In an era of mutual back-scratching, where authors give each other’s books – and activism – rave reviews, Aatish Taseer strikes you as one of those people who could call a spade an outdated garden implement that serves little purpose outside idiom.
I’m rather nervous about my interview with Aatish Taseer. For all his almost courtly manners, there’s an undercurrent of impatience, as if his mind’s racing with observations, and filing them away for possible use in his future writing. And in his place, I might be very tempted to caricature the ditzy reporter who called to ask if Aurangazeb Road and Rajesh Pilot Marg were the same. Of course, that would be a rather more charming description than an interviewer who apologised through chattering teeth for landing up ten minutes late, her skin flaking off in the cold. So, when I do find Aatish Taseer’s writer’s den, I ask so many questions about how much his fiction draws from reality that he gets suspicious. We move on to his taste in cinema, his rapport withV S Naipaul, his book covers, linguistic chauvinism, émigré writers, his self-interview which went viral, and everything else that strikes us. Leaning back against a sofa in a room with soft lighting, arresting artwork and the lovely shades of the Delhi winter glancing in from a rooftop garden, Aatish speaks with refreshing candour, displays a quick wit that seems at odds with the intensity of his writing, and is gamely drawn into some teasing about his good looks.
You debuted with an ambitious non-fiction project, and put a lot of your personal life out there. It usually takes people a while to get comfortable enough with the medium to start revealing so much, doesn’t it?
Stranger to History needed that: because the reason I was travelling was so wrapped up with my personal life, with the discovery of Pakistan, with the discovery of my father – it had prompted the larger journey in some ways, so the two needed to go together, because there was a relationship between them.
But doesn’t the idea of absolute strangers learning so much about you make you feel exposed in any manner?
No. I don’t think of it as particularly intimate. I mean, those were the most basic circumstances and facts surrounding my life, and normally for most people, those facts are quite straightforward – none of it seemed to me very intimate. I don’t feel that someone who’s read Stranger to History knows especially much about me. That’s just one part of my life.
You’ve spoken of how you filter your fiction through the prism of your life, of reality.
What I was talking about was how I sometimes use the prism of non-fiction to begin a work of fiction. And it always creates a surprise, but it’s something so old, you know. I’ve been reading Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale. And Maugham must have done five novels in which he’s a writer, in which he grew up in the place in which he grew up, in which his parents have died and his aunt and uncle have raised him. All of that is there, and you think oh, this must be Maugham himself. In Razor’s Edge, I think he might actually even be called ‘Mr. Maugham’. And Of Human Bondage, of course, it’s like 100 percent his life...so, it’s something that a lot of writers—including Manto—have done before, and it’s a mistake to believe it’s all real, to believe it’s more than just a prism.
A lot of people do that, though. I’ve noticed you keep getting asked how much of this is autobiographical. Don’t you get sick of it?
I do get a little sick of it, because I don’t want people to miss the fiction. I want people to know that there’s as much deception in fiction as there is in something like a self-interview, you know. (Laughs) People shouldn’t take it on face value, and I think sometimes with fiction, which is not really possible in non-fiction, if you suddenly don’t know where you are…if you find you’ve lost your footing, if your narrator feels unreliable, that’s a good thing. Not, of course, to feel that the writer doesn’t know what he’s doing, but for the reader to be put in places where he’s not quite sure how firm the ground is, that’s a good thing.
Given that you come from such high-profile parentage on both sides, people would probably assume all of your fiction is real. Has that had repercussions?
It never did before. What’s happened this year, by which I mean 2011 really, is that there was a lot of extra information in the public sphere, related to my father’s family. And that, I think, harmed the publication of Noon in India. Elsewhere it was fine, but in India, there was so much extra information about the family that I think it interfered with the kind of readings people could have had. And obviously, I couldn’t have anticipated that. The book was already finished when all that happened, I think that’s actually harmful, because a book, especially fiction, must work in its own circle, must work on its own terms, and if you have too much noise from the outside world, it can spoil a reading.
Yeah, because people are constantly looking to plot who a certain character is, and it needn’t really be anyone.
Yeah. It doesn’t matter though, because if the books survive, then these things always fall away. So, someone coming to Noon in three years or four years or five years is not going to have all of this. They’ll come to it freshly, and it’ll work in its own way, you know.
You’ve led a pretty extraordinary life, from birth, really. I would imagine that one would either not want to bring it into one’s work at all, or explore those circumstances through one’s writing. Did you ever think you might take the former path?
