Saturday, November 10, 2007

Skype, Indra and me

In pursuance of my interest in [the writing of] Mr. Sinha, here’s a conversation that was published in the First City Magazine, November issue. The magazine published a concise version.

When First City casually suggested the idea of an interview with Indra Sinha, I didn’t hesitate a moment. “YES!” I bellowed, in capital letters. It was an excellent idea. After all, I’d blogged about him a couple of times and considered myself, if not an authority, at least a ‘fledgling two-post pimp’ of his work.

However, when FC mentioned this little detail of sounding Indra off on the idea of being interviewed by a single-letter non-identity, the absurdity of this enterprise came thundering home. “H” I said to myself “whatever made you think that he’s going to risk his reputation, and a few precious hours on a single-letter nobody whose blogposts have had nothing significant to say about his work, except that he ‘writes like butter’?” The Booker jury had been distinctly more eloquent and expansive in their argument in favour of the literary merits of his work, as had been many scores of journalists of considerably greater repute. “Wouldn’t he rather be interviewed by a First City writer?”

But the world functions in mysterious ways. Both First City and Indra Sinha were game.

I caught up with Indra online, hours before he was to leave his home in the South of France for England with his wife Vickie, to attend the Booker dinner. They were just back from buying cheeses and wines of the region for friends, yet unpacked, and unprepared for a 5am journey. Despite the paucity of time, he was sporting enough to play along with my whim of having an anonymous conversation with him as blogger H.

About Animal's People

19 year old Jaanwar [Animal] is an orphan who walks on all fours and hears voices in his head. His spine was twisted by the poisonous gases that entered his system that night when the evil Kampani's faulty valves let loose a stream of lethal chemicals destroying the quiet night air of Khaufpur – literally the City of Fear – taking the lives of his parents, and thousands of others, afflicting endless generations of Khaufpuris with inconceivable disabilities.

Sometimes quirkily outrageous sometimes poignant, Animals' People is about the Bhopal Gas incident in 1984, told in the unedited voice of Jaanwar, one of its more colourful survivors, in eccentric grammar, a bizarre punch of French phrases, Bollywood songs and his uniquely Indian brand of fruity oaths; as he offers up risqué observations about life, his chances of getting laid, his almost grudging desire to walk like a human, the Apokalis, the surreal lure of the derelict Kampani building, the Amrikans, his basti and his people.

Indra Sinha has spent 14 years writing for the Bhopal Medical Appeal, during which he's interacted with a number of people with varying perspectives on the Bhopal Gas incident. Animal's People, while it has taken inspiration from the resilient spirit of the people of Bhopal, is dedicated to Sunil, a 34 year old activist who committed suicide in 2006, after he'd had enough of the terrible voices in his head that refused to allow him hope for his people.

Our conversation
[Which I managed to get going after a technically disastrous, seriously embarrassing and unendingly long moment...]

H: “Dear Sunil, you thought you were mad, but a world without justice is madder", words that you wrote in your tribute to Sunil, in The life and death of a mad Bhopali child, seem to have set the tone for this book. In fact this notion of madness exquisitely holds the book together. Whether it's the apparently skewed dominance of Animal's obsessive preoccupation with his nether parts in his narrative, or Ma Franci's prophetic ramblings or even that the denouement is triggered by a datura-induced fit of madness… How much of Animal’s People was consciously constructed as a comment on this idea of madness?

Indra: I am not sure that one cold-bloodedly decides to construct a novel around this or that notion. It's a far bigger enterprise than that, and I can only speak for myself but I find that themes emerge rather than me consciously implanting them. Having said this I think the idea of Animal's madness, his "mad times", has been misunderstood as "magical realism" which really irritates me but it is my fault for not making it clearer. The boy sees things that aren't there...he hears voices in his head.

The kha-in-the-jar tends to appear to him at times of crisis... and we should not forget that it is Animal who is narrating all this... all we know of him is what he tells us... and what if he is barking?

I said in the Booker interview that I doubt if there is anything very magical about madness...but Animal is his own kind of realist. When asked to admit his voices are hallucinations not real, and to turn to religion, he says, "To deny what you do see and hear, and believe in things you don't, that you could call crazy."

And another thing! Animal talks a lot about madness and has many ways to talk about it. "Old woman you are fully hypped" "crazy as fishguts" "mad as a leper's thumbnail" and so on.

The language is itself mad and that was partly joie de vivre and partly design. A friend of mine is writing a very long and learned piece about the book's very strong alchemical theme... that also is linked to madness... so you are very perceptive.

H: alchemy seems to be another thing that you bring up quite often.

