Vikram Chandra’s new book Mirrored Mind is a deceptively simple read but it sets off complex thinking points. In this interview with Sayan Bhattacharya, he talks of the rigour of writing, the structuring of plotlines, Sanskrit’s liveness and more.
So to start with your new book, Mirrored Mind, was it a cleansing exercise after Sacred Games?
(Laughs)No it’s just, I have all these strange varied interests, and computing has been one of them, I worked as a programmer as a grad student. So I’ve been thinking about all this stuff for decades, and also the Indian aesthetics and so forth which I started reading when I was trying to write Red Earth and Pouring Rain, so all of this has been with me for a long time, so it just felt like the right time to write this and I actually thought this would be a short essay but of course it turned into something else, so often it’s not as planned as you know I need to do this or I will do that, it just that you get drawn into doing books because you are curious and you feel like exploring that, whatever the subject is at that point of time.
It’s very difficult to slot this book into a certain genre because it’s part memoir, part-reflection and then a sort of inter textuality runs through your entire body of work. Even for Sacred Games, it was very difficult to put it into a particular genre, we couldn’t call it a crime thriller, neither was it entirely drama. So do you ever have a reader in mind when you are writing?
I do, I mean in practical terms I show my work to my wife and a couple of friends as I go along, so they are the first readers but I think they are the sort of very old Indian concept of Sahridaya is very useful because it’s a fictionalized idealized reader who has the same heart as you do (laughs), so it’s really a projection of sorts, and so I guess that is the person I’m writing for who will be able to read the book in the same spirit as it was written. So I find it really impossible to write for the mythical average reader, you know a reader of one type or the other because that’s very hard to conceptualize, I don’t know what that person is and usually I’ve seen this in the entertainment industry, both in India and in the States when people start talking about the average viewer, it results in a dumbing down of whatever you are doing, and in the entertainment industry it is necessary though to think of that, because the sums of money which are involved in getting a project made are so vast that you have to have a clear idea of what your potential audience is going to be, but with me I have the freedom, you know, what I am mainly investing is my time and whatever I have been thinking about –my curiosity, I just feel free to write the book and then hope that at some point when I have released it and it’s gone from me, it will go out and find readers wherever it goes and interestingly, that’s how life has worked. You write this thing, you let it go and it doesn’t belong to you anymore, it just goes and has its own life.
Since you talk of Sahriday, does it help to have a novelist wife?
Yeah it does, I mean it’s very practical (laughs), because when you get stuck, you can just call across the house, “Hey I am having a problem, what do I do about this?” and she does the same with me. So we are both pretty close readers and collaborators in the sense of whatever it is, either of us are working on.
Coming back to the book, in this book you talk about friends who are writers and programmers, now India had a rich tradition of combining the arts and the sciences and how all of it overlaps… the science within the arts, the arts within the science but do you think that our current education system or with the way we have progressed, we have moved away from that rich tradition?
Ya, I mean I think it’s actually a global problem, because in the age of specialization we tend to think that education should finally at least take you in a certain direction and train you in one small subset of the number of skills are in the world and people talk about this in the States as well, particularly I think in today’s sort of where even education and this is becoming very apparent in the States, has been sort of Shanghaied into serving a corporate a need. So there is this idea that the liberal arts education which I think was a brilliant idea and which was reflected in certain traditions of our own here, this idea that you should have a broad based education which trains you for life as it were; instead of just that one thing, that is being increasingly denigrated and sometimes actually people are actually trying to remove it, so that what you want is somebody who will fit into some sort of money making structure at some point. I understand the reason why that happens but I think it is a loss, it’s something that in the broadest terms you could argue that it reduces the richness of both the sciences and humanities, to be that the more interaction there is across these borders, the results will be richer and more productive.
I was at this workshop where mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy was working with prime numbers and I was just thinking that in the UK, on prime time television, there are these programmes on mathematics and science and where they do these complex equations. Something like that we cannot imagine in India and then Marcus is also a playwright as well but we don’t have such popular icons in our country anymore.
