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Interviews | Jhumpa Lahiri | R.K. Narayan | Vikram Seth | David Davidar

Jhumpa Lahiri (1968-     ) is a London-born Indian writer who presently lives in the US in New York City. She was brought up in a small-town America. Her first book "Interpreter of Maladies" which is a collection of nine short stories was awarded the most prestigious American literary Award, the Pulitzer Prize. With her debut work, she has been compared with the greatest of the short story writers like Guy De Maupassant and O Henry which is quite an achievement. Moreover, she was on the front cover of the India Today and they called her a Boston Brahmin. Her title story The Interpreter of Maladies has been selected for the O.Henry Award and "The Best American Short Stories." She is presently working on a novel.

Q. Are you surprised by the reaction to to your stories?
A. It has all been a surprise-getting an agent, an editor, a book contract- it was all so fast. I feel extraordinary gratitude and amazement. Writers need time, some money and a little encouragement. This book has given me the right amount of all three.

Q. When did you start writing?
A.  I was a shy child, uncomfortable in groups so I sought out those with a similar sensibility- quite girls who liked stories. When I learned to read, I felt the need to copy them and started writing 10-page "novels" during recess with my friends. Writing allowed me to observe and make sense of things without having to participate. I didn't belong. I looked different and felt like an outsider.

Q. As a second-generation immigrant, are you still an outsider?
A. I've inherited my parents' preoccupations. It's hard to have parents who consider another place "home"- even after living abroad for 30 year, India is home for them. We were always looking back so I never felt fully at home here. There's nobody in this whole country that we're related to. India was different- our extended family offered real connections. To see my parents as children, as siblings, was rare.

Q. So you felt at home in India?
A. Not really. We visited often, but we didn't have a home. We were clutching at a world that was never fully with us.

Q. Did the dirt and poverty bother you?
A. No, India is vibrant, it was stimulating. I was a lonely only child till I was 7. Emotionally, it was nourishing to be the center of attention with loving uncles and aunts devoted to me every whim. In America, we experience a malnourished version of family. In India, it was comforting to see my parents let go of the everyday concerns of being foreigners. There, everything was established- so many homes that we could visit, all family. Generations were connected to them. In the States, to be connected to anything, we had to reach out.

Q. Has your relationship to India Changed?
A. As I grew older, going to India was frustrating, because growing up in America is different - I have my own room, I can shut the door. There, we became a part of other families, lived according to their schedules, did things their way. I was used to traveling around New York by myself, but in Calcutta, we had to respect the family's concerns.

Q. Are your characters people you know, or are they composites?
A. The characters are semi real- most are composites- but the situations are invented. One character is based on my mother., who baby-sat in our home. I saw her one way but imagined that an American child may see her differently, reacting with curiosity, fascination or fear to the things I took for granted.  

Q. How do you have such a keen grasp of marriage problems?
A. It is my eternal fascination with trying to imagine things that I am not part of. I am not married, but being involved in serious relationships enabled me to fill in the blanks. Also, as an Indian, the idea of marriage loomed large in my life. There was always an awareness of who had a "love" marriage, who had a "negotiation" marriage. Marriage had changed my mother's life.

Q. What role does Calcutta play in your imagination?
A. I speny much time in Calcutta as a child-idle but rich time-often at home with my grand mother. It enabled me to experience solitude-ironically but there were so many people, I could seal myself off psychologically. It was a place where I began to think imaginatively . Calcutta nourished my interest in seeing things from different points of view. There is a tradition there that we just don't have here. The ink has not dried yet on our lives here.

Q. Do you see yourself as the interpreter of our maladies of belonging?
A. It's not a role I contemplated, but the title haunted me for years. The characters I am drawn to all face some barrier of communication. I like to write about people who think in a way they can't fully express. Growing up in two countries, I see things in a way that not everyone around me can. I'd like to talk to my cousins about what life is like in America and still know that they'll never get it because they haven't been here. Talking to Americans about India is the same- it's always partial. As a storyteller, I am aware that there are limitations in communication.

©Newsweek. Interview by Vibhuti Patel

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RK Narayan talks about the new kid on the block of the Indo-Anglian Literature, Vikram Seth

What is so special about "The Golden Gate"?
- It is a novel in verse form, three hundred and odd pages, written by a young Indian, and it seems to me no small achievement.

