The Mag This Week

Actually, the title should say “The Mag last week”, because these are last Sunday’s links but on that day, I was too busy heading out on an impromptu holiday. But better late than never. Here’s what was in last week’s Books page:

  • A review of Classic Ruskin Bond: Volume 2 (the autobiographical writings), reviewed by Mita Ghose who loved it despite not being a, erm, Bond girl,
  • Pramod K. Nayar wasn’t much impressed by Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon.
  • I chatted with Shankkar Aiyar, whose book Accidental India seeks to prove that pretty much all the development that has happened in this country happened as a result of (as Bombaywallahs put it) luck by chance.

The unedited text of the interview with Shankkar Aiyar is here:

Deepanjana Pal: You’ve said that the idea of writing this book came to you when you reported the story of the emergency gold lift in 1991. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got the story and why it felt significant enough to warrant the kind of effort that goes into writing a book?

Shankkar Aiyar: More specifically, it’s located in an eight-column front-page national scoop that brought home to Indians, and the world, the magnitude of our country’s acute economic crisis of that time, in 1991. As I watched the cargo aircraft being secretly loaded with the nation’s gold reserves to be pledged and as I did the follow-up stories I wondered if this was the best we could do – not resolve issues pro-actively but await a crisis to pledge what almost all Indians revere as uber-Lakshmi. These concerns stayed with me as I reported, analysed and commented on the political economy. I noted it was a fascinating — but a deeply dangerous – pattern. Hence ‘Accidental India’.

DP: How long did it take to research and write Accidental India? Was it a daunting prospect?

SA: I’ve been a 24/7 journalist for 27 years before I took a well-deserved sabbatical to write the book, so that’s roughly the observation-time. Add a little over 13 months for intensive research and writing, which was enjoyably immersive. Then the time taken on the factual cross-checking, the crossing of T’s and dotting of I’s which is the production process and its own challenge because by that time you don’t really want to see your own 1,18,000 words for the nth time yet again! Perhaps the scale of the ambition could have been daunting but since I dived headlong into India’s politico-economic history to research and write, it was pure pleasure.

DP: Did you find your experience in journalism helped? 

SA: My 29 years in journalism have helped in interrogating history, in understanding issues and in analysing the complexities of India. Since I have been paying particular attention to the interface of politics and economics, I have been aware that the need to communicate these complexities to readers must neither be simplified nor dumbed-down.

DP: Did you have any writer or book in mind as a model while writing Accidental India? Were you concerned at any point that the book wouldn’t seem interesting to a reader?

SA: Accidental India is receiving enormous word-of-mouth support not only among academics but also working professionals, journalism students and, interestingly, young politicians in several states. The book is dotted with annotations, the arguments are backed by multiple validations of the premise and the analysis is cross-referenced. Which means that I did have to ensure that no reader get bogged down in any one of the seven crises in the book, after all this is an in-depth study of the political and economic history of modern India from 1947 to date. But no, I did not have an age-band in mind for the simple reason that as a non-fiction reader myself I appreciate the two crucial elements of a good book: it needs to stand the test of time, it needs to engage with its reader at the level the reader chooses.

DP: You’re not particularly impressed by many of Jawahrlal Nehru’s decisions. How serious a setback do you think his government was for India’s development? 

SA: Accidental India is more a compassionate critique of the process of governance that has brought our country to where it has, not so much of personalities. Jawaharlal Nehru nurtured the cause of a democratic country through its most difficult years. He was also an evangelist of modernity in building the abiding temples of science which he ensured. But now that I have analysed all the facts, and time provides the distance to do so dispassionately, it is evident that it was a blunder to opt for a closed economy. Pride and paranoia must not be allowed to overwhelm rational choice.

DP: Which regime has been the most beneficial?

SA: There have been leaders in every decade who have been enablers. Rajiv Gandhi popularised the idea of computerisation. Every decade has seen game changers for India, perhaps propelled by a regime but accelerated by crisis. Serendipitously, the country has progressed because of these seven game-changing accidents. For me, the two prime ministers who stand tall – despite their regimes, I might add – are Lal Bahadur Shastri and Atal Bihari Vajpayee because of their intuitive comprehension of the complexities of the political economy. Shastri resurrected national pride and put food security on par with national security. He enabled the green revolution and the mil revolution. Vajpayee connected Bharat with India through roads and telecom connectivity.

DP: There are a number of less-familiar names that emerge as heroes in Accidental India while more famous names are criticised. We don’t usually have a very receptive attitude to criticism. How concerned were you that your analysis would be misconstrued or considered disrespectful?

SA: The real heroes of India are mostly the largely unsung ones. Every game changer has arrived amidst institutional failure and individual courage. Accidental India is as much a tribute to the courage of these individuals who ensured that India was not left in a lurch by its politics. If this means busting many myths, leaving politicians red-faced, so be it.
For instance Accidental India’ proves that the liberalisation of 1991 was not a voluntary decision. The dismantling of the licence raj was compelled by circumstance and propelled by crisis. It is commonly – and incorrectly — believed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is the architect of reforms. Truth is India was forced to pledge its gold reserves, approach the IMF for a bailout and the blueprint of reforms was based on the 25 conditions stipulated by the lenders. And it was Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who bit the bullet. Accidental India lists the men who paved the way as enablers even before the World Bank came into the picture. This is how it needs to be; good people must be acknowledged so that more good people stand up and be counted.

DP: One of the arcs that emerges in your book is a sharpening disconnect between politicians
and the public.