Yeah… I think it is something that we will have to consciously rebuild again, the sort of poverty of the economy inevitably gets reflected in the culture. When I was growing up it was sort of there was this sense that if you are male- you became an engineer or doctor or you went for the civil services, it didn’t matter what other interests you had, those were the inevitable choices and so I think its inevitable that in some sense it has been diluted and people are now seeing possibilities before them but I think it will take a while and it will take time to make that sort of richness of culture happen again, I mean, you know this festival(Jaipur Literature Festival) is one great example of that, I was talking to a friend of mine actually who was telling me that this last year, I don’t even know if she was correct but she said that there’d been 60 literary fests in India in the last year. Which is kind of my range, she was being critical about this right? She was talking about the commercialization of literature, she was talking about the how it’s a bourgeois exercise you know people sort of coming to these festivals for reasons that aren’t quite as elevated as she wanted but it seems to me that these are how literary cultures get made, we tend to have this nostalgia about the past but if you are Ghalib in the 19th century you are having to pay some service to the nawabs and all right?(laughs) The poor guy he spent half his life asking for first more money from the Mughal court and when that was over the poor guy was reduced to writing letters for pension to the British government, so I think one way or the other whatever the powers, the commercial structure of the culture that is very the material culture and the literary or the aesthetic culture I don’t think are very separate , they go together, there is a richness that comes from having resources , so ya I think it will happen .
That is a very intricate balance, right? You have these corporate sponsors and then you have sessions someone like Raj Kundra is talking about how not to lose money and then you also have fascinating authors along one side.
But in practical terms however much we may want to reserve the sanctity of art and so forth, this kind of thing couldn’t happen without that kind of collaboration, suppose you have to pick and choose between the least evil of your sponsors and understand for them it’s a political act you know, as much as for the nawab having a certain set of shiny poets at his court was also a political act. He might be a connoisseur in his own right, he might be a poet in his own right, but what he also wants is the glory of his court which gives him political power, all of these are intricately connected with one another.
Now one of the problems of dealing with Sanskrit is that we don’t know the actual usage of a word because they are completely legal words and sentences that you can produce , as long as you are working within the rules, you are correct. So people did amazing things with this flexibility. It has been forgotten now but there was this incredible tradition of Slesha poetry which you could read but that would have simultaneous meanings. If you read it one way, it will have one meaning, if you read it another way, it will have another meaning
In the book you talk about “the ocean in the cow’s hoof print” and you talk about Panini and I was very sort of fascinated by the whole idea of the structuring. So could you please take us through that and then talk about how you have applied that in some earlier work, say sacred games?
Certainly what is fascinating about Panini’s work is something current computer scientists and programmers barely value highly is that you make something with extreme economy but that functions at a very complex level and produces very complex results, so Astadhyayi is a stunning example of that. How you can have a text that is 32700 words or 40 pages long that produces an entire language. It is very important to note that because we have this algorithm at the bottom of Sanskrit, people have this tendency to say that it became a rigid and conventional language, which is absolutely not true. What is true about it is that it is an infinitely flexible language, because of the way it’s syntax and structure works, you can produce any word that you want. Now one of the problems of dealing with Sanskrit is that we don’t know the actual usage of a word because they are completely legal words and sentences that you can produce , as long as you are working within the rules, you are correct. So people did amazing things with this flexibility. It has been forgotten now but there was this incredible tradition of Slesha poetry which you could read but that would have simultaneous meanings. If you read it one way, it will have one meaning, if you read it another way, it will have another meaning. Those are called two target poems and people have written five target poems. You can read the same text in five different ways. So that is a fascinating insight into the way language works and the universe works. You have these very simple principles through which emerge very complex results.
