An Interview with Anjali Joseph
ALAN WONG talks to the exciting young novelist ANJALI JOSEPH about life, writing and her elliptical and enigmatic début, Saraswati Park
WHEN ANJALI JOSEPH sat down to write her first novel, Saraswati Park (Fourth Estate, 2010), she found herself wanting to write about her parents and grandparents’ bookish, quiet life—contrary to what is usually depicted in literature from or about the Indian subcontinent. “What I found was more Bollywood and such, which was not what I knew,” she said when interviewed by The Hindu. “So I supposed in a way this is my attempt to find a fictional base for my Bombay, which I think still exists.”
It’s rather quaint how she tends to refer to her birthplace by its old name, but Mumbai was never quite “home” for Joseph, who was seven when her parents moved to England. She studied English at Trinity College in Cambridge, taught English at the Sorbonne in Paris, and spent several years writing for The Times of India back in Mumbai. She’s currently based in England, but travels to India from time to time.
One can see glimpses of Joseph’s past in the two main characters in her novel. Ashish is a college student with no interests or direction in life; his letter-writing uncle Mohan scribbles little notes in the margins of books—seeds of stories he hope to write one day. Joseph wrote down her story ideas, too; she was between jobs while backpacking in India, and was wondering about her own future. Fate intervened, and after her stint in The Times of India, Joseph returned to England, earned her master’s degree in creative writing, and began working on Saraswati Park.
She still writes for the media, and reviews the occasional book. “I haven’t done a review for The Times of India for a while now, but I’m sure I will again,” she says. “I write reviews for The Times Literary Supplement fairly regularly and have also written for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. I write monthly columns for a Delhi newspaper called Mail Today and for a website for writers called The View from Here.”
She will be attending the Perth Writers Festival in March 2011, where she is scheduled to appear at the University of Western Australia with other writers, including philosopher Raimond Gaita (Romulus, My Father and Gaza: Morality, Law & Politics), Man Asian Literary Prize-winner Miguel Syjuco (Ilustrado) and scientist Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers and Here on Earth).
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF J. HUMPHRIES AND SIDDHARTH DHANVANT SHANGHVI
When did you discover your love of writing? Was it a sudden revelation or something that took time to realise? What were the books you grew up with, and how much influence did they have on your writing?
I’ve written since I was a young child. I remember sitting on the floor of my room when I was quite young and realising I wanted to be a writer. I grew up reading various things, including the novels of Enid Blyton, Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, P.G. Wodehouse, Sherlock Holmes, [and] Tintin.
Besides your novel, you’ve written for The Times of India and have been a commissioning editor for Elle (India). Isn’t journalistic writing a bit different from writing novels? How do you—if there is a need to, and for lack of a better term—shift gears?
It is different—journalistic writing is less exploratory; it’s about getting to the point, and requires a more focused state of mind. Writing fiction (for me) is less linear, more patient and associative.
You once mentioned Saraswati Park was a response both to the literary and journalistic impressions of Bombay—“big business, the film industry, the criminal underworld, life in the slums”—and to some of the Indian writing by the likes of Amit Chaudhuri (The Immortals), R.K. Narayan (The Painter of Signs) and Upamanyu Chatterjee (English, August: An Indian Story). How did their impressions of Bombay differ from yours, and what was the kind of impact these Indian writers have on your impressions of the city? Can you tell us how your novel “responds” to those impressions?
I think I must have said roughly that the world of Saraswati Park is more like the Bombay I’d grown up in and lived in during my twenties. That although if one were to attempt to encapsulate the city in a description, elements like the film industry, the underworld, and the slums might be used as synecdoches—parts of the city taken to represent the whole—those elements had been more peripheral in the sort of life I, and lots of other Bombayites, had lived in the city. Just as a person might live in London and not be involved in the Stock Exchange, or media industry, or the Houses of Parliament, although some of those things might seem to be emblematic of the city. I was interested in representing the sort of life I’d been leading and had seen around me.
