Friday, March 06, 2009

Sharon BAKAR talks to Kunal BASU

KUNAL BASU, it seems, was literally born to the writing life.

His father was a publisher who met his mother, Shabi, when he published her first book. (She is still producing two books a year at the age of 86.) Basu himself was actually born on the floor of the library at the house in Bengal, surrounded by tall bookshelves. His mother, rushing to finish a manuscript for a publisher, failed to set out for the hospital on time. His aunt cut the chord with a pair of scissors, and his father, in all the excitement forgot to register the birth. “But he kept a meticulous diary,” Basu says, “and on May 4, 1956, there’s this one line: ‘Son born. 6.43 a.m.’ ”

He describes his childhood in a house filled with books and lively intellectual discourse, and a constant flow of visiting politicians, authors and painters. He started writing as a teenager and had some stories published in his native Bangla.

He had always thought of himself as a person of the arts, and still seems somewhat surprised that circumstances carried him in a totally different direction. He made, what he now calls, “wrong academic decisions,” studying mathematics and science before completing his doctorate in marketing with the University of Florida. He became Associate Professor in the Faculty of Management at McGill University, Canada, before moving to Templeton College, Oxford, where he is also the Director of the Oxford Advanced Management Program.

Whilst he says that he does not regret following this academic path, he says that there has been an internal price to pay: “As one gets older it becomes more difficult to do the things one doesn’t like. And my relationship with writing is nothing short of a grand obsession. I don’t want to do anything else anymore. I want to get up in the morning and just write.”

However, he’s grateful for the opportunities the academic life has given him to travel to parts of the world he might not otherwise have visited. His friends, though, always pull his leg about the fact that as soon as he turns up in a place, political turmoil ensues. “I was in Iran when the Shah was deposed, China during the Tiananmen crisis and Indonesia when Suharto was moving on.” Fortunately, nothing untoward happened in Malaysia on his recent visit here. (Kunal Basu was in Kuala Lumpur in April 2008.)

While many Indian authors writing from the west seem to be fuelled by a sense of alienation, that’s not something that comes through in Basu’s work. “We all build fiction around our lives,” he says, “and my convenient fiction is that I haven’t left India, I’ve just gone travelling.”

The travels have lasted 30 years or so, but as Basu sees it, it’s been simply a matter of changing habitat rather than changing home, and he finds that rather exciting. “I love to live in different countries, different parts of the world, different houses, and have different sets of friends. Home for me in many respects is my deep-seated cultural moorings and they are not necessarily parochial and not necessarily all tied to India. They are things like books that I’ve grown up with, plays that I’ve acted in or seen, favourite films. I feel very much at home around the Thames because Dickens was an early favourite of mine and the dockside and the docklands of London feel like home to me. And so there are these pegs that tie me to my world and those don’t shift very much.”

His commissioning editor once told him that although he is an Indian author, his writing doesn’t smell of curry. “I said I’m not deliberately trying to create distinction for myself, but I think there are all kinds of things on my palate, not simply the curry.”

Indeed, Basu’s most recent novel, Racists, is the very first Victorian novel written by a person of colour. It features an almost completely white cast of characters and explores the subject of racial science. It wasn’t, he says, written out of any kind of personal angst, and the subject matter took him completely by surprise. The novel began with a single image in his head, that of two children, one black, one white, being raised in isolation on a deserted island off the coast of Africa by a mute nurse, and untainted, as it were, by “civilization.”

He knew nothing about racial science at first, but as he started to do his research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, he knew he had discovered a world he wanted to inhabit. He confesses that he is intrigued by what he calls “our indecent curiosity” into the notion of what explains difference.

The experiment at the core of Racists, he agrees, is a product of the rivalry between the two scientists, one French and one British, and the battle between their competing ideologies rather than a meaningful piece of scientific research.

“The thing is that in many ways we think of science as being very objective. But when it comes down to it, it is a human endeavour and like all human endeavours it’s permeated by competition, rivalry, bias, love and hate. Everything. So why should this experiment be any different? And data isn’t neutral. It talks in the voice of the collector and the observer. If you have two observers, then obviously the data is ambivalent and that’s exactly what Belavoix and Bates were trying to do.”

It’s a truism frequently tossed in the direction of new writers that you should write about what you know, so it comes as a surprise to learn then that Basu finds it extremely exciting to write about places he hasn’t visited before. If he had, he says, the experience might actually have impeded, rather than enhanced, his historical imagination.

Kucing, Sarawak, features prominently in Basu’s first novel, The Opium Clerk. Although he only managed to make his first trip to the city on his way back from Australia in 2007, and doesn’t regret at all that he hadn’t been there when researching the novel.

“When I read the diaries and the history and started imagining Kucing, I think it was closer in many ways to Kucing of the 19th century. One doesn’t necessarily have to travel physically if one travels in the imagination,” he says. But, he cautions, “imagination has to be helped by research by reading the right things, and the right props are necessary.”

He set his second novel, The Miniaturist, in the court of the Emperor Akbar in 16th-century India, but says that it was much too dangerous to travel to Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush at the time of writing it. However, he says that he experienced the core of the story because he had travelled in the Mogul parts of India, eaten Mogul food, and listened to Sufi music, and read substantially about that period.

