The Proust Questionnaire is a fortnightly feature. These questions were most famously answered by the French writer Marcel Proust, whose personality-revealing responses came to define this form of celebrity confession. This questionnaire was administered by Saraswathy Nagarajan
What is your idea of happiness?
All my loved ones being busy and happy, which then allows me quiet spaces in my head so I can immerse myself in my favourite occupations of reading and writing. But, on another level, I have qualms about the notion of all-out happiness because I see that state as one often too easily purchased, too transient, and impossible to sustain for any length of time. I prefer to think of contentment, rather than happiness, as a more permanent and ideal state of being. Having said that, I don’t think any of us benefit by achieving contentment too quickly or too easily for whither then the need to strive and excel?
What is your greatest fear?
Personally — losing my good health. On a wider level — the fact that our world is getting more intolerant and polarised by the day. I had always thought it would go the other way around in my lifetime.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
All those who have shown that adversity can be turned into positive things — such as Mahatma Gandhi’s experience of racism in South Africa translating into India’s freedom movement. Or Elizabeth I, sent to the Tower and nearly beheaded, who kept her wits about her and went on to rule over one of Britain’s greatest periods.
Which living person do you most admire?
Mr. E. Sreedharan, for being that rare thing — an honest and incorruptible public servant. I also admire the manner in which he made a success of the seemingly impossible: a transport system under the bustling, crowded alleyways of Old Delhi. – Who would have thought!
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Indecisiveness... er, I think.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Duplicity. I feel I can deal with most other negative traits when they are staring me in the face.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Air tickets, even though I do try to keep my carbon footprint small by travelling economy. I enjoy exploring new places enough to completely overlook the financial and environmental concerns that advocate against global travel these days.
What is your favourite journey?
The walk from Soho (where I used to work in London) to the South Bank (where I lived). An ever-changing landscape, thanks to Britain’s capricious weather, the changing tides of the Thames and the tourist season, which brought all kinds of interesting faces and languages to my door.
Who is your favourite painter?
I’m not a connoisseur of art at all, sadly, but I recall going to see an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner, the English ‘painter of light’ and thinking, for the first time ever, of how much I would like to have those paintings on my walls. Straddling the Romantics and Impressionists, Turner’s style is varied and his choice of subjects unusual and often startling. I like to think that there’s some resonance in that with my writing, which stubbornly straddles literary and popular fiction, despite all the advice of agents and publishers.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Piety. This is especially true in India where describing someone as ‘religious’ is generally considered complimentary. I don’t deride religious worship but it should remain entirely within the private sphere. When it emerges into the public realm, we have seen time and again the damage it is capable of wreaking.
On what occasion do you lie?
To keep someone happy.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
I used to worry about my football field of a forehead, despite my father, from whom I inherited it, trying to convince me that it was due to extra grey matter.
Which living person do you most despise?
As I get older, words like ‘despise’ have faded out of my lexicon. Live and let live is very definitely my philosophy now.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘That’s fantastic!’ Which is me being nice but probably sounding gushy.
What is your greatest regret?
Not having learnt to touch-type back at school. I’ve written seven books now, using just my increasingly well-muscled forefingers.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My husband, who was my best friend back in our schooldays too.
When and where were you happiest?
At school, when the world was definitely my oyster. And whatever grit did inevitably slip in turned into pearls along the way, I hope!
What is your present state of mind?
Getting close to that state of contentment I mentioned earlier, but hopefully without losing the urge to achieve a bit more yet.
Jaishree Misra is a best-selling author with seven novels to her credit, including the historical novel Rani, based on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Having moved from the U.K., Jaishree is now actively involved in setting up a residential community in Delhi for adults with learning disabilities. A regular on the literary festival circuit, Jaishree’s latest book A Scandalous Secret was released last May at the Hay-on-Wye festival.