There are writers and there are writers. At the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, which concluded on January 25, I had an opportunity to chat with authors of all hues — some with shades of humility, others with hubris — milling around in the manicured lawns of the Diggi Palace, which has seen the festival take baby steps, and in its fifth year, outgrow itself a bit. I saw these authors jostle with the crowd for seats at well-attended sessions and saw them doing a little bit of pushing and shoving in the long queues for food. I heard them talk about their writing, speak of all that ails the world, of all that literature can do and of all that shapes literature itself, of the fastidiousness of faith and of the religion of love, of the poetry of prose and the power of poetry.
Even though it didn’t have many “stars”, the festival’s line-up, by all means, was stellar. It had Wole Soyinka, the first African author to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. It had the celebrated Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith (of the popular No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series fame) and the much-loved Irish writer Roddy Doyle — the bespectacled man from Monte Carlo with dancing, mischievous eyes, who took home the Booker Prize for Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, the story of a 10-year-old Dubliner trying to describe, understand and misunderstand the world, in 1993 — Anne Enright (yet another Irish writer and Booker winner for The Gathering in 2007), Andrew O’ Hagan (he was the one who almost got standing ovation when he delivered his speech on the power of literature), Niall Ferguson, Hanif Kureishi, Roberto Calasso, Geoff Dyer (he had many female fans drool, as did Pakistani young writer Ali Sethi), Steve Coll, Stephen Frears and Lawrence Wright. From the home turf, there were veteran theatreperson Girish Karnad, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitava Kumar (who, I think, is the most sensible, sensitive and informed writer from among the current crop; we kept bumping into each other after an interview at the fest; he has this habit of addressing everyone as “boss” which I found is a reflection of the ease with which he meets everyone), poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gulzar (I have written about him in earlier posts) and Vikram Chandra, certainly the most affable, the most grounded.
The sessions with Dalit writers and campaigners like Kancha Ilaiah and O.P. Valmiki may have been overshadowed by simultaneous sessions with better-known international authors, but they, along with other bhasha writers like Ashok Vajpeyi and K. Satchidanandan, lent the festival the richness and flavour of regional literature that the organisers of the festival aim at promoting alongside the best of writers writing in English.
The idea, even though not avowed, of any literary festival is to provide an interface with a set of people who write (they may not necessarily live off it) with another set of people who see the world — both imagined and real — through their favourite writers’ eyes. While the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, a “literary show”, is increasingly losing its intimacy as it becomes bigger and bigger, it nevertheless has moments in which you can enjoy an audience with the authors you like, however brief and fleeting these moments may be.
I went to the festival to “know” the writers I admire, get a sense of their writing process and the several worlds they inhabit. Writers show the world to us in all its beauty and ugliness, splendour and sordidness. My mission was to get a sense of what makes some writers what they are, what makes them write what they write, the way they write.
I pick up two writers — Vikram Chandra and Hanif Kureishi — from as diverse a background as it could get, and yet they are linked, one albeit loosely, together by the city of Mumbai. Chandra divides his time between California and Mumbai; Kureishi, born and brought up in London, couldn’t be “more British”. While Mumbai —its people, its underbelly — comes alive in Chandra’s stories and novel, Kureishi’s father, Rafiushan Kureishi, was from Mumbai who left the city for England in 1947, married there and never came back. An aspiring writer, he made a “religion at home out of library books, discontent and literary ambition” and Kureishi writes about him in My Ear at his Heart: Reading My Father. When his father died Kureishi discovered the manuscript of his last novel An Indian Adolescence, parts of which were based in Bombay. In Buddha of Suburbia, which is based in London, Kureishi also draws on his father’s days in Bombay. Anwar, his Dad’s friend since the age of five, comes from Bombay.
Why I picked these two authors also had to do with the way the duo went about the business of attending the literary festival, holding forth on their life and writing and interacting with the press. While Chandra was the darling of the media, obliging everyone who approached him for an interview, an autograph or a photograph, Kureishi was through and through a “British”, who kept his upper lip rather stiff, wondering, thankfully towards the end of the festival, “What am I doing here?” He came to the festival, he said, because “I needed to get out of my house for some time”.