Although Basu realises that it is impossible, as an author, to strategise for film, one of his stories is finally making the leap to the big screen. He describes as “fortuitous” a meeting with Indian film director Aparna Sen in 2006 at a dinner party in Oxford. In the course of the conversation Sen said that she would love to do a love story, except that love is so boring, and everything has been written about it.

Half-jokingly, Basu told her that he had a love story that was completely different, and related the story of “The Japanese Wife,” a short story that had been lying in his desk drawer for a decade. It describes the tender relationship between a Bengali schoolteacher and his pen-friend, a Japanese woman. The two never meet, but agree to a marriage. “It is a relationship of great intimacy,” says Basu “but no domesticity.”

As soon as Sen read the story she was determined make the film and asked Basu to write the screenplay. He turned down the offer, feeling that he would find it difficult to revisit the story with his original passion. But he has remained involved with the production and says that he is very happy indeed with what he has seen of it so far.

“It’s not Indian cinema dubbed for a diaspora audience abroad, but world cinema, like the films of Pedro Almodóvar and [Michael Radford’s] Il Postino, which people all over the world can relate to.” The film is scheduled for general release in October 2008.

Since it seemed strange to make a film from an unpublished short story, it was clearly the right time to bring out a whole collection. Basu has always loved writing short fiction but says that it was always an uphill struggle to persuade his publishers that they were commercially viable. He says that he would like to debunk the myth that short stories don’t sell—once and for all.

“All publishers need to do is believe in their short-story collections. If you start out saying I don’t believe this book will sell, then it won’t. But if you believe in it passionately, then you can convey that passion to readers.” It is a viewpoint he’s in a good position to defend with this first collection currently riding close to the top of the best-seller list in India.

Basu jokes that his stories arise from “a sort of chemical imbalance in the brain.” First, he must get himself into the right state of mind, which he describes as a relaxed state of free flotation.

Writers can’t get too anxious about getting their stories down on the page: “It’s like when you’re young, trying to find a girlfriend. If you’re too purposive about finding a girlfriend you’ll never meet her. But if you’re totally loose in your life, if you’re totally relaxed, then you’ll bump into her.”

Stories might be sparked by the smallest of things, a chance encounter, snatches of conversation heard, a small newspaper article. If he’s struck with the starting point of stories he pushes them further by asking, “What would happen if?”, and exploring the possibilities.

He says he writes only those that keep him awake at night. “Take, for example, ‘Grateful Ganga,’ the second story in The Japanese Wife. I was in India and I was reading a newspaper, a cup of tea in my hand, and there’s this little story about Jerry Garcia. Apparently he had two wives and one of the wives came to India with a cask of ashes to immerse them in the Ganges. The story was that when she went back, the other wife said, ‘How dare you disappear with my husband’s ashes?’ and they had this fight over them.

“I wasn’t interested in that, but in the whole image of this western woman on a plane with a cask of ashes, coming to India for the first time. All she wants to do is go to the Ganges, immerse the damn thing, and go back. Except that she gets waylaid by circumstances. On the plane she meets this middle-aged pot-bellied Punjabi businessman who loves the music of Kishore. So I said, that’s interesting. What if this were to happen? What if that were to happen? He’s going to be married and that’s going to create a few problems, and how does he deal with that? How’s his wife going to react? On the one hand, you’ve got great Indian hospitality for a guest. Except the wife suspects that this guest is having an affair with her husband. So how would that go? It’s important for me to keep daydreaming or float. Hopefully I would have seen something that later would become a story.”

Basu continues to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. He describes how, on a recent trip to Beijing, once again wearing the hat of an academic, he was invited to a banquet by one of his former students, now the director of a school for public health, attached to one of the biggest schools for Chinese medicine. He almost declined the invitation fearing that the evening would be boring, but civility won out. After the meal, his student told him that there was a museum of traditional Chinese medicine upstairs and asked whether he would be interested in seeing it. He was. As he walked around the two floors of exhibits that he got the idea for his next novel, about a young Portuguese doctor seeking a cure for syphilis.

He’s interested in particular with the philosophical underpinnings of the contrasting eastern and western attitudes to health. It’s this scholarly thoroughness and a willingness to deal with deeper intellectual issues that marks out Basu’s novels from most other historical fiction, and thus it comes as something of a surprise that he hasn’t yet enjoyed the commercial success his work deserves, or been nominated yet for literary prizes. But he’s quite sanguine about that.

“You cannot simply lead an author’s life thinking when the bells will ring for me and when I am going to win an award. We are in a domain where there are no defined measures of success and the marketing hype of books often times surpasses real appreciation. We’ve commoditised everything in life, you know, including the arts.

“I’m much more of a traditionalist in that regard, and if my books stay on bookshelves 25 years after I’ve died and different people read them, then I will think that I have succeeded.”

SHARON BAKAR is a freelance writer and teacher trainer in Kuala Lumpur. Her work has appeared in a number of Malaysian publications, including The Sunday Star, Off The Edge, Men’s Review, Quill, and Chrome. She is also the editor of an anthology of short fiction, Collateral Damage, published by Silverfish Books. She teaches creative writing in partnership with the British Council, and organises Readings, a monthly event for local writers, at Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Her blog on writing and publishing in Malaysia,, attracts a wide readership.

A version of this interview was published in the June 2008 issue of Off The Edge


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