So in terms of my own work, there is some sense in which the structuring of something like the Sacred Games reflects my interest in story telling which has linear velocity but also that has these echoes. In the book I call it dhwani, but it is technically not dhwani but actually something like the ring composition, for instance which is quite common in Indian works, like the literary works, sculptures. Panini’s work in itself is in a ring composition. So the idea that we can have something like a circle or spiral that has other spirals and circles within it. There are segments which echo each other across circles. And through those echoes, you can produce those dhwanis, reverberations. That for me is a very persuasive and powerful idea. That was something I was thinking about quite a lot while I was writing.
The insets in Sacred Games?
You had to face some level of criticism that the insets took away from the narrative. But for me, the partition inset, for instance added one whole new dimension which I found very interesting. I think it was very deliberately structured, right?
Yeah exactly. If you think about it in terms of rasa, the idea that these guys had that when your work has one dominant rasa, they were very precise about it, very insistent that whatever the length of the work is, where it is a short poem or a longer poem, ultimately it should have only one rasa but you can have all kinds of subsidiary rasas as you go along. Even outside the emotional level of it, the way they were thinking about it, what happens in fiction when you do stuff like this is that you introduce a kind of musical note which the reader might consciously forget when they are further ahead in the book, but seems to me like the echo of it still persists. So when you get a scene early on when Sartaj is asking his mother and she just shuts up, even if you don’t remember the past thing later, subconsciously it is still there and you understand the depth of her refusal or where it comes from. So we can do many fun things with tones like that, like musical notes almost that linger underneath whatever is the major note at that point.
Talking about programming, your book sort of theorises and brings an intellectual rigour to programming in the sense that in the mainstream discourse when we talk about programmers, it’s these computer hackers who make millions like Ankit Fadia, for example. But the discipline and the kind of knowledge that it requires, that narrative gets subsumed. So did you have that in mind when you were writing this book?
Yeah, I sort of wanted to do some sort of casual anthropology of programmers (laughs). To tell people outside that world, what the values are inside and what the methodologies are. Some of the really wonderful things about programming is that it can ideally remove chaos, it’s so much about inventiveness. So there is this public fascination with this because you hear of someone writing an app and then in a few years he becomes a billionaire when he sells it to Yahoo or something. So people have that knowledge but they don’t know the rigour that goes behind it, as to how people actually operate. So we are trying to explain to the non geek people how the world of the geek works. Take my wife for example. She is the most non geeky person you can imagine. So this book is an attempt to give some insight on what goes on. There is also a darker side that like any other craft, the programming has now become industrialized. There is a lot of money involved, there is a sort of assembly line structure which has been put in place. People also exploit this, partly also because of if you want to keep being hireable you have to maintain the newness of knowledge. The industry moves so fast that if you don’t keep learning, you will end up in a place where you are not very hireable. Look at the Silicon Valley.The common belief among startup companies and among venture capitalists is that we are all looking for the next Mark Zuckerburg who will make billions of dollars and that person will be 25 years old, white and male. So the poor 40-year-old, 50-year-old programmer who has a vast wealth of experience, if he loses his job he has trouble getting hired because everyone will be looking for their other demographic. There is a sort of grimmer edge owing to the churning that takes place in the industry.
People also exploit this, partly also because of if you want to keep being hireable you have to maintain the newness of knowledge. The industry moves so fast that if you don’t keep learning, you will end up in a place where you are not very hireable. Look at the Silicon Valley.The common belief among startup companies and among venture capitalists is that we are all looking for the next Mark Zuckerburg who will make billions of dollars and that person will be 25 years old, white and male
I watched this documentary where they were showing how it is very important in a post industrial capitalist society that the expiry date comes faster and faster so that you can keep churning new things.
I think that is absolutely right. The whole thing about creating desire for buying a new phone every year, I feel that in myself sometimes. I barely get used to one device and suddenly they are trying to sell me another. It is completely ridiculous but it works and it keeps the dollars rolling in. that’s the way it is going to go. And it is very persuasive and very powerful.
How do you negotiate advertisements as a writer?
