Thursday, Jan 20, 2022

'I Have A Nerdy Past...'

The author of Transmission talks about his latest and previous book and on the complexities of identity - on how he reacts to Indians trying to reclaim and appropriate him and on being regarded one of the 'Benetton writers' and a poster-child

'I Have A Nerdy Past...'
| Jitender Gupta
'I Have A Nerdy Past...'

Hari Kunzru: Actually no, people seem reasonably aware that I'm not straightforwardly Indian, that it's a more complicated relationship… This morning, someone was referring to me as an Indian, an NRI, but that's not really true. The other side happens as well - you're either too black or not black enough. I'm very flattered if anyone here claims I belong - I don't mind being claimed.

Are you comfortable being a spokesman of multiculturalism and other polysyllabic concepts?

I'm aware that inevitably that's going to come into any discussion of who I am and what I do, but I'm hoping to be able to move beyond that, actually. There's a lot of lazy journalism in the UK about multiculturalism and race and identity - these buzzwords get spoken about more than having a conversation - with the only intellectual content being: "wouldn't it be nice if we all lived together and had a happy time?" 

I'm beginning to think that multiculturalism is more a problem than a solution . People's identities should be recognized as complex rather than having to simplify them into racial or ethnic or religious categories - especially religious now, with British Muslims being beaten around the head.

Do critics and journalists in the UK to pigeonhole you, file you in the 'second-generation British Asian cultural identity school' box?

It's more like I'm one of these Benetton writers. There's Monica Ali, and Zadie Smith, and we're all viewed as the poster-children of the new Britain, this mythical new Britain. There is a big constituency of people who want to hear new versions of Britishness and get a different perspective on the whole experience of being British. 

For a long time, 20 years of Conservative government, the perspective of the establishment of the time was that being British was about the past, the village green, cricket, we're very powerful, and we had guns and the darkies did what we said, and a lot of young people in the country simply didn't feel addressed by that. And so the Labour government came in, and there was an active political attempt to create a new version of what it meant to be British. 

Cool Britannia was the first--crude--attempt, but it started a trend that has gone on - it's not always very accurate, but its heart is in the right place, I think, so I never want to trash it too much. It's fumbling towards something that needs to happen. I can be negative about it, but when I travel in Europe I find they're still addressing very basic issues about immigration there-- they're 30 years behind, which makes me feel grateful I'm British.

Is The Impressionist a Great Indian Novel?

It's a parody of the Great Indian Novel, written really deliberately to fool around with exactly that publishing category, this post-Rushdie thing, this big Indian novel, sprawling and colourful. In a way, I wrote a book that was kind of shaped like one of those, that could go into the world of British publishing camouflaged as a Great Indian Novel but was actually something else, that chopped the legs off that whole exotic spice market kind of version of things. I wanted to tell a much darker story - more than the kind of heart-warming family saga with a big backdrop, consumed avidly by people in the West.

Is the divergence from the Impressionist to a technology-driven, modern and globalized world in Transmission intentional?

Entirely intentional. I knew that having gone into this Raj theme-park I'd produced as my first book, I needed to mark a very different kind of territory. And hopefully by doing this and pulling new stuff out of the bag, by saying I'm interested in modernity and social relations now, I have effectively stopped this business of being a historical novelist. Now I'm in a position where I have freedom of action. If I had done another India past novel, people wouldn't have accepted it if I'd tried to do something different.

Why the sudden interest in Bollywood?

Well the interest is fairly sudden, I suppose. It had kind of been on my list, it was nagging me that I didn't know more about commercial cinema. I've travelled in buses in India with movies going on in the bus, heard songs coming out of speakers in the market. I've seen a few films in India. One stuck in my memory: I was eight, one guy was a cop and another one was a thief, they were separated at birth and actually it could have been any one of a 100 films.

So it was like a project for me, I started to enjoy films more. Company was very interesting…Indian directors starting to seriously watch and be influenced by directors like Scorcese, and films like City of God in terms of story-telling. These would be popular anywhere in the UK, whereas the big UK releases are given to films like Asoka, boring films, or comfort films for old British Asians, where the daughter gets married to the right person. Though the London of DDLJ, where he walks to his Wembley store past Big Ben, through Trafalgar square, is not like any London I've ever seen.