If Kureishi was inspired by his father, Chandra derives much inspiration from his mother, Kamna Chandra, who has written several plays and Hindi films (Prem Rog, 1942: A Love Story). Her influence is more evident in his epic, “anti-detective” second novel, Sacred Games, a thriller.
When you read Vikram Chandra, you surrender to his engaging, exuberant imagination. And in this lies his reputation as a superior storyteller, an accomplished stylist. When you meet Vikram Chandra, he floors you with his friendliness. Chandra is easy-going, unassuming and smiles often, a rare trait among critically-acclaimed writers, including Kureishi. I remembered the advice Lord Hanuman gives to Sanjay, a man trapped in the body of a monkey, in Chandra’s fabulous first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain: “Straightforwardness is the curse of your age, Sanjay. Be wily, be twisty, be elaborate.” While Chandra elaborates on his writing process and the subjects and themes of his novels and stories,
he is not “wily” and “twisty”. He is straightforward, yet another rare trait among good writers.
Chandra established how storytelling could be a conceit in Red Earth and Pouring Rain. When you ask him how did that come about, he says: “It emerged from childhood. I was always a kid with the thick glasses. As kids my age played in the ground, I used to make up stories in my head with dozens of sub-plots. As I grew older I became more and more conscious of the huge oral traditions and its value.” Red Earth… is half “psychological realism” with its other half being “fantastical”. “The idea of juxtaposing the two was really useful,” he says.
Chandra draws his characters from real life. And that makes his stories so rooted in reality. He may write about Bombay, but he doesn’t look at the city with a sense of nostalgia. Chandra is working on his next novel. But he tells you little of that. How long will it take? Seven years, as it did for Sacred Games? Chandra, who likes to work at his own pace, doesn’t know.
THE VOCATION of each writer, according to Hanif Kureishi, is to describe the world as he or she sees it; anything more than that is advertising. While Kureishi describes the world (tales of growing-up in London, racism and the immigrant experience) as he sees it, there is too much of his world — his father, his family, his ex-wife, his children — that gets in his way. His stories and novels have striking parallels with his own life and his family members, including his father who died in 1991, have often expressed their displeasure over family secrets (“Fabricated for the entertainment of the public for profit”, his sister, Yasmin, wrote in a letter to the Guardian), being “sold”. But Kureishi couldn’t care less. “The sort of writing you do comes out of your character and nature. You write from who you are and where you are. Writing comes from the wordspace in your head that is called subconscious,” said Kureishi.
As the 55-year-old brooding author walked around the venue, fending off people — fans, readers, journalists — I noticed his expressionless stare greet everyone, everything. “Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored,” the line from The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), his debut novel, came back to me. Cold and detached, Kureishi makes no effort to hide his conceit. A lady who approached him after his session with Amitava Kumar was asked to “read my books” before she could get around to speaking with him.
Kureishi carries with him a little irreverence and insouciance of Karim Amir, the funny, mixed-race boy from The Buddha of Suburbia. In the sessions at the fest, the author, who explores sex, families and middle age in his latest novel, Something To Tell You, talked about how he started as a pornography writer, using Antonio French as his pseudonym. “If you are writing pornography, it is good to have French in your name,” he quipped.
Kureishi, who had the opportunity to see Samuel Beckett during the rehearsals of his plays and calls him a “sound conductor”, also talked about theatre, “the most exciting thing to have happened to me”.
Kureishi takes his role of a playwright as seriously as that of a novelist, a short story writer or a screenplay-writer. His “version” of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. His plays, Sleep With Me and When The Night Begins, have been the toast of the theatre circuit in London. In 2004, his play When the Night Begins was produced by the Hampstead Theatre.
Asked about race in his writing, he said: “I’m no longer interested in race. What I’m interested in is telling a story. What I want to learn is how to tell a story. If you tell it right, there is something about it that always works. I’m interested in economy, saying things in lesser space.”
The world, to Kureishi, seems to be very funny and tragic at the same time. “I just try to combine the two in my writing,” said Kureishi, adding that he doesn’t give a “f*** to reviews”. “All I care about is money,” he said.