SA: Let’s look at the evolution of politics — from a mission at the dawn of Independence to a profession in the ‘70s to family-owned businesses today. Political parties no longer feel the need to represent national opinion or interests as it is much more profitable – electorally – to represent sectional interests that deliver votes. In the competitive race downhill for narrow self-interests, political parties have subjugated the larger national interest. Every major – and increasingly, even minor — problem is being viewed through the prism of electoral dividend. There is no dearth of solutions but there is a systemic paralysis. And when every problem has to wait till it is an unavoidable crisis that must be resolved it is but natural for people to start losing faith in institutions. Meanwhile there is a deepening law and order crisis as misguided victims and villains take the law into their own hands. It’s interesting to me as an observer of politico-economic history – but disturbing as an Indian – that our country’s national and regional leaders have brought us to what is clearly frightening for our younger generation of citizens – this age of enormous civil fear and social unrest. This is perhaps where the United States was in the 1900s, what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. The political class there recognised the dangers and recovered ground through a series of political reforms and restructuring of government. I believe the Indian political class is awake but is yet to act.

DP: You say in your epilogue, “Delhi must delegate powers to the states and the states themselves must empower local self-governments.” Would you say the country is ready to take on such responsibilities, considering the numerous examples of mismanagement at the state level by numerous chief ministers, the many separatist movements that riddle large tracts of the country and at a very local level, the regressive ideologies of bodies like khap panchayat?

SA: For effective democracy power must be decentralised, shared with elected bodies in the pyramid of governance and that policy-making must have the participation of the people. The argument is not about national parties vis a vis regional parties. A one-size-fits-all approach is what has derailed the process development. At all times the reins of power must be with elected bodies accountable to the people. The khaap panchayats and similar outfits — that seek to hijack individual rights with muscle power that dot the landscape — represent the failure of the rule of law fuelled by politically funded electoral enterprises set up by
almost every party. These bodies are being and must be kept in check by the democratic citizenry. Diversity is a great strength and must be nurtured. Every attack on any group is an attack on the idea of India. It is important for people to recognise that democracy is a 24×7 system where they have obligations too, not just rights. There is a price to be paid for democracy, that price is our involvement which needs to go beyond merely dropping a vote in a box.

DP: Is there a silver lining, because it seems like it’s all going to hell?

SA: In India it does seem that things must get worse for them to get better. The crux is located in the nature of politics and the practice of democracy. The problem is Indians are overinvested in promises and underinvested in performance. We need to make governments transparent and political parties accountable. I am optimistic that this will happen. India has defied odds at every turn of history.

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The Mag This Week

In this week’s Books page, we’ve got reviews of

There’s also an interview with literary agent David Godwin who has just written a book, Breaking 80. Godwin was in Mumbai for Tata Literature Live! and made some time to chat about his book and more. You can read selected excerpts of the interview here. If you’re interested in reading everything he had to say, read on.

Why this book now?
Well, I started playing golf because I found out I had diabetes, and I entered a competition and I played very badly. Someone said to me, a publisher, “Well, do you think think you can get better? Do you think you can really break 80?” Eighty is a sort of legendary score for an amateur golfer. And I thought, well, yes. I’m always up for challenges. And also, I had a genuine interest in the idea that you can get better. That whole principle of getting better applies to golf, it applies to cooking and it applies to writing. So for me, it was a particularly interesting venture. The other thing is that as an agent, you’re spread very, very widely over many different projects at any one time. So I thought it would be quite interesting to apply myself to one project over a long period of time that was kind of mine in some way. So it had many challenges for me.

Interestingly, in Breaking 80, you don’t present golf as a metaphor for life or anything like that.
I’m a golfer and there are other things alongside it in the book, but I don’t think golf’s a metaphor. I’ve had people say to me, for example, that golf reveals character. It doesn’t. It’s quite untrue. I’ll give you two examples. I play with a very good friend of mine who is the most conservative man imaginable. On a golf course? Reckless. Me in life: reckless. In golf, very conservative, very cautious, I plan it all. Head towards the green, and I’m very very organised.

Golf is almost an adventure sport considering the conditions in which you play which isn’t how we imagine it, given how golf courses are in India.
I played up in Scotland, quite recently, and basically the old tradition is that you’ve got nine holes out and then you turn around and come back. It was pouring with rain. We got to the end and I was completely soaked and we couldn’t play any more so we had to turn around and walk back. It was a bit like you’re walking and someone takes a bucket of water and pours it all over you, again and again. You stand there and you wonder, “What on earth am I doing?” And you’re wearing waterproofs and it makes not a blind bit of difference. So it is an adventure sport.

Did you know golf was going to be this challenging?
No, I didn’t think so. But like this one time, I’d driven for 10 hours, stayed with a friend to play golf and then the next day there was a storm. And I thought, I can’t not play now. So we went out and we were on the golf course for an hour and came back. It was absurd. I have to say, playing in the rain — not a lot of fun. I’m not going to make a case for it. It’s not character-building or anything like that but it was the only opportunity, since I don’t live in Scotland, so you take it.

Those rain and chaos bits are also some of the more funny parts, because you’ve got it all planned and —
Then it all goes haywire.

These are very English stories, aren’t they?
It’s kind of like PG Wodehouse for the next generation. Things go wrong, but that’s what happens in England. More so than anywhere else. It is a very English tale. Like for example, I went for dinner with my old schoolfriends and they know about India but only from about a hundred years ago. I tried to impress them with the writers I represent and they didn’t know any of them, so that fell on stony ground.

Instead you were asked about Twinkly Bottom.
Precisely. And no, I don’t know about Twinkly Bottom. Why on earth would I?