Indra: it would take a while to talk about what alchemy means in the context of this story.

H: I've been very eager to ask this next question... Almost all your characters are based in some measure on real people. Most often, these snatches of inspiration have been reason enough to model the physical resemblances of these characters on their 'real' avatars. Whether it's Ma Franci, or Zafar [based loosely on Shahid Noor] or the lawyer in the outrageous outfit, who's based on Melvin Belli down to his alligator skin boots. HOWEVER, the character inspired by your role in the Bhopal medical appeal is the hot-bod Elli Barber with blue denim clad legs that are fodder for many of Animal's fantasies [another give-away that her character takes inspiration from your role is that Animal calls her an "auto-riding superstar" a title that Sunil once bestowed on you]; this along with Indira Singh's enticing image on the site, seem to suggest that there is obviously some great private joke afoot here…

Indra: Zafar is most definitely not based on Shahid Noor, not a bit. But I did use some of the experiences of Shahid and my friend Sathyu when they were on waterless hunger strike.

H: Yes. Well that's what I meant really, by 'snatches of inspiration'.

Indra: Ma Franci... who do you think she is based on?

H: Well you spoke of this old lady that your daughter Tara once told you about… who'd gone back to the French she knew as a child and how all other languages were gibberish to her.

Indra: Yes, true, I have talked of that... have talked so f'ing much I've forgotten half of what I have have obviously done your homework.

I am most certainly not Elli! If only you could see me howling with laughter this end.

H: You most certainly did take 'snatches of inspiration' for her character from your own role...

Indra: only that scene really... and that was Sunil to me... "Indra, we can never really be friends."

Why not? I ask. "Because you are rich and I am poor" etc. Except he never wanted money from anyone... that was Animal... but Sunil told me he lived on 4 rupees a day. So really, the characters in the book are themselves and no one else. But in the long work that went into bringing them to life, bits of other people, ideas, mannerisms, bad habits, favourite phrases and oaths... all these can be found. You are right about Melvin Belli... Belli also means war of course... Mel Musisin is like Belli but google Musisin and see what you get.

H: Sure. I do not mean to say that they are directly based on real people. But there definitely are these glimpses or rather defining moments that are reminiscent of real experiences.

Indra: All writing is surely based on real experiences. How could one describe a hillside or a lake or a face if one had never seen such things and been struck by them? Even Plato could not have imagined his world of ideal forms had he not had his feet firmly upon Attic soil.

H: True. And I know I'm being insistent here, but really it is too tempting to see this 'link' between Indira Singh and Elli. Even just a tiny one.

Indra: Only there in your imagination. Elli's childhood came from a good friend of mine who grew up in Coatesville, PA.

The true Indira Singh story is the one I told you [here Indra’s referring to his email about the birth of Indira Singh: ”the Bhopal Chronicle is fully responsible for Indira Singh. About five years ago they ran a report on the website which I was then editing, but spoke of editor, "Indira Singh" and "her" approach to the serious matters of the day. Rather than correct them, I decided to play along, thinking that if the old buggers at the Chronicle thought they were dealing with a pretty girl they might carry our stories more often. So Indira was born in Photoshop, a combination of two rather lovely women whose pictures I found on a New York dating website. Indira duly appeared on (she's still there buried in its depths & more) (scroll down) And her departure as editor was also chronicled along with Dow's reaction.

During her editorship Indira received several invitations to dinner and one proposal of marriage.”]

Indra: And there's a spin on it in When the Bhopal Central Chronicle interviewed me recently, speaking over the phone as well as via email, they called me Indra Sinha in para 1 and Indira in para 2... So I have cruelly lampooned them.

Oh and by the way Indira has her own email address... you can email her from the matrimonials page and yesterday she received a proposal of marriage (so that now makes two).

Here’s a link to my bowdlerisation of the Bhopal Central Chronicle piece someway down the page. The Central Chronicle is an amazing paper, with journalism like that who needs to parody?

H: Have you had any response to Animal's success from Dow?

Indra: Not to my knowledge. Sir Howard Davies, chair of the Booker judges, said he thought Dow's public affairs people would be crawling all over

H: yes, I'd have imagined so too.

H: my next question's not a question really… it's more a remark, that I'd like you to respond to... I love the scatological overtones in your book. It's as if you want to rub the reader's nose in poo. Get them to drop their literary pretensions – their desire to be reading delicately wrought verbiage, to say: This is the texture of life. This is the texture of us. It binds us all. Now, read the story of Animal who is one of us. Yet, there are some who’ve criticised the book for a gimmicky overuse of this ‘trick’…

Indra: I think Animal loves to shock... sometimes the things he does and says are shocking, and sometimes he is laying it on thick... this for me is part of his character and part of the texture of narration... we shouldn't ever forget that everything we hear comes from the mouth of animal himself, who can hardly be unbiased, impartial or detached... he may be lying or simply wrong... unreliable narrator indeed.