I am interested in the workings of the media. On one hand, they have this modern mythology, the self aware individuals who are always making choices, especially with the novels. People make these novel choices and this is how their novel advances. Often people are not making choices at all. Advertising in a sense works with people like religion. Making us do things that somebody else is interested in. So it is easy to talk about evil advertising but creating desire in the service of capitalism is an amazing reality that we are awash in all the time. And it has its effects. I have a friend who is a psychiatrist in the Bay area and he has this amazing statistic that the amount of people in the United States, who are taking SSRIs (anti anxiety pills), is a majority now. So he explained it as the cost of living under late capitalism. We have this anxiety that is produced in us and we get married to it and then it generates revenue for the pharmaceutical industry. A neat circle there.
Does it distract you as a writer, these temptations you are talking about, gadgets and phones and all?
I indulge myself to a certain extent. Even programming in a certain sense is like I am fascinated by how fast it moves and I, as much as anybody else, when I hear of new techniques or some new piece of engineering that someone has done, I want to try it out. Intellectually, it is so fascinating but I am also aware of these other aspects or what else is going on.
I have a friend who is a psychiatrist in the Bay area and he has this amazing statistic that the amount of people in the United States, who are taking SSRIs (anti anxiety pills), is a majority now. So he explained it as the cost of living under late capitalism. We have this anxiety that is produced in us and we get married to it and then it generates revenue for the pharmaceutical industry. A neat circle there.
Another dimension of apps is that how it controls our lives. There is an app for almost everything. Husband is cheating on his wife and the wife has apps to locate where the husband is at that point in time. So apps create a sort of churning in the way the society functions.
Yes. As I said in the book, even though we use them in a way to construct our world but inevitably the tools that we use constructs us as well. Like the guy who talks in the book about how the computer science principal of the finite state machine, it get embedded in our consciousness. You start thinking of modes as a way of dealing with everything. So I am certain that we are being shaped by all these tools that we use, that they are going to affect us in very profound ways, the ways in which we experience ourselves. How we think of ourselves and so it is a two way thing and in the most obvious ways, every time you put something in an app, it becomes part of the data cloud which is insanely valuable to whoever has access to it because they can reconstruct our entire life based on the electronic footprint you are leaving. We know what are you reading, even how many times you use the Pizza Hut app to order pizza. Even down to the level of ordering pizzas on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So someone knows about it, right? So what they will do is use that information to their advantage. So on Tuesday afternoons you might see a sudden upsurge of ads relating to pizzas because they know it is a good time to hit you. The science fiction guys have been doing work around these things for decades now and it is very interesting. I still don’t quite understand why it was described as a young adult novel, Feed. The conceit is that you have embedded processors inside your head so that you are interacting with the net as it were, on a physiological level. Suppose you want to search for something, you just think the search and it translates to the net. What it also means that they will spam inside your head. It’s a brilliant idea. So the idea of outflow of data that you send out there and how the data that flows back into you, I think they are the people who have been working really interestingly. The writing is not of what you would call a literary level or something but in terms of ideas and insight, there is wonderful stuff going on there in science fiction.
So do you also see this as some sort of a geopolitical crisis with all the debate around Snowden, google, etc. the way it is selling data to the States.
I think it is a continuing crisis. What we have realized is that what Snowden showed us in incontrovertible terms is that privacy in a sense no longer exists. And he showed the state’s interest in acquiring such form of information having access to these sort of things. So we are in a new world, we have to find new ways of being, of thinking about inside-outside, public-private and all that kind of things. And it is only going to get more and more pervasive. Processing power is now so cheap that you can embed processers in everything. So whatever object we use, like clothes, will have some kind of a processor embedded in it. So then it becomes even more pervasive. Everything is filtered through that. It happened in London and in certain small towns in the US where they are offered various kinds of security. In London what happened was that how do you curb terrorism, how do we control that, can’t spend more money as the state is already broke. So what do we do? We put CCTvs everywhere. So you are being consistently watched. So that is happening in California now. More and more municipalities because they have a budget crunch… so instead of hiring police offers and putting them on the streets, the recourse is, lets just have cameras everywhere. It is hard to argue against. Certainly there is a security need that has an effect on your personal life. What you give up for that, in the sense that a part of your life that the state doesn’t know.
