18 July 2008

Through Eastern Eyes

Photograph: Hemant Sareen
KUNAL BASU LEADS A DOUBLE LIFE. His day job is as a Reader in marketing at Oxford University, and you can tell the Oxford don in Basu by the rhetorical, interrogatory ‘Okay?’ with which he ends almost every sentence, making sure he is understood. Basu’s other life is as a writer. His three acclaimed novels, The Racists (2006), The Miniaturist (2003), and The Opium Clerk (2001), and his recently released collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife, are somewhat like red herrings in the post-Rushdie canon of Indian writing in English. They buck the trend of post-colonial, often self-confessional, ebulliently nostalgic narratives obsessed with defining India and the self. Basu looks outwards instead, with no inhibitions about who can write about what -- only stories and ideas matter.

That might give the impression that Basu’s inner life is not be complex or knotty enough to write from and about personal experience. Far from it. Hemant Sareen caught up with the author to discover a man with a full-sized kit of contradictions that he carries with √©lan, never allowing it to bear heavy on his persona of the well-adjusted, successful-as-they-come Indian writer in English.

photographs by Hemant Sareen

Hemant Sareen: So far you have written novels of ideas, narratives with a historical sweep. Your latest book, The Japanese Wife, is a collection of short stories about East-West encounters. You seem to be working with themes, or perhaps a theme that is trying to explore the East-West equation?

Kunal Basu: I do not work with themes, I think in terms of stories. These stories are about people, about context, about relationships, and in some stories the context is that of the East’s interaction with the West. If there is one overarching theme that connects all of all my writing, and it is difficult to find such a theme, it is perhaps one of humanism, of compassion -- compassion towards the oppressed in society, towards those who are disadvantaged, be it the opium addicts forced into addiction, or the young woman from the story ‘Long Live Imelda Marcos’, whose life is destroyed because a prospective husband is killed in a riot.

Purely cultural contact or conflict between the East and the West bores me to death. I am not interested in that. I am not interested in people from different cultures meeting and having difficulty of language, customs, manners. Or about NRIs living in the West and having cultural conflicts because their children are dating Caucasians. What I have tried and am interested in, and hopefully these short stories reveal that, is people who meet in unlikely places. Unexpected encounters in unlikely places spark off dreams, memories within them. And it can happen even to the most ordinary among us.

“Purely cultural contact or conflict between the East and the West bores me to death. I am not interested in…NRIs living in the West and having cultural conflicts because their children are dating Caucasians.”

HS: You write very easily about the world beyond India and what your readers would imagine to be your own immediate world as a Bhadralok Bengali man. Where does that outward looking world view come from? Has it anything to do with the communists’ notions of Marxist internationalism, given that your father was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and later the CPI(M), and you yourself were once a cardholding member of the CPI(M)?

KB: Not simply in terms of politics, but culture as well. I grew up in a house full of books; a bookish house, one might say. My father was a publisher and my mother an author of Bangla fiction. She is still alive, 86 years old, and still very prolific; she published her memoirs a few years ago and a collection of short stories last year.

I grew up with intellectuals, my parents’ friends, all around us -- poets, politicians, filmmakers, theatre actors. In the crucible within which I grew up there was an absence of prejudice of any kind -- race, gender, caste, religion and what have you. The world was open to us. We would read Tagore, but we would also read Tolstoy. We would watch films by famous filmmakers from around the world. Art was a very significant part of our upbringing. We would forever be talking about artistic movements in different parts of the world. So it was an enlightened childhood that gave me the values of humanism, of universality, of not being restricted by prejudice. And I have carried that through my life.

HS: When you became a member of the CPI(M), was it a given that you take up the family’s political affiliation, or was it your own decision?

KB: It was a conscious decision. I was actually into the arts, theatre. I acted on stage in school and later in college; I was also into painting. I was not into writing, though I did write a little here and there. I think my political consciousness took shape at the time the Emergency was declared. I was in the early years of college, and to me it was a huge jolt. For the first time since 1947, we Indians were in a situation when our fundamental liberties were being curbed. I said to myself that as a thinking Indian I needed to oppose it. That took me into the realm of politics. But bear in mind, my political life actually was very brief. In 1978, soon thereafter, I graduated and went abroad to study.

HS: Brief, yes, but you still managed to have MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act] files on you?

KB: But who wouldn’t, in the 70s in India, in Bengal, struggling against the Emergency? I was no exception.

