RAJORSHI CHAKRABORTI, the Edinburgh-based novelist and academic, has come out with his second novel, Derangements (HarperCollins), which presents a world where you have to “discern the shadows from the ghosts, the paranoia from the persecution, and the fiction from the actual”. The great grandson of eminent Bengali writer Hemendrakumar Roy, Rajorshi was born in Kolkata in 1977 and grew up there and in Mumbai. His first novel, Or the Day Seizes You (Penguin), was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword prize in 2006. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Edinburgh.
Excerpts from an interview:
Is Raj, the character (“The Writer of Rare Fiction”) close to Raj, the author? Are there any parallels? No, I was fishing around for a good name for the character for a while, and then just decided to use Raj until I came up with something better. But weirdly enough, this little switch really allowed me to get into his skin, and see the world through his eyes, so that by the end I just decided to go along with calling him Raj Chakraborti. Though I did have a lot of fun drawing out little streaks within my personality and exaggerating them as far as I could, it is a fictional character. The best proof of Raj’s fictional status, of course, is that in the book he’s important and successful.
Like the continent-spanning Or The Day Seizes You, Derangements also seems to straddle several worlds. Was it essential to portray the disparate lives of its characters? I suppose so, although I didn’t think about it as a conscious choice. Raj has lived in many places; he is influenced by each of them, and sees his openness to all these worlds as one of his most valued qualities. Also, two of his most important relationships are with his Brazilian ex-wife and their son. But in the book, his tendency to dash around the world lending his voice to various debates, without ever truly putting down roots, is also meant to cast a light on his difficult relationship with his own “roots”, with the assumptions behind the idea of roots, and with his own specific family and childhood.
Does your globe-trotting experience lend a globe-spanning edge to the novel? I have travelled in most (though not all) of the countries fictionalised in the novel, although my life does not resemble Raj’s in any other way.
Derangements follows a sequence of alternating chapters of fiction and a memoir (the latter being a part of the plot). Was it conceived it as a biography within a novel? The book is structured in three parts, a memoir by Raj, the protagonist, chapters from his latest novel, and finally an epilogue written by his ex-wife. I was hoping to use the structure to create a three-way series of questions about the relationships between the events in an author’s life and how they are drawn upon, recast and altered when fictionalised in their work. His ex-wife’s narrative is meant to raise questions about how other people in the author’s life feel misrepresented by the versions of them in his work, and how they might respond if they ever had a chance. There are also a couple of editor’s notes framing and mediating all of these voices, and I hope collectively they lead the reader to ask which of these competing stories they should trust, and why.
Almost every chapter begins with a “Blank Page”. Does this have anything to do with the overall narrative impact? My editor and I decided to leave a blank page between each chapter primarily to keep the reader from being confused about which book he or she is in at any time, but also perhaps to suggest that there is a relationship, and a distance, between the stories told in each narrative.
And there is an sprinkling of surrealism too? I do love to write stories and sequences of events and actions that I find enchanting and evocative, and it would be wonderful if readers occasionally felt they were being transported as if they were in a dream.
In a way, Derangements, like Or The Day …, dips into the well of the vast spaces between people cutting across cultures. Is it planned? Though it was not a conscious choice, I’d also like to add that yes, there are spaces between people of different cultures, but I also love to come across (and create) stories of people who take themselves by surprise during encounters with someone they had previously considered “other”: who thereby overspill their limits, their previous ideas of who they, and the other person, were. And thus their whole idea of themselves, and of selfhood and human potential in general, melts and expands a little. These moments and relationships between people I find very beautiful and inspiring. So I hope these are noticed in the book as well.
In the world getting increasingly characterised by homogeneity, how do we negotiate with our differences?We need to expand the whole idea of urselves and of selfhood and human potential in general which I’ve spoken about as an answer to the previous question.
Raj the protagonist wonders about his priorities as a writer and as a human being? Does that engage Raj the author too? Of course, although in a very different key from Raj the protagonist (a much lower one).
Derangements talks about how “it’s all very well to be obsessively dependent, but to truly dislodge any single thing, you have to allow yourself to belong.” How important to you is the need to belong? To answer a very difficult question all-too-briefly, my experience so far suggests that I don’t have a choice about belonging to those things and qualities that are important to me. They just matter, and make their presence felt, on all levels – language(s), food, landscapes, music. This is a weirdly reassuring thing. Plus, based on that awareness, I love to reach out for new people and influences that resonate with what I know I care about, no matter where they are from. So, in a word, I belong to whatever is significant to me, and I feel I carry them within me – everything I like, value and respond to, no matter where I am.
Writing is a lonely exercise and a writer is essentially a recluse. Is that the case with you too? I do spend a lot of time working by myself, although the perfect complement to that is the time I spend with my close friends. And teaching, which can provide a very healthy social counter-weight to the time a writer spends alone, while still allowing him or her to remain in contact with stuff
they really care about.
Being adrift is a state of mind rather than having anything to do with dislocation. How would you perceive that?My own experience tallies with that. I feel adrift when I’m prevented (for some reason) for a prolonged period from doing any of the stuff I enjoy, or when I’m far from the places and people I most value. Part of the answer to this question also lies in what I’ve said about the need to belong.
Your novels stand out for their evocative imagery. How much of that owes to your appreciation of cinema and other arts?A huge amount, although other writers who manage to create extraordinary images and visual sequences also give me the courage and inspiration to decide to tell stories in those ways. I’m thinking primarily of people like Kafka, Murakami, Auster, Poe, Ishiguro, but also filmmakers like Fellini, Welles, Kubrick, Buster Keaton, and others, and some especially inspired sequences of editing and visual storytelling from Mumbai movies, to which I pay a small tribute in my next book.
Indian writing in English, as we have begun to term it as, is a big
enterprise today. Who are your own favourites among the current crop of writers? Among recent works, I really enjoyed Suketu Mehta’s and Vikram Chandra’s big books on Mumbai, although I’m also aware, each time I visit India, how much that sounds really exciting is being published here that I don’t always hear about in Edinburgh. But this is an excuse full of holes, so pre-Internet.