Isn’t it also paradoxical because technology has also been used to such positive effects. Arab Spring for instance, Tahrir Square, that has happened largely because of the internet, because of Facebook, etc.
Yes. Even if you look back right from the start, the industrial revolution and stuff, every advance that comes is ambiguous. With steam engines we suddenly travel faster but on the other hand in the colonial context, steam engines were used to plunder countrysides more efficiently. There is always an ambiguity about whatever construct we put in place.
From the time when you wrote Culture of Authenticity to now, the scene has changed somewhat because literary novels have made their mark and now we have these IIT novels, harlequins in India. Now the criticism is around them is, how they are not literary enough. How do you view this whole change?
I personally thing it is such a good thing to have popular fiction in place because the best literary fiction and popular fiction comes when there is an interaction between all of these modes and levels and whatever you want to call them. So I am really interested in popular fiction more as consumer sometimes, I want to read a thriller but it is also interesting as a watcher or whatever you are, a sociologist or a cultural historian. What these books are revealing about what people want, what their desires are is really fascinating. I think it is really healthy. I mean the earlier Indian novels in English, being literary before they were popular, is actually quite an anomaly. It is a strange condition. Because you would think that they would both occur at the same time. So the United States for example in the colonial context, the popular writing that goes on and also alongside it when people start making the first self consciously American fiction in a literary sense. So now I am thinking that we are reaching a state of normality because earlier it was an anomaly.
But isn’t it more difficult now to get a literary fiction published now because the list of authors and books that are being published by Penguin, Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, we see that the space is shrinking for the type of books.
Only in a relative sense. I think if you compare the number of literary novels published this year as opposed to 1982, you will see that in absolute numbers it will be larger right now. So I think it looks smaller because the other list is expanding. In a real sense, the other publishing is what supports literary publishing because literary novels don’t make money. So somebody, like the publishers because they sell a certain amount of cookbooks are able to publish the literary novels. And even the big literary publishing deals people hear about, so and so got paid that much in New York for X novel or Y novel is all subsidized by the popular publications.
So I am certain that we are being shaped by all these tools that we use, that they are going to affect us in very profound ways, the ways in which we experience ourselves. How we think of ourselves and so it is a two way thing and in the most obvious ways, every time you put something in an app, it becomes part of the data cloud which is insanely valuable to whoever has access to it because they can reconstruct our entire life based on the electronic footprint you are leaving. We know what are you reading, even how many times you use the Pizza Hut app to order pizza
Since you run a creative writing course, can you tell me what kind of an edge can a student, who has passed out of such a course have over someone who hasn’t done this course?
I don’t know actually. People always ask me, can you teach writing? I can’t teach anybody how to have talent but what those kind of courses offer is an introduction to a certain set of tools. Tools that you use in writing, that you also gain from reading other people’s works closely and watching other people read each other’s works. You start to understand how certain literary effects are produced via text. In a very real sense it introduces you to a milieu, to a culture. So it is an ancient concept really, the gharana system, the guru-chela system, the ustad shagird system, all in a sense it is doing exactly that. You work with the teacher and the teacher can’t offer you the keys to the kingdom, but what he can offer you is like an introduction to the vocabulary. And then also while being in that surrounding, you can also learn about the values of that system and the methodologies of that system. So it is a way of introducing yourself not just into the technical aspect of the thing but also into the entire world that you are learning. So personally for me it was very valuable. But I wouldn’t argue at all that if you want to be a writer you have to do one of these courses. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary (laughs).
How do you design your course?
For the beginning , we read a lot of published work and then we read a lot of, what you would call, theoretical writing or descriptive writing about literature in general. Even an analysis of one’s story like if you read Nabokov’s lectures that he gave at Princeton, it is lovely to see him take a look at Kafka’s Metamorphosis and then he tries to understand how that story works. So what you gain by reading like that is you can start using that kind of sensibility to your own work and the work of your peers. So there are a lot of technical discussions, a lot of theoretical discussions and then finally people write stuff and we watch them unfold.
