By Sparsh Sharma-Blogger
Q: How was the journey from Gaya, a small town in Bihar, to Aarhus, Denmark, of a prodigious Indian, now a global literary figure?
TK: It was a hard journey at times, and it has not ended for me, and never will, because I see myself as a ‘small town cosmopolitan’ writer. In the sense that small towns today and in the past have been as ‘cosmopolitan’, and sometimes in different, more creative ways, as big cities; it is a mistake to associate openness only with big cities and conservatism only with small ones. This self-conception makes it difficult for me to accept some of the perspectives of many metropolitan writers or ‘global’ editors, and leaves me a bit in the cold, without the kind of patronage that has become essential to major literary success these days. But I am happy trekking on my own journey, and I have luckily had a fair bit of success on my own terms too.
Q: Some of the remarkable memories of this long journey of hard work and commercial/critical success?
TK: I will save those for my memoirs, if I ever write one, or (what is more likely) I will fashion them into fiction. But one strand that runs through my memories is an awareness of these supposedly peripheral spaces and a suspicion of worldly success, including my own. I feel lucky. I know that many others with just as much to give will not be so lucky. And hence I feel humbled.
Q: How was the initial reception in the West of your writing in Indian English?
TK: My novels, The Bus Stopped and Filming, were published to good reviews in The Guardian, Times, New Statesman, TLS, the Independent etc, so I guess the reaction was very favourable. Personally, though, I do not much care for British or American commendation; I am happy if I get it, just as I am happy to get a perceptive review in France or Portugal. But finally I am writing for South Asians first, and ALL of the rest of world (which just includes UK and USA) after that. I think it is very sad that Indian English literary reputations have to depend so much on ‘Western’, particularly British, commendation.
Q: Any frustrating moments in the illustrious literary career?
TK: This is a line in which the frustrations usually outstrip the satisfactions: it is a constant struggle, in every possible way. To write is to struggle, and to know that you can only improve, not achieve perfection.
Q: Why do you write in English? Why not your first language?
TK. Unfortunately, English is my first language. I grew up speaking Hindi, Urdu and English, but reading and writing almost exclusively in English. I went to a missionary school, and learnt to write and read English first, and was taught all subjects via English. I can still read English much faster than Hindi (which I read well), and I can hardly read Urdu, though I speak it well enough. For every 50 books I have read in English, I have read one in Hindi, and one in some other language. So a mix of Hindi-Urdu-English might be my mother tongue, but English is my first language. Moreover, in school, I was frightened away from writing in Hindi or Urdu because of the unreasonable political divide between their purists and guardians.
Q: How can one capture the street idiom and the essence of an Indian scene in English or any second international language?
TK: It is a problem: Once you write in English about India, where most people do not speak English or do not speak it from choice, you are faced with a number of limitations of this sort. You can ignore them or you can fashion your art to grapple with them, creatively and honestly. I do the latter. Fiction, in any language, is an art, so you have ways out: there are limitations and possibilities, and you need to work with both. You can see it as a drawback, or you can consider it a challenge.
Q: Which one is more sexy—journalism or creative writing?
TK: Both have their attractions for me. They share similarities, but they are also essentially different to me. For instance, I believe that you have to go to the story as a journalist but in some ways move ‘away’ from the story as a creative writer. I am wary of poets who need to write a poem every time there is a rape or genocide. That is a journalist’s job; a good creative writer waits for things to settle down first, in him or herself.
Q: You were also a journalist earlier in your rich career. Can journalists make a neat crossover into literary fiction?
TK: I was basically a writer who went into journalism for the experience and to earn a livelihood. I have never been anything other than a writer in my heart, though I have done many other jobs, ranging from journalism and university teaching to dish-washing and house painting. I do not come from the sort of family where you could choose not to work and simply be a ‘writer’.
Q: As a Danish citizen, your experience of Denmark—and of Europe?
TK: I am not a Danish citizen. I refuse to apply for a Danish passport and I still hold only an Indian passport. This is important for me, for personal, political and cultural reasons, though not for narrowly nationalistic ones. As for my experience of Denmark (or Europe) — I would say both good and bad, like any other place.
Q: Who are the formative literary influences on you?
TK: I never had a model I tried to imitate, but there were many writers I found very exciting: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov, R. K. Narayan, Manto, Premchand, Kafka, George Eliot, Victor Hugo etc. That is in my earlier years, up to high school; later on I discovered others: Itala Svevo, Ismat Chughtai, Anne Carson, Mahasweta Devi, Stendhal, Roberto Bolano etc…
Q: The writers in Indian English that fascinate you still.
TK: R. K. Narayan, Attia Hosain, Anita Desai, Arun Kolatkar and then certain specific books by Raja Rao, Shashi Deshpande, Amitav Ghosh, Siddhartha Deb, Salman Rushdie, Pankaj Mishra, Khushwant Singh, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Keki N Daruwalla, Manu Joseph, Githa Hariharan, some others… I might not like all their books, but these are some of the writers who have written at least one book that I found extraordinarily good, and in some cases more than one book.
Q: What are the reasons that young Indians are deserting India for foreign shores?
TK: Money. Opportunity. The hard-sell of the ‘West’. But also bear in mind that only very privileged Indians (or Nigerians or Brazilians etc) actually stand a chance of settling in the ‘West’ legally.
Q: Are we becoming less tolerant and more regional and communal?
TK: Hard to tell, but I do feel that we are becoming much more impatient with each other and less capable of listening, and this can translate into a lack of tolerance.
Q: Your philosophy of life as a reputed global citizen?
TK: I don’t know if I am one or have one. The one benchmark I have is this: “Any justified claim to rights has to be a universal claim, but we are oppressed only in our particularities.” I try to remember this.
Q: What is the main purpose of literary writing in a changed context of globalised world?
TK: For me, literary writing is always a bid to use words to explore the various tracts of silence.
Q: Your view of Chetan Bhagat and his kind of popular success?
TK: Delighted for him. It must be good to make that sort of money. Finally you have to decide what counts as success for you. For me, success is a completed book in which I feel I have done exactly what I sent out to do. Whether it sells ten copies or a million does not change that for me – but then other writers might have other criteria of success, and they are welcome to them.
Q. Do you think writers have convincingly portrayed their region’s ethno-cultural hopes and aspirations, and the conflicts and contradictions the people there live with?
TK: I don’t think writers have a brief to represent a people or place; they might choose to do so, but they may choose to do something else. What they cannot avoid doing however is to engage with life. So the question to ask is this: have writers engaged fully or deeply or interestingly with life? Every reader has to answer this question on her own.