- ‘Swimmer among the Stars’ has stories that may seem to greatly differ from one another in substance but if you had to unite them thematically, how would you choose to do so?
They’re united by tone primarily, but they do share an underlying curiosity about how identities and worldviews shift in times of tremendous change. That doesn’t mean they’re about “globalization” necessarily; a lot of my stories drift into the nooks and crannies of earlier historical periods in search of the uncanny.
- Be it the ambassadors of France and the United Kingdom sharing a waltz in A United Nations in Space or the curious connection between Muzaffar and food in The Loss of Muzaffar, all your stories have plots that are highly inventive. How do you arrive at your story plots?
It does vary quite a bit. You have the freedom with short stories to make big changes as you write, and since I do my best thinking while writing, I rarely “script” a plot in advance of sitting down to write the story. Often, I’ll begin with an image or a line of prose, and the work of the composing the story will be in arriving at the image or line, or in justifying it somehow.
- As imaginative and fantastic as the plots of your stories may appear to be, your writing style itself seems equally accomplished and evocative. Growing up in a family like yours, did writing become a natural habit?
It was natural, even if it wasn’t always a habit (Ishaan [my twin] and I spent our fair share of time with video games and scampering around fields playing football). Both my parents are serious readers and writers, so we were surrounded by the activity of writing all the time. From a fairly young age – 8 or 9 – I would use my parents’ blue-screened Word Perfect to write up little stories that I’d scribbled before. They were almost always about boyish, warlike subjects.
- Tell us a little about growing up in a Tharoor household. How would you describe a regular day from when you and your brother were growing up?
I’ve been asked quite a bit in recent months about the quotidian life of my childhood, and it was for the most part happy and happily unremarkable. We did move around a bit early on – Singapore, Geneva, Kolkata – but from the time I was six years-old, we grew up in New York City in a series of fairly compact flats crowded with books. My brother and I were prone to a range of nerdy activities and fascinations, abetted indirectly I suppose by our parents’ scholarliness. Having a twin is a really marvellous thing, and you grow up never feeling alone or isolated. Where siblings can often undermine each other, Ishaan and I supported and encouraged each other’s interests. I’m shaped by my parents, but I’m also very much shaped by my brother.
- In the process of writing a story, which of the two is more challenging for you – Building and developing a character or developing the plot?
It’s a bit of a tricky question to answer, as I don’t think my short stories take a traditional approach to depicting either character or plot. In writing my novel, however, I’m finding the intricacies of plot a little bit tougher than the rendering of character, but they’re so entwined that it’s tough to separate one from the other.
- The titular story focuses on the extremely fascinating concept of the last speaker of a language. India has a long list of dying languages. Yours is a beautiful story, but is there a statement behind this piece?
I don’t think the story is trying to convey a political message. It’s trying to imagine one of these encounters between anthropologists and their informants, and to inhabit the life of somebody whose language is about to go extinct. We live in a period of unprecedented langauge death; of the nearly 7,000 known languages in the world, over half are in danger of disappearing by the end of the century. I do think people in the habit of using big languages – like English or Hindi – should be aware of this vanishing. We should think about what is lost when a language dies, when our own linguistic empires ride roughshod over the planet.
- You mention Italo Calvino as an influence. His work can be fiercely experimental – a fitting example being his narrative in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. If you were to draw a parity between his work and a contemporary Indian writer’s, who would it be?
I can’t think of an Indian prose writer quite like Calvino. There’s a letter in Calvino’s collected letters that recommends Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” to an Italian publisher, but notes that he finds Rushdie’s prose a bit too excessive and maximalist. I think you see echoes of some of Calvino’s fascinations in the graphic novels of Sarnath Banerjee.
- You are now working on a novel that is set in the fifteenth century. How would you say the two processes differ – writing a novel and writing a short story?
A short story can be quite a dense and intense piece of work, with a lot of pressure on each paragraph. A novel is obviously more expansive and looser. But ironically, I find that the writing of a novel demands much more of a rigorous approach than the writing of short story. I’m having to fumble through outlines and wade through a phenomenal amount of “research”-related reading.
- Literary fiction will probably always enjoy a niche readership. Do you think that the Indian audience is growing more receptive to literary fiction? Are there any upcoming Indian writers of literary fiction who you believe deserve more attention?
I hope there is an audience for it, but I do worry that literary fiction is bound to lose out to the competing attractions of the internet, television, non-literary fiction, and (no shame in this) excellent non-fiction. This applies to India as well as to the West, but I hope I’m wrong. I’m loving the work of the likes of Janice Pariat, Bilal Tanweer (admittedly, non-Indian), Karan Mahajan, Aatish Taseer, as well as non-fiction writers Raghu Karnad and Samanth Subramanian.
- Lastly, what do you think about The Bombay Review. Any comments or feedback for us?
These are perilous days to found any publication, let alone a literary one. As a writer, I look forward to your contributions to Indian literary culture. I’m really grateful for your endeavour and wish you great success.