Were you nervous about the actual writing of it?
Yes, I was. I was nervous about whether I could do it, but I knew from watching people write and giving advice to people, that if you can write clearly and plainly and make sure there aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs — that’s generally the best way. Keep the sentences short and sharp.

So I thought that, well I’ll just apply two rules. One is to keep it as simple and plain and truthful as I can. So don’t embellish things, don’t use any metaphors if you can help it. Secondly, keep doing it. Watch people, listen to people’s comments. People felt some bits didn’t work, listen to them, respond to it and make it better. Actually I was a bit worried when I sent it out to people who wanted to know, people I represent. But actually, people have been incredibly nice about it. Maybe they’re just being kind to me, that’s possible. But they have been, in a way that I’ve been really amazed by. Whether it’s Arundhati or Vikram, they’ve been so generous.

I think you know how hard it is to do it (to write descriptive prose). Arundhati’s book is such a dazzling book and it is all in the telling. I think the worst thing is if you, you’ve either got to do it absolutely as perfectly as she does it. If you can’t do it as well, it is catastrophic. It’s like baking a cake and you get it all wrong. In that case, better not to take a risk. My story is in the tale and not  in the telling. So I wanted to be as clean and plain as a piece of glass.

Do you think writing reveals something of the writer?
That’s true. People complain that I send very, very short emails to people. It really is alarmingly short because I write a lot. I think people find it quite disconcerting. “No I wouldn’t do that.” “Good idea.” or “Yes.” In a funny way, I think that is my natural voice. Also I’m very sentimental but I’m not emotional. I think I’d be a better person if I was more emotional and less sentimental. But there you go. So in a funny way, trying to find some way, I wouldn’t think of it myself as revealing my character, but I suppose there must be some connection.

You’ve packed a lot into Breaking 80 — from memories of childhood, to your career, to golf.
Well, I wanted to have some variety in there. That’s the way it turned out to be. I knew it was a quest. I knew it had to have a beginning and an end. But in between, I knew I could do some things. Also, to explain things a bit more so it’s not just for golf people because the same things that drive my passion in agenting was also there in the golf. It’s the same energies. I do get very committed to things. I hope I’m committed I’m as committed to Jeet [Thayil] as I am to golf.

My life is about commitment and seeing things through. Agenting is a very long term business. People think it’s about selling a book. It kind of is but it isn’t really. You’re there at the very, very beginning of a career. And I’m there at the very end. I’m the guy who’s sweeping up the room at the end, when everyone’s gone home after a party. Agents are there right through. Sometimes you come into the frame, sometimes you’re less important, but you’re there.

You once described yourself as a Robin Hood of Indian literature.
Not as much as I was because I’m older and I can get what I want for people without screaming as much as I did. There was a lot of twisting and shouting. Also, when you change from being a publisher to an agent, publishers think you’re going to be on their side because you know how publishing works. So when you turn out to be more passionate on the writers’ side, that can cause some distress. I think I was always ready for a fight in the old days. I find ways things around things now rather than just bashing my head. Jeet’s a very good example. Jeet’s book was turned down by everybody except one. Now in the old days, I’d just be enraged. I’d shout about it. But now I thought, ok well I can’t change their mind so I have to go around it. So we sold the book to Faber, Penguin distributed it very well here and it all worked out fine. So you think, don’t fight battles you can’t win. Just turn back. I’m more inclined to do that now.

Do you find what attracts you to a book has changed?
It’s like a certain kind of voice, of a book. There are different books but they have the same kind of irresistibility about them. When you are very passionate about one book, the price is that you’re less passionate about others and that’s the difficulty. I really find that hard to deal with because I’m also quite truthful. So when people ask, “What do you think of it?”, it’s very hard to fake it. But writers always want their last book to be their best book. And you can never say this is not as good as the other one. That’s a difficult area, to find the balance between truthfulness and passion. Sometimes people are erratic.

In India, you’ve got an almost iconic status. Before your representation, Indian writing didn’t have that kind of exposure. Is there pressure?
No. I just do my job. I certainly wouldn’t want to claim any kind of hierarchy. I think I’ve been very lucky and I do greatly believe in luck. I think luck is very important and that one thing leads to another. All I can do is provide a platform to help; bring my experience, credibility. It means when I’ve got something I like, people are more likely to read it. But it doesn’t mean to say they’re going to like it. For all the history, it comes down to one book, one publisher, one moment. That’s just repeated endlessly. It’s nice to take risks. If I do new things, then the whole project goes on. I just think I’ve been very fortunate.

There’s often an anxiety about the lack of variety in Indian fiction and Indian writing in English.
You think that about English writing here? Come to England. The Booker, how depressing that was. There was Will Self, who’s done something original. And they give the book to Hilary Mantel. I’m sure she’s a good writer, no criticism about that, but it was just the same English Tudor history. And it’s history. As she says herself, it’s not invented. She sticks to the facts. It’s a great skill. But at the end of the Booker dinner, when they said and we’re giving the Booker to Hilary Mantel, it was like “Oh no! Really?” After all the hype about new writers, new publishers, they were very pleased about themselves. Everyone in the room thought the winner was going to be Will Self, including Will Self. I thought it was a terrible anti-climax. I think the books that win, they’ve got to end well and they’ve got to sustain re-reading.
We [David Godwin Associates, Godwin’s literary agency] do very few British novels, actually. Partly because I don’t think that many people have come through in the past 15 years, which is terrible. In comparison look what’s happened here in that time. Whether it’s Arundhati or Aravind or Jeet or Nilanjana, there’s extraordinary work. Britain, what have you got? Hilary Mantel? Another novel from Ian McEwan? It’s exceptionally good, but very few people have broken through. Who’s emerged in the past ten years as a major writer from Britain? It’s a small list. Where are the London novels? I’ve been trying to find a cosmopolitan novel set in London for years. Have I found it? No.