I think that that’s a mistake, especially for a young writer starting out. If your circumstances are complicated or whatever, you must make those journeys to understand yourself well. And it becomes a journey outwards, so Stranger was one kind of book and it was to understand one kind of thing, The Temple Goers was a very different book, very different in colour and feeling and mood, it was aboutdifferent things – it was about Delhi and about class in Delhi – and Noon, which in some ways brought together themes from both books, was in my opinion, a further journey. Sometimes in India, you get a lot of people saying oh, I would never write about the autobiographical. I think that’s a mistake, and I think that can come from not being able to see yourself clearly enough, and you mustsee yourself clearly because it will make it easier for you to see the world clearly. Let me also tell you that if you were to put all of literature together, those books we know of as big books, maybe 25 percent of it is pure imagination. For a writer like Proust, there’s not even a question about it: people spent ages writing books about his models and the people he used. But you see it in someone like Tolstoy as well. To make up the Rostovs, he was ripping up his wife’s family completely. I mean, there is no example I can think of, of a writer who’s had a long career, who doesn’t have a huge portion of his material come from real world circumstances.
Do you think it would be inimical to a writer to be guarded about how much he wants to reveal about his own life and experiences? Or to think about the people who may read it later?
I don’t think about people who may read it later and that sort of thing at all. I think that you should know why you’re writing. I think if your motives are wrong, then it would be bad for the writing. But if something has made a powerful impression on you, then you must write about it. Do what you can to make it hard for people to recognise themselves, but it shouldn’t get in the way of your writing.
Do you avoid talking about the things that you’re writing about? Events, or ideas?
Yeah, that happens. It’s just that if you have a certain idea, it usually has a sort of perfume or mist about it. It’s a very strange experience because it will keep nagging at you, but once you’ve written it out, then the thing that had such a hold on you, suddenly goes quiet, you know; ceases to interest you anymore. And that’s why I don’t want to talk about the things I’m writing about, because I need to work through them in the writing, before I can talk about them. That’s something Nabokov speaks off as well.
What stands out to me about your writing is that it’s an unapologetically privileged point of view, which a lot of Indian writers, especially those who’ve lived abroad and published abroad, tend to avoid. Whereas you speak quite frankly about how this is the way India works.
I’m glad you asked that question. I think that that note of apology to which you refer is problematic, because one is in the business of dealing with things that one knows to be true. And when you’re addressing your material, you should be looking at it clearly. In doing that, you’re showing much more compassion, you’re doing it a greater service than if you’re constantly apologising, which is the smaller thing to do. The bigger thing to do is to look at something frankly, and to write about it in a way that’s believable to people very near to it. It’s the closeness with which you look at something that contains the compassion,that contains the feeling. The good Russian writers, someone like Gogol, for example, paints some of the most heartbreaking portraits of Russia, and yet, you know that in the way he looks at it, is contained his love, his sympathy, his concern. He’s never apologetic about his Russia. And I think that when any writer is properly engrossed in his material, immersed in his material, there’s no question of having to apologise.
How does the West react to it, though?
Well, I completely dismiss the opinion of England. I think of it as a place that has, for the last 100 years, been very important, for voices coming from outside of it. But I think of it now as a terribly diminished place. It’s totally changed, and its perspective can be very destructive to India. It’s always producing these sentimental stereotypes, you know. First, there were mangoes, now there are slumdogs, and England can’t get past that. And that sentimentality is so offensive. India must dismiss that kind of view totally, because when you start to look at yourself in these exotic ways, in terms of mangoes and slumdogs, then your view of your own place becomes distorted, and that’s a very dangerous thing.
I think America’s better at the moment, actually. Probably two of the most serious reviews I’ve had were out of America. There was one in The Daily Beast by Taylor Antrim, who’s a novelist himself, and there was John Freeman, who’s the editor of Granta – his review appeared in a Canadian paper. And those people were coming into it clean, they were coming in just as people who were in the business of judging fiction. It’s not that I had a bigger reception in America; it was just more serious. And I think they understand very well what I’m saying.
It’s worrying how many people here subscribe to that mangoes-and-slumdog idea, as you put it.
