Writing, with pleasure

INHERENT NATURE Vikram Chandra: `I am sceptical of divisions between what people call literary fiction and pop genre'

INHERENT NATURE Vikram Chandra: `I am sceptical of divisions between what people call literary fiction and pop genre'   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: K. GOPINATHAN

The whole point of art is its power of seduction, author Vikram Chandra tells BAGESHREE S.

The mind is a mega movie screen as you read Vikram Chandra's new novel Sacred Games. The story of Bombay cop Sartaj Singh and underworld don Ganesh Gaitonde, with multiple subplots and characters weaving in and out of it from different locations and time frames, plays itself out in the head as a slick and nuanced thriller. What gives it that extra cinematic edge? Is it the traditional association between underworld plots and cinema, from the Godfather all the way to Company? Is it all those very long and intricate visual details he packs into 900 pages? Or the cover that distinctly reminds you of a film poster?Is it the influence of his very filmy khandan on his style? (His mom Kamna Chandra wrote scripts for films such as Prem Rog and 1942: A Love Story, sister Tanuja Chandra is a filmmaker and his other sister Anupama Chopra is a film critic married to Bollywood moghul Vidhu Vinod Chopra.)

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Chandra smiles a shy smile that, for some strange reason, surprises you from the writer of a don-cop story! "The technique used in the book is also cinematic - of short sections with cuts and moving from one place to another. It seems especially appropriate because films and the worlds Gaitonde and the cops live in are intimately connected. You even have Gaitonde producing a film in which he and his boys get involved in the screenplay. There is a constant circular movement between real life, cinematic life and the imagination. We have actually had some movies produced by people from that side of the line, isn't it?" People here and the U.S. (where he teaches creative writing in Houston) keep telling him Sacred Games would make a great film. He is not sure because the structure is too complicated. "You would have to take out a couple of strands and work around it. I am open to the idea but I certainly don't want to write the screenplay myself. I imagined it as a novel and it is hard for me to re-imagine it as anything else." Besides, a novelist is too used to a complete control of the medium, and a collaborative art with budget weighing on the head from the word go can be frustrating. Chandra should know, considering he collaborated for the script of Mission Kashmir. "Film is an amazingly powerful art but practising the art is very different from being a novelist."Writing is an internal, obsessive craft. "It should inspire you to get up in the morning and keep working on it. It takes on a reality within you that is compelling and independent. That's when it grows on its own energy." Sacred Games, his third book after the immensely successful Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Love and Longing in Bombay, was seven years in the making. It entailed extensive research and interviews with both policemen and underworld people. "But a writer also needs to be careful about getting too drawn in. You might end up isolating yourself from all else." That's where his role as a teacher helps. "Teaching is wonderful because it draws you out and forces you into continued conversations with young people. They constantly challenge your ideas. It's invigorating and keeps you on your toes." You can see a resistance to settle down into a position operating in Sacred Games too, where the worlds of cops and robbers keep blurring into each other. The book itself makes ambiguous the old division between pulp and literary fiction. It seems to operate by a filmy formula, and yet, does not entirely fit in. "I am sceptical of divisions between what people call literary fiction and pop genre. In a sense literary fiction has its own structures and formulae that people are educated into recognising." The crossovers between the two, Chandra believes, are healthy. "The modernist stance against what they saw as the world of consumption and their attempt to make difficulty the barrier between themselves, the chosen ones, and the mechanical consumers of products is in some ways very snobbish and false." A healthy literature will have a good mix of these two things and not warring stand-offs and contempt for the popular. The same, argues Chandra, can be said of a section of films of the '70s and '80s. "There is so much unfortunate self-congratulation about sensitivity and political correctness. Finally a lot of them are plain boring. One has to be careful about that in the pursuit of higher art, whatever that might be. It doesn't work to forget the place of pleasure in narrative. I think sheer physical pleasure in beauty is one of the inherent virtues of being human. To ignore that is blind, I think."Chandra is equally suspicious of "extreme classical deconstructionist positions" where you dissect the text for contradictions and fissures. "You are sort of saying I am too smart to be seduced by this. For me, the whole point of art is seduction. If it has power over me in that point of contact, that's what I love about it. A suspicion of that pleasure is going against the grain of the way we are constructed."But can we talk of pleasure and beauty as disembodied, ahistorical apparitions? Aren't the very notions constantly made and unmade in specific cultural contexts and power structures? Chandra quickly clarifies that he is not speaking of beauty in a simple, fluffy sense. "But the 20th Century impulse to call all aesthetic judgment just a play of power is weak, finally. Yes, beauty is certainly shot through with question of power, provenance, gender and regionalisms, but it still exists." Can we, for instance, simply dismiss fashion and style as frivolous and empty-headed, Chandra asks. We are then refusing to deal with its immense power. "You can say I am too wise to be involved in any of this. It's not true, anyway. Like they say, nobody can defeat Kama because he exists in the heat of the ascetic's breath. Even fierce self-abnegation creates its own pleasure!" Sacred Games, published by Penguin, is priced at Rs. 650

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