Memory Lane: Hilary Mantel

I’ll put up the links to what’s in The Mag a little bit later, but I found this while rifling through my inbox so thought I’d put up the easier post first. Hilary Mantel fans, enjoy!

So three years ago, when The Tudors was turning our brains into potatoes with its version of Henry VIII’s England (what can I say? So not a fan) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall came to save the day, I’d interviewed Mantel for Time Out Mumbai. I can’t find the link to my article in the Time Out website She was a very generous interviewee, which meant I was only able to use excerpts of her replies.  Here’s the unedited interview.

‘Who’s interested in what’s easy?’

DP: You’ve written short stories, memoirs and novels. Is there something in particular that made you interested in tackling historical fiction? Did you enjoy the research process?

HILARY MANTEL: Looking back, I think that writing my memoir was a kind of training ground for future novels, and something that was good for me as a writer. There are people who insist that almost all your memories of childhood are later reconstructions,but what I found when writing my memoir was that my childhood rose before me as an utter sensory wraparound, so that I was able to inhabit my past, and my work was to simply describe it. When you write fiction, the object is to achieve that on behalf of a character that you’ve invented or a person who is dead. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do it as successfully, in fiction, as I have in Wolf Hall.

What I also found when writing Giving Up the Ghost was that whilst I could capture the entirety of my childhood experiences, I often couldn’t tell the reader why things happened, or how the event I was describing linked to another, and I think I carried this discovery into Wolf Hall. When Cromwell remembers an incident from his childhood – for example, he recalls plunging the head of another boy into a butt of water – he has no idea why he did it, and I knew from my own experience that these gaps and holes are part of the texture of memory. In this book I was determined to reproduce a life from the inside. I thought, ‘Let us try to see a man in his full complexity. Even if there are bits that he himself doesn’t understand and can’t add up, let me still include them.

The Tudors are the great national soap opera; their story has been worked over so extensively that we see it as having a kind of inevitable, predetermined quality about it, so I needed to find a way of telling the story that would create an immediacy of viewpoint and cancel out the preconceptions we were brought up with. In writing the opening scene, of the boy being beaten up by his father, I was simply launched into the present tense. And I stayed with it because it was a way for me to capture the soundtrack inside Cromwell’s head – the immediacy of his experience. Also, though we may know how it all ends, Henry and his court didn’t. They didn’t know that the War of the Roses had ended; because the Tudor claim was weak, they dreaded that civil war might break out again. Henry didn’t know he would have six wives – even when he married number five, he couldn’t have known it. The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new, just as it was, in every unfolding moment, for the players.

DP: Of all the characters in Henry VIII’s England, why Thomas Cromwell?

HM: I first came across him when I was a child learning history in a Catholic school. I grew up with the sainted Thomas More looking down from stained-glass windows. As I am a contrarian, it made me ask whether there was more to Cromwell’s story than just his opposition to More, and I carried that question with me. When I began writing, I registered him in my mind as a potential subject. This would have been in the 1970s, before I’d finished my first novel. There seemed to be a lot of blanks in his story, and it wasn’t easy to find out anything about him, but it’s in those gaps that the novelist goes to work.

When I began writing Wolf Hall, it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?’ You’ve got to try to answer that question – it’s the very kind of question that novels are for. But what made me sure that I could work with him, so to speak, was a letter he wrote to a friend in the 1520s, when he was an MP. It is a huge rhetorical description of the course of Parliament and all the business it dealt with, which finishes with a simple, and totally deflationary,line. I paraphrase: ‘And at the end of it, absolutely nothing changed.’ The wry humour in that letter showed me there was a personality that I could write about.

I started out more or less accepting the estimate of him as a villain, but I thought he must be an interesting one. His astonishing rise in the world fascinated me. As I read his letters and better understood his mind, I saw that he had a radical vision of English society and yet he was also somebody who hammered every detail into place. In his adroitness of mind and the completeness of imagination he stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

Another thing that drew me was Cromwell’s will, which he wrote towards the end of the 1520s. When you’ve seen somebody’s life so minutely taken apart,when you know who’s going to get his books and who’s going to get his second-best gelding, and you know the names of the people in his household,you become part of that life. You see his daily existence and routine and his whole system of orienting to the world. Seeing the will was like being able to go into Cromwell’s house and take photographs.

DP: The Tudors have received a fair amount of attention, particularly because of the films and television series its inspired. How do you feel about these glamourised versions?

HM: These stories have an archetypical force. A lot of retellings of Tudor history aren’t really about Tudor history at all. They’re about sex and violence and the war between men and women. The story of the Tudors is just a veneer and I think they’ve been used as an excuse for a lot of cheap popular romantic fiction. It used to be a way of writing about sex when you weren’t allowed to, and now it’s a way of writing about the destructiveness of families, and the rivalry between women.

I wanted to actually engage with Thomas Cromwell, whose story isn’t very much told. I wanted to get away from the feminist slant on it. I don’t see any reason why—just because I’m a woman writer—I have to confine myself to writing about Anne Boleyn. No reason I shouldn’t take on Thomas Cromwell. He’s a man at the center of everything, and yet in most fiction and drama he’s pushed into the wings, and he stands there, wrapped in his black cloak, hissing and plotting. I wanted to bring him center stage and put the spotlight on him. So I thought it was legitimate to have another go, even though the story has been told so often, because a different angle makes the whole picture different.

