Solo and striking

Capturing history The incredible sounds and rhythms of Bulgarian folk music drew the author to the country  

Rana Dasgupta on Solo that has just been short-listed for this year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize

The tinkle of the piano leads my footsteps to the door, past a winding flight of narrow stairs. Author Rana Dasgupta, I have just learnt, is also a pianist. He later says he took lessons on the instrument from the age of seven.

Abandoning the piece he's playing (one of Bach's “English Suites”), Rana promptly begins to speak about “Solo”, his novel, which has just won the European and South Asian round for the Best Book for this year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize. In fact, we don't talk about the Prize at all, simply because he feels, “There is nothing to talk about yet.” Rana has won one of the regional rounds of the Prize with Pakistani author Daniyal Mueenuddin. Of the regional winners picked from different Commonwealth countries, the Prize will go to one lucky author on April 12.

What it feels like

With the big day a few weeks away, we steer clear questions like ‘So how does it feel?' The conversation flows towards writing “Solo”, a Harper Collins publication — Rana's first novel and second book. The young author says, “I was glad when I finished writing it. I wanted to get over with it.” Well, how do we take that! He explains, a soft smile spreading on his face, “I feel stupid saying this but while writing a book, you become a recluse. You don't know what to tell people about what you are doing; yet you are living in a world filled with the characters you have created — they are real for you.” Rana's “Solo” is set in Bulgaria and has one principal character, 100-year-old Ulrich. No, he has no personal connection with Bulgaria. Yet, it is not on impulse that he fancied writing about that country.

“My initial interest grew from a CD I heard of Bulgarian folk music. It had incredible sounds and complex rhythms. In Bulgarian folk music, women sing and men play. The women sing in a low voice but they are incredibly harmonious.” But the clincher was Bulgaria's rather peculiar history. The country was once part of Asia and now Europe. For research, he made “two fairly long trips to Bulgaria and met people in their 60s and 70s who talked about their fathers and family, which gave me an idea of how people lived.”

To explore that long span of history, he made his character a centenarian. With fabulous similes and an eye for detail, this Oxford graduate dexterously brings to life characters and events that traverse the mind of weather-beaten Ulrich, now blind.

But the book begins without naming a character or the city (Sofia) he lives in. Rana says this was deliberate. “Bulgaria is peculiar in many ways, but the changes it went through to become a nation can be somewhat generalised. Like India, a nation was born out of nothing. After Independence, people there think they are free to be themselves but they are actually faced with a new set of restrictions.” The conversation veers towards other topics — how Rana became an author and how he set up residence in Delhi. Only in his 30s, he is already noticed as an author. Interestingly, he says, “I wrote my first book ‘Tokyo Cancelled', as a birthday gift to my then girlfriend, now wife.”

Writing stories as birthday gifts to friends was a habit he developed in his teens. He says, “I must have learnt something about writing from that.” When it came to choosing his career, Rana, in his 20s then, thought it was time “to break out” of writing as a hobby.

Talking about living in Delhi, he recalls how nine years ago, he moved to a completely foreign city. “If I wanted to return to my roots, I should have gone to Kolkata because my father is from that city, but I chose Delhi because I was marrying someone living there,” says the Canterbury-born writer. Then he adds in his accented voice,

“Though I have an Indian name, I am not Indian at all…I don't speak Bengali.”

However, nine years have kindled his interest in Delhi. Rana's next will be an interview-based, non-fiction work documenting the lives of people living in the city.