Dismissive of Shakespeare, readers, television, media and the world in general… Upamanyu Chatterjee is at his cynical best in this conversation with Pritha Kejriwal. One must painstakingly read in-between the lines…
When I had read ‘English, August’, which was a long time ago and now after having read bits and pieces of ‘Fairy Tales At 50’, more than the characters or the narrative, what has stayed with me for days is this sense of vagueness, a temporary loss of purpose. Is that the sort of response that you get often or is it just me…?
No, that… that doesn’t even sound like a compliment at all!
No, it’s not… but its not even saying that I didn’t like the books…
Well, I am not sure… I don’t know what you mean… umm… maybe because the characters seem purposeless? Is that it?
Maybe… maybe there is lack of a certain moral core …
No, I don’t think that they are in anyway immoral or amoral. I think they are just… they are… thinking human beings… I mean all of them, each and every one of the heroes of the six novels… they are all characters deeply concerned about how much they are out of sync with the world around them.
Somewhere in one of your interviews you said that, evil is something which is fundamental to us…
Which is true for Fairy tales… I mean… it’s not the concern in any of the other books… I have been asked this over the last two months about Fairy tales and it seems crazy! You know the attack in Peshawar, that cannibal in Noida… and you think you know this is the world we live in!
Then you say that the only way to defeat evil is a bigger evil, right?
That’s something which …
As I said it’s fundamental… I mean human beings are fundamentally not nice persons. But… no, it’s certainly not that at all. Well, it’s a way of looking at the novel.
This kind of reminds me of an instance where Flaubert was criticised by a French critique on Madam Bovary and he said that you know, “Why doesn’t your novel have any goodness in it?” You know there is just a lack of goodness, why isn’t there nothing to give a certain sense of solace to your readers?” to which Flaubert said that, “all I am trying to do is get into the soul of things,” and then Milan Kundera, while commenting on this, he says that to get into the soul of things, the author has to shut his own soul, he has to shut his own feelings. Did you shut your own feelings?
No… No… Flaubert is always represented as the quintessential modernist European writer. He is kind of a role model… Language is the first filter through which your experience will pass. So, when we read Flaubert in English, we have already distanced ourselves in a fundamental way from what he was trying to achieve. Apart from that, he was always fed up of what he considered the stupidity of readers. So, half the time he was bullshitting… he was always bullshitting in his interviews. He was always so cynical… Henry James, a great admirer of Flaubert, he, in fact, is much closer, I think, to the mark. He said people who write fiction do not need to write autobiographies, or something… something to that effect, that I think is true. Does that in any way answer your question?
It does. It actually brings me to the second part of my question… you say you have led quite a schizophrenic life, being a bureaucrat by the day and being a writer by night and… I wouldn’t want to believe that it would be that schizophrenic. I would believe that there is in some way an organic connection between the two – you being a bureaucrat, certainly in some way would inform the way you see the world…
That’s not true
How is that?
No… I just get up and work in the morning and get washed… I go to work, put files and… that’s it.
If one was to like say read Kafka, where the central theme through his work is this person who is against the entire world transformed into a huge administration… so how do you cope being part of the structure yourself?
No, Kafka is about impotence … it’s completely also the modern world, I mean, how does one control a world spinning out of control. For me, the two are quite separate… It’s just work in office, files and stuff around you, meetings, this that…
Yeah, but the whole structure that you are embedded into and which is…
Which is what?
Which is what makes modern life what it is, right?
What do you mean? No, no, the two… I mean as I said, you know it’s 9-5 sometimes and sometimes it becomes 10-5.
You are part of a structure that you are writing against, don’t you think?
Well, yes I know, I mean in a sense… English, August is really about the two India’s, it’s about feeling out of place in your own country, it really has nothing to do with anything else… but at the same time, you know, when people said that its funny because it laughs at the bureaucracy, because that sounded like a compliment… to me, it’s not like that. To my mind it’s about Agastya Sen trying to find a place in this world.
What according to you is the role of the novel or should be the role of novel or role of art in society?
No, I mean… I mean no role. People read, it’s a vehicle of ideas, it’s a vehicle of communication… that’s all.
Your daughter mentioned that when you go off to write, you don’t say that I am going off to write, you say I am going to complete my quota or something. So is this something you feel that you have to complete? Do you see that as work?
Yes, it is work… it is a different kind of work. The quota is actually a time quota, seriously. You sit there at a table, and four words might come out of it – at the end of the session. I mean, I might on a good day do a paragraph. The idea is to just keep it moving otherwise you end up nowhere… it’s true.
And what’s the role of history? Does it inform your novels somewhere or how do you negotiate with history?
No… that’s a really large question. History is, just as a source of identity, extremely important to all of us and in fact, I should think everyone should be made aware of history, made aware of the various civilisational, cultural processes that have made us what we are. It would by itself inform the creative process.
You wrote about the middle class in the 1994 in your novel called, the Last Burden, right?