The point about shitting alone is a serious one however.

You might find this of some use. It was an interview originally done with verve who had asked to speak to animal not me, but who didn't want to run the result.

Another thing that I find irritating is the comment that the style is not very "literary" as if literary simply meant high flown, lots of long words in delicately balanced sentences. There is not very much good literary writing of that sort. And what that actually means is that you are obliged to confine your storytelling to tales that can be told in that way which means that they are generally about clever, highly educated middle class people suffering various kinds of angst.
Rough hewn words have their own music and beauty... someone who had it in for animal on the booker forum slammed the entire book but then, to show that his was a balanced judgement, praised a passage (p 274-5) as being of the highest literary merit...singling out for particular compliment the phrase "with white and weeping sores".

The bugger didn't realise that this high flown stuff was a pastiche of Aeschylus in the Choephorae where Orestes is agonising over whether to murder his mother.

I had originally reworked this passage to use as a curse against the Greek CEO of Dow, William Stavropoulos in 2003... it amused me to give it to Animal, who truly hams it up...but the fellow on the Booker forum never even realised that this over the top oratory was being set up for a pratfall.

Wasn't Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize, literary? But I defy you to find a high flown sentence in "as I lay dying."

H: That's beautifully put. Which is why I'm coming back to this: I know you've said it's animal's voice, but it's you who wrote it, you who gave a voice to it. You who had it published. So then why did you feel the need to apologise for this carefully assumed coarseness in Animal's voice recently, at the Edinburgh Book Festival? Thankfully, someone was kind enough to let you know that you seemed to be more "shocked" by it than anyone else.

Indra: I don't particularly like bad language on the page. I laughed at Irvine Welsh, or with him, and am not so prudish, but my own preferred style is at the other end of the spectrum. I love Nabokov who never wrote a crude word in his life, not even in Lolita.

Every story demands its own proper voice, and finding it is the key to the whole thing. This story didn't work when I wrote literary-like, in the third person... that's how it started...but it was dead until Animal appeared.

H: It's half charming half maddening to have you play this little hide and seek with us [me now] sometimes it's animal, sometimes it's you...

Indra: No this is all me. Unless you mean the interview... You have to realise that to me animal is a real person, as real as either of us, and I regard his voice as quite separate and distinct from my own... if this is a form of madness, then perhaps it cycles us back to your first question, for the person seeing things and hearing voices in his head is me.

H: no actually I meant all of it... it isn't really separate, is it? It doesn't really matter that the book's written and published. The voice still exists. Alive and forming its own opinions, in spite of you.

H: Tell me, I've always wanted to ask this of someone whose work is out there – often a result of years of effort – being summarised by a critic [many now, given the explosive prolificity of forums like blog] in a couple of days and some few paragraphs: how do you feel about letting such an intimate part of you be open to such close scrutiny?

Indra: I used to find it quite upsetting when someone clearly had utterly misunderstood something, or criticised me for not doing something the book never set out or pretended to do, or for doing something of which they disapproved for random reasons... nowadays I try to take it all with a pinch of salt... I've collected all the ones that either I have come across or other people have sent me on my website... there is some negative stuff there as well as positive... ultimately the book will happen inside the reader's mind...

At this point Indra was interrupted a couple of times, once by phone and another time to attend to the supper Vickie had laid out. It was getting late and I was feeling bad about keeping him from his last minute preparations. So I suggested sending him the questions on email.

Indra: Are you on the facebook thing? A friend told me to start an account and now I am in touch with people from the distant past and have friends I've never heard of.

H: No. I've this strange sort of snobbery about being on facebook. But now that it's out [this is the first time I've admitted to it] I'm sure I'm going to end up on it. Someday.

Indra: I would leave it except my two sons are there.

H: :) Well this question's really something that's got irritate-you potential. It's about your advertising past. Your interviews suggest that you're keen to shake off the celebrity associated with your image as an erstwhile advertising demigod. Why do you feel this need to dissociate from these past laurels?

Indra: Oh I don't shake it off... look at my website. I've never particularly liked being treated like a demigod as you put it, although I am not sure where you got that from. I did win a few awards and tended to write very long ads.

H: Well you're very respected and even Neil French in one of his interviews says he took inspiration from you. So.

Indra: Frenchie says he took inspiration from everyone.