So now that you've seen a wide range of Bollywood actresses, who does Leela Zahir of Transmission look like inside your head?

From a legal point of view, it would be extremely unwise of me to link her to any actual person. But I'm obviously thinking of young ingénue actresses rather than vampy ones.

Was the process of writing the 'tricky second novel' very tortuous?

It was in the beginning. I had a period of not being able to write anything for a few months. I think I had produced 5000 words in eight weeks, which is not very much, I can do that in two days if I'm on form. And that was to do with a number of things - I was exhausted after the whole business of The Impressionist. And I suppose there was the thought that now everything in was in my favour, everyone wanted me to do this, everyone was very happy, I had all the time I wanted, and so now would be the time to really fuck up. (Laughs for a while) so it was also there, you could screw it up now, you could just blow it…the sheer horror.

Was the big advance you received for The Impressionist a source of pressure?

Not so much. After a while I just got into this book, and it went very quickly. I find that when it's going very well there's a meditative quality to my work, and I find that if I'm on my game, I can lose hours and hours and just kind of wake up at the end of it.When I'm in that focussed mood, I think I'm happier than I am at any other point of time. You're actually producing something that you like, and that has value.

You were scheduled to leave America on the 12th of September 2001. Did your experience as a traveller influence your writing on globalization, race and identity in your second novel?

This was at the end of a long road trip for The Impressionist. That lasted two months. I'd reached the stage where one hotel room looks very like another. I'd booked a 12th September flight to go home, and instead I spent very weird eight days, with everybody running around like headless chickens. The late 90s now feels like a very innocent time, with people thinking about lifestyle, publishing books about end of history - and now we live in highly politicized times, in a very charged environment. I can't stand an unattended bag now. Everybody's waiting for something to happen all the time. And since this happened while I was writing, the paranoid overreaction that goes on in Transmission is probably from there.

Apart from a recolonizing press, what's it like when you come to India? How does your family react to your visits now?

Things are much the same in my family as they always have been. Relatives come and ask questions about my life, and the most unlikely relatives will be reading about what I'm doing…I'm a bit worried about that, actually, specially with some of my older relatives. I think I'm shocking people, but they're all proud of me as well, so they allow a little shock.

Is it true you once worked as a juggler peddling non-alcoholic drinks outside bars?

Yes. I wouldn't say it was the worst job I've had, but it was one of the worst. It was a very bad idea... I had to wear a T-shirt with the name of the drink on it, and initially I was the one who put up flags and gave speeches about the products while professional jugglers were doing their thing, and I'd be giving out drinks. This was a time when they'd worked out that young people weren't drinking so much alcohol - instead, they were taking ecstasy and drinking water.

This was in the early 90s, so they wanted to capitalize on that with their nice ginseng drink. What they should have done is gone to the places where non-drinking ecstasy-taking-type young people were hanging out. Instead they made us wait outside all these night-clubs where all the hard drinking, really macho, moustached types went. I remember almost being punched by some sailor in a night-club in Portsmouth. It was a beer-like bottle, he drank it and thought I was being cheeky, by giving him something that wasn't beer. Non-alcoholic piss was not what they were interested in. 

And then the budget went down or something and they decided they would do without the jugglers, because we had learnt to juggle so they could just have us, and that was really bad. We weren't very good either, and it got really grim sometimes. And we got sent to some really heavy places, where you don't want to go - even without silly T-shirts and having to juggle.

What's the next book about?

It's a science fiction novel featuring a tribe of Amazonian women…(laughs). I've been trying saying this with a straight face.

Do they juggle?

They do juggle, badly, and that's where the plot lies, because a great juggler, male, comes in from another planet…

So it's also about borders and crossing them.

Absolutely, you've got that in one.

But speaking of imaginary worlds, do you plan to create more imaginary cultures like the Fotse in The Impressionist?