If you were to write it now, how different would that be compared to this?
Well I did… it’s about coming to terms with loss and death I think… In fact, it was a central theme in the Last Burden, which is even true for its sequel. It was a difficult subject to deal with but… in fact I don’t let any of these books go until I am completely satisfied and once that is done, I really don’t care.
So again it’s not primarily a book about the middle class, a look at the intermediary details, it’s about loss and death and as I said, about the vanity of death.
Okay and this motif whenever one talks about fairy tales and why it’s called what it is, you know they always say that it ends with a happily ever after.
Yes, well that’s only one of the things it ends with.
Yes, one of the things… What you think is more subversive, to remain unhappy or to be happy?
Well, happiness is certainly a most welcome goal, but I don’t think many of us achieve it. It’s just that living is pretty awful for most of us. I mean, in a Woody Allen way… just that death is so much worse. And the struggle… I find it funny, actually, if you want a kind of philosophy of life.
That’s what, you know as I said, that’s the sort of loss of purpose I kind of feel when I read your books…
Yeah… depends on what you mean by purpose.
It’s about the pointlessness…
I don’t think so… But it’s not so much the concern of English, August which is really about feeling out of place; the two India’s. It is the subject matter of great loss. You know, I mentioned this to my good friend Prem Shankar Jha and he said, “Why is he such a loser?” and I was taken aback, I said, “What is there to win?” And that’s just it. It is a fundamental. He didn’t like the book, but it’s a fundamental difference in the perspective of seeing the book. I mean he really said it… I mean, it depends on what you think is worth something, what you think purpose is?
I was talking from a very socialist perspective where literature has a certain definite purpose, it has certain things to give to mankind.
Yeah, but is there? Thousands of people will manage very well without reading a single book.
You don’t watch TV… you don’t have one at home, right?
Yeah, we don’t miss it at all – we stay in a flat without a veranda or terrace. So, that damn dish thing couldn’t be fixed anywhere where it would catch the antenna, where it would catch a signal, and then that wretched woman on the second floor said, “You can’t use my terrace.” I should thank her. We said okay. Perfect! And those days we were worried, the younger kid would have become a television freak and would have known all this Kaun Banega Crorepati. When she wants to watch television, she sees it on the net. I don’t watch it and I don’t really miss it.
What is your idea about the media today?
No… I’ve no views… I might sound odd… I really don’t care. Does that sound odd?
You don’t care about what?
I don’t care about…
About the media.
Oh! About the media.
Yes. I sometimes go to the gym in Delhi and when there you can’t escape that and you just see it for, you know, five-ten-fifteen minutes, you just sit in front of it, so you can’t miss it. And you say how lucky you are that this is not on in your house, it’s kind of screaming (smiling), it’s hysteric and such poor quality, and such garbage, and such luridly coloured garbage, it’s unbelievable.
So how do you collect the material to write your novels?
It takes years in the sense that…
And where do you collect that material?
All over the place. It takes years. I read, I mean, the things that I have just finished. The short story that I couldn’t give to David because it’s being published this month. It’s actually a short story. It covers about 25 years. It is called Othello Sucks and its a parody of our own family. It is four people around the table – younger daughter, elder daughter. The younger daughter screams, “Othello sucks,” because she is studying Othello in school and hating it and it’s a parody of what happened at home. Shakespeare is terrible and the class teacher said why don’t you come and talk to us about Shakespeare. I re-read Othello – terrible play! And because I was re-reading it after about 20 years, all that whole English literature bullshit had gone out of the window, I was just reading it as I would read something else… and that’s what the story is about and I was very happy writing it…
And what’s this thing about 50’s? You know we always keep hearing this that 30’s is the new 20’s and 60’s is the new 50’s. So, how do you look at age?
Well I have used that, sort of parodied it. At one point 50 and then beginning of 50 is the new 40 and the middle of 50 is the new 60. I take all the clichés of the world of fairy tales, all that Ram or Shyam stuff. I take twins; I take separated at birth, all of it and just put it in the real world. I mean there are rakshashas, as I said the cannibals in Noida, I mean you don’t have to look very far… And so I’ve heard that it is disgusting, more disgusting than the other books, it is so chilling etc. No, you just look around you. I heard of an industrialist who, when I was in Mumbai said, I have heard he had to have a virgin every night. So I said even if it’s not true, it sounds like the kind of thing that would have happened, he is probably a vegetarian and goes to Babul Nath and prays and so on in the morning and he must have a virgin every night and give you the sense of this rakshasha who is doing a similar thing. The ogre has a blood soup and eats the liver of little children and that’s exactly when I was in Thana, and there was a guy and the guy was caught, because he used to work with the mob or he was connected in some way with the mob, he used to cut up and eat… so it’s happening around in the world we live in.
Gosh! Grim. So what is it working as a bureaucrat in the Modi government?
No… Forget it.
Just let it be…
Okay. Thanks so much for talking to us.