I mean, you sometimes feel it’s as if this country is going to be enslaved again, you know. For one, there’s no knowledge of history, there’s a constant amnesia, and the other is this worship of things from abroad. You know, I have a friend in Bollywood, and you should hear his descriptions of it. It’s an industry that’s geared around this vast viewing public of Hindi and Urdu speakers, and they want nothing more than to bypass these people, who have filled Bollywood with energy, and make their “crossover film” or “international film”. I think now there’s an almost apartheid in Bollywood, of English-speakers and non-English speakers. (Laughs) I have friends who go into ads, where they say we’re looking for a Hindi-speaker, and he’ll arrive speaking Hindi. And then he’s told, “ji, agar aap ne pehle angrezi boli hoti toh phir hum kehten ki aap fit ho iss role ke liye”. But because he spoke Hindi first, they felt ki kahin lower class ka hoga. So, that tendency is, in my opinion, the ugliest thing in India. See, you can understand that English has a certain power and people might aspire to it. It’s that other thing, of it coming with a kind of contempt for your own people, that’s very uniquely Indian. It’s something that really holds us back. Because you don’t see that in Russia, you don’t see it in China – the Chinese, God knows they would break your arm if you try to give them advice, from outside, about what they should be doing, what they shouldn’t be doing.
This contempt comes through in the character of Aakash, the gym trainer from The Temple Goers. He keeps saying he wants to “upgrade” himself, and as he does, there’s also this disgust for his own beginnings.
Yeah. I wonder about someone like Aakash. There’s also an Aakash who’s quite sure of who he is, then there’s the kind of deracinated class that he aspires to. You wonder whether India in 20 or 30 years will be Aakash’s country, and the people who allowed themselves to become deracinated will find themselves on the outside. I don’t know, it’s a hard thing to bet on, because you feel that in some ways there’s a kind of promise about someone like Aakash, even though it’s a very uncertain promise. I’d want for India to be a country with many more Aakashes, you know. There would have to be a mechanism or a world in which somebody like that could come in and become who he wants to be, without being constantly made to feel small. That’s one of the things that comes out in the book – Aakash when he’s being nearest himself, is a very compelling character. It’s when he’s adopting roles—and he can do that because he has a sort of protean quality—that he’s most embarrassing.
All your books explore male sexuality in some way – in Stranger to History, you describe a gay club in Istanbul, in The Temple Goers, two men who are in heterosexual relationships share a bathtub, and in Noon, a blackmailer gets raped by another man. It’s not a theme that gets explored a lot in Indian writing. What was the trigger for you to look at this aspect?
Well, let me isolate some of these things. I think especially in The Temple Goers, that male sexuality theme represents something very important, which is the idea of people who are in some ways colonised also finding themselves in some ways effeminised, and that people who have a better hold of who they are, feel they have a kind of power over these people who are effete. And so there is not so much sexual attraction in The Temple Goers as there is sexual intimidation. More generally speaking, I think that this issue of masculinity or whatever is something that might be more present in my writing because of the absence of male role models in my life. So I suppose I’m interested in male power, in strong male friendships, in relationships between brothers, father and sons… that’s probably what comes out in the fiction.
Freud would want to talk to you, I think.
(Laughs) Probably! I don’t know if I’d want to talk to Freud, though.
With the narrator, there’s a sort of spillover in each book. He may not be the same character, but you give him your name in The Temple Goers, and his history carries over to Noon. And then there are journalistic pieces where you refer to people and events that find echoes in your novels. Is this something you do to screw with your readers?
Yes. (Laughs) No, not entirely. Some of it happens accidentally, but I always have in mind this idea of a body of work – not that I know what each part of it will be, but it’s my aspiration to make a body of work that—one day—I would like for my readers to be able to read together. A friend of mine said about Noon, “It’s your best book! But I can’t understand how someone could like it if they haven’t read the first two!” And it was a very nice thing for me to hear, because she liked the third book with her special reading, but obviously the book had reached many people who hadn’t read the first two, and they were able to see it in their own way. If someone were to take the trouble to read all of my books, it would be nice if they could see the remains of one book in another: together it would form a bigger picture, you know.
You get asked a lot about the narrator, and you just spoke about your intended body of work. So is he going to be a constant presence, or are you likely to change him?
Well, with Noon, I felt I was at the end of a vein when I wrote it. I felt that there was an area that needed a certain kind of exploration, and this happens with writing – it’s not that you lose your themes; your main interests will always be there. But you can come to the end of a vein and then you have to move, you have to break ground. And in the next [book]— partly because it’s about a time when this present narrator wasn’t born—my interest has already shifted. Yes: I think there will be different narrators, different characters. For sure.
Has this particular vein been cathartic in that sense, for you?
Not cathartic. I think all writing, if you’re dealing with material that’s close to you, brings you to some kind of resolution. But see,catharsis is a very specific word, completely locked into a particular literary tradition. And in that sense, catharsis is something that happens to you because of what someone else is doing. It’s from watching tragedy that the audience feels catharsis or whatever. The business of writing which is—when it’s any good—absolutely draining and exhausting, and can leave you, in the end, feeling like you’ve been run over by a bus, is not cathartic. You can feel a sense of achievement; you can feel I’ve worked through this, but no: not catharsis.
