The self-exiled king of litfests

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Nepalese author Prajwal Parajuly speaks to Tishani Doshi about the futility of literature, the rewarding nature of teaching, his poker face, being the youngest child, and travelling.

Prajwal Parajuly is the author of >Land Where I Flee , and a collection of short stories titled >The Gurkha’s Daughter .

Hi Prajwal. Ready? Here we go: You are widely known as a Lit Fest Raja, but less known as a poker player. Tell us about your poker obsession, where it began, how it occupies your life?

Wow, a Lit Fest Raja? What a terrible reputation to have, but I’m guessing I had it coming for attending lit fests so indiscriminately. I am on a self-imposed embargo against lit fests, though, and gave a few a miss this season, which makes you, my friend, the Maharani of Lit Fests. Congratulations on the title.

I come from a self-righteous Brahmin family whose members love nothing more than gloating about their vegetarianism and teetotalism. They don't take into account how they inconvenience others with their ridiculous food choices. At every dinner, it is, "Oh, yeah, despite living in Gangtok — a meat lover's paradise — we don't eat meat. Oh, yeah, despite living in Gangtok — which has more liquor stores than one can count — we've abstained from alcohol all our lives." It drives me crazy.

But this self-righteous family thinks it's perfectly okay to gamble, thinks it's perfectly okay to raid casinos for hours and hours, which is why it shouldn't surprise you, Tishani, that I recognised an ace of hearts before I did the letter "A" in nursery. It's that bad. Cards are mandatory at family reunions no matter where in the world we are. Some of these card games involve brains. There's a Nepalese game called Call-break, similar to Spades, that I love because you can concentrate on screwing your opponents even if you've been dealt a bad hand.

And then there's another called Marriage, immensely popular but one that I am not fond of. You're dealt 21 cards. You'd think one's ability to handle the 21 cards in one hand should give away one's skill as a player, but you're wrong. Despite not liking the game so much, I play. The family loves it, so you got to do what the majority loves. I moved to America for college and played poker every so often.

When I was working as an advertisement executive at The Village Voice in New York, we tried getting together a poker group but gave up because when you're 21 there are far more exciting options in New York.

I started playing again seriously when I joined Oxford for my master's. The Oxford University Poker Society may have been responsible for the payment of a fraction of my university tuition. My third term at Oxford, I could see my bank statements dwindling to the low three digits. Uncomfortable about being that 26-year-old who asks his parents for money, I decided I'd rustle up funds from poker games. And I succeeded.

Thankfully, I got my two-book deal (Yikes. Books. Are we allowed to talk about that?) right at the beginning of the first term in my second year at Oxford, so the compulsion to make money wasn't all that great.

I am a decent player — unpredictable, yes, but not that massive a risk-taker — and I get good cards, so I usually win. It helps when there are donkeys at the table… In Gangtok, which has the only mainland casinos in India, I am a conscious player — there are too many eyes on me because everyone in this town knows everyone. Otherwise, I have poker groups in London and New York. We try to meet up once a week. In London, I am a part of two groups — a writer's group and a finance professional’s group. The former has low stakes and big drunks. The latter has bigger stakes and serious players; absolutely no one would get drunk in this group.

People talk about completely immersive experiences. For many, it's sex. For others, it's reading. Some swear by sports or meditation. I am a distracted "experiencer" — nothing really captivates me so much that it's the only thing I am doing. But playing cards (it's useless if there's no money involved, of course) comes close. I am happy when I am gambling. I enjoy the adrenaline rush even when things aren't going my way.

Are you the baby of your family? Just wondering... Do you find your personality changing when you are in all these different places — New York, London, Gangtok — or are you one of those rock-solid people who stays unchanged regardless of place?

Yes, I am the youngest. How'd you guess?

I don't know if my personality changes, but my habits do. I am in Gangtok right now, and I haven't showered in two days. Gangtok doesn't ever get as cold as London, but the houses aren't heated, so you freeze after a shower. My moods change, too. I am miserable when I am in London in the winters. The cold I can handle (New York has a far crazier winter than London does); it's the absence of sun, the greyness, the bleak mornings that I can't deal with. I've been trying my best to avoid being in London in the winters..

Perhaps my personality changes most when I am teaching. I just finished a gig as a writer-in-residence at Truman State University, in Kirksville, Missouri. I was given some fancy-schmancy title with the word "distinguished" in it, so of course I tried to put a lid on the irreverence and inappropriateness.

Sometimes you feel like a fraud — setting deadlines, knowing fully well you never adhered to one as a student or as a writer — but you do try to give as much of yourself as you can to all aspects of teaching. I wouldn't say I've done that with anything else in my life. It felt like a selfless activity, and I went to bed each day feeling good about myself. "Rock-solid" would hardly be the term I use to describe myself. I am a mess, but I think I stay mostly unchanged unless something that entails a big responsibility, such as teaching, comes along.

I’m fascinated by birth order. I’ve got some middle-child anxiety going for me, for instance, but your joie de vivre strikes me as being very much baby-of-the-family variety. I hear you about London grey. I couldn’t hack that either. I want to hear more about the teaching. I’m curious about the relationship you have with your students, are you chummy-chummy or do you keep a “distinguished” reserve? And you go to bed feeling good about yourself when you’re teaching because you feel you’re adding to people’s lives? Does writing not make you feel that way?

