AN INTERVIEW WITH KUNAL BASU
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Meet Kunal Basu, an author who writes about what he doesn’t know, and takes the reader along on his journeys of discovery.
FROM AFAR, Kunal Basu doesn’t look at all out of place in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. You could easily mistake him for a homebred Indian professional even though the 52-year-old professor of marketing in Oxford was born and raised in Calcutta.
It’s only when I sit down with him for the interview that I notice anything different. For one thing, he doesn’t pepper his speech with “-lahs.” For another, he waits for me with decidedly un-Malaysian patience. There’s an air of benevolent dignity around him, as if he were a cross between Father Christmas and a Zen master—Buddha Claus.
This is his third trip to Malaysia and I ask him how he finds it.
“I’m an Asian man, I’m comfortable anywhere in Asia,” he says with a half-smile, though he denies being stereotyped as an Asian author. “If you follow my work, I don’t typically write about a certain kind of Asia or a certain kind of India.”
His first two novels, The Opium Clerk and The Miniaturist, are set in very different Asian contexts (in colonial and 16th-century India, respectively) while his third, Racists, is set in Victorian-era Africa, with “not an Asian character in sight.”
“I think I’m seen as an author of literary fiction, not necessarily as an author of Asian literary fiction.”
The 12 short stories in his most recent book, The Japanese Wife, are, however, almost all set in Asia, and took 10 years for Basu to write. The title story is being adapted for film by Bengali director Aparna Sen, and is being billed as a “modern-day fairy tale.”
It’s the tale of a shy Indian man and his Japanese pen pal, whose relationship deepens through letters until she proposes to him—and he accepts, despite their never having laid eyes on each other.
Call me sentimental, but I liked it. And I actually managed to read the other stories all the way through, too, which is unusual because I’m generally wary of Asian authors. Too many of their stories seem to wallow in an idealised past brimming with nostalgia, like a bowlful of stale, soggy noodles. Basu, however, doesn’t idealise much. He has a realistic way of bringing settings to life, warts and all.
Often, The Japanese Wife reads like a richly-textured travelogue covering places like China, Zurich, Indonesia, and, of course, India.
Though exotic, some of his stories are actually based on real experiences. “Lotus Dragon,” for example, is a bittersweet romance set in China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. “I was in China during the Tiananmen event and had to be evacuated,” he says without drama.
Certainly, his wide travels have helped him flesh out settings. “Travel is my addiction and I don’t want to go to rehab to get myself cured,” he says, in the off-hand manner of someone trotting out an old joke.
But he takes pains to stress the importance of research and imagination to writing, as well, especially since he often writes about places he’s never been to. The Opium Clerk, for example, is partly set in Kuching [Sarawak], which he’d never visited until after he wrote about it.
“It’s created out of reading some diaries, colonial diaries, diaries of visitors, and imagination.
“But bear in mind that researching for fiction is different from researching for academia. For academics, you want to research comprehensively … if you’re writing fiction, you shouldn’t be trying to do that.
“What I try to do is understand: what should I read at a minimum to fire my imagination? What can I read that will take me into a very different space, as if I was walking down the streets of a country that I’ve never been to? I think in writing fiction, imagination is a very important component.”
Whether he’s researching or actually writing, Basu confesses that, as long as there aren’t any classes, he spends 10 to 12 hours a day working on his fiction.
I’m incredulous: 10 to 12 hours? Really? He confirms it; and I think guiltily about the 10 to 12 hours a day I spend sleeping. Basu, with his untouched plain water in front of him, seems a model of authorial austerity, and I guiltily slurp down the last of my decadent caramel macchiato.
“I don’t have much of a social life,” he adds. “I don’t have much of a life outside my desk—but that’s what I like. Writing fiction is my passion in life.”
Even when he admits to hobbies like travelling and collecting traditional crafts, he rounds off smilingly with the declaration, “Nothing compares to the obsession of writing.”
What motivates him especially is writing about the unknown. “I’m not a person who likes writing about the familiar, what I know, what I’ve experienced; I want to write about what I don’t know, and in the process I want to discover it.
“So although my stories and plots are very different from each other, if there is one way to describe them, it’s that they are about encounters with the unexpected.”
He also says that he’d like to write a full-length novel in his mother tongue, Bengali. For now, however, he’s already hard at work on another English-language novel.
“It’s a contemporary novel, not a historical novel, set in contemporary India, in some of the most dangerous parts of India,” he says, remaining understandably tight-lipped about the rest.
But if The Japanese Wife and his novels are anything to go by, we can be sure to expect the unexpected.
Interview first published in The Sunday Star of April 27, 2008