Since V S Naipaul has read The Temple Goers, I’d like to know what he thought of the character of Vijaipal.
Ah...he’s not that kind of reader, you know. I mean, he never even mentioned the Vijaipal character. He’s a very critical reader, and so I think the only two nice things he might have said were that it was an ambitious work, which was nice, and I think that he praised the writing. But he was full of technical criticism. The conversation that I had with him...I mean, if I wasn’t prepared to learn from it, could almost have been a wounding conversation. Because he will criticise and criticise and that’s been one of the things that’s so wonderful about knowing him – he’s perhaps one of the most generous people I’ve known, and writers are not always generous. You know, they don’t bother necessarily. Everyone’s working through the same questions, and it’s very rare to have someone who will probe you about things that you’ve done, and then throw light on them with their own experience, so that you, in some ways, have to do less work than you would have had to normally. (Laughs) He shows you a way out, you know.
Is there anything specific that he helped you out with?
I’m talking mainly about technical things. I’ll give you a very good example. There’s a wonderful English novel called Hangover Square, written in the Thirties or Forties (by Patrick Hamilton). And I’d read the novel, and he asked me whether I liked it, and I hadn’t made up my mind. And he said, “I think it’s a very good book”, and he said because right in the beginning, there’s this girl Netta, whom the main character is going to kill – it says very early on in the book, “he had to kill Netta Longdon” – and at the end of this book, which takes you through the dinginess and squalor of London life in the inter-war years, Netta does die. And I think what he [Naipaul] was trying to point out was that it was an example of direct narrative, where right in the beginning, you know what is going to happen and you’re guided constantly by this thread that comes back again and again, and in the end, it’s executed. The book is held together in this way. And I think that that is something that he [Naipaul] values very much in writing: a clear line, you know. Not a book that goes here and there, but where the thread is very taut. And I may not have quite understood what he meant if he had spoken of it in an abstract way. But it was very clear through this example, and he’ll do this – he’ll talk about books in a way that anyone paying attention can learn a few important things. (Laughs)
Are there any specific film directors you like? With a lot of writers, the kind of cinema they watch informs their writing.
Yeah. Well, I watch a lot of Indian stuff, and the director I admire most would probably be Vishal Bharadwaj. Outside, a director I had a kind of obsession about is the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, working about the same dates as Ray, maybe a little earlier. I watched all of his movies, literally, from the silent movies to the black-and-white to the colour. And then, of course, there’s Ray! I mean, I thinkNayak and Mahanagar, are probably two of my favourite films in the world.
Back to your writing, when you base characters on people you know – or when someone says something that sets off a spark, and leads you to create a certain character, the person who inspired it may recognise, or think he recognises, himself in that character. Do they ever feel betrayed or let down?
Hmm. I think that if somebody is written about, they can feel a bit shocked by that experience, even if they’re written about favourably. My elder brother has been someone I’ve written about both non-fictionally, and to some extent, fictionally as well. And I’ve always been inspired by a great feeling of tenderness for him, whenever I’ve written about him. He didn’t see it that way. You can’t help that, you know.
When fictional elements seep into a real character, do you ever struggle for control? Let’s say you’re basing a character on someone you’re not particularly close to, and he suddenly says something that gives you a new insight into his character, would it confuse you?
Pretty rarely. Pretty rarely, but you know, once you’ve got going, you have quite a deep sense of what people are about, and the pressure of a narrative, of working within a fictional space, is quite strong. It really has its own momentum, and if the outside world is still feeding in, then usually, something’s wrong. Then you’re doing something that is kind of more journalistic than fictional, because a fictional circle is very strange – sometimes you can just get a window into something, and then a character can come out of that, but then the real person, with all the issues of his life, usually falls away. I think it was a filmmaker who said something like, “Every time I see something, and I feel I must put that in my movie, I know I’m doing something wrong.” That’s not how it should be.
If it so happens that something that a character goes through ends up happening to the person who inspired that character, does it ever send you into a panic, like you pre-empted something?
You’re very interested in this question of my models (Laughs). Well, I can only think you’re referring to Noon, and it’s not a panic. But it’s a very disturbing feeling, because usually, if something has made a strong impression, in a way that you can’t really write about it in non-fiction, but it needs the imagination, it’s probably something quite strong. A little grain of truth about that place or that person or whatever, and then if any of that is lived out in real experience, it can always feel a bit sinister.