DP: There’s been talk in some British newspapers of introducing more historical fiction in school syllabi since the success of Wolf Hall. What do you think is the importance of historical fiction? Do you think the blurring of the boundary between history and fiction is problematic?

HM: It’s always a tension. When historians read your book they think, “Why did she leave out such and such?’’ and when literary critics read it they think, “Why did she bother to put it in?’’ You just keep your eye on the general reader, who is you by proxy. The novelist has a responsibility to adhere to the facts as closely as possible, and if they are inconvenient, that’s where the art comes in. You must work with intractable facts and find the dramatic shape inside them.

When I started writing fiction, I began with historical fiction. I’ve written a big book called “A Place of Greater Safety” which is about the French Revolution. It wasn’t published first, but it was where I started, so working with facts and data is natural to me. What I had to learn to do is to invent things. I really became a novelist in the course of writing “A Place of Greater Safety.” I try to stick with the facts until the facts run out. I don’t try to improve on the facts.

You can see from the television drama “The Tudors.” Every time they take one decision that’s contrary to the way things really happened, there’s a cascade of consequences, and in the end, the story becomes complete nonsense. Perhaps you’ve left out a vital character, or you’ve given someone a different name because you don’t trust the viewer’s or the reader’s intelligence. The most crass example was that Henry VIII had two sisters, and they decided to roll them into one, but once you take that kind of decision it ripples through everything you’re going to write thereafter.

DP: I believe you’re working on a sequel to Wolf Hall. Does Thomas Cromwell remain the hero?

HM: I’m longing to be back in the thick of the action. Partly it’s because I want to know what’s going to happen next. When I write, there are often times when I go into a scene not quite sure what I think, knowing that the problem I have to solve revolves around one question, ‘How did this happen?’ And by the end of the scene I have an answer, because it’s happened on the page. So I am looking forward to getting back to those puzzles in the new book.

Also, I’ve been so heartened by the way in which Wolf Hall has been received. There’s always the danger with historical fiction that it may fall short as both literature and history. I knew when I took on this project that it was going to be a very difficult thing to do. But, ha! Who’s interested in what’s easy?

What I have got at the moment is a huge box of notes.

Interview with Shehan Karunatilaka

This was published in DNA.

Mister Fantastic

What do you think of when you hear “Sri Lanka”? For a vast majority of us, the island nation is best known for its cricket team, which came out of nowhere in the 1990s and beat the big guns of the game to win the World Cup. Fittingly, Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew has a similar track record. It also appeared on the literary scene with little fanfare and went on to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize, among others. The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is about a stubborn old journalist who is determined to uncover the mystery of the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer whom no one knows. Karunatilaka told us a little bit about himself and what it takes to write a prize-winning novel.

Give me a quick bio to start us off.
Born in Galle, grew up in Colombo, studied in New Zealand, worked in London, Sri Lanka and now Singapore. Thathi (father) was a doctor, Ammi (mother) used to read me Enid Blyton. Malli (brother) is a lapsed architect, who drew the wonderful diagrams for The Chinaman. Grew up reading Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Ed McBain. Spent boarding school in New Zealand hiding out in libraries and record shops, dodging bigots. Ambition was to play in a rock band, ended up drifting into copywriting. The book began as an amusement and then became an obsession.

How does it feel to be a first-time author whose novel has won prizes like the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature?
Pretty amazing. I’d achieved my ambition for the book when it was published outside of Sri Lanka two years ago. Since then everything’s been a surprise gift. It also means that I have to ensure that the follow-up book doesn’t suck.

Are there real-life inspirations for The Chinaman’s two heroes, WG Karunasena and Pradeep Mathew?
Sort of. I interviewed lots of old uncles and researched forgotten cricketers, but it’s hard to pin either one down to a particular character. I probably borrowed details and mannerisms and anecdotes, but in the end both Pradeep and WG came alive on the page by themselves.

Garfield Karunasena, the son of WG Karunasena, and you seem to have a lot in common. 
I have been accused of making him a fantasy version of myself and the similarities are not exactly subtle. The blurring between fact and fiction and author and text is something that’s always intrigued me. Two big influences on the book were Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver and William Goldman’s Princess Bride, both of which do this well.

How did the idea of The Chinaman come to you?
It was a combination of adolescent fantasies of bowling left-arm spin for Sri Lanka, sports books like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and watching two drunken uncles fighting at a wedding. The idea of the greatest cricketer of all time playing unnoticed for Sri Lanka in the ’80s was with me a long time. But the book didn’t come into being until I realised that a drunk would have to tell it.

Was there ever any concern that the book and its characters may be too specifically local?
I’m hoping that’s what drew the publishers to it, and what will draw readers to it. WG’s voice is very much the soul of the book and to correct his grammar and syntax would’ve robbed the book of its flavour.

I believe you started writing a novel, decided it was bad, abandoned it and then wrote The Chinaman
There was almost a decade between the first one being abandoned and starting The Chinaman. In the interim, I travelled, read more and reminded myself of the mistakes I made the first time around. I was just so intrigued by the idea that I thought it was worth devoting time to, regardless of whether I was able to pull it off.

How many times have you tried to write something and abandoned it?
Before The Chinaman, there were about three dead novels, numerous attempts at short stories and tons of lost songs. They’re all around somewhere and may get resurrected, though I doubt it.