I admire the work of these three Indian writers, and specifically, in the beauty of Amit Chaudhuri’s sentences, and the way he writes of meditative moments when apparently nothing is happening, also of things like street noises offstage, or the life observed from a window; in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s work, I love his rudeness, his considerable wit, and also his compassion. R.K. Narayan wrote wonderfully of small towns, restricted milieus, and affection in the family; I admire his emotional suppleness, the way he can gracefully follow the modulation of feelings from love to irritation.
Some have insinuated that you were peddling an “exoticised” India to the West. Why would they feel that way? Why do you think some authors tend to do that?
Maybe there is a feeling in some writing that literary writing is a heightened linguistic register and requires something more special and exotic than one’s own daily experience. I don’t know. I like the everyday, myself. Paradoxically, there are people who feel that Indian writers who don’t write magic realism but instead slow down to write of the quotidian, of things like a person having a bath, making a cup of tea, or taking a train to work, are making an illegitimate attempt to turn a common experience into art.
In an article about you in The Independent, you seem somewhat annoyed with attempts to label you. To some extent, people tend to label to make sense of their surroundings, draw borders, and reassure themselves and cement their worldviews. Do labels still make any sense today? Why, and why not?
Actually I wrote that article, though the headline wasn’t the one I wrote. I was specifically arguing that it doesn’t make sense to see writers as ‘Indian writers’, ‘Malaysian writers’ or whatever. It’s better to read with an open mind and realise that writers, like other readers, read widely and not only within national boundaries.
Do you still get asked where you’re from, even though you’re now a published author? What do you feel about being named one of the top 20 authors under 40 by The Telegraph?
Yes, of course. I don’t see how being published would alter that. It’s one of the basic questions. The newspaper listing you’re referring to came out just before the novel was published, so I took it as a compliment that early readers had liked it, and I was naturally very happy about that.
You’ve worked and lived in several countries: England, France and India. What were the reasons behind these migrations? Are there any countries you wish to visit or perhaps migrate to in the future?
They weren’t all migrations. We moved to England when I was seven because my father began teaching at Warwick University. I lived in France for a year after I graduated from Cambridge because I was teaching in Paris IV-Sorbonne as a lectrice (a female person who teaches her own language in a foreign country’s university). And I moved back to India, a little accidentally, when I was 25. I do see myself living in India in the future at some time, though for now I’m based in England. Other countries might also be nice. I’d like to spend time in Japan, and France always feels familiar in a good way.
Having lived and worked in several different cities, most would feel disoriented, or “unsettled”, as you put it in that article in The Independent. But you seem to have embraced that unsettledness, packing it with you wherever you go and using it to help you get settled. Is there a secret to that, and would you like to share it? Would it be bad if, one day, that unsettledness is gone?
Actually, I was quoting Amit Chaudhuri. It is a familiar unsettledness, and probably for a lot of people who live in many places and without a clear sense of how their own sense of self fits within national or regional boundaries. There’s no real secret to unsettledness, except perhaps travelling light where possible. I don’t have a manifesto for unsettledness, either, and I certainly welcome a sense of stability in many areas of life, for example, my personal life, or continuing to write.
I read that you’re working on your second novel, featuring a protagonist whose migratory path is similar to your own. Can you tell us a bit more about it? Does it have a title yet, and when can we expect it?
I am working on a second novel, and it does follow a similar trajectory to some of the facts of my own life. The sense of looking for a home, in whichever way you might interpret that, is one of the driving ideas behind it. It follows a few characters in their twenties in Paris, London and Bombay, and the ways in which they discover who they might be amid the things they do and the events that occur to them. No title as yet. I hope to finish it in the next year or two.
The paperback edition of Saraswati Park will be published by Fourth Estate in March 2011
Reproduced from the Annual 2011 issue of Quill magazine