H: How different was the experience of moving from copywriting to writing a book? Did you have to undergo some sort of shift in your head to be able to meet the demands of this form of writing?

Indra: It is completely different. Even my long 1000 word ads were miniatures compared to 100,000 or 120,000 words in a novel. The curves are long, character is everything whereas advertising tends to stereotype and caricature, one has to imagine very deeply and feel deeply - albeit the work I did for amnesty and the bhopalis involved a lot of deep alchemy… that word again.

Indra: Are you in advertising, tell me something about H, the mystery woman, to whom I am talking…

H: Well I've a whole range of very irrelevant experiences really. Mostly [to do with] film which I'm thoroughly disinterested in. No not in advertising. But I'm increasingly seeing merit in the terseness required of ad copy... What you say about characters is really interesting... because I've been meaning to ask you how your years in advertising have affected the way you relate to your subject? Do you still feel this need to 'summarise' characters? Size them up?
Indra: advertising has nothing to say about character and its terseness is usually just one appalling cliche after another. If you like minimalist prose, read Bruce Chatwin, his work is masterly and utterly beautiful. I like wordy writers like Nabokov, Lawrence Durrell...

H: I did once try to like Lawrence Durrell. Long back, in college. His sentences are unrelenting.

Indra: Nonsense. "We all live by selected fictions". What is unrelenting about that?

H: :) I'll obviously have to pick LD up again.

Indra: My advice, read him in this order: Prospero's Cell, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons - then the four books of the Alexandria Quartet. Remember he was writing in the 30s and believed in art. Henry Miller was his idol, how do you get on with Tropic of Cancer for example?

At this point I started feeling bad about asking him more than we’d agreed to in the beginning. He had a journey to make, and here I was making irrelevant comments about Lawrence Durrell whose writing I had abandoned many years ago.

H: Indra, I will [reluctantly] let go of you now, as I know you must have a million things to look into. But I do look forward to continuing this conversation. Would you like me to mail you the remaining questions, or shall I check with you about when you can converse on chat. Perhaps I'll mail you the qs. And then you could decide whether to answer them by mail or take them up on chat...?

Indra: Oh I am just beginning to hit a stride... I love talking about writing and books and writers... it is the only thing other than human beings that I have ever deeply cared about.
Hah, you young people have no stamina. Well, you still haven't answered my personal question about you? But off you go if you need to... it must be very late.

H: No no… I'd be glad to continue! Haha.

Indra: Well I can do another half hour at most, so if you have more pertinent questions for your piece fire away, or else I am happy just to chat with you.

H: I shall get on with some more questions - it's the right thing.

Indra: Remind me of the name of your blog.

H: it's called Shout.

Indra: What inspired you to start it? And why do you hide your identity?

H: well I started because I needed to write. But I wasn't sure of how. In what tone. I wasn't aware of my voice [except the irritating whiny angsty voice that surfaced in my diaries]. And then I came across someone's blog and it made so much sense. Relieving actually.

Indra: I think the thing about writing is you have to leave yourself behind, or out of it, which you can't do until you've written through all your whiny angsts of course...

H: I agree. It's what I discovered.

H: while we're on the topic of blog, you have your own blog Footnotes – [though you’re not very mindful about updating it]. Do you find that blog is radically different [from writing for print] in how it engages [allows you to engage] with the written word?

Indra: I want to write better things for Footnotes than I have time for. I should loosen up and be more chatty... but I think I prefer writing to be a more private experience… I don't know what to do with the blog.

H: But I think you've adapted very easily to this chatty style you're talking about, on blog. But this thing about it being private… I agree. That's why I’m anon. And I enjoy being fluffy, without constraint or fear of judgement.

H: from what you're saying it almost seems like you feel a bit - dare I say - awkward about writing on blog?

Indra: Yeah, awkward is exactly right.

Oh I had a piece about an article my cousin had written in the Times Literary Supplement, a very interesting article about early European attitudes to America... I only just found out she used to be married to A N Wilson who was on the short list with me. Small world because Mohsin is a friend of a friend... we are both mates of Suketu Mehta (who wrote Maximum City)... I had a really sweet email from Mohsin last night... What are the chances of being longlisted for the booker with your second cousin and shortlisted with a friend?

H: Slim. And very fortuitous. :) Talking about Mohsin and Suketu... I wanted to ask you about this Indian identity thing. You left India when you were 17, your successful years as a writer in advertising were spent in England, you're married to an Englishwoman and you've been living in the South of France for several years with your family. [You're probably as much an 'Indian writer' as Dominique Lapiere is.] And you’ve [quite understandably] expressed mild discomfort at this annoying thing that the media tends to do – this business of slotting – when they call you an ‘Indian writer’. However, do you think that this identity as ‘Indian writer’ might have worked in your favour at the Booker forum, given the current trend in international forums to be overtly conscious of including ‘other ethnic identities’?

