One tells stories because one's job is to imagine. Everything else is external to the act, says Vikram Chandra.
A small, almost diminutive, person is seated across the table. His hair rumpled and clothes somewhat dishevelled. At a glance, he does not look like he's garnered a million dollar deal. But, then, that is your problem. Vikram Chandra graciously accepts he's the toast of the publishing industry these days. Not that there weren't any pitfalls. 'I didn't have a regular job till 35,' he quips, 'but then it's all turned out for the best.' He adds smiling, 'I might have done something good in my last birth.'It's difficult to not acknowledge one's roots and Chandra's earlier two novels - one a compilation of short stories - Love and Longing in Bombay and the other, Red Earth and Pouring Rain are rooted in his childhood years and the influences that shaped his environment. Both won him critical acclaim and many awards and a lot of fame. But it is his latest book, yet to hit the bookstores, Sacred Games, that has won him a million dollars.He's cautious though, as he admits that getting the advance cannot 'make you plan a book. It remains mysterious why this happens to one as opposed to another book.' As a 'reader' he said he would be sceptical of books with such huge hype and he'd like the same thumb rule to apply to his own book. He was in Mumbai recently to promote his forthcoming magnum opus. Excerpts from an interview.
Do you think that getting a huge advance puts pressure on a writer to 'perform'?I'm mostly done with the book, so in this case no. I'm very grateful but finally it is an external event I have to keep at a distance in the same way you maintain a distance from reviews or praise. Because your job finally is to imagine and you do your storytelling because you love to and want to. If it interferes with you sitting alone in front of the blank screen then it is damaging.Despite there being many more Indians writing in English, why is there lesser interest in the West in Indian authors?No, I don't think there is a real decline. May be they've just got over the initial bubble. The excitement that happened in the late 1990s with people in the West getting very excited and publishers pouring money into one or two books; that kind of artificial or frenzied bubble inevitably flattens out. I think what is happening now is that there is a constancy and at least I see in the United States more people than ever reading Indian authors.Is your new book also Mumbai-centric?It's not really a Mumbai book. I mean, in a shorthand description, it's tempting to say that. But what really happens is that one of the protagonists is a Mumbai cop. So it all begins in Mumbai but then spreads outwards in lots of different directions. So it's more of an international book because it also goes abroad.Do you consciously avoid repeating similar themes while writing?Generally, when the story starts, I'm trying to feel its pace... I do feel that certain stories have an inner organic structure that suggest a theme - I can feel it in them - and then once I get there I start working consciously, in the sense that I would reflect upon what was useful for me while writing.Your new book has something to do with the underworld. Do you think that the ordinary people's fascination for the underworld has increased? Here we are also talking about Hindi cinema depicting a lot more about lives in the underworld... Well, I think the interest comes because this comes close to people's lives. You can't live in India and not be aware of how all of this connects together. What I mean is that there is the obvious connection to politics and so on but if you have lived in the Mumbai of the early-1990s, it became very clear that you were in the middle of something huge. You'd open the paper in the morning and it would say, 'Four shot in encounter'... I didn't go looking for it but in the early 1990s I was within earshot of an encounter, and then, because of the nature of my life, at some point I began to know people who were threatened or shot at. And then somebody very close to you is walking around with two bodyguards. So you realise that it's not some other world that is far away. It's right here. It impinges upon you directly and so you want to know more. Once I started writing the book I realised that it's not an underworld at all. It's right here next to you. So the interest is inevitable. Also, crime is an interesting way to get into a certain frame. If you look back at the noir genre in both film and fiction, what's really great about it for a writer is that your protagonist can enter the landscape and then skate across it horizontally and vertically. So it is often used to see the way a society works.What are you working on next?(Laughs.) I deserve a sabbatical and that's what I'll be working towards.