Well, actually, my question had a far more frivolous origin. I was writing a story where a character sort of reminded me of a co-worker, and umm, both of them ended up getting divorced for exactly the same reason.
(Laughs) Really? Maybe you should send him the story. (Laughs) Plough through it, don’t care. What is one office contact for a good story...no, I’m joking!
Moving on, then. Another thread in your work is this constant inquiry about religion, all religions, and its place in one’s life. Was it the letter your father sent you, or was it the process of writing Stranger to History itself, that crystallised all these questions in your mind?
See, we should make a division between religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and our religions, because there is a difference. But I’m very rarely interested in what is contained in the books of these religions, or in actual worship or faith or practice. And I think this is not because of Stranger, but because I grew up in a Sikh household, and the Sikhs are a very strange kind of religious group in some ways because they have very strong shades of Islam, in the sense that their places of worship have a quality that reminds me of mosques; there’s a strong sense of community; there’s a martial aspect; and there’s a powerful sense of nationhood. And that carries over into the way they see Hindus, the way they see Muslims, and it’s these things, these attitudes, that people get because of being from a religious background, that interest me. Sometimes they can be most pronounced in those people who are not religious. Like my father, for instance, was not a man of religion, and yet, I don’t think that the way that he viewed the past of India, or the way he viewed the struggle in Kashmir or Palestine, or the way he viewed the creation of Pakistan, could be separated from religion. The religion informed those things that were technically outside the faith, and that’s what interested me. Notions of caste in India, for instance. I’m very interested in the way that caste surfaces in India, interested in the way it can exist beneath things that are not obviously about caste. That’s what I try to write about.
In your books, you seem very open to the ideas of different faiths. At the same time, you can be judgmental of certain aspects of religion, of the way in which they’re followed. Do you have a personal perception, or even hope, with regard to the existence of God?
I never even think about it. It never crosses my mind, even. I have no metaphysical curiosity at all. For me, it’s a matter of supreme indifference what happens to us afterwards. I find what happens in the world so engaging and there are so many ways to live life in an ennobling way that don’t relate to God and religion that it always leaves me a little bit bewildered, to tell you the truth—this need for God, you know.
You engage with language in all your books, and sometimes that has to do with religion as well. You speak of a group in Pakistan that wants to publish English books in the Nastaliq script. There’s a man who immolates himself after learning his name has Sanskrit origins. And English is the language that transcends all other barriers to elevate people to a certain social class. Do you think of language as a conquering tool?
Umm, this is a big subject, and it’s a very long, very confusing story that begins sometime in the nineteenth century. The language, especially in the North Indian context of this Hindi and Urdu mixture, was really one language. It was a fluid idiom that became everything from Gujri to Dakkani to Rekhtah, and someone like Ghalib would never have thought of himself in the nineteenth century as an Urdu poet. I believe he used the word only once, and he used it in the masculine gender; the zebaan-e urdu-e mu’alla, the language of the exalted camp/court or whatever: that was how it was known. But there was a programme instituted by the colonial government in the nineteenth century to make a separation.
And people got very attached to these ideas, to on the one hand, purifying that mixed language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings, which was an absurd project. And then there was the even more absurd project in Pakistan, of importing Urdu, and trying to make it more Persian and Arabic. It leads you into a kind of schizophrenia. So, you have this business of khuda hafiz, for instance. Khuda is the Persian word. People in Pakistan make a great point to say Allah hafiz, which is an Arabized version of the same thing. Now, the only reason they have this language—Arabic—in theirs at all is because it fertilised Persian, and came to them through the Persians, and now they’re in the business of removing Persian words because those are no longer pure enough for them. Madness!
I’ll give you another example. There was this minister, a man who was in the same government as my father, and then worked for my father, a real fool called Luqman – the same man, by the way, who’s been leading this campaign against Najam Sethi – a real little thug, and he says to me, very proudly one day, “This word that you have in your language, ‘maha’, you think it’s an Indian word? I’ve just been in Iran, and they have ‘maha’, and it means great!” So it took me a while to understand what he was saying, and then I said, of course, but you understand that India and Persia have an ancient linguistic connection, a pre-Islamic connection, and there are girls called Mitra in Iran? I mean, there’s aab for water, and we have apsu, from which we get apsara, and it goes on and on and on. There are perhaps no two languages closer than old Persian and Sanskrit. And suddenly, this expression of horror crept into his face. Because if it was Pre-Islamic, then the whole point of what he was trying to say broke down.
