19 September 2012

The Big Book Shelf - Sunil Sethi

Author: Sunil Sethi
Pages: 240
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 350

With the opening up of the publishing industry in the country and the rapid flowering of desi writing in English, the interest around books and authors has but naturally intensified. The Jaipur literature fest that has ballooned into a hugely successful event in its last six years further underlines this feeling of enthusiasm and intellectual leaning among the modern, literate Indian.

In such a context journalist-presenter Sunil Sethi's effort to compile a book of some of his best interviews with present-day, renowned authors is timely and useful. Sethi is a familiar face on television with his show Just Books on NDTV.  In his eloquently written introduction he reveals how he had ample doubts about the viability of the show when the idea was first suggested. He wondered whether a half hour show on books would be sustainable given how much of a visual medium television is. Also writers as a breed can be shy and elusive. But Sethi's fears proved unfounded and the show caught on. Over the last few years many illustrious authors have appeared on it. And it is some of these rare interviews that find a place in Sethi's elegantly penned book. The purpose, he says, was to document these conversations and for that reason, and many others, this is a completely valid exercise.

Sethi chooses 30 of his best interviews with internationally acclaimed authors where facets of their craft and motivations are revealed. More than anything they open up a window into the world of these thinking, imaginative people. To say they are the ultimate representatives of the larger corpus of literature being produced currently in India or other countries may not be accurate but their lives and work are clearly a source of education and inspiration to readers and aspiring writers alike.

What is revealing through these interviews is of course a well-established fact. That opportunities of education and travel are central to the evolution of a writer. Most of the authors covered are second generation Indians who belonged to fairly affluent families and studied and travelled around the world. So from Vikram Seth to Salman Rushdie to Amitav Ghosh to Suketu Mehta to Anita and Kiran Desai - all spent a considerable time away from their countries, which enabled them to have richer experiences and exposure.

The same holds true for Pakistani novelists - Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Nadeem Aslam. Most of them were academically brilliant and blessed with an imaginative, fertile mind. But it's also true that being part of different worlds provided them with larger perspectives and a greater facility with the English language. Importantly, this problem of being caught between two worlds (moving from their third world motherland to the first world) - fed their creative impulse - and they were naturally drawn to themes such as exile, identity and belonging in their writings. Today with such massive changes coming about in India in the last one decade - where it is economically more empowered and global travel/education has become a trend - the complexion of Indian writing in English has understandably changed and a variety of literature is coming to the fore.

Yet, what is revealed through the worlds of non-fiction writers like William Dalrymple, Patrick French, Ramachandra Guha and Paul Theroux is their intense passion for history, research, academics and travel. Dalrymple was a student-backpacker who took off to Northern China for his book In Xanadu. He briefly passed through India and those memories lingered. And thus began his invigorating journey into Delhi, along with his artist-wife Olivia, out of which City of Djinns was both. More journeys followed, and then came the grand centre-piece of his work - While Mughals and The Last Mughal. What comes through in Dalrymple is his infectious energy and peseverance, as he goes through delving into his subjects with a genial mix of curiosity and affection.

Ramachandra Guha's intitiation into being a writer is equally interesting. His studies in anthropology prompted a research on political activist Verrier Elwin. He proved to be such a potent influence on Guha that the latter decided to write a full-fledged biography of Elwin. "I discovered the joys of working amongst forgotten, buried and dusty documents," he says. That stoked such a strong interest in academic non-fiction that Guha since then has produced some extremely valuable books on politics, leaders and sports. The author of books such as The Picador Book Of Cricket (2001) and India After Gandhi (2007) also gives a complete perspective on non-fiction writing. He sees tremendous scope for non-fiction in the coming years.  So far, he says, the writing of Indian history has been inward-looking and self-referential and paid no attention to literary elegance to reach out to a wider audience. Patrick French calls Indian biographies 'self congratulatory and flattering portraits' "There's no point in researching and writing in stilted sociological prose. And there's no point in just writing fun stories without deep research," says Guha.
The author/columnist also stresses that non-fiction involves artisty too. "The hisorian is a researcher who digs deep in the archives and gets good material, but he is also an artist and a writer who constucts his story in an appealing, intersting, evocative and accessible way," he says.