A bit about Sacred Games. I was reading this interview of yours where you have mentioned how your wife said after she read the first draft that she hated the fact that she liked Ganesh Gaetonde so much. I am interested to know as to when you are sketching a character like him, does it exhaust you?
It is like a kind of method acting. To use Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta’s vocabulary a bit, what you are doing is taking your own vasnas and sanskars and bringing them alive. So you are incarnating them into a story within you. That’s dangerous business. Because normal people leave that kind of stuff alone. So you have to do it in order to make your story work. So it takes its toll. Fredrick Busch gave a very good introduction to writing for youngsters which he called the most dangerous profession. And he talks about that how if you want to do it you do it over a long time and take care of yourself somehow. You have to take care of your health, physically and mentally as well. Often people don’t and that’s why writers often have a reputation for suffering from depression, drinking, etc, etc. So, it is a little bit like you raise those parts of yourself that you might not actually want to look too closely at and then you make them into living beings as well. And for, Sacred Games I didn’t realize what it had done to my head till after the book was finished and it had gone away from me and I slowly felt like coming back to some sort of another aspect of myself because I had spent such a long time looking at the world, thinking completely in terms of violence and corruption. How is that person manipulating that person. It changes the way that you live.
So how did you finally manage to leave Ganesh and Sartaj behind?
(Laughs)You get interested in other stuff, right? So partly for me it was Mirrored Mind. For me, it was so driven by curiosity, in a way writing a book is a way of answering a set of questions that I had about a certain character. When I am done with the book, for a while it feels like I am no longer interested in those things anymore. So there was a time when I was in the middle of Sacred Games that I saw a story somewhere about a gangster, I would have to investigate it, look deep inside it, but now I can just turn the page and just read the headlines.
What I am also interested in… I was reading this essay about Gaddafi and his aesthetic sense and how these dictators also have these very artistically inclined lives. From Kim Jong-il to Hitler. How you thought about it and you sort of tried to figure out how it could be a fascination for the classical.
I think what a dictator does is shape a world around his own sensibility. When you have complete control, you make the whole world behave like the way you want to. In a sense it is not so surprising to me that the same person wants to take parts of himself and express themselves in creating this other universe. Like Gaddafi. He is a man who creates narratives out of circumstances and for a while he is able to completely shape the narrative about him. So he wants to do it in another form as well.
So somebody, like the publishers because they sell a certain amount of cookbooks are able to publish the literary novels. And even the big literary publishing deals people hear about, so and so got paid that much in New York for X novel or Y novel is all subsidized by the popular publications.
I am sure you have been told that your books are very cinematic. Could you tell me how has your mother and her work as a script writer, who has written for All India Radio and written these scripts for these blockbusters Hindi Films. How have they fed into your artistic sensibilities or writings?
It has become a very intimate part of how we see the world. We saw a lot of movies because of her. Some of my earliest memories are going to the movies or the theatres. The sensation when the lights went down, how exciting it is. The curtains used to open up, it was all very dramatic and exciting. Especially in those days as we did not have too many sources of entertainment. Television during that period was Doordarshan… black and white and there were two entertainment programmes in the week, like Chitrahar and the Sunday Movie. So the weekend outing to the theatre was a big deal. It was colourful and full of history. So it has been with me right from the start. So I am sure that the manner in which I experience the universe is also very profoundly affected by that. When I try and imagine a story, it already has that multimedia, sort of vision inside my head. When I started Sacred Games, the only thing that I had in the beginning is that bunker and I knew there is a gangster inside that and a speaker who is talking to Sartaj. That was very visual. Visual and sensory. I could feel the heat because I knew it was hot. So that’s where it all started. It was already cinematic at that point.
What kind of films did you see?
