Saturday, February 02, 2008
"Writing is the most exciting thing in my life"
He teaches Marketing at the Oxford University, but if you read his three novels, you might take him for a historian. Unlike some of the Indian writers in English, his stories do not drip with nostalgia. A CPM cardholder in the 70s in West Bengal, Kunal Basu, by his own admission, is no longer a Communist. His latest work, a collection of twelve short stories, titled, The Japanese Wife is being made into a film by filmmaker Aparna Sen. In Delhi for the launch of his book, Basu spoke to me on subjects ranging from writer’s discipline to the changing world order.
A reader of yours made a comment about you recently, and I quote: “History seems to be his only fetish.” Does your latest work, in some way, try to break that mould?
Kunal Basu: It is very curious comment. The collection of short stories is different from my earlier works because these are all contemporary stories. There is a story in this collection called The Accountant which has deep historical coonections. But, in a way, yes, it is different from my earlier novels.
You have written about hundred articles in Marketing and you also teach Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy. How do you manage to juggle between your life as an academic and that of a novelist?
KB: I am passionate about my writing; I have always been an author at heart. The choice of a professional or academic career was to some extent circumstantial. We Indians, more than anybody else, should realise that our career choices often don’t reflect our true passions. At the time I was growing up in India in 70s, if you did not become a doctor or an engineer, most likely you became unemployed. As a middle class Indian boy, I studied subjects that really didn’t interest me as much as others. So when actually I should have studied literature, history and things like that, I studied science and engineering. And that took me down to a certain career path. I am not saying that my current academic job is completely uninteresting to me, but if given a choice I would have done it differently. And how do I manage the two worlds? I try to manage the academic writing and literary writing by being very disciplined in what I do. I also try not to think too much about the difference.
Your first novel is about opium and as per your own admission, you have never tasted opium. The second novel’s protagonist is a bisexual, and you are not one. Where do you get the inspiration for your characters?
KB: I do not write surface autobiography; some of us do. How can I take bits of my own life and that of people around me and turn it into a novel! The inspiration for a story comes from most unlikely places. Grateful Ganga, for instance, is a story which began forming in my mind after I read a small, little newspaper report about Jerry Garcia’s (Rock star) wife coming to India to sprinkle his ashes on the Ganga. And that was all that there was to the story. And I started seeing images of this woman arriving with the ashes. So inspirations from life, interacting with people, snatches of conversation, newspaper reports, day dreaming – that is how stories are born in my mind.
You grew up in Kolkata, and both your parents were really into activism. You were yourself a cardholder of the CPM during the heady days of Naxalism. Have those days in any way shaped what you are today?
KB: Very much. Not the politics, I am not a Communist anymore, but – let me answer it this way – if I hadn’t taken part in student politics, I would not have had an exposure to aspects of life which tremendously benefited me as an author. It would have been very easy for me to go through life or substantial parts of my life being very comfortable; afterall I had come from a middle-class household. I was reasonably well-educated and I had been to good universities. I could have spent my life in offices, in movie halls, golf courses, cafes, but life in politics took me to places that were outside my comfort zone. It took me to people whose living conditions are very different, very difficult - absolutely poor people, people at the edges of the poverty. It exposed me to a whole range of human sensations that otherwise I would not have been exposed to. So I owe a lot to my upbringing, although the politics of that period does not remain with me.
And why is it so? What has changed really?
KB: Sadly, the world has changed. If you read Lenin’s Café (One of Basu’s stories), in some way it hints to that. The world has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. And some of the things we took forgranted are no longer valid. The ways with which we saw our friends and enemies and so-called friends and so-called enemies, have changed. I no longer subscribe to a particular political philosophy because I have seen that, perhaps, it would not deliver the kind of society that I would prefer for myself and for people around me. But what has remained from that period is deep compassion for the underprivileged. And in many of things that I write, it seeps in.