This kind of schizophrenia was what I was trying to get at – of people forming these identities, and trying to purify language, and ending up in lunatic positions, because you can’t do that in the subcontinent. You’d go mad if you start to do that, especially in North India, where truly a composite language had developed.
In India, there’s a dichotomy between publishing in English and other Indian languages. There are some very intelligent people who read other languages, who would probably enjoy books originally written in English, if they could access them. Does that dichotomy bother you?
Oh, if you knew what an uphill battle it was! Indian language publishing, in Hindi and Urdu, it’s not even worth discussing the state of it.Stranger was published in two Chinese languages. I, myself, worked on a translation of Stranger, and I couldn’t find a Hindi publisher. When I found one, they were talking about a thousand copies. This is not an industry you can think about seriously, you know. I mean, I hear reports of it being better in the South, and Maharashtra and Bengal. Perhaps it is. But see, Kerala has a population twice the size of Holland I think, 40 million people or something like that, with 90 percent literacy. If a book was to succeed in Kerala, it should be able to sell half a million copies. I have never heard of a book like that in Kerala. I don’t think that there are [books like that]. So I think people are being sentimental when they talk about it. Every time I say something about the state of Indian languages, people always say, oh, you don’t know, there’s so much happening. I’ve met Hindi writers and Urdu writers who say that, and when I ask them for a reading list, they melt away. When there is writing, and when there’s energy in a language, people find out about it. It’s not something that you can keep secret.
Why do you think the regional language publishing industry is the way it is?
As far as Hindi and Urdu are concerned, I can tell you straightaway what happened, which is that when you had my grandfather’s generation of people, you had people who were bi-, trilingual, easily, effortlessly. My grandfather would have grown up with Arabic, Urdu, and Punjabi, he would have learnt Farsi because it was the language of high literature, and he was the first man out of the subcontinent to be given a Ph.D. in English Literature from Oxbridge. So you can do the math of how many languages he would have had a deep knowledge of. And that generation then produced in India and Pakistan, to a man, people who could only read English, really. You know, some people in my mother’s generation made an effort to relearn language – my father did. But for the most part, that generation lost language. And that same generation is the bedrock of the new middle classes, so immediately, it was as if a whole readership got transferred out of those languages and put straight into English. And the Indian languages haven’t been able to produce a new, reading middle-class as such, you know. Not at least in the North.
You’ve spoken of how India is just beginning to support our authors, and how Indian authors tend to live off the West. When you’re being published there, do your publishers ask you to put in annotations or explanations, so people will understand better?
They’ve been very good like that. In fact, people speak in their reviews about how little is explained. There are sometimes whole passages in Indian languages which I don’t italicise. I don’t write mohalla comma neighbourhood. All of my books have been published in at least three or four places, and Stranger was published in fifteen, and I haven’t put in explanations unless I was trying to make some kind of point. See, if you look at the Russian novelists, by the time we get to Tolstoy, they were completely supported by their own public. And in those translations, you may have footnotes or explanations or whatever about things like orthodox religion, for example. But you don’t really find yourself in need of help, you know. And I feel that with my books, it’s the same thing – if one reader in America is struggling slightly with one thing, well, let him ask around, let him look it up. The fiction shouldn’t be so local that it needs to depend on that [local references]. And I have to say I can’t imagine writing with any readership in mind, so to speak. But on some level, you know, the West still has a very important place for writers in my position, because they’re still willing to pay for writing that comes from very far afield, they’re willing to think seriously about it, they’re willing to criticise it in ways. I mean, India, till not long ago, would haveburied people like Vikram Seth, V S Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. This country is still the great repository of mediocrity, you know. They love you if you’re mediocre. So, don’t think what I was saying was that one can depend completely on India, because one can’t. But, you know, one would like to.
Do you think all the marketing activity and hype surrounding book launches and lit fests has turned writers into an intellectual version of Page 3 celebrities, where they can hardly afford to want privacy?
Oh, not really. You know, I saw Vikram Seth the other day, and he can walk into a drawing room, and people know who he is. He’s a bigwriter, he’s been a writer all his life, and he still has a modicum of privacy. He can still wander the streets of India without being recognised. It’s the filmstars that really have that problem. A friend of mine is dating a Bollywood actor, and once, while we were having lunch, every other person came up, wanting to have a picture taken with him. That, for me, is an invasion of privacy. Writers...we’re lucky if we’re recognised at all, you know. (Laughs)
But you often get asked personal questions by interviewers based on what they think they know of you through the book, or through a character whom they immediately relate back to you. Aren’t you ever tempted to ask people what on earth makes them think they can ask such questions?
