Interview Books

‘Truth sometimes needs fiction,’ says Kiran Doshi

Kiran Doshi, author of Jinnah Often Came to Our House, is a retired diplomat. While with the Indian Foreign Service, he was often required to tackle India’s relations with Pakistan. He describes it as an ‘exciting but frustrating’ task. What strikes you about the author, a lifelong student of history, is that his eye is sharp but also benign. He looks upon the sub-continent’s story in cycles — as ironies of our times. Excerpts from an email interview:

Congratulations and best wishes for The Hindu Prize nomination. How do you feel ?

Pleased... and honoured, for The Hindu is — it has always been — the best. And thank you for your good wishes.

You have a novel with the name Jinnah in the title — is it a personal choice or a political statement?

Both really. As a student of history, I have often wondered why relations between India and Pakistan, now almost 70 years old, have always been so terrible, often bloody, and almost impossible to improve. The reasons for that are not, I have long felt, what either country says they are. Those are only sideshows or symptoms. (Even Kashmir is just a symptom.) The real reasons have much deeper roots. They go back a long time before 1947.

How so?

It is not always easy to decide when the history of any phenomenon began, especially when we talk about India and Pakistan, which are intertwined like no other two nations in history. In the case of the essentially hostile nature of Indo-Pak relations, however, I could decide almost as soon as I started to write the book, that its modern phase began shortly after the partition of Bengal — with Jinnah, ironically the brightest rising star in the Indian National Congress at the time, taking a wrong turn in pursuit of his political ambitions.

As for the personal side, my wife is a Muslim, a doctor from Christian Medical College, Vellore. By definition, therefore, half my relatives are Muslim. (Here let me add a politically incorrect statement: Indo-Pak questions cannot be entirely divorced from the larger question of Hindu-Muslim relations in the sub-continent.) My wife’s mother ran a charitable hospital in Bombay. More importantly, her maternal grandfather was a barrister, a contemporary and friend of Jinnah in his nationalist days. Family lore has it that Jinnah often went to their house.

Is that why the title?

Yes. Incidentally, many of the stories from that lore find mention in the book — in different garbs though. For in main, Jinnah... is a work of fiction.

Then why is Jinnah ... a novel and not a biography?

The short answer to the question, as given in the Acknowledgements, is: ‘Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.’ I hasten to add that the book was not intended to be, and is not, just a ‘biography’ of Jinnah, nor only an account of the freedom struggle and its terrible twin, the struggle for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India.

It is a lament (through the fictional part of the novel) for the millions of lives lost or twisted tragically out of shape because of a Shakespearean flaw in Jinnah’s character, exploited to the hilt by the British. Of course, it is also a trip down memory lane — to a Bombay that is gone forever, the Bombay-meri-jaan.

What kind of research went into the book — for the detailing? It is so alive!

I had to do a good bit of research while writing the book, but much less than what I would have needed to do had the novel been set in another time and place. You see, all my life I have been a student of the history of modern India. I also know Bombay well, having studied there and lived there for long stretches at different times in my life. Then there is the family lore.

I wrote the novel largely from memory. The research was either to get simple information (e.g. when was Ramadan in the year 1904?) or to double-check facts I already knew, but was no longer sure of (e.g. Did Ruttie go with Jinnah to Nagpur in 1920?), or to ascertain crucial details (e.g, Was Jinnah in Karachi in January 1948?).

I think one reason the narration seems ‘so alive’ is because right from the start of the novel, I made a conscious effort not ‘to think ahead’. That is to say, not to write about something that had not happened.

But in historical fiction you know the future...

Perhaps what helped me are: a) conscious effort, b) the intricate interweaving of the fictional with the historical, so that ‘the end’ of the novel consisted, in effect, of multiple endings, both fictional as well as non-fictional, c) revision, revision, revision, d) writing between the lines, and e) an excellent editor.

How did you select the events for this narrative?

The novel is both Bombay-centric as well as Jinnah-centric. It skips events and individuals, however important those might have been otherwise, that had little to do with Bombay and Jinnah, and dwells on events in which Jinnah was involved.

What did the writing show you?

A curious thing that sometimes happens when you are writing a book is that the pen takes over. I mean, you find yourself writing things you had not planned to write. I did get to know a few things in the course of writing Jinnah.... For instance, of what really happened — and who really did what — in the twin struggles (for freedom and partition), I also discovered that those whom the gods wish to destroy first turn madly religious.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a novel and a non-fiction book on Punjab. His novel Roll of Honour was short-listed for The Hindu Prize 2013.


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