We have this huge debate in India whether artists – writers, filmmakers, painters – should be turning to activism at all. Do you think a writer like yourself can detach himself from what is happening in his society?
KB: Nowhere in life and in any society at any point in time has one been able to build a wall between art and life. And why would you want to build that wall! When you are writing something, obviously you are commenting on society and the way people live. It is absolutely fine to do that. People can take issue with that; you can say that I disagree and say I do not like the way you have portrayed a certain reality. And that’s fine too. The world of art is the world of debate and arguments. One would hope that such debates and arguments are conducted in a civilised fashion. But you would want your authors to address substantial issues. What else would they be writing about?
There is this impression that the Indian Diaspora basically writes what we term as “nostalgic fiction” about India. Do you think that assessment is true, or fair?
KB: This field of Indian writers writing in English is so vast – you have got people like Salman Rushdie on the one hand and Arundhati Roy on the other. How on earth can anyone draw any generalisations from that! In fact, the generalisation is often made in the West and we Indians shouldn’t make that generalisation. There are so many different genres, so many different stories; I don’t think Amitava Ghosh’s novels are about nostalgia at all. Certainly, my writing is not about India. I have not left behind India, I have just gone travelling.
Salman Rushdie once remarked that writers writing in English in India are producing far more important body of work than the regional writers. What is your take on this?
KB: I completely disagree; the best Indian authors write in vernacular. I am a bilingual author – my early short stories and poems have been in Bangla. It is an outrageous statement for Rushdie to have made because, one: he doesn’t know and read and speak all Indian languages. All regional literature doesn’t get translated in a very stylish way around the world. It doesn’t win major prizes but that doesn’t diminish it any way.
What does your knowledge about consumer behaviour tell you about the present-day India?
KB: India is in the grasp of a consumerist culture that we have never seen before in the past. I am not saying all of India because all of India is not privileged and financially well-off. But the middle and the upper middle class is consuming with a passion and that has really changed the face of urban India in a significant way.
There was a time when you told someone in India that you were a writer and his next question would be: Wo to theek hai magar karte kya ho? Do you think that opinion about writers has changed here in India?
KB: Actually it hasn’t changed and it hasn’t changed in the whole world. I am given to understand that about 95 percent of all published authors in the English language, worldwide, have a day job. I am one of the 95 percent. Even the Indian authors I meet in various literary festivals, most of them have a day job.
Rembrandt once said: Not a single day without a line. Though he said that in context of painting, that holds more or less true for writing also. How discilplined are you as a writer? Do you write everyday? What is your writing pattern?
KB: Writing is the most exciting thing in my life. I wake up in the morning to run to my Study to start writing. Either I am writing text, or reading for my writing or taking notes, this is something which I do everyday – this is not something which is done certain time or certain days or certain weeks.
Your literary agent, I believe, keeps on asking you about your “Bengal” book? Is it coming?
KB: There are some Bengal stories in my story collection but after I put them together I was really surprised that there are more Delhi stories than there are Bengal stories. I am not at this point of time thinking – I might at some point of time – of sitting down and consciously writing a Bengal story. As a matter of fact, I do not write anything by first identifying a theme and then say, okay, I want to write about opium, what’s the story! I do it the other way. When I think of a story, I say, well, this is exciting, let’s do it.
The Japanese Wife is already much-talked about, also because it is a film now. Do you think that film as a medium does justice to stories such as yours?
KB: This is not new, vast number of films have been made out of novels. Look at India, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay is perhaps the most-filmed Indian novelist. Sometimes you have got brilliant adaptations of mediocre stories; sometimes you have bad adaptations of great stories. But I am very much in love with Cinema; I have been connected with cinema as a child actor for Mrinal Sen. I am a film buff.
What next ? Have you begun thinking about what to do next?
KB: I have started work on my next novel set in India, but I am not prepared to say anything more than that right now.
(An edited version of this appeared first in The Sunday Indian weekly. Pic: Mukund Dey)