The Chinaman is something of a history book, a detective novel, a sports novel, a biography, all rolled into one. How did you see the novel?
The book changed shape many times. At the beginning it was a drunk detective story, then it became a character study, then a book about writing, then about fathers and sons, and suddenly all this Sri Lankan philosophy and sociology crept in as well. I can’t say I was in control of the process, but I really enjoyed it.

Are you a fan of cricket?
I was very much a casual fan. I grew up watching Sri Lanka getting thrashed by everyone and was in my 20s when they hammered the World Cup. You can’t avoid cricket if you’re Lankan, but I did switch off after the vintage of ’96 soured. For the book I had to do my homework, but it wasn’t really work. I had followed Sri Lankan cricket from ’82-’99, so it was fun to revisit. I had to make sure that the obsessive Lankan fans wouldn’t be able to pick holes.

There is a lot about contemporary Sri Lanka that is reported in the news and most of it underlines the turbulent politics. Do you find what you see around you in Sri Lanka inspiring?
Very much so. And I fear my sluggish pace on the new novel has to do with the fact that I’m living away from it. I follow Sri Lanka on the net and get newspapers and books sent to me, but it’s not the same. I’m never short of things to write about when I’m in Sri Lanka. It’s such a beautiful and ugly place.

Do you have a writing schedule? 
The witching hours for writing are 5 am – 8 am. I try and stick to this even when I’m working day jobs. If I miss a day, I get cranky. When I was doing Chinaman, I was writing 4 am to midday for two years.

Are there any writing rules you have?
Write everyday and never talk about what you’re writing.

The Mag This Week

Fun stuff this week —

An interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, the author of the wonderful The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. 

Reviews of With My Body by Nikki Gemmell (reviewed by Joanna Lobo) and Another Country by Anjali Joseph (reviewed by me).

Here’s the review. I’ll put the interview up in another post so that this one doesn’t seem endless.

It’s Not Always in the Details

Leela Ghosh is in her twenties. She was born in England, but she doesn’t have a British passport. To the British, she sounds Indian. To Indians, she sounds British. She is always out of place, constantly seeking another country, but for what? A sense of belonging? A job? A boyfriend? Since she moves from Paris to London to “Bombay”, we can assume it’s not for either the infrastructure or real estate. However, beyond that, there are no certainties because Leela never tells us. She just floats through Another Country like Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais’s painting of the Shakespearean heroine.

A few chapters into the novel, you may wonder what precisely is Leela’s problem. She starts off as a graduate of Cambridge University, living in Paris. She has friends and doesn’t seem to be short on cash. Then she moves to London, which only the French would consider a downgrade. In London, she has a job, a boyfriend and a crush. At the end of that episode and a short holiday in an Indian coastal town (probably Varkala), Leela arrives in Mumbai. She finds a nice hostel in the south Mumbai and a job. The latter facilitates a meeting with a rich, good-looking young man who, praise the lord, is crazy about her.

It’s not as though Leela lives an entirely charmed life – she has a mild brushes with racism and notches up one break-up in each city — but the upsets she suffers hardly seem worthy of sympathetic clucking. This is because Leela herself seems unmoved by the events. She is observant — almost excessively so — but her descriptions are dispassionate and often laced with contempt. Since she cares so little for the people around her, the reader cares even less.

Leela doesn’t have a career to speak of but that isn’t something that makes her fret. If you ignore the fact that she’s incapable of feeling much more than self-pity and boredom, the only fly in the ointment of Leela’s existence is her love life, which follows a pattern: have a relationship with a good-looking but weak-willed man, break up, move cities. In Paris, the object of her affections is interested in someone else. When another “reasonably handsome man” hits on Leela, they cheerfully end up in a copulation-themed tangle. Though Leela doesn’t seem to be interested in happily-ever-after with this gent — she sneaks out of his house in the morning because the sex was bad – she is mildly put out when she learns he’s only interested in being friends with benefits.

In London, Leela works her way out of a relationship with a new man, Richard. Richard is awkward, bland and, for reasons undefined, keeps Leela from meeting his father. The fact that Leela perseveres with their relationship, despite disliking Richard intensely, doesn’t dispose the reader kindly towards either Richard or Leela. Unsurprisingly, that relationship ends. From daddy’s pet, Leela moves on to momma’s boy when she relocates to Bombay and falls for Vikram. Leela’s reasons for being attracted to Vikram are about as mysterious as her relationship with Richard. However, when Vikram and Leela start dating, there’s conflict for the first time in Another Country. Vikram’s mother has the gleaming edge and menace of a samurai blade. Impeccably polite and unmistakably disapproving of Leela, the older woman quickly outmanoeuvres the younger. Net result — you guessed it — Leela moves cities.

Occasionally, Leela’s dry narrative tone works, like when she describes with subtlety how inadequate Vikram’s mother makes her feel or the subtle racism Leela faces while dining with a terribly posh and Caucasian family. Some of Leela’s early awkwardness is endearing initially. However, there are few gripping moments in Another Country, which doesn’t move through three cities as much as squat in them. The changes in setting barely break the tedium because it quickly becomes clear that Leela is unaffected by her location.

Joseph has a gift for description that makes for some charming passages in Another Country. Sadly, no matter how beautiful they seem in the garb of Joseph’s narration, minutiae become tedious when the details don’t add up. In Joseph’s first novel, Saraswati Park, the banalities created a portrait of Mumbai and told a poignant story about changing relationships. The characters in Another Country are content to remain as curiosities. The cities are as pretty and static as in postcards. They’re all souvenirs collected from nostalgia trips and neatly arranged in the glass cabinet of Joseph’s second novel.