No. I think that if you’ve put something out there that’s suggested a question, then people have every right to ask you, and I try to answer as much as I can. They don’t actually know that much, you know. I think my interior life is much bigger than the bit that comes out in the books, so it never makes me feel exposed.
That self-interview of yours went viral because you were so outspoken in your opinions of two people who are seen as particularly important in the Indian literary scene. How has that been received in writers’ circles?
I don’t know. I received a few emails from people, I think. I wrote it in America, and you know, I don’t have much of a hold on Twitter and things like that, but I think that it got reproduced in India, because I got a lot of emails out of India.
I’m asking about that circle because many of them tend to sympathise with particular social causes, and that sort of means they support their fellow-writers who speak up for other causes.
I think that’s wonderful. I mean, writers should take up social causes when they can. I just felt that, where this writer was concerned, I could see to the heart of her politics. And this is, I think, an interesting point, because it’s not about political difference. Now, people like Ghosh and Guha are men of unimpeachable integrity, you know. They may have politics that might differ from yours, but there’s nothing questionable about their motives. But someone like her, I think you can smoke her out pretty easily.
One gets the feeling there’s so much support for her simply because she has this bank of fellow-writers to depend upon.
And a tremendous support system in England and America. Tremendous. I mean, in another time, if she was the proponent of an alternative politics, people would try her as a spy, so extensive is the support. And part of it is that people who think they’re Left-wing, in Europe and America don’t understand that this person whom they think of as a fellow Leftie wants to return India to a time that the most Left among them would not be willing to tolerate. (Laughs) So, they’re making a flawed correlation. That’s part of the reason. Part of it is very cynical – part of it is, I think, actually a modern version of Orientalism, where they want places like India to remain “bucolic,” “charming,” “rustic,” read poor. They don’t want real prosperity for India. When I was promoting Noon in America, I was sitting with a writer who was coming up with, I can’t tell you, the most bald-faced lies! I mean, we were having a conversation like you and I are having right now, and he was telling a roomful of people we could never have a conversation like that in India; and if we did, we would be silenced, people would shut us down. Fortunately, there was Alok Rai in the audience, who is by no means Right wing, and I had to look at him and say, “is this true?!” and it was he who finally had to say this is rubbish, but you could see that this writer was willing to go to every extent to run India down. And, of course, he was welcomed as a hero in the faculty rooms of American universities. He must have realised that this was a way to make a career, you know.
In India, I think it’s far easier to be Left than Right of Centre.
The country itself is determinedly pretty Left, anyway. One of the things that’s surprising about the BJP is, if you talk about Right wing in the way of the Conservative ideology, there’s no sign of it in them. I mean, to be right wing is not just to be chauvinist and prejudiced, you know. (Laughs) It’s to have a whole system of economics, a whole system of how government should work. In other places it’s a robust, alternative form of politics and thought. It’s not like that here.
Don’t you think there’s a problem with labelling people Left wing, or Right wing, or Liberal or Conservative in a place like this, where we’re a sort of mixture of all these things anyway?
There’s a problem specially when those labels are imported. I think there’s nothing false about being Left or Right in a place like England. Those are very deep political traditions [in that country], and they show themselves in its intellectual life: you can arrange each of those British papers along a line, from Left to Right, in different grades, and it means something there. But yes: if that is applied in a loose way to a place with a totally different history, it does end up as a very shallow way to describe someone.
You’ve spoken of Noon as a novel on the legacy of Partition. Is that how you think of it?
No, that’s just a simple way to put it. I don’t think it’s about that, really. But those last two pieces, to me, have the quality of a kind of diptych of sorts, where those societies are presented in their relationship to each other, and there’s—to some extent—a wish to create a very personal chronology of different moments in the subcontinent, and for them to reflect off each other in some ways, for there to be themes that carry over. So, yes: it gives a picture of a post-Partition subcontinent, but is not necessarily the direct legacy of Partition.
You speak in your books of how Pakistanis are almost systematically taught to hate India, through the kind of language used in schoolbooks. From your interaction with the elite as well as non-elite people of that society, do you think that’s something they can ever get over?
Well, it’s not so much the hatred of India that they have to get over—though they should get over that too—but they must get over this business of wanting to erase their connection to the subcontinent. Because what Pakistan is turning its back on is not India, it’s turning its back on itself: on the only culture it has. And if you systematically cut away your culture because it’s a shared culture, then you end up very denuded culturally. You end up in a society that’s unmoored, and that’s what they have to get over. Or get past.
