Friday, June 13, 2008

The Kunal Basu Interview Part 2: The Japanese Wife and Other Stories

(The Kunal Basu interview continued from yesterday.)
Although Basu realises that it is impossible, as an author, to strategise for film, one of his stories is finally making the leap to the big screen. He describes as “fortuitous” a meeting with Indian film director Aparna Sen in 2006 at an Oxford dinner party. In the course of the conversation Sen said that she would love to do a love story, except that love is so boring, and everything has been written about it.

Half jokingly, Basu told her that he had a love story that was completely different, and related the story of The Japanese Wife, a short story that had been lying in his desk drawer for ten years. It describes the tender relationship between a Bengali schoolteacher and his pen-friend, a Japanese woman. The two never meet, but agree to a marriage. “It is a relationship of great intimacy,” says Basu “but no domesticity.”

As soon as Sen read the story she was determined make the film and asked Basu to write the screenplay. He turned down the offer, feeling that it would find it difficult to revisit the story with his original passion. But he has remained involved with the production and says that he is very happy indeed with what he has seen of it so far.

“It’s not Indian cinema dubbed for a diaspora audience abroad, but world cinema like Pedro Almodóvar’s films and Il Postino, which people all over the world can relate to.” The film is scheduled for general release in October. Since it seemed strange to make a film from an unpublished short story, it was clearly the right time to bring out a whole collection.

Basu has always loved writing short fiction but says that it was always an uphill struggle to persuade his publishers that they were commercially viable. He says that he would like to debunk the myth that short stories don’t sell once and for all.

“All publishers need to do is believe in their short story collections. If you start out saying I don’t believe this book will sell, then it won’t. But if you believe in it passionately, then you can convey that passion to readers.” It is a viewpoint he’s in a good position to defend with this first collection currently riding close to the top of the bestseller list in India.

Basu jokes that his stories arise from “a sort of chemical imbalance in the brain. First, he must get himself into the right state of mind, which he describes as a relaxed state of free floatation.

Writers can’t get too anxious about getting their stories down to the page: “It’s like when you’re young trying to find a girlfriend. If you’re too purposive about finding a girlfriend you’ll never meet her. But if you’re totally loose in your life, if you’re totally relaxed, then you’ll bump into her.”

Stories might be sparked by the smallest of things, a chance encounter, snatches of conversation, a small newspaper article. If he’s struck with the starting point of stories he pushes them further asking “What would happen if?”, and exploring the possibilities.

He says he writes only those that keep him awake at night. “Take for example Grateful Ganga, the second story in The Japanese Wife. I was in India and I was reading a newspaper, cup of tea in my hand, and there’s this little story about Jerry Garcia. Apparently he had two wives and one of the wives came to India with a cask of ashes to immerse them in the Ganges. The story was that when she went back, the other wife said ‘How dare you disappear with my husband’s ashes?’ and they had this fight over them.

“I wasn’t interested in that, but in the whole image of this western woman on a plane with a cask of ashes, coming to India for the first time. All she wants to do is go to the Ganges, immerse the damn thing, and go back. Except that she gets waylaid by circumstances. On the plane she meets this middle-aged pot-bellied Punjabi business man who loves the music of Kishore. So I said, that’s interesting. What if this were to happen?, What if that were to happen? He’s going to be married and that’s going to create a few problems, how does he deal with that? How’s his wife going to react? On the one hand you’ve got great Indian hospitality for a guest. Except the wife suspects that this guest is having an affair with her husband. So how would that go? It’s important for me to keep day dreaming or float. Hopefully I would have seen something that later I would have on would become a story.”

Basu continues to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. He describes how, on a recent trip to Beijing, once again wearing the hat of academic, he was invited to a banquet by one of his former students, now the director of a school for public health, attached to one of the biggest schools for Chinese medicine. He almost declined the invitation fearing that the evening would be boring, but civility won out. After the meal, his student told him that there was a museum of traditional Chinese medicine upstairs and asked whether he would be interested in seeing it. He was. As he walked around the two floors of exhibits that the got the idea for his next novel, about a young Portuguese doctor seeking a cure for syphilis.

He’s interested in particular with the philosophical underpinnings of the contrasting eastern and western attitudes to health. It’s this scholarly thoroughness and a willingness to deal with deeper intellectual issues that marks out Basu’s novels from most other historical fiction, and thus it comes as something as a surprise that he hasn’t yet enjoyed the commercial success his work deserves, or been nominated yet for literary prizes. But he’s quite sanguine about that.

“You cannot simple lead an authors life thinking when will the bells ring for me and when am I going to win an award?”

“We are in a domain where there are no defined measures of success and the marketing hype of books often times surpasses real appreciation. We’ve commoditized everything in life, you know, including the arts.

“ I’m much more of a traditionalist in that regard, and if my books stay on bookshelves twenty-five years after I’ve died and different people read them, then I will think that I have succeeded.”

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