In conversation Authors

‘I’m like a dog. I live in the present’

Models of reality: ‘A great writer teaches you how to look at the world’   | Photo Credit: Nick Tucker

A dancing bear called Raju. Fox-faced twin brothers Lakshman and Ramlal, who lose their mother at birth. One becomes the bear’s keeper, the other disappears to the city to find construction work. An NRI who takes his six-year-old son to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. A cook called Renu from Medinipur, Bengal, who sends money for her nephew’s education abroad. Two friends in Jharkand—Milly and Soni. One escapes village life by becoming a domestic worker in Bombay. The other joins the Maoist revolutionaries. Like his previous novels, which take a magnifying glass to the lives of others, Mukherjee’s third novel, A State of Freedom, is a work that is both unflinching and resolute in its vision. By examining the minutiae of these lives of seemingly unconnected people, he brings into focus a larger picture—the humiliation of indifference, the violence of poverty, and what it means to be a tourist in your own country.

Mukherjee, who lives in London and spends part of the year teaching at Princeton University, tells me that he is an entirely non-nostalgic person. “When I’m in the U.S., I don’t miss London at all. And now that I’m back in London I don’t miss the U.S. at all. I’m like a dog. I live in the present tense.” Excerpts from an interview:

I was interested in your epigraphs, both pertaining to the migrant experience. The first, by Naipaul, about possibilities, and the second, by a Syrian refugee, who says, “we are not migrants! We are ghosts...” Why did you choose these?

Epigraphs are important to me because they give the reader a certain hand, which sets the parameters of the meaning of the book. No one seems to pay them much notice. People think that a writer is being pretentious if they’re using an epigraph. They’re not. They’re creating a certain interpretive horizon within which the work is read. I use Naipaul for several reasons. I think of him as one of the great novelists of the last century. He’s extraordinary—a big authorial presence in my life. And in a way this book is a conversation I wish to have with his novel, In A Free State. That too is a book in five parts which radically stand alone and are unrelated.

Could you say something more about this five-part form?

I wanted to push forward with my thinking of realism, to see whether I could push realism in its anti-direction. But I wanted to do it from within realism, without breaking the surface. So, I use a ghost story for example, and one of the reasons for doing that is if you think about why a ghost exists, it’s because something terrible happened in the past. It exists because it hasn’t found its resting point. A ghost story affords a way of thinking about painful histories, and a ghost is also a migrant, trapped between two worlds, somewhat in purgatory. I thought that might be a way of thinking about the history of migration. And then, suddenly, I was reading an article about Syrian refugees, and that second epigraph just fell into my lap. Okay, I thought, this gives me the whole metaphorical ruling for my book.

Did you have an idea of the level of tenuousness you wanted to maintain between the five parts?

Well, you plan a bit and so much unfolds in the writing. The book takes you where you didn’t think you would go. This book is being called ‘loosely linked stories’. I don’t think of it like that. I think of it as a novel with different principles of coherence. To go back to what I was saying earlier about realism and pushing realism in its opposite direction, I was trying to think, what makes a realist novel cohere? It’s either plot or characters, a continuity. I thought, what if I take out all those things and see what remains, whether it could still answer to the term, ‘novel’? I like that bit of carpentry very much—when you create that internal system of assonances and dissonances and rhythm and echoes and resonance. I love that bit of writing.

Tell me how you came to write about a bear.

Often you don’t know the point of origin. Anything you can point at is only post facto narrative. So, I don’t know how Raju and Lakshman arrived in my head but I have dim memories of wanting to have an animal section in the book. I did not want to anthropomorphise the animal. I did not want to give him human-like thoughts. Think of Wittgenstein saying, ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.’ Of course we wouldn’t! So, rather than betray the experience of what I imagined the truthful experience from the point of view of the animal might be, which I do not know, I thought I’d write the animal’s story from the human point of view.

Did you have to do a lot of research?

