A conversation with Rana Dasgupta, whose “Solo” has been shortlisted for this year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize

The clink and tinkle of his piano keys steers my footsteps to the door, past a winding flight of narrow stairs. Author Rana Dasgupta, I have just learnt, is also a pianist. He later says he took lessons on the instrument from the age of seven.

Leaving Bach's “English Suites” half done, Rana promptly sits down to converse on “Solo”, his novel, which has just won the European and South Asian round for the Best Book for this year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize. In fact, we don't talk about the Prize at all, simply because he feels, “There is nothing to talk about it yet.” Rana has won one of the regional rounds of the Prize with Pakistani author Daniyal Mueenuddin. Out of the regional winners picked from different Commonwealth countries, the Prize would go to one lucky author on April 12.

Soft and measured

With the big day a good few weeks away, we steer clear of questions like ‘So how does it feel?' The conversation easily flows towards writing “Solo”, a Harper Collins publication — Rana's first novel and second book. The young author says, “I was glad when I finished writing it. I wanted it to get over.” Well, how do we take that! He explains, a soft, measured smile spreading on his face, “I feel stupid saying this but while writing a book, you have a very reclusive existence. You don't know what to tell people about what you are doing and yet you are living your days in a world made up of your characters. They are real for you.”

Rana's “Solo” is based in Bulgaria and has one principal character, a hundred-year-old Ulrich. No, he has no personal connection with Bulgaria. Yet, it is not on impulse that he fancied writing about that country. “My initial interest in that country grew from a CD I heard of Bulgarian folk music. It had incredible sounds and complex rhythms. In Bulgarian folk music, women sing and men play. The women sing in a low voice but they are incredibly harmonious.” Musical at heart, Bulgaria won the first round of his favour for “its turbulent music” but the clincher was its rather peculiar history. The country was once a part of Asia and now Europe. For research, he made “two fairly long trips to Bulgaria and met people in their 60s and 70s who talked about their fathers and family, and gave a sense of how people lived.”

To explore that long span of history, he made his character a centurion. With adept language, fabulous similes and a perceptive eye for detail, this Oxford graduate dexterously brings to life a series of characters and events that traverse the mind of weather-beaten Ulrich, now blind.

But the book begins without naming a character or the city (Sofia) he lives in. Rana says this was deliberate. “Bulgaria is peculiar in many ways, but the changes it went through to turn it into a nation can be somewhat generalised. Like India, a nation was born out of nothing. After independence, people feel they are free to be themselves but they actually go through a new set of restrictions. For instance, in Bulgaria, when the Communists took over, they banned old Bulgarian music because they wanted to make their own music.”

The conversation veers towards other topics — his becoming an author, his taking up residence in Delhi. Rana is in his 30s and already noticed as an author. Interestingly, he says, “I wrote my first book ‘Tokyo Cancelled', as a birthday gift to my then girlfriend, now wife.” Writing stories as birthday gifts to friends was a habit he picked up in his teens. He now says, “I must have learnt something about writing from that.” When it came to choosing his career, Rana, in his 20s then, thought it was time “to break out” of writing as a hobby.

Talking about living in Delhi, he recalls how nine years ago, he was moving to a completely foreign city. “If I wanted to reclaim my roots, I should have gone to Kolkata because my father is from that city, but I chose Delhi because I was marrying someone living here,” says the Canterbury-born writer. Then he adds in his accented voice, “Though I have an Indian name, I am not Indian at all…I don't speak Bengali.”

However, nine years have made him suitably interested in Delhi. Rana's next will be an interview-based non-fiction work documenting lives of people living in the city.

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