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I prefer Kafka to Karan Johar, says Tanuj Solanki

‘If Muzaffarnagar were a person, it would be someone who is in your face, on the brink of violence,’ says this year’s Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner Tanuj Solanki

Gurgaon-based author Tanuj Solanki tried his hand at fiction with Neon Noon (2016), a novel which was feral and poignant in equal measure. It brought him critical acclaim. But he achieved instant celebrity with his collection of gritty short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, published in 2018.

The interlinked stories here combine the personal and the political in having characters who want to escape the small town and yet can’t seem to find home elsewhere, even as home itself is threatened by political and religious violence. Thirty-three-year-old Solanki got this year’s Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for Diwali in Muzaffarnagar. Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

What made you set your stories in Muzaffarnagar, a town which is synonymous with the 2013 riots for most?

I hail from Muzaffarnagar and spent the first 17 years of my life there. It was a few months after the Muzaffarnagar riots (which saw violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims) that I wrote my first story set in this town. That went on to become the title story of the collection.

At that time, I was more used to life in Mumbai. I happened to be in Muzaffarnagar only because I had quit my job in the big city. Just like my personal experience, the story I wrote had no clear or direct connection with the riots, but it could not help being under the shadow of that dark event. The publication of that story in a reputed magazine gave me the confidence to write more.

A strong sense of place pervades the stories in Diwali in Muzaffarnagar. The town itself is a character rather than just a backdrop, isn’t it?

If Muzaffarnagar were a person, it would be someone who is in your face, aggressive, on the brink of violence. I’ve made use of this character in several of my stories, through incidents that affect the lives of the protagonists.

Add to this a deep distrust of the ‘other’, a sentiment that was refreshed by the riots. Prejudices ever ready to be plucked... I have tried to render these things to some extent in my stories. And, of course, there is the want, the smallness of the small city, the memory of scarcity even among those who have escaped it.

We live in a troubled world — virulent nationalism, inequalities, persecution of immigrants and minorities are on the rise. Do you feel the need to address these concerns in your work? How does the real world impinge on the creative process?

My creative process and its output (or lack thereof) are conversations with the real world. Sometimes I wonder if we are in the “then-as-farce” part of history. Which is why, I think, meaning has made a comeback. And isn’t a good book of fiction primarily a package of meaning?

If you read the eight stories in my collection, I hope you will end up creating or finding new meanings in your everyday world. However transitory, however useless, however minuscule that meaning might be, it will change your world.

That’s the promise of fiction, isn’t it? A remainder that is pure potentiality.

Do you think Indian authors writing in English are doing a good job of capturing the spirit of a constantly evolving contemporary India in their fiction?

I can’t say about capturing the spirit of India; but the push towards homogeneity has lent substance to a nightmare that is only one push away from reality, and to which it is possible to give form. Prayaag Akbar’s novel, Leila, does that job perfectly.

Among personal favourites, I would like to mention Sharanya Manivannan’s highly imaginative historical novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, and Arjun Rajendran’s at-times-geeky-but-always-profound poetry collection, The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket. Anjum Hasan’sshort-story collection, A Day in the Life, is also an all-time favourite.

Your first novel, Neon Noon, and the stories in Diwali in Muzaffarnagar are shot through with heartbreak, loneliness, and alienation. Does darkness lend itself well to fiction?

I prefer Kafka to Karan Johar, so I guess that answers the question.

What attracts you to the short story?

The possibility of finishing a story in a month (even though that never happens). I don’t think I’ve as yet internalised how the short story form is different from the novel in attributes other than length. Three of my stories in Diwali in Muzaffarnagar are lengthier than typical short stories. In that sense short story-to-novel is a continuum for me. But this understanding might change as I write more.

Have you ever been a student of creative writing? Do you think creative writing can be taught or is a writer a self-made entity?

I’ve never had any formal training. And if I am a writer, it proves that it is possible to be a self-made one. But I do think aspects of creative writing can be taught. It can be taught, for example, that the American master Raymond Chandler had a set template for introducing new characters — face, clothes, footwear, hair/ hat — and these never jarred or got on the reader’s nerves. Providing such keys can make the greats approachable to aspiring writers.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on a novel titled The Machine is Learning, which will be published by Pan Macmillan in a few months. Broadly speaking, it revolves around how technology is changing the nature and quantity of paid work.

The interviewer is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 11:23:14 PM |

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