I first saw Kunal Basu — and Aparna Sen — in flesh and blood at the Jaipur Literature Festival (January, 2008), when the duo were there to talk about the story behind the story and, of course, the film. When they got onto the stage in the imposing Darbar Hall, amidst a wave of applausefrom the audience, the first thing Sen wanted was some lights to be put off as they hurt her eyes. It was a great session as the two shared with the audience the hows and whys behind The Japanese Wife, a film by Sen based on a short story by Basu by the same name.
There was one small hiccup though: The AV equipment malfunctioned, denying us the sneak peeks into the film two years before it eventually released on April 9, having passed the censor board with U/A certificate. We did get to see some of the amazing scenes in bits and pieces.
When I met Basu, a couple of weeks back at the Taj Mansingh in New Delhi, Basu was at his candid best. He isan interviewer’s delight: Unlike some authors, he’s not intimidating, doesn’t beat around the bush and speaksslowly, in measured tone. He is patient and doesn’t mind if
your questions are vague and don’t quite make any sense.
When we meet, I am a little late. When I reach the hotel and call him up, he shows no sign of irritation. “I’ll joinyou in a bit,” he says, and barely a couple of minutes later, walks in. “Hi. I’m Kunal,” he holds out his hands. When we sit down for a chat, he asks for Cappuccino. I settle for masala tea. I am still trying to frame some questions in my mind. There is so much I feel I could ask. I am also confused if I should stick to The Japanese Wife or ask anything and everything. Thankfully, I didn’t have to try too hard: He lent an amazing flow to our conversation. Basu, who teaches management science at the University of Oxford, is the author of three novels — The Opium Clerk (2001), The Miniaturist (2003) and Racists (2006) — and a book of short stories, The Japanese Wife (2008). I ask him about allhis works, besides some other related stuff. Basu tells me about his “promiscuous imagination”, the “failed historian” in him and his fourth novel, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure. Set in China during the Boxer uprising (1898-1901), the novel is about a Portuguese doctor who goes to China to find a cure for syphilis.
Excerpts from the interview: (The edited version of this appeared in The Asian Age earlier):
Q. The film based on your story, The Japanese Wife, finally releases after a long wait. It’s the story of an unlikely romance and marriage between two people separated by cultures. What was the genesis of the story?
A. The most difficult thing for me to answer is why did I think of a particular story. I can be very cogent and say how I wrote it. A few decades ago, I was travelling in a village in Bengal with a friend of mine. We were having a very animated conversation when he suddenly pointed out
someone, saying, ‘That gentleman is married to a Japanese’. Now, in a city it’s not an unusual for an Indian man to have a foreign wife or an Indian woman to have a foreign husband. But you won’t expect that in a village inIndia. I said, ‘Oh! Really? That is a bit unusual.’ But after
that we didn’t have any further discussion about that man. But so strange is the human mind that a few decades later, when I was sitting in my study with a snowstorm outside, I
thought of the story and I wrote it. So, that’s the genesis of the story if I can go back in my own memory and point at it. But I had no clue it would come out in such a strange
way. I felt a bit sad killing Snehmoy though.
Q. Are you happy with the choice of characters?
A. This role called for a portrayal of a man who’s frighteningly shy, introverted. He is a village person, but, at the same time, has a strong inner core. For, a person who’s nervous and diffident wouldn’t take such a step of marrying somebody he’s never seen. And still be loyal to that marriage. Something which is strange about this man is that the other aspects of his characters are very ordinary. It is a difficult, complex and layered character to portray.
I saw Rahul for the first time when they were doing an acting workshop in Kolkata. At the Actors’ Studio, as soon as I saw him rehearsing a scene in which he goes to a
homeopathy doctor and tries to explain to the doctor that his wife is sick. The doctor asks, ‘But where is your wife?’ The doctor asks him detailed questions about the symptoms. But Snehmoy has never seen his wife. It’s hard for him to describe the symptoms. He’s trying to be as truthful as possible, trying to answer those questions. I stood at the back as we had not been introduced yet. I exclaimed, ‘Yes, that’s my Snehomy.’ I instinctively knew that that was my character. So, the choice of the actor for the character was absolutely right. Though I didn’t go to Japan for shooting, but the Japanese actress Chigusa
Takaku, who plays Miyage, has done a great job too.
Q. You were a child actor in two of Mrinal Sen’s films: Punascha (Over Again) and Abasheshe (And at Last).What memories do you have of those days?
A. What you do as a child – specially things you love doing -stay with you. I haven’t really talked about it at other places, but I’ll tell you what I remember of my child-actor days. I remember the dark, musky studio at Taliganj in Kolkata. In one of the films, Punascha, the hero was Soumitra Chatterjee, one of the big names in Bengali cinema then. I remember him wearing a dark suit and looking smashingly handsome. When Mrinal Sen came in, he introduced us, saying ‘This man is going to act in the same film with you.’ It was the whole smell of cinema, the sense of being on the set with lights et al that attracted me a lot.