HS: From a CPI(M) cardholding member to professor of marketing at Oxford. That’s some transformation. How easy or difficult it is to rationalise these contradictions in your life?

KB: I don’t see it as a contradiction. We aspire to and believe in lots of things at certain points in our lives. They don’t necessarily stay the same 20 years later. Today’s views, even in the Left, about capitalism have changed from the time I was growing up in the 70s. The world is dramatically changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China is the most powerful communist country in the world now and uses capitalist methods.

[Also], I realised very soon after 1978, when I went abroad, that I am not really comfortable as an organisational being. That’s not my personality. My personality is that of an individualist who thinks about things, sits down and writes. So here was a clear departure away from organisational politics. At some point as I was growing up in my post-University years, I realised the futility of strong ideological views of any particular orientation. Instead, I became interested far more in how common, ordinary, poor, disadvantaged people in this world can be helped. I became more concerned with methods than the ideologies behind those methods.

“I am not really comfortable as an organisational being. That’s not my personality. My personality is that of an individualist who thinks about things, sits down and writes.”

HS: You are very deeply situated in the West. You are part of an institution, Oxford University, which is the epitome of Western values. From that vantage point, what kinds of changes you have seen in Western views about India and the East over the years in the West?

KB: First of all, the advantage of being an author who is also an individualist is that I do not have to subscribe to the philosophies and views of the institutions I work for. If I work for a large company, it doesn’t mean I have to identify with what the company does and stands for. It is just a way for me to make a living. It is my profession. The advantage of being an academic in any institution in the world, in the East or the West, is that I can be what I am. I can believe in what I believe in and can write what I want to. I don’t have to be located within any particular paradigm. I can choose my paradigm wherever I live.

Views about the East are changing of course; I don’t need to say that. The face of the world is turning towards the East. It is turning because of economic reasons. Those economic changes are causing ripple effects in [international] politics. Asian nations have become important political players. In every domain Asians are making their presence felt. I hope in arts too.

HS: You were talking about the liberty to think, write, and speak in the places where you have lived. That is no longer to be taken for granted in India?

KB: This is a matter of contention. If you as an author or as a person in the arts take a strong position, you will be opposed and criticised wherever you are. I will give you one example. When Racists came out, which is a story about 19th century European racism, the book was extremely widely reviewed, but there were voices that criticised it very sharply saying, ‘Why is he writing about us? Racism is something that has gone and disappeared. Why is he bringing all that up again? Why is he corrupting the minds of young generation with these ideas about race?’ I wanted to write back -- though as an author you never write back to the reviewer -- and say, ‘I wish that was the case. But look at the racism around.’ In 2006, when Racists was published, race riots [had raged] in Birmingham, Sydney, Paris, and New Orleans.

So contentious views would be criticised anywhere in the world. What one hopes is that the kind of criticism or discourse remains civilised. I know of the events and incidents you are alluding to here. In such cases, civil society needs to step in and say: Look, people can have different views that you consider outlandish, but it is important to air these different views.

HS: Do you feel certain expectations, if not pressure, to write a certain kind of novel, say, a more personal book?

KB: I don’t. But I know what you are talking about. The expectations that, you know, he is an Indian, he should write about the ‘hot’ Indian themes such as the Bombay mafia or religious fundamentalism. I don’t pay any attention to that because I have to be very sensitive to the stories that I think about. And if I like my stories, those are the ones I will write, always, regardless of what’s the fashion of the week or what anyone expects. I hope my readers will like what I write. But I will not write and have never thought about writing stories that fit expectations.

HS: You are considered an outsider to the Indian-writing-in-English literary marketplace, a stranger to its hardsell, self-promotional ways. That is a bit strange for a professor of marketing?

KB: Do I want to be commercially successful? Absolutely. Every author wants to. And my books sell pretty well and are popular not only in India but in other parts of the world too. But at the end of the day, I write literary fiction, and you can’t have an eye out for commercialisation of your work. If people like it and it is widely, widely appreciated, I would love that. But I won’t market myself; that’s the job of the agent and the publishers. I need to stay focussed on what I do, and what I do is write fiction. And bear in mind I have written four books in less than seven years! I have to be extremely focussed on my writing.

“At the end of the day, I write literary fiction, and you can’t have an eye out for commercialisation of your work. If people like it and it is widely, widely appreciated, I would love that. But I won’t market myself.”

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