I am glad you ask me the question about whether writing makes me feel as though I am adding to people's lives. I am conflicted about how I feel about the impact of my writing. For a long time, I thought I wrote for the shallowest and most selfish of reasons — I had just quit my job and needed to legitimise my existence, so I took to writing. I thought I wrote because it was the easiest way to fame and riches. Riches. Ha. Every time someone complimented me on being the voice of a community — an under-represented, often-subjugated community — I got nervous. I distanced myself from the supposed good my writing was doing.

I'd say I am just a fiction writer, and that I represent no people, community or region other than myself. Then I'd receive all these emails from Bhutanese refugees in America — a few among these 106,000+ people had been herded out of Bhutan on account of ethnic and religious differences and had undergone untold difficulties — who thanked me for writing about their plight, for having finally spoken to the world about the atrocities committed against them. So of course I'd get nervous.

My purpose had never been to throw light on these issues via my fiction. I'd use non-fiction — an essay here, an opinion piece there — to let the world know about the refugee situation, but fiction I wrote mainly to tell a story. Simple. Now I have changed somewhat. If my fiction encourages discourse somewhere, if it disseminates information on little-known aspects of troubles my people are facing, I am okay with all that. Say I were not writing about these issues at all; would I still feel as though I was contributing to people's lives by injecting my fiction into the world?

I don't know, TD. I get shit from the writing world for saying this, but there's so much suffering in the world, and I just can't bring myself to believe that literature — at least my writing — alleviates the pain in any significant way. So, yeah, I think I have major esteem issues when it comes to the services my writing renders. I may just be one of those people writers attribute the destruction of society to. I fervently believe that in the grand scheme of things, literature doesn't matter that much. My views will likely evolve over time. But I know that my pursuit of writing is a selfish activity.

Teaching was different. I felt selfless for the first time. For the first time in my life I wasn't looking for shortcuts, I gave of myself fully and freely. In drafting my syllabus, I was aware that the workload I was imposing on my students would also mean a lot of work for me. For example, I need not have set three assignments when perhaps one paper would have cut it — but it didn't matter. I had no set office hours because students could drop in any time they wanted. A writer who often does these visiting professorial gigs had warned me. "They'll work you to death if you don't set fixed office hours," she had said. "They will come by your office and talk and talk and talk. You'll get no work done."

Some of that happened, but I didn't mind it. It never felt like work. That's how much I enjoyed it. Could it be because the students — some of the smartest fiction writers screened by the faculty — were all good? Was it because as visiting faculty, I could diss the administrative mundanities that is the bane of regular professors? Was it because I am not yet jaded? Could be a combination of all that. You must also remember that I had some structure in my life for the first time in four or five years. For the first time in a while, I had to wake up on time, dress up and go somewhere. I enjoyed the novelty and realised I could miss it, too.

I am a friendly professor — not "distinguished" at all, but I won't go drinking with students, or even for a meal. I do not want to know about the students' personal lives and volunteer little information about mine to them. So, yes, we aren't friends, but a student wouldn't feel intimidated to ask me to write his or her recommendation letter.

I love that teaching has made a respectable man out of you. Let’s talk about slander. When I asked what we could talk about other than the b-word you said slander. Explain!

Oh. That was just PP trying to be facetious. Hehe.

One final question. Do you remember the first time you travelled alone? Tell us about it, and whether you continue to travel solo or prefer to travel with company. Also, when does your lit fest embargo lift?

The first time I travelled alone was when I was 14 or 15. It was a two-hour plane journey from Bagdogra to Delhi. I thought there'd be no one I knew on the plane and I'd experience the kind of freedom I had read about in many coming-of-age books, but the plane was so full of people from Sikkim — my parents' friends, my friends' parents — that the journey felt no different from a regular journey with family. It was disappointing. My junior year at college, I did a nonsensical St.Louis-Orlando-Tampa-Miami-Minneapolis route, but by then I was old enough not to get too excited about travelling alone.

I prefer travelling alone and meeting up with friends in various cities. That way I am my own master. I can keep my own schedule. I travel in a rather extreme manner. Some days I walk 18 kilometres and other days I sleep all day. Past companions have complained about this. Now I know better than to inflict my "schizophrenic" tendencies on others. I also mix the high-brow with the low-brow. Nice hotels get boring after a while. I even stay in grimy hostels at times. That's where I've met some of the most interesting people. I've also likely shared my bed with bedbugs and fleas. A few days in a hostel, and you return to hotels with renewed appreciation.

Sometimes, travelling alone for weeks and months can get old, so I coordinate with friends who are travelling in the same region — this is often easiest with Europe — to meet up for a few days. It's wonderful to catch up, swap stories and go your own way. I am ready to travel again now. As we speak, I am thinking of doing the Gochala trek. It will be an 11-day trek to Dzongri and beyond. For every one of the three years I've been a published author, I've gained 15 pounds, so, yes, I am not exactly in the best shape of my life. But someone has challenged me to do this, and I like a good challenge.

I don't know if I should lift my embargo against attending lit fests yet. I've enjoyed the three months I stayed away from festivals. It was the first time in more than four years that I stayed put in a place for more than a month.

It was blissful. :-)

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