- Ramchandra Guha

Again, each of these writers was greatly drawn to the world of letters, and were heavily into reading since childhood. For authors like Bapsi Sidhwa and Ved Mehta, it was their physical handicap that provided the creative impulse for writing. Sidhwa was struck with polio at the age of two and could not be sent to school for long. She says it was her feeling of intense loneliness that made her seek refuge in books. An unhappy marriage followed and there was separation from her children. It was only after her second marriage that the Pakistani author could actually start writing. She poured out her emotions into her stories and found a sense of inner liberation. She says she wouldn't have turned writer at all if her life would have been a normal one. "Had I lived in a milieu where I could have had boyfriends, gone to dances and had fun, I don't think I would have written. because at certain times in my life, I was going through period of great despair, anguish in a way, it eased me into writing, Writing took me out of a very severe debilitating twitch I used to have," says the writer of books like Ice Candy Man (made into the Aamir Khan starrer Earth 1947) and Water - both by Deepa Mehta, among others. Ved Mehta used his blindness to feed his imagination and write books.

Almost unanimously, each of the writers have had a deep engagement with the socio-political world around them. South African novelist and nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer was an early champion of the anti-apartheid crusade. Many of her novels were banned for long periods, as they dealt with intense political and sexual relations between black and white people. The same holds true for Mahasweta Devi who broke from domestic confines and got fascinated with the life of Rani Jhansi. She produced a book. That in turn took her to the hinterlands, and her various journeys made her conscious of the suffering of marginalised communities. In her fiction, non-fiction and poetry, Mahasweta Devi has relentlessly taken up their issues. Similarly, Guha, Amartya Sen, Khushwant Singh, Mark Tully, Gunter Grass, Patrick Fench - all in various measures been the wellspring of modern intellectual thought.

Another aspect that aspiring writers might take heart from is that writing is not always a spontaneous art. It is arduous and requires a great deal of discipline and dedication. Khushwant Singh talks about how he has never missed a deadline for an article ever. "I get up at 4 am...It's regulated by a stop-watch. I have also learnt how to be ill-mannered. People don't drop in. I don't see them without an appointment,a nd when i invite them it's strictly between 7 and 8. I can be very rude to anyone who stays even a minute after 8," says the journalist/columnist/writer.
Upamanyu Chatterjee (English August, Weight Loss) who balances a high-profile civil service job and his calling as a writer, sets himself a certain number of words a day, or how to resolve an idea or problem in a plot as his target everyday. Kiran Desai 'retreated into a world of almost monastic discipline' for seven years to produce her Booker winner, The Inheritance of Loss.

(Upamanyu Chatterjee)

Others writers included in the book are each unique for what they represent. There's Jaaved Akhtar, Chetan Bhagat, Jeffrey Archer, Imberto Eco, Alexander Mc Call Smith, Ken Follett.

The interviews focus on certain specific books that the authors were writing or had written when the interview was taken, so there's some detailed and illuminating talk on that. Vikram Seth speaks at some length about Two Lives, Suketu Mehta on Maximum City, Dalrymple on Nine Lives and Paul Theroux and Patrick French about their controvercial biographies on V S Naipaul.

Not so long ago, it was only established NRI names who got published in India. But today, with the floodgates opening up, anyone with some writing talent could give a shot at bringing out a book. Naturally, Sethi's book provides valuable cues to aspirants. "Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age," says Nadine Gordimer. Theroux's tip is, "Go away. Yes. Leave home, leave your parents and all the comfortable things that hold you back..."

- Nadine Gordimer

Sethi himself is an erudite interviewer with striking introductions for each author. His forward for Dalrymple indicates his own excellent narrative abilties as a writer. By an unexpected chance Seth was acquainted with the British author when he first came to Delhi. Dalrymple didn't have a place to stay and Sethi lent him the barsati in his family house. Recollecting those days Sethi writes about the author who has gone on to make India his second home. "Even then, he was an electrifying presence. Thumping the table over an impromptu dinner, he would pose questions like, 'Do you realise the deposits of history that lie unrecorded, here, in Delhi? or 'Why have stories of this great magical beast called India that has lain on the globe for millennia not been told as they should be? Questions I had to answer after a long day's work. What I remember most of those evenings is our 3 year old daughter becoming hysterical with delight at this large, pink person 'banging on'. She would dissolve into paroxyms of giggles and refuse to go to bed." Now when as I simultaneously read City Of Djinns, that same exuberance and indomitable drive gleam through the pages.
When books are written on books, it's a healthy sign which indicates that there is a growing interest in the subject. One hopes Sunil Sethi's book is a harbinger of that movement.