- I don't read poetry. I had enough of it in the classroom long ago. I'm not prepared to struggle anymore to squeeze any sense out a stanza, with notes and annotation and explanation. I have had enough of it. Today, I am impervious to poetry. Even "Baa Baa Black Sheep" would need an annotator for me today.

Nonsense, I won't believe you. It is a pose many persons adopt to show how mature they are. Of course, memories of one's experiences in a classroom could produce a trauma, in which state all poetry and prose might sound dreadful. However I do not doubt that you secretly dip into Palgrave's Golden Treasury from time to time.

How do you know?
- I noticed a copy on your table this morning and it looks well thumbed.

-You are right. I enjoy going over lines such as "The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day" or "Awake! for Morning in the bowl of Night/has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to flight:/ And lo! the hunter of the East has caught/ The Sultan's Turret in a noose of Light."

- I like particularly Shakespeare's sonnet, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of past/ I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought....." It is good to start the day with a few lines of the Golden Treasury in addition to any religious hymn or prayer one may be accustomed to.

-You were talking about "The Golden Gate."

-Yes. Coming back to it- an extraordinary work. I have never come across any other modern writer who has ventured almost recklessly to narrate a story in verse. The book was recommended to me at a dinner party by a lady in such ecstatic terms that it produced a contrary effect as it always happens when someone recommends something too obviously. I resist iy. Now "The Golden Gate" seemed to be the " in thing" like the American fashion to display the Book Of the Month choice on the hall table. Whether it is read or not is another matter.

-You started with "The Golden Gate" but are straying from the subject.
-Yes. When the lady recommend it at the dinner, my host dashed out, went down to the book stall and brought me a copy. Next day, I opened the first page, glanced through a few lines; the lady's overzealous recommendation still rankling in my mind. I put away the book. Weeks later, the author, Vikram Seth, appeared in a TV interview and I realized, here was a genuine writer with the right values, gift and outlook, not writing in order to blow ff steam or to reform society but a genuine artist who takes pleasure in writing.  Here I found rhyme, reason and humor, and above all  sensed a rhythm which "vibrates in the memory" even after the book is shut and put away. Vikram Seth shows absolute mastery of the English Language and has created a unique literary alchemy. Yes, this is a book fit to be kept beside Palgrave's Golden Treasury for frequent literary refreshment.

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Vikram Seth
Click to go to his page

Q. How was the story (An Equal Music) conceived?
A. Well, I was walking across Hyde Park in Kensington Gardens with a friend. It was a sort of grey, rainy day and I visited and I visualized in my mind's eye someone who was looking at the waters of turpentine very intensely. I could see well he was European or American. And I was just talking to myself, I've got a feeling that this person who I am visualizing has something to do with not a short story, probably a novel I am going to write." I turned to my friend and said, I have this picture of a man but I have no idea about him. So do you?"
My friend who is a musician said, "Well, he is a musician."
Supposing he is a musician, what instrument does he play?"
Because my friend is a violinist, he said, "How about the violin?". I said, "I am not very fond of the violin, I prefer the cello." But it got me thinking.....

Q. Golden Gate in America, Suitable Boy in India, Equal Music in England and Europe. You just keep moving.
A. I know from an editor's point of view or a publisher's point of view it's easier to slot me into a particular niche. But I know that I would be bored unless I wrote a book that in some sense was a challenge. And this might mean I vary the form by writing a poem or a play or a novel. Or set the stories in different countries. Or write in the first person as opposed to the third. Or in the present tense as opposed to the past. Or a very long novel as opposed to a short one.

Q. This past year's has been seen as some sort of a high noon of Indo-Anglian writing?
A. Has it?

Q. Well at least in India, with The God of Small Things and all that?
A. It's just a bit of coincidence that three or four books should come out. People tend to see trends like 'high noon' and 'midnight' and so on.

Q. So you don't see an Indo-Anglian Literary school emerging?
A. No, I don't. They are such writers. It is true in a general sense that people are much more confident of using English today. But remember that probably the greatest of Anglo-Indian writing in the 1930s and continues to write: R.K. Narayan.