In Conversation with Raghu Rai

The July issue of ELLE has a little piece I wrote on Raghu Rai, who is going to have a mini-retrospective of sorts (as far as I remember).

Here are snippets from my conversation with him. I’ll put up the article once I find it in my archive.

On nostalgia

I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. You know, living in the past is not a very creative process because that pulls you back. But the fact remains that there was greater harmony and greater peace between different elements and situations than we have today. But being a creative individual, all the tensions and charge, the stress and strain, they speak of another kind of energy that needed to be captured. Also you know, every place, every time has its own value and meaning.

The best light

Early morning and late afternoons. In India the light is very strong, the bulk of the months are very hot. Usually, that strong light and sunshine create very deep shadows and you lose and it gives unnecessary contrast. Sometimes it works, according to the spirit and the mood of the place but most of the time, I’ll prefer to have gentle and soft light, where the details are clearly visible and one can capture them and share them and see the highlights without creating any unnecessary contrast.

On the decisive moment

Of course. You don’t plan, you wait for it to happen. When different elements start working together — you see, there are moments. India is such a crowded country and such chaotic and contradictory things happen in any given space and there are moments when the relevant and the irrelevant, they separate themselves for a moment and they merge again, and that’s the moment you capture.
Also the purpose of photography is to capture energy and time that we live in. Planning makes things static. Because life at any given time is not static.

On photographing India

The bulk of India lives in a timeless space. I remember long ago, I think it was early 1970s, when Muzaffar Ali used to work with Air India, and he wanted me to do a calendar for Air India or something like that, and he asked, “If you can give us some pictures where we are dealing with time and space…”. So I told him, “If you ask me, I don’t understand that, this time and space because I always try to live beyond that. So don’t ask me for ideas of time and space.”
You see, the thing is that India also has an ancient civilisation and India having all the religions living here, contrast and contradictions. So India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time. That is what is so magical about this country. This is what comes across in many of these photographs.

On making his subjects more charismatic than they actually are

How can I do that? I wish I was so powerful a man that I could create more than life has. That is precisely where the magic lies. When you capture a moment which is so potent and so dynamic that when you look at it, you wonder how can that be? You see, the problem is that the bulk of the photography being done is very happy easy relaxed, nice images. For me, they are static and they don’t evoke anything in me. For me, this human expression, the deeper reaction, that is what I seek. That has its own current and power. It raises so many questions and answers at the same time. That’s what we are dealing with. The image has to have dynamism and not be a static, pretty one. When you look at it, people wonder how can that be? How can someone capture more than what meets the eye? It’s all there. The mysteries of life and nature have to be captured. Everything else is information.

On photographing politicians

You see, I always, even when I was with a newspaper and even when I worked with India Today for ten years, I always believed — well, let’s begin like this. You know in India sycophancy is a great art. That’s why so much political junk is surviving in this country. Somebody asked me when Mrs. Gandhi was thrown out in ’77, that you know, “she gave you so much, how can you take pictures of Mrs. Gandhi when she has lost the election?” I said, only dogs can be loyal. Human beings can never be loyal. They have to be responsible to the truth of a situation. Because loyalty for me has become a very cheap word in India. My loyalty, I will not say loyalty, my commitment to the situations is as they speak to me. That’s how I will see them at any given time. So that is what really inspires me to do photography. Even if I don’t like somebody or some politician, I’ll never carry that grudge when I go take pictures. I’ll look at that person all over again in that context where he or she is. Because we all have the capacity to change and I know we can do things that we can never even imagine at another time.

On Mother Teresa

Mother was somebody very rare, so rare that you can never come across another person like that. As a human being, as a person with a cause, and she spoke the total truth all the time. It didn’t matter who she was dealing with an ordinary person, an important person, big or small. Her energy, her connectivity with everything never fluctuated. That was something very rare for me. Her power of expression and love also never flickered. That was so magical about her as a human being. But in any given time, she was 100% there. Whether she was dealing with you, an ordinary person, or whether she was nursing an old person or a child, or being with the prime minister.

When I met her way back in 1970 when she was hardly known. When I was working at The Statesman, it used to be one of the most important newspapers, we had an editor. He was very close to Mother. He rang me up one day and said that “Raghu, I have met a great lady and you must photograph her.” And that was in 1970 when I met her for the first time.

On colour photography

Let me tell a few things about colour. Basically there’s everything in colour. You see, every colour has its physical presence. Some strong colours like red or bright orange, or bright purple, will enter your attention faster than other colours. Every colour has its physical presence, every colour has its emotional value and every colour when its put together in any given situation may not gel together.
Then, as you see and capture the reality, we can’t change reality. Like, a painter can paint the sky green and nobody will question it, but in our case, we have to capture it as it is. So the colours may not blend. So the image in any given situation, if the subject matter is serious and you have all sorts of colours peeking out, they don’t work together. But the moment you put a black and white filter, it silences the noise of colours. And then everything gels.

It is more difficult to make a real, meaningful colour photograph than in black and white. Most people are taking colour photographs, but in terms of colour and the vision for colour which speaks out, the meaning comes from its colour content as well as its emotional content. With digital technology what is good is, every colour film used to behave differently in different light and would show you different colours. Even the processing of the film used to be very, very difficult. Different labs would give you different results of the same situation, but in digital technology, you can always desaturate colours, you can control them and tell them to shut up when they make unnecessary noise. All these things are possible today. See, I’ve done many books in colour and many in black and white. Also the fact is earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s and even up to ’80s, it used to be only black and white. I started taking pictures in mid ’60s, so one of the reasons that people remember my black and white photographs is this. Then came the late ’80s when we started doing colour. But then we didn’t have as much control, like the kind we have today.