Yes, some, and they are acknowledged in the book, but research only takes you to the door of the room you want to enter, and it’s locked, and you have to take a key and go and enter that room. You know, so many people say, ‘Oh research, Oh autobiographical.’ What they don’t get is that so much of our lives is spent squeezing our eyes tight shut and imagining what happens—launching ourselves into the heads of other people and other characters and just thinking, what would this person do if they were doing a street performance or something like that. When economists make models of reality they always proceed with what ifs, how do the variables change etc. I think a degree of that kind of rigour in thinking about characters is good and necessary.

Tell me about your bullshit detector. You seem to have a very good one.

You call it bullshit detector. I’m trying to think carefully by what you mean. I spend a lot of time away from the centres in India and I don’t tell people I’m going there. I do my own thing. I avoid places like Delhi. If you can sit and just listen to people… my life criss-crosses a lot with people like Renu and Milly. I sit them down and I just ask them questions. I visit their homes and I say, just talk to me (laughs). I don’t know how to answer this question. There are some gifts that a writer must have. It doesn’t all turn around reading and craft.

What I’m getting at is authenticity. There was never a moment of disbelief for me while reading your book.

That’s a great compliment. You know, Naipaul had that. He went to all these countries he didn’t know, and he had this vision. He basically saw through everything into the seething messy core of the whole country and its peoples. James Wood wrote a wonderful piece about him in The New Yorker, where he talks about Naipaul’s conservative tendencies coupled with his radical vision. The combination is explosive. I feel one can learn a lot from writers. I tell my students, a great writer doesn’t teach you how to write, a great writer teaches you how to look at the world.

I’d say you offer a little more tenderness than Naipaul.

But he used to be a tender writer! If you read In A Free State, the pages of his journal where he’s in Egypt, in a café in the desert, and the Italian tourists there are throwing food in the dunes, and the little boys in the desert are absolutely impoverished. They come scrambling over for the food, and the Egyptian café waiter, who has a camel with him—he whips the boys, and the Italians film it. This is entertainment for them! And Naipaul is absolutely incensed. He goes to the waiter and grabs his whip away and throws it to the ground. And you think, who would have expected Naipaul to do something like that? It’s a moment of such utter compassion. He had that, you know? And then, suddenly, by the time he writes his last great masterpiece, A Bend in the River, it’s all gone. It’s such a hard, adamantine… it’s a brilliant novel, but all the compassion is gone, and there’s a lesson in there too, you know?

Do you think there is a different relationship to chaos and order in India?

If there is any order in India it lies so deep within things that I have never been able to perceive it. Chaos is its own design, I feel, but chaos is not great when it comes to governments and markets and things like that. There is this strand, particularly by white Westerners, to see the chaos as somehow energy-giving, and how wonderful and exotic, and I think the experience of living in that chaos is not any of those things. It can grind you down. If you look at the lives of the poor, so much of elementary decision making is so difficult for them because of this chaos, and because of their constraints. And the unravelling that happens at the end of the book… I feel so bleak about the way India is going. I wonder, what will cohere? Something very ugly is showing its face. Everywhere I look I’m filled with pessimism. The mob lynching, the fact that any hope of economic reform is running into the sand, the very ugly nationalism. The lid has come off it I feel.

How has your relationship to India changed over the years?

I think so much of it has to do with what kind of upbringing you had. I feel many of my friends who had comfortable childhoods seem to like India more than I do. I had a more difficult childhood and therefore my relationship with the country is more jagged. After a period of decontamination, by which I mean, living in the West, I began to find the country intellectually fascinating in a way I didn’t think I would. When you’re outside a forest and you’ve gone far away and you can see it from the top of a hill, you can see the shape of the forest which you cannot see when you’re inside it. India is constantly changing. It is the most alive thing in the world. It’s alive in a fascinating way and alive in a dangerous way because it will turn around and bite you. It’s electric, and the West I feel, is sclerotic. That is one of the gifts leaving gave me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a book set in England. I’m simply not interested. But India continues to fascinate me. It’s in my blood in a way nothing is or will be. And it’s in the blood sometimes as poison, and sometimes as the thing that gives me my very life. Both at once.

A writer and dancer, the author’s poetry book Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods will be out soon.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 3:39:25 AM |

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