We used to go for everything. A lot of Hindi movies obviously. Then I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia before I understood English. And that was one of my earliest memories. And that was awesome. It was so profoundly affecting. There was a 60’s Batman with Adam West. I remember seeing that in a theatre in Delhi. There was some weird Russian space movie that we went for. So we were completely suffused in the culture of cinema. I did have friends whose families looked at films with suspicion, back then. And when I went into school both the Jesuits and Mayo, we were shown movies every week as it was part of the routine. And for the Jesuit especially, there were always English language films as for them it was a way of getting across, of encouraging English fluency, etc.
So can you tell me something about your mother because to this day we do not have too many female script writers.
We moved to Bombay in the 70s and she had been writing for Doordarshan and for television plays and for the All India Radio she used to write plays. She did some fiction writing as well. Wrote articles for Dharmyug and so forth. All that kind of things. When we moved to Bombay, she suddenly all on her own that there was this one story that she had which had to be a film and can only be made by Raj Kapoor. We were all very skeptical, you know, we don’t know anybody in the industry, it just seemed impossible; too far away. She just called RK Studios and wangled her way into talking to his secretary, “tell him that I am a writer from New Delhi. I’ve written all this stuff, I want to come in and I want to come in for a story session with Raj sahib. Especially in those days, you didn’t turn in anything written, you just went in and narrated the story. One day she got into the taxi and went off to Chembur; RK Studios and went to that famous cottage that he had and told him the story, she’s a very passionate storyteller; she made him cry while she was telling the story and that was a done deal and that became Prem Rog. From then on she did her stuff.
So she didn’t have to face any glassy ceilings?
Ya, I guess she did, but she effortlessly vaulted through it. It took a lot of, what’s that Hebrew word, chutzpah… she just did it.
What kind of films do you love watching? For example, when I read Sacred Games, the particular sequence about the kitten dying, I was thinking about the American noir, the film fatale and all of that, Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity… then later Blue Velvet.
I have a pretty eclectic taste. I guess for me, the virtues that really attract me are strong narratives in whatever sense so it can be a thriller or it can be a love story or drama, I don’t care as long as you tell me a story. The best and most satisfying moments are where there is a certain pattern that is explored and then I figure out that the writer is two steps ahead of me and has somehow fooled me and there is unexpectedness somehow in the sequence. I watch a lot of bad movies as well. There’s a certain pleasure to be had from them…
Could you give me examples-
My sister Anupama, the critic, says about a movie, it’s so bad it’s good! For instance, do you know the website IO9? It’s a science fiction website. Basically their beat is they cover all science fiction, whether it’s in writing or in film or in any medium. One of their writers wrote this lovely preview of this movie that just released, it’s a new version of Hercules. It’s a very fascinating and wonderful article in which she says it’s all about glistening pecks (laughs). She says it’s a great movie for the nights that you want to imbibe a certain amount of your favourite intoxicant is and you want to go out and just laugh. So there are certain levels of kitschy badness that rise to greatness. The most famous example would be that striptease movie with Elizabeth Berkley, wasn’t it called Striptease?
No that’s Demi Moore.
It was famously bad (Showgirls). Which is now a big cult movie, you know. People have midnight showings of that thing and people know the lines from it. It’s funny though, movies that give me that pleasure, bad fiction is- I can’t stand it. There is a certain level of badness beyond which I can’t go apparently in fiction.
I read a lot of science fiction because the ideas are so interesting. Things that writers are writing about today and people say, this is groundbreaking work, it’s sometimes very frustrating for science fiction geeks because you know that fifteen years ago, someone had already written ten books about it. So it’s often more advanced than the general culture . Every year, I read these science fiction anthologies which are published… pretty fat. I skip a lot of stories in that if there is a clunkiness of prose combined with the woodenness of character along with bad dialogue – I can’t stand it. But for some reason for films, I can stand a lot more badness.
Visually it gets over faster, drains you lesser than reading a-
I guess, in fiction you are putting so much of your own imagination in it that in visual mediums, sometimes you can afford to be more passive; let whatever that is happening on screen happen without trying to half create it yourself.
