is that he manages the charismatic Hindi-movie hero act (he's a dead ringer for the young Dharmendra in a couple of scenes) while also allowing us to see that Lucky isn’t to the manor born, so to speak; that a certain effort goes into his facade of coolness, that he isn't always as cocksure as he appears to be. Despite the considerable physical differences between Deol and the equally good Manjot Singh, who plays the younger Lucky in the film's first 20 minutes, it's possible to reconcile the strapping adult with the gawky, reedy-voiced adolescent, and this adds credibility to the film. This definitely isn't a case of the little kid from a 1970s movie turning into an adult Dharmendra or Amitabh mid-leap, and also transitioning into a completely different person in the process.

Then there’s Paresh Rawal, brilliantly cast as three separate father figures/Big Daddies to Lucky (one of them is literally his father), placed at various points in his life to stunt his personal growth, each posing a new challenge for him to overcome. Rawal’s third character, the ingratiating Dr Handa, is very familiar, as is the manner in which his wife (a smooth little performance by Archana Puran Singh) mentions that Lucky closely resembles her US-based brother – “Main to inhe dekh ke emotional ho gayi, bilkul same-to-same Monty hain.” This line doesn’t exist in isolation (which it could well have done, being both funny and authentic in its own right) but paves the way for something else that’s common in certain sections of Indian society: the forced creation of “family” relationships of convenience, which can become a prelude to something more manipulative.

The screenplay is full of gems, too many to mention here, but I liked the sardonic waiter suggesting to the young Lucky that since he won't have the money for an elaborate butter-chicken meal, he should order a plate of five paneer pakoras for himself and his girlfriend: “Give her two and have three yourself.” (Of course, paneer pakoras are never going to be enough to satiate Lucky; hence the film.) And the scene where Lucky asks Dr Handa about how to get into a house that has a “danger dog” guarding it, and the "honest" doctor baulks at the idea that something illegal might be afoot. Also the little sight gags, such as a local crime boss waving a hand to halt the ululating of a ghazal-singer – whom he condescendingly calls “Surdas” – in a restaurant. (Fittingly, for a film that’s about social hypocrisies and contrasts, the song being sung in this garish setting is about Meera’s spiritual devotion to Krishna; and it must be interrupted in order that a money-making scheme can be discussed.)

I’m not sure whether Oye Lucky! is, properly speaking, a Delhi film or a West Delhi film or even a Punjabi Bagh film (“Tilak Nagar se Rajouri ka chakkar lagaa doonga,” yells Lucky's irate father at one point, and those colonies are the movie’s frames of reference), but it almost doesn't matter. With its fine pen portraits of different character types and its pitch-perfect dialogue – spoken with just the right inflexions – it depicts Delhi's Punjabi sub-culture and the status-hankering of the middle-class like no other film I’ve seen. Anyone who’s lived here for any length of time will find something to relate to – though on a personal note, maybe it helps that I have an uncle named Lucky in west Delhi, as well as distant cousins nicknamed Quiety and Sherry, whose real names have been long forgotten through disuse!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Biophilia, intolerance, future Ramayanas: Vandana Singh Q&A

An email conversation with author Vandana Singh, mostly about her short-story collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (which I blogged about here)

The title of this collection leads one to expect science-fiction, but some of these stories (“Hunger”, for example) are more concerned with the everyday lives of people who feel like aliens in their own skin. How would you classify these tales?

Really, I don’t classify my stories, I just write them! The story, as it is being written, tells me what it will become and after that it is up to critics and readers to make of them what they will. But in hindsight I admit I write some stories that, while not explicitly science-fiction, have a science-fictional feel to them, in that they make you become aware of the wonder and/or strangeness in everyday things and events. The editors who first published “Hunger” were looking for something that was what they called “interstitial”, that defied boundaries and classifications (ironically enough) and what they liked about this story was that although in one way it was realist, you couldn’t fully understand it unless you were aware of the themes and concerns of science fiction.

There are other stories I’ve written, not in this volume, that can be read as realist fiction but have an undercurrent, or ethos, that is fantastical in some way. And part of it is that this is the way I see the world, as a source of unending wonder, from which we’ve divorced ourselves, so that each reunion is a recognition or remembering of something we’d forgotten.

Strangeness – finding it in familiar things and occasionally in oneself – is a recurring theme in your writing. What do characters such as Divya (in “Hunger”) and Susheela (in “Thirst”) help you achieve?

Divya and Susheela have a kind of binocular vision. They’ve never really separated themselves from the wider world – unlike other people, who live in a closed circle of mostly human making, limited by their jobs and responsibilities, by social custom, by unquestioned cultural limitations, the daily humdrum-ness of their lives, not noticing anything outside of their little cages. These two protagonists maintain some connection with the greater world, a world that is complex, ancient, sometimes terrifying. And what they know, as the protagonist of the story “The Wife” comes to realise as well, is that this wilderness, which is echoed in the geography of the human mind, also holds the possibility of liberation.