I've always loved creating completely imaginary spaces.I have a nerdy past as a Dungeons and Dragons player, and I'm a big sci-fi fan. The kind of stuff I was interested in at 13 started worrying me later. But the business of creating alternative worlds has always fascinated me. And I feel myself to be a connoisseur of that kind of thing. In other people, other writers, I admire the ability to create fiction that has the shape of reality, but is in itself completely fake. One of the biggest compliments that was paid to The Impressionist was when someone phoned up the Anthropology department in Oslo University to find out about the Fotse. It was great that someone felt it worthwhile to check.

Who did you read?

Still on the alternative world angle - Ursula LeGuin, Tolkien - but I was also reading a lot of American writers growing up - Tom Pynchon, Don Delillo. And that sort of Marquez and Rushdie magical stuff, but I've lost my taste for the magical. I'm heading for a less flamboyant, unlikely style - or at least just as unlikely but unlikely in a less magical way. There's no actual magic in The Impressionist, nothing that couldn't happen, unless you count his potentially spiritual experience. The rest of it is not very likely (laughs) but it's not impossible.

Who have you been compared to most?

It's changed completely with this book - last time, it was Kipling and Rushdie, and this time someone did compare me to Don Delillo. I was pleased, because he's really good. No Indian writers this time, though someone compared Transmission to Rushdie's Fury, which I was furious about, because it isn't his best work.

Another stock question - What do you get out of writing? Why do you write?

To give some kind of shape to my life, to take nebulous things and bring them into form. That's the work I'm doing by writing these novels - approaching something I haven't got a handle on, in an academic or intellectual way, and trying to work out what the links are, what the emotional centre is.

Which naturally leads us to your nomination for the Bad Sex Award 2002

I lost out…I was a contender but I lost out. But the piece I lost out to was really bad, sex with a zebra or something. I was pleased that the passage I got nominated for was definitely bad sex, it was non-consensual, homosexual paedophile rape played for laughs - and that's bad… It was good that it wasn't a description where I was trying to be really sexy, or romantic, that would have been annoying, it was fine that I didn't get it. It's on my list. Ill probably win it if I try to write something really sexy.

And when you got the John Llewellyn Rhys prize 2002, you rejected it because it was sponsored by The Mail on Sunday.

I felt that there was no decent way I could take an award from an organization which I disapprove of on almost every issue - race, immigration for starters. They're in the wrong and foster ignorance rather than help people make life easier. I have no regrets, especially because of the way they behaved afterwards. They published some very unpleasant stuff about friends of mine, which confirmed my opinion of them. They did donate the money for the prize (5,000 pounds) to the Refugee Council as I had asked, though; they were honourable to that extent. I have to say the Daily Mail just gave me a really good review for Transmission, which scares me slightly. I'm wondering what'll happen next, I'm sure they'll find some means to throw me into jail after lulling me into a false sense of security.

Your covers in the UK and the US are quite different - the US cover shows an aerial view of roads, while the UK cover shows a woman running in a sari. Which one feels better for you?

I prefer the American one, and I feel quite sorry for the woman in the pink sari-- they made her run around in front of a loch in Scotland in January, so the American cover is less cruel.

You're releasing this book world-wide, and it talks unselfconsciously about its Indian protagonists.But when you grew up in Essex, there were no Asians on TV. What's the most important thing that has changed?

It's a question of confidence, a wider sense of cultural confidence. In the last 10 years, there have been distinctively South Asian cultural forms that have really captured the imagination of the world - from Punjabi MC to Midnight's Children. Before, people would see South Asians as very quiet cornershop types who'd let any thing happen and make no trouble, or some evil man with a beard who was forcing his daughter to marry some reptile from the village back home. Now there's a kind of aura of cool that hangs around the Indian diaspora, which is a reflection of economic power, cultural power, which are things I'm trying to deal with. I'm surprised that we're not seeing more stuff coming out of the Indian middle class, that people aren't writing about Noida and what it's like negotiating the new things going on in India rather than marketing Indian traditions for export. 

Is Transmission coming to Bollywood?

I've had some meetings about it, there's some interest but nothing has been signed. What I said about The Impressionist is that I'd like to see two versions, one an American version and the other a full-on musical. Mira Nair has the rights in the US - I think her sensibilities will incorporate everything. But I can't see Transmission as a musical.

But you can visualise dancing Fotse tribals.

(Dances for a bit, seated) That would be cool. I don't know whether it would be good, but it would be cool.


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