I feel somewhat similarly about the Blaft publication doing Tamil pulp noir…
I love those! I’m glad people are doing those! Those are really valuable in a sense. They are also an essential part of a culture.
I would say that you have to have that curiosity and that risk taking attitude towards life in general and you have to combine it with the work ethic. To come back to this Indian tradition, the idea of musicians doing riyaz every morning. If you don’t do your riyaz, you will not get anywhere. So get in there and do that stuff.
What is your current reading list?
I am reading a rather lovely book, which I heartily recommend to everyone called Poetry of Kings by Allison Busch. It is about the riti kaal. She is an American scholar who is working on the poets of the riti kaal. It is an amazing kind of revelation when you think about it. All of us know about Tulsi and Kabir but for some reason- Kesavdas- who the hell is he? Her analysis of it is very interesting. She says that, with scholars like Ram Chandra Shukla that sort of movement of trying to reconstruct literature- what they did was they constructed this era, as feudal and degenerate and part of the general decadence of late medieval India, which allowed the colonialists to come in. There is certain sort of nationalism that happens in the reconstruction of literature, which then looks back on this period as something that is completely decadent. Not least because it’s court poets who are working with very classical idioms. These guys were very interested in the theoretical texts of rasa and dhwani, they wrote their own versions or introductions of these texts. It is a very profoundly interesting book about the way that we look back at our past and I think her argument to me feels very sound; that we need to re-evaluate that whole period and not fall into that- it is actually a very colonial idea that you guys were all very great once back in vedic days and then you degenerated. By the time we came over there, you guys were a mess, so we had to take over. The aesthetics and the historical narratives, all focuses around this, which also then gets reconstructed by Indian nationalism in a particular way. The whole sort of Shatranj Ke Khiladi, decadent nawabs sitting around; I think we really need to question that. It’s a lovely book. Fiction, I’m in the middle of a book called, Hild, again I won’t be able to tell you the author. Lovely book about medieval England, a woman who- this is about the period where it is not all Christianized- so it is right on that border. So she is still worshipping the old gods, her family and her king and so forth. The priests are coming in and she’s a young woman who is a seer for her king. Seer, as in somebody who can see into the future and then she eventually ends up becoming a Christian saint. I’m just in the first 40%, so I don’t know how she becomes a saint, but I would recommend that book to read.
Do you have a plan as to what will be your next?
It’s fiction, I know that for sure.
The one that you started working on and then suspended-
Yes, now I know the answers to the questions that stopped me then (laughs).
So do we have a timeline?
No, not yet.
What is your writing regimen like?
I like to be regular. It seems that it works best for me and a lot of other writers. You don’t treat it as I am writing for inspiration because then nothing ever gets done- treat it like a job. So I like to show up at my desk, five or six days a week, after breakfast, whatever time that is, eight thirty- nine and work through until I have done 400 words. When I reach 400 words, I knock off, even if it’s like ten in the morning, if I have done a quick 400 words, it feels great, so the rest of the day is a holiday. That even pace really helps me.
How important is discipline to the life of a writer?
Central. An absolute necessity. Everyone always says I have a story to tell, and I agree with that. Everyone has atleast one story to tell. The only difference between a writer and a non- writer is that the writer brings that discipline to the game and can make himself sit down everyday and do the work and amazingly enough one day you will end up with a 900 page novel.
There is this popular perception about artists have these “bohemian lives”…
Only after you have done the work (laughs)! That has distracted many an artist, that lifestyle idea, that if I am adventurous enough, I will become an artist. It’s not true, it’s bullshit in fact. I would say that you have to have that curiosity and that risk taking attitude towards life in general and you have to combine it with the work ethic. To come back to this Indian tradition, the idea of musicians doing riyaz every morning. If you don’t do your riyaz, you will not get anywhere. So get in there and do that stuff. I have friends who are close to big time musicians and it is amazing to think that someone who is 70 years old, singing since they were 10 and have achieved the Padma Shrees and dozens of awards, get up every morning and do their practice.