Palash Krishna Mehrotra reflects on the success of Eunuch Park and why he chose non-fiction for his second book.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra is one of the most compelling literary voices to have emerged in recent years. His first collection of short stories Eunuch Park was embraced by readers and critics alike for negotiating small-town India and telling its story with edgy, visceral humour. Mehrotra is truly an original. His stories can be biting and charming at the same time. Excerpts from a freewheeling chat after the release of The Butterfly Generation:
How will you classify your latest work?
It's a kaleidoscopic book, composed of essays, connected by the theme of young India — a generation that grew up in the socialist 1980s, and came of age in the new Americanised India we live in today. TBG is partly a memoir of the 1980s, part social commentary, and part travelogue.
The last year has been very turbulent for India; full of scams and scandals. I don't think the book covers that…
Ours is a layered and complex society and difficult to write about; there's so much going on. One has to leave out certain things; there's no politics in the book, nor is there much on sport for that matter or fashion or about tribals. I'm more interested in exploring the personal histories of my subjects, their interior spaces rather than their political affiliations.
Your first collection of short stories Eunuch Park came in for a fair bit of critical acclaim. Did that put any kind of pressure on you when you were writing The Butterfly Generation?
Eunuch Park was certainly a bit of a sleeper hit. It came out quietly, with no fanfare, but seemed to touch a chord immediately. It showed in the reviews, and the responses I got from readers. I was already writing TBG when Eunuch Park came out, so I wasn't really affected by what happened. It didn't put any pressure on me; if anything, it came as a tremendous boost. Also, my voice remains my voice, and it's not particularly affected by success or failure. I cannot change my voice; come what may. It's like a fact of nature.
You negotiated some unchartered territory in Eunuch Park. But I felt The Butterfly Generation is, in fact, deliberately talking to the reader about a world they are familiar with. Why this U-turn?
Is there a U-turn? The first part of the book sort of takes off from where Eunuch Park ended, at least in tone and structure. In parts two and three, the book changes gears. Much of this book is about what other people are doing — whether they are heavy metal bands, or domestic help, or the kids who work in KFC and McDonalds. It's about their lives. I'm also trying to scratch the surface and analyse what's things are really like; you know issues like ragging or drugs, not in a preachy way though. I think non-fiction is a good medium to explore this with; for, unlike fiction which imposes its own rules on the material, non-fiction is freer. I can interview people, or do a thought experiment, use a newspaper clipping or a quote from a book, whatever enables me to get to the heart of the matter.
The natural progression for an author who has brought out a collection of short stories as his first work is a novel…
I felt like leaving my desk and looking for stories, rather than wait for the stories to come to me. The book took me to various cities, and enabled me to befriend people. I also wanted to write about my generation, where we come from, and where we're headed, how we reconcile the socialist India we grew up in, with the capitalism of today — it's been quite a journey, from steam engine to broadband, so to speak, and it all happened before we'd turned 30 — I wanted to tell this story, and non-fiction seemed like the perfect genre for the purpose.
Your book spans a wide range of narratives. How easy or difficult was it for you to write this book?
I'm an Indian who grew up here, and I'm writing about my generation. This meant I was close to my subject matter, and yet I wasn't, for after I came back from Oxford I spent six years in Dehra Dun, more or less cut off from the big city. Big city India had changed in the meanwhile; the good thing was that because I'd been away, I could come at the material with fresh eyes. I didn't want to walk around with a Dictaphone or a notebook, taking notes while someone spoke. So I tried to blend in, sometimes fly-on-the-wall, mostly participant observer, an embedded journalist in the convoy of young India.
There were times, like in the chapter on ragging, where people refused to open up, and were not willing to go into uncomfortable spaces. In such cases, I had to fall back on my fiction writer's skills, and resort to thought experiments. But, on the whole, people opened up easily, let me into their lives.
One more thing. I remember the feeling of blankness when I arrived in each city, whether it was Bangalore or Kochi, even Delhi…who do I meet? Young India was all around me but I didn't know too many people, so it was a challenge to find subjects who interested me.
You have written fiction as well as non-fiction? What comes more naturally?
Both. I will always shuttle between the two. Besides, often, the boundaries blur, and one finds that one is simply telling a story, no matter what the genre.
Have you ever dabbled in poetry?
In college. In fact, I won the MM Bhalla Poetry Prize twice in a row. In Stephen's they say whoever wins that prize never goes on to write poetry as an adult. And I won it twice, so I think that sealed my fate as a poet.
What are you working on currently?
I'm working on an anthology for Tranquebar, and there's more fiction in the pipeline.