You speak of several visits to Pakistan in your books, and every time, people seem to immediately recognise you by your family name, and assume you’ve grown up there. And when they find out you, in fact, grew up here, and that you’re half-Indian, the reader can sense a change in their attitude. Does actually experiencing it come as a shock?
I think you’re probably referring to that account of when I was travelling in Sindh, and this man discovered that I was Indian, and suddenly began talking about India. When it becomes a kind of anti-Hindu, it’s very hard for me to listen to. I could listen to something that’s purely anti-India, but if it starts to target a particular religious group, it’s difficult. And that’s the difference between India and Pakistan, in that you could hear anti-Pakistan rhetoric in India too, but it’s rare in a certain kind of society to hear people talking openly against Muslims, you know. In Pakistan, because there’s no longer that old Indian hybridity, people talk against Hindus all the time. And it is a shock because we’re not so used to that here.
In all your books, and in some of your journalistic writing too, you speak of a sense of calm or serenity that seems to indicate an assurance of higher reward among religious extremists who’re being punished for crimes they’ve perpetrated. Do you think it’s a characteristic of Islamic fundamentalism that people are taught to disregard the means for the end?
Well, I think that can happen with any social system that has a fixed social order in mind. That’s one of the reasons that Communism and Islam have often forged a close relationship based on this idea of Utopia. Modern Islam, which is what Pakistan was founded on, is full of a vision of Utopia. And that Utopia is a very violent thing. If there’s anything that is at the heart of that last section of Noon: it is this: this notion of the violent Utopia. Which is almost always a negative idea. It’s almost always formed as a reaction to something, rather than being a thing in itself. And it is, by its very nature, violent because—just as in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia—it is willing to sacrifice the world that exists for the the sake of realising the Utopia.
Okay, let me ask you some unserious questions. Do you judge books by their covers?
No...no, I don’t. But that’s because when you read old books, the cover hardly matters, because you already know their worth in some ways. And then, it’s so strange these days, how covers are made. I think an attractive cover can help, but what I really judge books by is their feel. You know, those old Penguin paperbacks, the black ones, I love those books, I want to read them. Or those big, fat paperbacks from Vintage, those are very soft, they move easily, I like that kind of book a lot. I like the weight of it, the feel, those things.
Do you get a say in the kind of covers your books have?
It’s an uphill battle. Unless they get it right the first time. What happens is that they send you something, and if you don’t like it, they throw all kinds of jargon at you, about how the market is going to respond, and how much everyone loves it, and how it captures the essence of the book, until you almost don’t have the energy to resist any more. (Laughs)
I’ve seen at least three covers for The Temple Goers, and one has this guy with sunglasses, who’s carrying a briefcase.
That’s the English cover, yeah! See, a lot of the times, if a writer is not necessarily a commercial writer, people want to fool the reader, to make him feel that the book he’s picking up is in some way...uh, can you imagine reading The Temple Goers as a murder mystery? I mean, it’s a joke!
Do you think being this good-looking lets you get away with all the controversial things you say?
(Laughs) How can I answer that? I see myself so rarely, you know! But what do you find controversial?
Well, since I agree with most of your views, I can’t say I personally find anything controversial, but you’re pretty outspoken.
(Laughs) Well, it’s just that I like to write about things that I feel are important. And this is a problem, like a very famous disease we have here, you know, because what has been important has sometimes been so scary, that people have dabbled in obscurity. Even now in India, in an intellectual setting, people will think that the most intelligent thing to say is the most obscure. And really, that’s because it’s benign. I like to look at stuff that I think is important as clearly as possible, and to try and speak seriously about it, but I would hate to think that I was doing it for controversy. I think that certainly, when one speaks, one can possibly be less controlled, but with what I’ve written… I wouldn’t want anyone to feel it hadn’t come from the best kind of thought that I was able to give it.
Since you gave me a very serious answer to an unserious question, I’m going to be even more facetious, and ask if you ever feel objectified by your female interviewers.
Well, lastly, the narrator in The Temple Goers has a very strict writing time table – he wakes up at five, and writes for these many hours, and then works out, and gets to his Urdu lessons. Is that what you follow?
It’s about six at the moment. I’ve had a very difficult, very disrupted year. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been trying to say no to a lot of small things, and to draw back into that old schedule. For a long time, Delhi used to be a very private, quiet place for me where I could work. I knew a lot of people, but nobody knew when I was around. But this year, for the first time, I found that I was being stretched a little thin. But, yeah, I think I’ll be back to that old schedule pretty soon.
So you don’t write late into the night, like we imagine most authors doing?
No. I can’t even have a conversation past ten o’ clock!