Indra: Well I sincerely hope not. They didn't need me after all, they had Nikita Lalwani. I don't like being categorised in that way and neither does for example Vikram Seth. But I suppose it doesn't help that both my fictions have been set in India and you can hardly get more Indian than Animal. However after this, I have told my agent and publisher I never intend to write another word about India again.

H: Indra, recent reports on the book sales of Animal’s People haven’t been as encouraging as one would hope. One factor could be that most bookshops don’t seem to have access to enough copies. Also there is this other matter of the visual appeal of the book. In fact, one blogger said about picking up your book from the Booker Longlist: “when I saw the book, I thought, not another depressing book from India”. Of course, later he goes on to say how the powerful and compelling the book was. Have you considered that perhaps the cover design could be responsible for it? Did you have a say in deciding what would go on the cover, or even the distribution?

Indra: ... I had one of my own, which I will show you in a sec.

H: About this cover... I'm curious. Really. I'd like to see what you'd originally planned. And will FC have permission to publish it?

Indra: Don't see why not...

H: this is INFINITELY better! it's a lovely cover.

H: My last two questions are about your style and process of writing... Writing obviously runs in the family, given that you and your sister Umi are writers, as was your mother, who wrote short stories under the penname Rani Sinha. In your book The Death of Mr. Love, it seems that the character of Maya, particularly her vivid and colourful idea of storytelling, is a sort of tribute to her. How much have your mother's stories and storytelling influenced your writing career?

Indra: well you have it really... Maya was based on an aspect of my was her life described there, the arty friends from that era in the 1950s before bollywood and vulgarity, the writers, poets, filled with books...she could also be bafflingly nonchalant about dreadful things. I don't think my style, such as it is, owes much to her...but Bhalu wasn't me, and Katy wasn't Vickie and Phoebe... [A friend] asked me to introduce him to Phoebe.

H: well… I'll admit I've been curious too.

Indra: Everyone is, and it is a singularly pointless curiosity because characters are never really real people to the life, they couldn't be, so trying to guess who is who is a complete waste of time and I grow tired of gently explaining this to friends who will insist on making these clever connections. Sathyu thinks Zafar is based on him, but they could hardly be more different. I don't think they would even like each other.

H: About evoking this curiosity, I think you are largely responsible for it. You have this way of being irreverent about fact and fiction. And sometimes it seems you do it intentionally to mock the reader into being a little more careful about not being bovine in accepting 'facts'.

Indra: I am sincerely sorry that I am so naughty.

H: haha. Something tells me you aren't. And I'm very glad. My mum once told me [I was writing some school essay, trying to be ironic] that I can never, and under NO circumstances EVER mess with facts. Obviously that misapprehension has been removed.

Indra: I think the way to look at it is that it is ALL fiction. Then you have no problem. If you really want to get into fact and fiction you should read the Cybergypsies, but it is a seriously weird book and I wouldn't really wish it on my worst enemy.

H: What do you enjoy most about the process of writing?

Indra: the process itself... the struggle, the breakthroughs, a telling phrase, some little insight that comes from the writing itself, the fact that the book comes through the writing of it and cannot be planned before in any real depth, the discovery of character, their little quirks, the interactions that drive the plot, weaving those together in a way that seems natural, and then breaking it with changes of pace or voice, all the million intricacies that constitute a novel, mostly the things that please me are things that only the author would ever notice... I talked about this in a blog piece... which is pertinent to the question you have just asked.

H: yes I know... about reinventing history.

H: Indra, my absolutely last question to you. What prompted you to take on this task of writing copy for the Bhopal Medical Appeal when Sathyu Sarangi approached you, considering you were already on your way to deciding your exit from the world of copywriting?

Indra: I was moved by his story and his honesty. He is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. (And only bits and pieces of him went into Zafar.) I thought it wasn't a big deal for me to write an ad. It was a bigger deal to get it placed, but it had to be done. After that I learned the hard way that you can't just start a clinic, you have to keep fund raising for it, so it has now been 14 years. Simple as that.

H: Well I was going to say some very pretentious sounding things about how superb all this is...

Indra: but instead you will just drink a quiet glass of absinthe. Yes I know, me too.

H: Yes. Perfectly said.


If you’ve come this far, you’ve obviously enjoyed this conversation. So I suppose this is a good time to let you know that there’s more to come on Indra’s writing. Soon.