Monday, August 15, 2005

This is the interview did with me. It was for the feature (which came out here), so not all of it was used, of course. I have taken permission from them to put up the transcript of the full interview here.

1. Why did you feel the need to write a novel? What did you hope it would say?

It always surprised and dismayed me that our contemporary voice has never been adequately expressed through Indian Writing in English (IWE). English, August had excited me in the late-eighties, and a non-fiction 3-page prose piece by Vijay Nambisan in Debonair 1989. Vertigo – Ashok Banker and Ravan & Eddie to some extent. Not much else. All the meaningful writing within the Indian context for me seemed to come from NRIs (Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth etc) and somehow despite their obviously superior craft and well-tuned sensibility, their work never seemed to capture this time and space the way I experienced it. After I came to Mumbai in 1990, I found it astonishing that this city, with all its diverse and magnificent colours, found very little expression in our writing and films (and music, for that matter).

I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the way this dissatisfaction led me to this idea and the book. It was an attempt to capture the lived-in experience of Mumbai, without resorting to exotica, romanticism or nostalgia, and without high drama or underbelly depictions – just plain everyday people whom we run into every single day.

I wanted to write something that I would find entertaining and absorbing, and in a sense, fill that space (as per my perceptions). That it would very likely strike a chord in others around me was a distant hope, but never the guiding reason to do this book.

I suppose I wanted to write a book that was not pulp, or highbrow, just something that spoke in a recognizable way (to Indians, whom this book is very obviously for) about how it is to be alive in this time and space.

Also, I’ve always been more interested in ideas and stories rather than pure writing. So, the medium is always flexible for me. Here, what made me decide to attempt this as a novel is the format that I stumbled upon – of short stories punctuating the main narrative. It was exciting because it allowed me to expand the canvas enormously and also gave me the opportunity to experiment within a certain space (that particular short story). When I finally realized the format was working, it made the whole thing worthwhile for me. So, it has kind of surprised me that not too many reviewers have paid attention to that, not enough to specifically mention it.

2. Where did the idea of someone living on a train come from?

I used to travel by train in the early to mid-nineties to my workplace (first Churchgate, then VT from Andheri). If I got a place to sit (which is very possible, if you plan things right by observing train timings, going early, etc), I found those 45 minutes (twice- going and coming), to be my most restful time of the day, of the week. Maybe it was the rocking motion, or just a strange energy in the train, but it relaxed me, melted away all the stress. At some point, it began to intrigue me and I began to play with the idea for a story (I was trying to write short stories those days) about a man who seeks this feeling all the time on the train to such an extent that he decides to live there for it. Eventually, the possibilities seemed too large for a short story, hence a novel.

3. There is more cynicism than hope in Local. Would you agree? If you do, was that a conscious attempt?

I think it’s more real than cynical. Unless you’re referring to how the ad industry is depicted, but that, you must keep in mind is from Akash’s point-of-view. He is going through something specific at that particular moment of his life, and this is how he sees the world at this point. There is a lot of humour (hopefully, it’s not just me who thinks so!) and all that hopefully makes it an amused view, rather than a bitter, cynical view.

The end of the book, I think, is quite hopeful rather than cynical. No, there was no conscious attempt towards anything. I let Akash find his voice, keeping in mind that he was an advertising copywriter and not a university professor. The story found its own trajectory, which at times surprised me.

4. What have initial reactions to Local been like? Has anyone from the advertising fraternity reacted in any manner?

The book is getting into its second print run after just 4 months, despite practically no coverage in the national media. It has done well wherever people have got to know through reviews in the local press – Chandigarh, Delhi (very little coverage as yet), Bangalore and of course Mumbai, so far. Mumbai, it’s also moved on positive word-of-mouth, which is gratifying. I have no delusions about the fact that that is more because of the subject than the quality of the book per se, at this point anyway. Which further proves what I’ve been saying about readers looking to read more contemporary stories.

Equally gratifying is the fact that not a single review thus far has been completely negative. All of them (even a highly dishonest review by Ashok Banker in HT Delhi) ultimately recommended the book in varying degrees, so I guess I cannot complain.
Friends in the ad community have been very positive but haven’t had a lot of other feedback from there. I suspect people who are gung-ho about being in the ad business will dislike the book.

5. You have said, in an earlier interview, that "most major newspapers and magazines in India give themselves a mandate to review mainly international fiction, which includes diaspora fiction." Do you believe that?

I wouldn’t have said it so plainly if I didn’t. It’s not just my last 4-5 months that have convinced me about this, but the way I have seen Indian-published writer/ translator friends being treated by the media, especially the bigger national media. It’s amazing how they are racist with their country’s own voice. If our own media is not going to give us reviews (even uncomplimentary ones) because they see us as losers since we couldn’t get published abroad, who else will? Aren’t they depriving the general public from the right to information? Ignored thus, it’s a struggle to get bookstores to stock it or display it well and worse, readers to ask for it. Writing is hard as it is – fighting these odds is much harder.

6. What about this comment: "We have no creative confidence as a nation. It' s so apparent in our cinema and television – it's embarrassing." Where does that spring from? What examples would you give?

You can see the examples with the naked eye. Which are the 3 TV shows our networks take great pride in, in the last 5 years? KBC, Jassi, Indian Idol? They take great pride in announcing the ingenious ways in which they have adapted the shows from abroad. The thought that maybe the real credit is in exporting ideas rather than importing them doesn’t really strike them. The DVD culture in Bollywood (a very apt term actually, at least for the Hindi cinema of today, whatever anyone may say) is well-documented. The remix fad is now a way of life in the pop music industry – you figure out if it suggests confidence of any kind. And the focus on exotica even in Indian-published books and the preference for internationally-published fiction, even if the writer is India – that tells you how little confidence Indians have in the worth of their ideas and voices. It’s not just commercialization that is responsible for this. It’s our mindset and it’s pathetic.

In fact, because fiction, cinema and popular music do not feed off each other in India, they are neatly slotted as far as audience expectations are concerned. Maybe that explains why Indian fiction only has pulp and “literary” as its only viable genres. I cannot understand why fiction cannot be entertaining like a good film, resonant as a good popular song AND yet substantial as non-pulp fiction is expected to be. It is in the culturally-developed world, why not here?

7. Why is Mumbai suddenly a star? What would you say differentiates it from any other Indian metro?

It’s hardly a star. Maximum City and Shantaram and now Vikram Chandra’s forthcoming novel have kept it in the literary news lately (and if they were all merely Indian-published books, they wouldn’t get an iota of that attention). Given what a remarkably diverse city it is, it hasn’t got an iota of literature it should ordinarily have inspired by now.
See the literature that other great cities in the world have inspired and continue to, year after year. If Mumbai was a star, other books out of or on Mumbai would get much more attention. They don’t.

Mumbai is different from all other cities in India because of what the pace of life does to its people (this pace is mostly the result of the commutes most Mumbai inhabitants cannot avoid). People learn to conserve their energy, and that is why people are less nosy and streets relatively safer than other cities in India. There is a strange focus in people here, even if it is on their commute, which makes them different from people anywhere else.

8. What now? Does writing some more feature in your future plans?

Telling stories is the single-point agenda of my life. If I cannot make a living from writing fiction, I’ll pursue other media. I guess, if it takes me time to earn a living from it, I’ll have to do things to keep myself financially afloat.
In 2004, I was 18 days away from the first day of shoot of a feature film that I was directing. I want to resurrect that with the same team I had built up in my 7 months of pre-production. But this time I will try to get a producer who is not a barefaced liar. It’s a big city, there must be a few of those.

October 2005


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