By Reeti Roy
What kind of books did you read as a child?
I read comic books, mainly the American ones, Goldkey, Marvel – the ones that involved superheroes. Ritchie Rich and Tintin were absolutely favourites. When I started school at Cathedral (Bombay) I knew only Bengali, because it was the only language that my mother and I conversed in, at home. When I started school, the headmistress suggested that I read Ladybird books, so I could learn English. My first introduction to the English language came through comic books and the Ladybird books. After that, I went on to read books by Enid Blyton.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Did it happen all of a sudden or did you know that this was something that you absolutely had to do?
I had always wanted to write and I enjoyed reading. I suppose I always knew that I might have been different temperamentally, and that I was always attracted to certain things. The things were neighbourhoods, streets, street life and also the sense of the foreign in the familiar. I wrote poetry in school but nobody really knew that as it was looked down on. Also, the attraction to the romance of being a writer was something that made me want to write. To discover that it was the street, rather than the character, that it was the neighbourhood rather than the plot that I wanted to write about made me want to write even more. I was determined that I wanted to be a writer, so ever since I was in school I would send my writings to England and America and get rejection slips. That didn’t deter me, though. I was convinced of my literary genius (laughs).
Despite being a Bengali, why did you choose to write in English?
I was brought up in Bombay and I learnt Bengali because my mother spoke to me in Bengali. English was the language that I was most comfortable talking in. The reason that I wanted to write was inextricably linked to the fact that as I was learning the language, I was also growing more and more curious about the language and its development and that’s how I began to write in the English language.
Did you have to struggle as a writer?
I didn’t starve, if that’s what you mean (smiles). I began writing A Strange and Sublime Address after I had finished doing my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University College, London. I decided to take a year off after that and begin working on a novel. I decided that I wanted to write a story based on my uncle. And I wanted to write a novel about the room overlooking the street. Now these are hardly plots for a novel. But I realised that in order to be true to myself, that that was what I was going to write about, because this was what interested me the most. When in Oxford, I wrote a chapter and when I re-wrote it, I snipped off bits and pieces. To use filmmakers’ jargon, much of it was achieved from the editing table.
Is a writer being self-indulgent when he is true to himself?
A writer has to be creatively opportunistic in order to allow himself to grow. He doesn’t necessarily need to be self-indulgent, but it often happens in the process of creative satisfaction.
Would you want your works to be translated in Bengali?
They have been translated in other languages but I am immediately warned that the translations don’t quite capture the language. If there is someone who can translate my works, without marring its essence, then I have no problems with it.
Would you ever want your works to be on celluloid? If so, which one?
Well, my writing is like tightrope walking. It would take a certain kind of filmmaker to make this kind of a film. And this filmmaker would have to be adept at creating a momentum out of images rather than a narrative. A lot of people suggested that my first book A Strange and Sublime Address could be made into a film. But I think I would pick Portrait of an Artist. Mrinal Sen thought that The Old Masters would make a good film. I think that that is because there is a great deal of life and the vicissitudes of life in The Old Masters.
A lot of critics have pointed out that Indian writers in English have a tendency of catering to the West and that it has to do with Orientalism and exoticization, because of which a lot of writers writing in the regional languages get left out. What is your opinion of that?
Well, there is a certain justification to the first part of the complaint. There are absolutely wonderful things that exist and have been done and are still being done, although perhaps not as hugely productive as it was in the 20th century. But some writers, by default, fall into this “exoticization”. Perhaps they should know about a lot of things that go on in terms of writings in the regional languages and certain cultural aspects, but the fact is that they don’t. We must remember to question and ask ourselves what the roles of the exotic and the unfamiliar are in literary works, and we should try not to confuse the two.
With modernity and the advent of the free market, one must come to terms with the changing face of the realities that make India what it is, today. I believe that the Indian Intelligentsia still hasn’t come to terms with Indian modernity and still doesn’t know how to define Modernism in an Indian context.
You said somewhere that “I wish Indian writing were less triumphant”. What exactly did you mean by that?
You’ve been checking me up on the web (laughs). When I talk of triumphalism, I mean the Indian’s place in the world stage. Literature and the literary seems to have become an adjunct of this. Writing and daydreaming seems to be an ambivalent disreputable affair. One must understand that being a writer is not the same as being an activist or doing social work .They are different realms and each has its own place in the larger scheme of things.
Despite all its post-colonial Resistance, I believe that the Indian intelligentsia cannot think of Freud and Foucault in the same way that they think of Indian thinkers and philosophers. Freud and Foucault are like constellations in the sky. This is reflecting in the pedagogy and this is possibly the reason for the lack of first-rate critics and first-rate philosophers in our country.