Q. Would you think about acting now?
A. (Laughs) I have gray hair. No one is going to cast me. If you could find a confident director, who is not afraid to do so, pass on my name.
Q. All your novels are historical fiction. What is it about the genre that fascinates you?
A. India has a tremendous tradition of historical fiction.When I was growing up, I read the works of Bankim Chandra Chattayopadhyay, which were historical fiction on a grand scale. I was a romantic child and historical fiction appealed to me because it took me to another time and another place. In many ways, it became my favourite genre, even in fiction. I also read novels in other languages. I was very taken by their otherness – the other time, the other
place. It is no surprise to me that when I started writing I would gravitate towards historical fiction. Also, history was my favourite subject in school. I never studied the subject
in university, which I so regret. I tell friends that I am a failed historian which is why I write historical fiction.
Q. All your novels are so removed from each other in terms of the period you set them in.
A. It is because in my imagination, I’m promiscuous. I get bored if I stay with a particular period. After The Miniaturists was published, there was a strong view among people who follow my work in the publishing world — agents, publishers etc — that I should write another Mughal novel. I felt very sad when I finished The Miniaturists because I knew I’ll never allow myself to go back into that world again. I don’t want to write yet another Mughal
novel as much as I love the Mughal period. I had to move over to the Victorian period in Racists. Part of my writing is this journey of self-exploration. And I
don’t want to be stuck in one period.
Q. In your last novel, The Racists, while you wanted to explore the origins of racism in the 19th century Europe, did you also have its contemporary contours on your mind?
A. Racists is about the racial distinctions that science made between the Black and the White. You could equally apply the story to the distinction between the Chinese and the
Malay in Southeast Asia or between several castes or tribes or religions. In many ways, this is a story about prejudice. Prejudice, unfortunately, is timeless. Prejudice, unfortunately, cuts across geographies. So, although the story of Racists is set in a very specific context of racial
discrimination, it could equally be seen as other sorts of discriminations in other societies in other times. What really intrigued me when I was writing this novel was why are people drawn to other people who are similar — similar ethnically, religiously and by caste – and why do they move away from those who they see as dissimilar. Racists, in that context, is a very significant novel for me because I am troubled, as most contemporary citizens of the world should be, about prejudice. While writing that novel I understood more about the roots of prejudice.
Q. Tell me something about your next novel, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure.
A. It’s a novel about syphilis, a very dangerous disease which up to the ’30s of the 20th century was like HIV\AIDS. There was a lot of taboo and stigma around it as is the case with AIDS today. The novel is about exploring how different cultures — European and the Chinese -looked at the notions of health and sickness. It’s a story about a Portuguese doctor who goes to China to find a cure for syphilis in the 19th century.
Q. As a reader, what struck me about almost all your characters was that while they are ordinary, there is something incredibly extraordinary about them.
A. You have touched a very important point in my writing. I am excited by miracles that happen in the lives of ordinary people, people who never expect those miracles. A significant point, which cuts through from The Opium Clerk to my latest novel, is a series of accidents, miracles
and completely strange happenings that take place in the life of the ordinary people and how these happenings transform their lives or make them see themselves or the world around them in a different light. Inside all ordinary people are extraordinary worlds, worlds of our memories, dreams and nightmares. Hopefully, in my writing, I bring out those memories, dreams and nightmares in strange settings.
Q. As someone who was born and bred in Calcutta (now Kolkata), what intimacies do you share with the city?Living abroad, are you nostalgic about it?
A. I have lived abroad for close to 30 years now. But unlike a fair number of NRIs, I don’t miss the tea shop that I used to frequent while growing up. I don’t miss Calcutta in that sense. I miss myself in Calcutta. I miss the times when we used to plaster the walls of the university with political posters during the Emergency, the time when we used to go and stand for hours in queue to collect tickets to the international film festival, the times when we would go to
watch Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 and keep arguing with friends till 2 o’clock in the morning. But obviously I have changed and Calcutta has changed. When I go there, it takes some effort to recreate that memory. It’s not small things that I miss. It is a city which is familiar because I
was born and raised there. If I ever turn blind, and I pray to god that I don’t, I think I can find my way in Calcutta.
I don’t have superficial nostalgia about Calcutta. I miss lots of places. I miss Delhi. I love Delhi. Of the 12 stories in The Japanese Wife, five have strong settings in Delhi. I never lived for a substantial period of time in the city, but I feel I miss it in many ways. I miss going to Hazrat
Nizamuddin to listen to qawwalis. One thing that I am currently doing and which is also connected to Calcutta is that I am writing a text for an album of extraordinary photographs of old Calcutta house and its inhabitants shot by Kushal Ray. I am going to be writing the text. Hopefully, it will not be the boring text to accompany those pictures. Hopefully, there will be fictional qualities embedded in my text.