Monday, August 15, 2005


This is an interview that was slated to appear on a cutting-edge new literary website, but as it’s been hanging fire, I’ve taken permission from them to put some excerpts from it up on this blog. Will give a link to the full interview whenever it appears. This is the only interview where the questions were more to do with the book than anything else, which was both - a surprise and a relief.

INTERVIEWER (N. Ravi Iyer): Shantaram and Maximum City are being considered the quintessential Mumbai books. Where do you see Local amidst them?

JV (me): They’re both outstanding books but they’re very different from Local. For one, I think Local is looking inside-out rather than outside-in. Shantaram is clearly an outsider’s point-of-view of Mumbai. Maximum City is non-fiction, so its thrust is very different anyway, but that too has an objective view, which cannot be an insider’s vision. Also, they’re written differently. Local is more contemporary, more rock and roll in its tone. Most importantly, it is from the point-of-view of life lived in Mumbai.

I: Thematically, they’re very different too.

JV: Shantaram and Maximum City are underbelly books. Local is the opposite in many ways. It actually strains to not go in that direction.

I: Maybe even to a fault. Yes, Local is literally an anti-drama book, whereas in Shantaram incredible events are occurring every few pages.

JV: Akash, the main character in Local, is trying to eschew any kind of involvement with life. That’s not the stuff drama is made of.

I: And of course, Local is also about the globalised corporate world in a sense, the advertising agency world, to be precise. And its collision with the starkness of real life that Akash lives on the train. This collision is, in essence, the real story of the book. Given that, why did you complicate things further with the format of inserting narrative departures?
(a reference to the format of short stories punctuating the main narrative)

JV: I don’t see it as a complication, but as a device to bring out the milieu and its people in a more complete manner. It helps the main narrative too, as it is an innovative way to achieve characterization.

I: Yes, it is innovative and often compelling, no doubt, but it can also be argued that it breaks the flow of the book.

JV: That’s a trade-off. It does break the flow, I agree, but what it adds to the book, by way of illumination of characters, is hopefully far greater. It’s not really complicated reading at all, is it?

I: Not complicated, but it can be a little disconcerting sometimes.

JV: In which case, you can simply skip the short stories and come back to it later, after you’ve finished the novel (main narrative), or you can read the stories first and the novel later. It will give you a slightly altered view of the book, but a complete one nevertheless. They are very valid alternative ways of reading the book. In any case, cumulatively the short stories are less than one-third of the book.

I: How did you write the book? As it appears finally?

JV: No, I wrote the novel in one go and the short stories separately. And then matched them. Though, the novel often found its momentum and direction based on which story was coming up next, so they did influence each other significantly.

I: But you didn’t write it in the order you want it to be read?

JV: No.

I: Local is quite a sprawling book, in many ways, lots of concerns, many characters. And yet, there is a unifying theme to it, a relentless wit and a peculiarly personal narrative thrust that makes it a page-turner. Did you consciously set out to write it in a particular way? Did you have a style-map in front of you?

JV: I don’t know what a style map is, but no, I had no particular style in mind. Since it was a first person book, I wanted to have a certain tenor to Akash’s voice, which I allowed to set on its own. But yes, I did want the short stories to have a different tone, and I worked at that. There were little things – for example, I was not obsessed with getting it “right” in Akash’s narrative. Imperfections like occasional use of passive voice, usage of clichés sometimes and repetitions of thoughts are deliberately there in Akash’s sections to allow his one-on-one voice to seem more natural, more human. Also, his voice had to sound as pat and smart as someone in advertising, he couldn't sound like a university professor! Hopefully, there is none of that in the short stories, where the writing is more invisible, in a sense. But see, none of this was studied – whatever imperfections came out in the natural course of things, I kept, if it was not impeding the flow.

I: The editing process at the publisher’s end couldn’t have been very smooth.

JV: Actually, it was. Thanks mainly to Sampath, my chief editor, who had instinctively tuned in to what I was trying to do, without too many discussions. We had disagreements at times, but very minor ones. Overall, it went very smoothly.

I: Then you won’t mind a cliché from my side. How autobiographical is Local?

JV: The spirit of it is, but I suppose that is the case with most books. Not so with most of the events.

I: Given that you were in the advertising business and traveled by local trains…

JV: See, the main reason to set it in the ad world is not that I had been in it but that it was a direct contradiction to his train life of non-attachment. And the way Akash deals with his train life, is certainly nothing like what I have experienced. He literally achieves the status of an observer, in a sense, which is very consciously done. It takes a certain temperament to manage it. I don’t think I have that temperament, though I wish I did.

I: Are you satisfied with the response to the book?

JV: I’m grateful for the response from readers – the occasional feedback I get off and on, and the fact that the book is going into a reprint mainly on the basis of word-of-mouth. I’ve got a few reviews, but nothing with national coverage. It’s dismaying because the odds are enormous against a first-time writer anyway. On top of that, publications don’t just want you to dance and sing, but to lie prostrate in front of them and beg for coverage. Shit, even the big bookshop chains behave like that. This annoys me greatly because it is staggering to see the complete absence of benefit of doubt given to writers not published abroad. It is a matter of record that most major newspapers and magazines in India give themselves a mandate to review mainly international fiction, which includes diaspora fiction. On the other hand, books on Mangal Pandey and General Dyer (just a recent example) are given considerable space in major publications but contemporary Indian-published fiction gets no space. I’m not saying for a second there’s anything wrong with reviewing historical non-fiction but at the blatant cost of original contemporary fiction – that seems very bizarre to me, simply because the latter will always have more takers. There is space for all kinds of writing to co-exist in India, but all kinds of writing are not given equal opportunities to exist.

I: What do you think the reason is for that?

JV: We have no creative confidence as a nation. It’s so apparent in our cinema and television – it’s embarrassing. And our publishing scene has a huge, massive, colonial hangover. To them, a book published in India is clearly inferior because it could not get published internationally. Why waste time on these losers, is their attitude. You even recently had a well-known reviewer make a remark that she has to “lower the bar” when she reviews Indian writing vis-à-vis international writing. Besides being tasteless and arrogant, this is just so ignorant. Does she do the same when she watches Indian films (non-Bollywood) or listens to Indian music? Ultimately, if writing is about stories and characters and ideas, how stupid do you have to be to “lower the bar”?

I: The lack of attention given to Indian language translations is also shocking.

JV: Absolutely. People who will rave about Orhan Pamuk, Murakami, Chekhov and Marquez will not even think of reading Premchand or Ambai or Ashokamitran or Mahashweta Devi or…

I: Unless one of them wins the Nobel.

JV: Exactly.

There is also an interview with me here by the Tribune reviewer. Some misquotes here, especially when I speak on Indian publishing, so that was somewhat irritating.

In any case...

...the chances of being misquoted, or misunderstood, by the media are much more than even every single time. I have understood that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved ur book 'Local'. Just wanted to let u know - great work.

6:45 AM  
Blogger jaideep varma said...

Thanks. But at least tell me who you are.


3:12 PM  

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