Vipul Rikhi tells Budhaditya Bhattacharya about the making of his first novel “2012 Nights”

Vipul Rikhi’s novel 2012 Nights tells the story of a writer who believes, like many of us did, that the world is coming to an end on December 21, 2012. Surrounded by portents of disaster, and deserted by his wife Karuna, the narrator-protagonist starts telling stories to his only audience, a cat, in a bid to stay alive.

Rikhi was deposited in the track of this novel when the charge around the 2012 phenomenon fused with his (initially) second-hand familiarity with the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights), gained through popular cultural manifestations like Alif Laila and Aladdin.

After finally reading the One Thousand and One Nights, Rikhi’s hunch that “you can avoid death only as long as you tell stories” hardened to conviction. He found its narrative structure riveting. The tales are framed by the story of Scheherazade who narrates stories to Sultan Schahriar for 1001 nights in a row, pausing at dawn in order to keep herself alive another day. In 2012 nights, the narrator becomes Scheherazade and his cat Schahriar, and their destinies are tied together for 21 days by the thread of stories.

The novel is divided into three books. The stories in the first (“Schahriar the Cat”) are twists to familiar tales from One Thousand and One Nights nights. One of them tells of Aladdin, his wife Badroulbadour — long dead, “an illegal immigrant in an alien land” known as “the bush.” Here, the old and weary Aladdin stumbles upon the magic lamp he had lost, and is given a fresh lease of life. Why doesn’t he simply run away with the lamp? “Well, the bush has a control mechanism to make sure no one can escape its influence. It produces objects that look like flowers…they release a certain subtle aroma, severely addictive and imperceptibly toxic, the kind that you can smell in the lobbies of five-star hotels,” the narrator tells the cat.

Explaining his decision to re-cast old tales, Rikhi says, “Sindbad and Aladdin have become such powerful figures that I wanted to use them to make my own points about history and civilisation.”

The other books are titled “The Writer’s Room” and “Before the Word”. While the former tells the story of the world after the apocalypse, the latter presents the “story of the universe”.

Do these later books dilute the narrative charge of the first? Rikhi disagrees. “Book 3 gives the novel a sense of perspective. It tells us the larger human story, modern man comes only at the fag end of the tale. The book would be incomplete without it. To me, there is an underlying coherence,” he says.

Rikhi was born and brought up in Delhi. “I started reading early and was pretty shy as a child, so books were a companion. I also had a flair for language and was encouraged by my English teachers,” he says. Apart from occasional freelance writing and editing, he works part-time with the Kabir Project in Bangalore, on translations.

Rikhi is also a poet, and has published a bi-lingual collection of poetry in Germany. Does he find the claims of writing poetry any different? “Poetry seems more like breathing. At any unexpected moment, an idea will come and tale the shape of a poem. With the novel, you need an idea which grips you for a long time and germinates inside you,” he says. “I didn’t attempt a single word for five months.”

A book almost as well waited as the apocalypse, therefore.

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