Q. Do you read contemporary Indian writing in English?
A. When I was writing A Suitable Boy I tried to avoid it (Laughs). Actually, I don't read a lot of fiction. I do re-read fiction but I don't tend to read it.

Q. There is this rivalry with Salman Rushdie that people are talking about since your books are coming out within a week of each other.
A. Neither Salman nor I have least interest in rivalry but the coincidence is a remarkable one and I would be rather disappointed if the journalists didn't try to create a bit of mischief between us (laughs).

Q. Poetry, novel, poetic novel, travelogue, opera. Which realm of the written word have you left unexplored?
A. I have not written a proper musical. A libretto, yes, but not a musical. I haven't written a straight stage play. I haven't written short stories, which I find difficult. I haven't written a novella, I haven't written a biography. And certainly haven't, and probably won't, write an autobiography.

© April 5, 1999 India Today

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David Davidar (42) , CEO of Penguin India and well known editor of books hit big time in the literary world with the publication of his debut novel The House of Blue Mangoes published by Harper Collins in the US, Orion in the UK and Penguin in India. 

Q. How long was this book in the making?
A. Perhaps a dozen years, I had abandoned the first version. Then in November, 1998, in a restaurant in London, I was having dinner with Vikram Seth. He had read a profile I had done of my grandfather for The Hindu. He urged me to write and offered to edit the work. As you know, Vikram had trained as an editor at the Stanford University Press.

Q. How long did the final version take to write?
A. I worked on it every morning for one year from 4.30 to 6.30 in the morning. When I had finished 200 pages I sent it to Vikram. He said: continue. The final 700 page manuscript was sent in August this year to three agents abroad.

Q. Did you feed constraint by the fact that you were in publishing yourself?
A. I got around that constraint by the decision that I would not allow myself to be identified as the author until the book was sold. I forwarded the manuscript under the pseudonym S.H. Jeyakar. 

Q. Why S.H. Jeyakar?
A. It is an anagram of my middle name Jayasekharan.

Q. Which book agent reacted first?
A. David Godwin, who is probably the UK'S best book agent, did something he had done just once before, for Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Thing. He flew down to India to meet the author.
          I remember we were having lunch at the Yellow Brick Road, when I had to tell him that Jayasekharan was me. The reaction was dramatic. His face went red, and he asked if he could take a walk in the lobby and be back.

Q. Who is the publishing the book now?
A. Harper Collins in the US, Orion in the UK, and Penguin and Orion jointly in India. David Godwin says there is an interest in translation rights from seventeen countries. The book will be launched worldwide in 2001.

Q. What is the book about?
A. It is a generation saga of a family in South India spanning from 1899 to 1947. The backdrop is the struggle for Independence, but there is more than one backdrop to the unfolding story.

Q. Is the story about your own family in some way?
A. No. But I have drawn from my knowledge of the South in the setting of the story. 

Q. Why is the book as long as 700 pages?
A. Well, there is no particular reason. I could have written another two hundred pages. But at around the present length it felt just right. It's not too long. It's still half the length of The Suitable Boy.

Q. And what about the question which is in the minds of observers of Indo-Anglian writing: How big was the advance?
A. Well, it was substantial enough for me not to quibble. But, seriously, the money is important, nut not pivotal. You write a book because you have something to say. For years the ideas have fermented in your mind. 
                                                   In my case that meeting with Vikram Seth was the catalyst that got me writing again. The actual writing is a daily investment in faith. There was more than one occasion when I was willing to mothball the whole project. But whenever I was assailed with doubt, or overcome with inertia, Rachna, my wife, would push me to finish the book. She would say an incomplete novels is nothing. I recall that on some mornings she would actually push me out of bed at 4.30. There were only three people who knew I was writing: Me, Rachna and Vikram Seth. 

Q. For a man who sits on judgment over other people's manuscripts, were you afraid of being judged yourself?
A. There may have been some unease. But I had to mentally sidestep my role as publisher and adopt the persona of a first time novelist.

Q. Are you still going to be in publishing, or do you plan to go full time into writing?
A. I genuinely enjoy publishing, and I hope I remain in this line for many, many years to come. Very few people can lead the life of a writer in isolation.

© Times Of India. Interview by Pavan K. Varma

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