- The protagonist in ‘Arzee the Dwarf’ despite his full three and a half feet incites neither pity nor admiration; his appeal lying precisely there – in still being the common man. Why would you say you chose to characterize Arzee like you did?
I suppose the main narrative dilemma of the book was that of trying to write a story about a man whom we all agree deserves our empathy, but who himself is very suspicious of any attempt to treat him like a special case. This looks like the plotline of a comedy, and I didn’t see any reason not to take it as a base; even the narrator of the book occasionally has a laugh at Arzee. And this actually allows both the pleasure and the pain of being Arzee to come through. Of course I made many mistakes in my draft versions of the book, and finally arrived at the tone I did through a long process of trial and error. I’m glad you think it works.
- You write expansively across genres, your work including a lot of non-fiction and book reviews as well. Not many speak of what goes into writing a review. What, for you, would be a good book review?
One where the love and care and pleasure and even the discipline of being a real reader comes through. This also involves communicating experiences of disappointment and occasionally real anger. Some balance in the piece between an implied theory of literature, and an ability to pick out details specific to the book or writer being considered: that is, a performance that involves both sense and (which is more difficult) sensibility.
- In your essay ‘The Indian novel as an agent of history’, you state how in the context of Indian history, the Indian novel and Indian democracy may appear to be uncannily similar. How do you choose to liken the two?
Hmm, why reprise why I’ve already thought through, except to say that they are both relatively new and relatively contemporaneous forms in Indian history, and neither of them have received the immediate acceptance and assimilation that, say, film has had – partly because both are difficult lovers, and bring a challenge and contrariness in their valises when they come to stay the night. One might say, ruminating further, that Indian democracy is a mass experience that has not yet filtered down deep into the souls of millions who participate in it. Correspondingly, the novel is meant to be a deep and solitary experience, an experiment in vicariously inhabiting other selves and finding our own selves on the other side of that journey, played outover two or three weeks worth of nights, that isn’t yet a compulsive need to millions of people in our society who otherwise love stories and narrative. But both offer a certain toolbox of empathy and detachment, a love of everyday life rather than transcendent or revolutionary ideas, that make them very valuable instruments at our moment in history as a society. The common Indian may as yet not be completely persuaded by either democracy and the novel, but both these forms have a real love of the common Indian man or woman.
- The country today seems to be rather responsive to the idea of Literature Festivals. As somebody who appears to be a regular attendee, what would you say you like best about them?
The chance to meet other writers I respect and admire and to share ideas with them about both literature and life. Indian literature is a very big house with many rooms and in order to make sense of it sometimes you do need physically to bring it together in a courtyard with many stages. I also quite like doing live events, and sometimes you can build up a real head of steam in a way that you can’t on the page or in a room not full of people. It’s great also to be able to meet readers – to meet them, in fact, as part of a horizontal community of readers, not a hierarchical one of writers and readers.
- While Indian English Literature might seem to be flourishing, do you believe that equally fine writing might be happening in regional languages that more often than not goes unnoticed?
It all depends on what you mean when you say something is “noticed” or “unnoticed” – unnoticed by whom? Us? We are not the whole world. Writers have one kind of power; the languages they write in have a power independent of their participation in them. I don’t think writing in many Indian languages goes unnoticed; it’s just that primarily English-speaking and English-reading readers don’t get to it easily, or else ignore it because it asks something difficult of us, in which case our prejudice is also our poverty. I doubt that complaining or finding someone to blame will improve things; best just to go to a bookshop and buy a novel in translation.
- While translations of works of fiction may increase readership, they will probably be unable to capture the essence of the original in entirety. What is your take on translation?
Strange though this may seem, there is nothing like “the essence of an original” and to beat translators – some of the most idealistic and dedicated readers in any literary complex and the one who enable the cross-fertilization of literatures across language – on the head with this charge achieves no good purpose as well. Even very acutely bilingual writers who attempt to translate their own books discover very quickly – usually halfway down page 1 – that what seems natural in one language sounds very strange in one another. The thing to do is set the terms of your ferrying the work across, and then set the boat in motion. There are of course many ways to judge the quality of a translation, but that in itself is an art, as a translation is.
- You have referred to ‘Arzee the Dwarf’ as a black comedy. In similar terms, how would you describe your upcoming novel ‘Clouds’?
Well, I’d like to think it’s a big book of life, about two Indian landscapes and mindscapes that are closest to my heart, Bombay and Odisha. Unlike Arzee, there are seven or eight major characters in Clouds. It’s also a book where the action on the ground is fizzy and light-hearted, and that which takes place in the sky very heavy and grave. Finally it’s a book about our moment in history – a moment, it seems to me, with more momentum – and more widely dispersed momentum – than any India of the past.
- What do you think about The Bombay Review? Any comments, feedback or advice for us?
I started a literary magazine when I was an English Honours student at Hindu College in Delhi University in 1999. It was, somewhat pretentiously, called Hinterland, but the quality was not bad (things were beefed up by a selection of poems from a “classic poet” like Rilke or Cavafy). On a visit to my alma mater a few years ago I found to my surprise and pleasure that the current batch was still bringing it out. Putting it together was an enormous pleasure – I used to type out and lay out all the submissions from different people (many students, especially those living in hostels and PGs, submitted handwritten work) on my new desktop computer. Once the 12-16 pages were ready I’d print a master copy and take it to Patel Chest and have 100 photocopies made and bring it back and task some of the first-year students to staple the issues together. Then we’d sell them for 10 bucks each to cover costs. One issue I even turned a small profit. There being no system of dividends to distribute to shareholders, I spent it on a triple sundae at Nirula’s in N-Block in Connaught Place,.
The reason I say all this is that I found then that there is an enormous pleasure in literary creation, not just on the level of the text, but on the level of putting something together that features the words and reflects the hopes and dreams and ambitions of a group and a generation. And at the same time literature is also a business – or has a commercial and administrative and organizational and social-network side – and it is not for us to turn up our noses at these bits of it. I’m glad you guys are putting something together so ambitious, with contributors from so many countries, and so many literary events in different places to help establish the brand and encourage young people to take their own talent more seriously. It’d be presumptuous of me to offer advice about how to run a magazine in the digital age when you’ve clearly thought so many things through. But as for feedback, yes…I’d certainly love some. I’m submitting a story for the next issue.