Your new novel, The Firebird, to be released this month, is set in the theatre world of Calcutta in the late-twentieth century, narrated from a child’s perspective. Isn’t that an unusual theme for Indian fiction in English?
It was exciting to write a novel about theatre. These are two very different genres — the novel is rooted in a secular modernity and a middle-class readership created by capitalism, while the theatre goes thousands of years back, to the ritualistic, the performative, and the religious. One involves the solitary reader and the other creates a communal experience. One is embodied through language and the other is rooted in the sensual reality of the body in motion. Writing this novel involved dealing with some fascinating challenges. For the novelist, the stage is not just the proscenium but also the audience gallery: the entire community of people in the playhouse, how they are fused together in a common experience even as they react to it differently as individuals. The live performance makes it different from film, which is transportable. Everything, I realised, offers a story — the backstage — the preparation, not just the cast but also the crew — the visual aesthetics of the stage setting, lights, the aural aesthetics of sound — everything is rooted in a physical reality and a human narrative of its own.
Without giving away the story, can you tell us what drives this novel?
The questions which drove the novel forward were bare and primal but at the same time inseparable from the crafted reality of this art form. What does it mean to see a loved one cry on stage? A loved one dying, romancing a stranger, leading an everyday life where the person in the audience has no role to play? What impact might this experience have on personal and social relationships, and on the image of the actor?
Sounds fascinating. They say that a second novel is the hardest to write. Was it?
It appears eight years after my first novel, and indeed, it took a lot of work. The story at the heart of this novel — I think I had it for a long, long time, so the whole process felt very natural, but still it was a slow and difficult birth. My first novel, too, originated in a speck of experience from real life, but most of its body was put together through intellectual deliberation, and I think that showed. By contrast, this novel has very little in it by way of ideas. It too originates in a small speck of real experience, but even the imagined body felt intensely physical as it took shape. I think that was the hardest part — cutting myself off from a legacy of the intellectual and the ideational that I drew from much 20th century fiction, even some of its obsession with craft. Unlearning was a lot harder than learning. In some ways, I like to think of The Firebird as the intrusion of a more sensual, bodily art form into one that is relatively abstract and intellectual: the theatre into the novel.
You published an academic book of criticism, Prose of the World , recently; it was shortlisted for a prestigious award. And now you are releasing your second novel, The Firebird . How is it to wear these two caps: university don and creative writer?
I suspect in one of the “caps,” as you call it, you’re fusing two roles — that of the critic and that of the academic. These can come together, but there are also critics who are not academics (by which I mean a person who is professionally affiliated with the academy), like Susan Sontag, or closer home, someone like Pankaj Mishra. Conversely, many reputed novelists, and especially most poets, these days in the U.S. are also academics, thanks to the ubiquity of university creative writing programs. So I would say it’s not a binary opposition. All these roles — critic, poet/novelist/playwright, academic, can rotate and revolve and take turns to overlap with each other.
How have these overlapping roles worked for you?
For me, being a critic and being a fiction writer feel equally natural — I would say I am more of a ‘critic’ than a ‘scholar,’ though obviously they are not fully separable. The habit of writing fiction, I think, makes my criticism somewhat playful and idiosyncratic. The comparative approach of Prose of the World , with its emphasis on emotion and affect, has been described by many in these terms. Being a professional academic, now that is a more complicated affair. I love teaching, and academia also gives you a lifestyle and work-habits more in your control than most jobs, and being a literary academic you get paid to read stuff you love — all of which is nice. But on the other hand, academia can also feel like a closed universe, and its rarefied air can make a poet or a novelist a bit short of breath sometimes. But at the end of the day, these are categories one inhabits in terms of profession and livelihood — at one level, I simply think of myself as a writer. I write when I have something to say. What form the writing takes is a secondary issue — it is primarily one of craft and technique.