Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Kunal Basu Interview Part 1 : Born in a Library!

My interview with Kunal Basu, author of The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist, Racists and The Japanese Wife and Other Stories is in the current issue of Off The Edge where it looks very pretty on the page and appears alongside a piece on the author by Mark Disney. I thank the magazine for giving me permission to use this on my blog, and distributors Pansing for organising the interview. I have split the piece into two parts and the second will be up tomorrow. (This is an earlier draft version and is organised a little differently from the print version.)

Kunal Basu was, it seems, was literally born to the writing life.

His father was a publisher and who met his mother, Shabi, when he published her first book. (She is still producing two books a year at the age of 86.)
Basu himself was actually born on the floor of the library of the house in Bengal, surrounded by tall bookshelves. His mother, rushing to finish a manuscript for a publisher, failed to set out for the hospital on time. His aunt cut the chord with a pair of scissors, and his father, in all the excitement forgot to register the birth. “But he kept a meticulous diary,” Basu says “and on 4th May 1956 there’s this one line : Son born. 6.43 a.m..”

He describes his childhood in a house filled with books and lively intellectual discourse, and a constant flow of visiting politicians, authors and painters. He started writing as a teenager and had some stories published in his native Bangla.

He had always thought of himself as a person in the arts, and still seems somewhat surprised that circumstances carried him in a totally different direction. He made, what he now calls, “wrong academic decisions”, studying science and maths before completing his doctorate in marketing with the University of Florida. He became Associate Professor in the Faculty of Management at McGill University, Canada, before moving to Templeton College, Oxford, where he is also the Director of the Oxford Advanced Management Program.

Whilst he says that he does not regret following this academic path, he says that there has been an internal price to pay: “As one gets older it becomes more difficult to do the things one doesn’t like. And my relationship with writing is nothing short of a grand obsession. I don’t want to do anything else anymore. I want to get up in a morning and just write.”

However, he’s grateful for the opportunities the academic life has given him to travel to parts of the world he might not otherwise have visited. His friends, though, always pull his leg about the fact that as soon as he turns up in a place, political turmoil ensues. “I was Iran when the Shah was deposed, China during the Tiananmen crisis and in Indonesia when Suharto was moving on.” Fortunately, nothing untoward happened in Malaysia on this visit.

While many Indian authors writing from the west seem to be fueled by a sense of alienation, that’s not something that comes through in Basu’s work. “We all build fiction around our lives,” he says “and my convenient fiction is that I haven’t left India, I’ve just gone travelling.”

The travels have lasted 30 years or so, but as Basu sees it, it’s been simply a matter of changing habitat rather than changing home, and he finds that rather exciting. “I love to live in different countries, different parts of the world, different houses, and have different sets of friends. Home for me in many respects is my deep seated cultural moorings and they are not necessarily parochial and not necessarily all tied to India. They are things like books that I’ve grown up with, plays that I’ve acted in or seen, favourite films. I feel very much at home around the Thames because Dickens was an early favourite of mine and the dockside and the docklands of London feel like home for me. And so there are these pegs that tie me to my world and those don’t shift very much.”

His commissioning editor once told him that although he is an Indian author, his writing doesn’t smell of curry. “I said I’m not deliberately trying to create distinction for myself, but I think there are all kinds of thing on my palate, not simply the curry.”

Indeed, Basu’s most recent novel Racists (published in 2006) is the very first Victorian novel written by a person of colour. It features an almost completely white cast of characters and explores the subject of racial science. It wasn’t, he says, written out of any kind of personal angst, and the subject matter took him completely by surprise. The novel began with a single image in his head, that of two children, one black, one white, being raised in isolation on a deserted island off the coast of Africa by a mute nurse, and untainted, as it were by “civilization”.

He knew nothing about racial science at first, but as he started to do his research in Oxford’s Bodleian library, he knew he had discovered a world he wanted to inhabit. He confesses that he is intrigued by what he calls “our indecent curiosity” into the notion of what explains difference.

The experiment at the core of Racists, he agrees, is a product of the rivalry between the two scientists, one French and one British, and the battle between their competing ideologies rather than a meaningful piece of scientific research.

“The thing is that in many ways we think of science as being very objective. But when it comes down to it, it is a human endeavour and like all human endeavours it’s permeated by competition, rivalry, bias, love, hate. Everything. So why should this experiment be any different ? And data isn’t neutral. It talks in the voice of the collector and the observer. If you have two observers, then obviously the data is ambivalent and that’s exactly the case with Belavoix and Bates were trying to do.”

It’s a truism frequently tossed in the direction of new writers that you should write about what you know, so it comes as a surprise to learn then that Basu finds it extremely exciting to write about places he hasn’t visited beforehand. If he had, he says, the experience might actually have impeded, rather than enhanced, his historical imagination.

Kucing, Sarawak, features prominently in Basu’s his first novel, The Opium Clerk. Although he only managed to make his first to the city on his way back from Australia last year, and doesn’t regret at all that he hadn’t been there when researching the novel.

“When I read the diaries and the history and started imagining Kucing, I think it was closer in many ways to Kucing of the nineteenth century. One doesn’t necessarily have to travel physically if one travels in imagination,” he says. But, he cautions, “Imagination has to be helped by research by reading the right things, and the right props are necessary.”

He set his second novel, The Miniaturist, in the court of the emperor Akbar in C16th India, but says that it was much too dangerous to travel to Afghanistan and to the Hindu Kush at the time of writing it. However, he says that he experienced the core of the story because he had travelled in the Mogul parts of India, eaten Mogul food, and listened to Sufi music, and read substantially about that period.
Tommorow, find out how the film of The Japanese Wife came to be made, and read about where Kunal gets his ideas for stories from!

(Pic above taken by Kavita of Pansing.)


Eric Forbes said...

Wonderful interview, Sharon!ybtjuyob

Anonymous said...

..'although he is an indian author , his writing doesn't smells of curry'..Hehe,I like that lines. Talking about traveller writer remember me the author V.S Naipaul, the book 'Among The Believers' which I long stop read.Wonder where I place the book..? Hehe.

Anonymous said...

"He made, what he now calls, “wrong academic decisions”, studying science and maths before completing his doctorate in marketing with the University of Florida."

Smart man. A doctorate in marketing will help a lot more than a doctorate in English Lit. if you're planning to be a writer.

Anonymous said...

"Son born"?!?!? That's all his father could muster in his diary? Hahahaha! That is wonderful and typical. Reminds me of my granddad's black diary, and also of Julian Barnes's grandparents' diary -- does anyone remember that piece? He tells about how his grandparents would pull out old diaries to read, and then argue about each entry:

"No, dear, it was *rainy* on the fifteenth of June, not fine."

"Rubbish. I was in the garden all day. It was fine."

Those aren't exact quotes, but that was the gist :-) .

Anonymous at 8:12 -- um, that's nonsense, I have to say. Writers don't need doctorates in marketing. We have publicists for that stuff. A doctorate in English lit. on the other hand, forces you to read, and there's really no better way to learn to write. I don't have a doctorate in either, just for the record, but I very much relate to Kunal Basu's regret over "wrong academic decisions" -- it's my pet peeve about the Malaysian education system (at least as it was in the 80s, and maybe it's still the same? ) -- if you were a good student, they pushed you towards the sciences. There was never any notion of different kinds of intelligence, that you could smart but cut out for other things. I wonder if there were similar pressures in India, or if Basu's decisions were entirely his own....

-- Preeta