You wrote an essay recently about the self-absorption of our species and our refusal to “see” other life-forms. What in your view are the repercussions of this apathy?

I think the current ecological crisis we are in is a direct result of our alienation from what we so distantly call nature (as though it were possible to be outside it). We have the mass extinction of numerous species – among mammals alone, 20-25% of the world’s mammals are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss and other things. We have the collapse of every ecosystem in the world, we have global warming, threatening to destroy not only the human species but possibly all life on Earth. We’ve isolated ourselves so well mentally from the fact that we are subject to the laws of nature, that our fate is tied in with the fate of other creatures on this Earth, that we find these dire predictions surprising, or unbelievable, despite all the scientific evidence.

Imagine now that instead of being obsessed solely with our lives and bank balances, instead of trying to keep up with the neighbours or comparing the largeness of our houses and the number of vacations spent abroad, we were, instead, aware of the greater world, open to its wonders, appreciative of our belonging to it. Imagine that we noticed other creatures around us, and were sensitive to their lives and deaths. This tendency might actually be deeply ingrained inside us, as the biologist E O Wilson surmises – he calls this affinity for nature biophilia – and, in fact, studies show that people are happier in the presence of trees, that greenery and birdsong are necessary for our psychological survival.

Unfortunately consumerist culture suppresses this, trivializes it, or worse, Disneyfies it. So people lose a sense of connection to nature and fill that emptiness with dead things, and wonder why they are unhappy. If we were aware of the natural world of which we are a part, and were open to it and appreciative of it, would it be so easy to clear-cut forests, pollute the air, let sparrows disappear from Delhi?

Does this apathy also tie in with the human tendency for intolerance towards other people who are dissimilar from them (in terms of religion, class or whatever other categorisation)?

I can speculate that the human tendency for intolerance toward other humans is related to our modern distancing from Nature, because their roots are similar: fear, greed, self-absorption, the inability to recognise that another’s fate is tied up with yours. I think one of the things that has become apparent in today’s India is not only the communal divisions but the class divisions, where we become blind to the suffering of the rural poor or the boy with the jharoo on the street corner. We shut out all this in much the same way as we have shut out nature. We are putting protective walls around us, and each time we do this the space we are in gets smaller, until we realise (or not) that we’ve imprisoned ourselves in our own fears.

How do you define speculative fiction? As a reader, what are some of the works that drew you into this genre?

I don’t define it. There are enough arguments about the definition! I can tell you some things about it, however. Speculative fiction has the largest canvas of all fictional forms: the universe itself. Speculative fiction is the oldest form of story – look at the oldest tales in every culture. I like to think of realist fiction as a sub-genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is the place where the imagination ranges freely, where realism is only one option. And in fact speculative fiction allows us to examine reality in a deeper and more powerful way than realist fiction. In allowing us to reinvent reality, it enables us to question things as they are, to indulge in deep social critiques and thought experiments, to answer, as imaginatively as we can, “what-if” questions.

What drew me into it were a multitude of things: hearing the Ramayana and Mahabharata from my mother and grandmother, reading lurid little paperbacks in Hindi about paris and jadugars, reading Asimov and Clarke in my pre-teens, discovering Ray Bradbury when I was eleven and Ursula K Le Guin much later. But also what drew me to it was a desire for freedom, a desire to ask questions, such as: what if things were different from what they are now?

What are the possibilities of speculative fiction in India, given the rich variety of legends and myths that we have?

The possibilities are endless. I think we Indians are naturals at this stuff. I’m not talking solely about myth-making but about our absurd and contradictory tendency to come up with new ways of thinking, to adapt and reinvent tradition, to embrace modernity and question it at the same time, to allow for diversity and contradiction – to appreciate complexity. Think about the ideas that have come from this subcontinent: not just flying chariots and ten-headed demons but Satyagraha and the micro-credit scheme!

Currently the world is becoming increasingly homogenised, mono-culturated, if you will, to create the largest market we have known, merely to serve the needs of small-minded capitalists with limited imaginations. We are continually distracted from what is real and meaningful in the world. Only our tendency to go against the grain, to resist conformity, to risk appearing foolish in order to be revolutionary – in other words, only our imaginations will save us. And we have plenty of that.

Would you ever consider doing, say, an imaginative retelling of an existing story such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata?

I know people have done this, and there is nothing wrong with it. But personally for me I would not rewrite the old stories: I have clear and fond memories of my grandmother’s voice declaiming parts of the Valmiki Ramayana. However, I do enjoy writing variations on the theme in different times and settings. So for instance what I’ve recently done in a story that came out earlier this year is to imagine a possible Ramayana in the future – a man whose world was taken away from him, who models himself on Ram and goes on a mission that takes him on an intergalactic adventure. The result isn’t quite what he imagined. This is only one possible future Ramayana; even the current epic has so many versions, which comes back to the Indian tolerance for multiplicity, for many voices. That is something to celebrate.

[An earlier post about Singh’s writings here]