On Photoshop

It’s not manipulation. Manipulation is something which doesn’t exist and you bring it in. But a technical fault has to be controlled. You see even in black and white, when some areas go too dark, or too bright, you need to adjust that. So that is not manipulation. That is controlling your image quality. That’s the minimum right that we should have.

On Raghu Rai, photographer

You can say I’m very arrogant, but most of the time I don’t read what is written about me. I have given so many interviews on television and I hate to watch myself. I’m not fond of Raghu Rai in that sense. But criticism with understanding is precious. Criticism with lack of understanding, or off-handed nonsense is not acceptable. In any case, I am a very ruthless surgeon myself and I deal with Raghu Rai on very tough terms and similarly I deal with my friends also with that kind of honesty. Sometimes people tell me I’m very cruel, but I say photography is my dharma and I have to be totally honest about it.

On editing himself

I’ll say that 90% of what we shoot is either repetitive or just the process of evolution of a situation. So if I have taken 100 pictures to get to one or if I have taken 20 pictures to get to one, I don’t carry those 19 or 99 pictures with me. Of course the ability to edit yourself ruthlessly is very important for your next journey into situations so that you are critically and analytically dealing with every situation. Otherwise you become a happy snappy good guy, which I am not.

Interview: Rohini Devasher

Unearthed another lovely interview, in which I learnt many things, like the idea that art is like science fiction and that there is such a thing as “video feedback”. Snippets of it are in the little profile I wrote of Rohini Devasher for the February issue of ELLE. Rohini, like Mridula, is one of our “transformers”.

A lot of your earlier work had a distinctly sci-fi quality to it. Were you inspired by science and science fiction?

I’ve been a huge fan of both scifi and fantasy since I was about 15 so I am certain that has coloured the way I look at things and the way I work. All these fantastic possible / probable / improbable pasts / presents / futures which draw you in. Science fiction in particular is a powerful imaginative tool and its keyword is ‘investigation’. It challenges established assumptions and forces you to turn what you think to be true on its head, because anything can be. It makes you ask the question “what if”?

For instance, a series of prints I did between 2007-2009 (Archetype and Chimera) began with an exploration of the botanical writings of the philosopher and poet JW Goethe  and plant morphologist Agnes Arber, who developed and enlarged upon his ideas. What interested me was their approach, which is holistic and looks at the relationships among parts; how they develop, and how they relate to the whole, and to the forms of other species. What resulted were these hybrid organics that float in a twilight world halfway between imagined and observed reality, strange denizens of a science fiction botanical garden.

What did you want to be as a child? Have your interests changed over the years? 

I don’t really remember wanting to be anything in particular. I always have been and still am very fascinated by all forms for archaeology, including paleontology. And I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut or at least find a way to see the Earth from space. But I think these interests have managed to become a part of my work now.

You went from painting (at the Delhi College of Art) to printmaking (at the Winchester School of Art). Why did you make that shift? Does painting still inform your practice?

I studied printmaking at the College of Art as well and I enjoyed it very much, my teacher there was Anupam Sud, an exceptional artist and one the very best teachers I have ever had. There was something about the possibilities inherent in repetition layering that was fascinating. And that process continues to be the basis for everything I do regardless of the media, video, drawing, print or audio. Drawing is still plays a very important role in my practice from the large site specific wall drawing, to the hybrid print and drawing works, the videos.

When you look back on your early work, how do you respond to it?

There’s a distance so I don’t judge those works too harshly.  That being said, there are some that should never have been!

From the series titled Arboreal.

You recently did a series that was black and white, with tree branches. In its starkness, it’s quite different from the more colourful works you’ve done before. What brought about this shift?

Arboreal or ‘relating to or resembling a tree’ both the video and the set of 20 prints are actually constructed from layers of video, in the case of the prints with still frames of video. I wanted to ‘draw’ with video both moving and still. The raw footage is derived from a process called “video feedback”, which is the equivalent of acoustic feedback.  With patience and certain amount of trial and error it is possible to explore a vast arena of spontaneous pattern generation, which mimics those exhibited by physical, chemical, and biological systems, i.e. plant structures, cells, tree forms, bacteria, snowflakes…. They are not imposed from the outside in any way and are entirely self generated. A small selection of these forms have been layered to create this slowly-evolving, artificial construct which offers insights into the intricacy lurking within nature’s processes. With all my work I am deeply interested in the way form evolves, in the way form changes and grows in complexity. With Arboreal, what results is a digital forest, a greenhouse of possibilities.

Do you have any projects that you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?

My current research explores areas within the larger frame of astronomy. The first is a form of collective investigation with astronomers working towards an understanding of what has been termed ‘behavioural astronomy’. What draws them to the night sky? What sets them apart?

Second and more specifically, I am trying to chronicle, the obsessive subculture of the eclipse chasers—people whose lives have been transformed by what they see in the sky.  As an amateur astronomer myself, I am trying to explore the dual role of the artist as both ‘participant’ and ‘observer’. A significant part of this research was done during the ‘City as Studio’ Sarai Fellowship. I am hoping to take this project further next year.

What is it about art and being an artist that excites you?

The new possibilities it opens up, like good sci-fi.

Are there other media that you’re interested in?

As part of the Sarai residency, I began to work with audio, with histories, narratives and conversations. Sound is a very interesting media, it requires very different things of you and the uncertain and unknown is always exciting.