RR: Where are you from?
SB: I grew up largely in London and Kolkata. I have lived and worked as a journalist in London, Sydney, New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. I live in Mumbai now.
When did you start writing? And why?
I always wanted to be a writer. Even as a little boy, it is what I wanted to be. Of course, I had not the faintest idea of what I should write about. At some point, I did seriously get down to writing: stories, the mandatory unpublished novel, essays, sketches for newspapers, features, book reviews. I became, in the end, a journalist, so some of that sort of writing had to do with the day job. My first book was a memoir. I thought that the material I had in ‘If I Could Tell You’ worked as fiction.
What was the germ for this story?
‘If I Could Tell You’ is part of a novel in progress. An unnamed narrator writes a series of letters to his daughter, explaining his life – and how it went wrong. It is a love letter, it is self-justification, sort of, it is explicatory – or at least so the narrator hopes.
To what extent is this story autobiographical?
I think Richard Yates (of whom I am a huge admirer) once spoke of how the emotion and the impulse of fiction is autobiographical, but the events never are. Well, I do have a daughter and some of the intimate scenes between the narrator and his child are somewhat borrowed from real life. That’s about all that the narrator has in common with me, I’d like to think. (And, er, I’m not sure that the narrator is a likeable fellow at all.)
This is – to borrow from Philip Roth – a novel in the guise of a confession, rather than a confession in the guise of a novel. As readers, we tend to often identify the writer with the writing, confusing what Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, calls ‘the dictating ventriloquist with the demonic dummy’. I think Roth puts it best somewhere: ‘The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he is doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book.’ My narrator realizes this too and, somewhat later on, takes that conceit and subverts it.
The story’s conceit is a love letter from a father to his daughter, but you exploit the conceit to achieve so much more: it allows the reader an immediately intimate association with the central characters, is impressively flexible and entirely compelling. How did you settle on this narrative?
We are dealing with an unreliable narrator here and the form of the letter allows everything to be filtered through his consciousness and his interpretation of events to colour anything and everything that might have happened. The form also allows for digressions and – something that is in the nature of the letter itself – intimacy. This helps delineate the closeness between the father and the child.
The novel concerns itself with that strange place in the mind that is at the intersection of memory, grieving, the memory of loss and unfulfilment, fatherhood, and how all this is given a keen edge by taking place (mostly) in an India that is changing beyond recognition, how so many people are turning millionaires overnight by their gains in the stock-market and what might happen once that market plummets and the money begins to leach away. The letters are being written when, as it were, all has been said and done. The form, I thought, helps this sort of reflection along.
The narrator is an aspiring writer who is frustrated with his output and unsure of much of the quality of the work that he produces. Is that how you feel as a writer sometimes?
The narrator is not so much an aspiring writer as an utterly failed one. He wants to be a writer – has always wanted to – but has never had anything published anywhere, ever, not even in a newspaper. But yes, I suppose that sense of agonizing self-doubt (often of self-loathing) is something that everyone who tries to write anything – and is honest about himself and what he sees he has done – feels. I think even the great writers are torn by that. If you thought everything that you did was first-rate, I’d think that the chances are that you’d hardly be any good at all.
In a review of Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger, for the Independent in April, you detailed an India (two Indias, really) of stark contradictions. There is the much-advertised (and, in some economies, openly envied and feared) New India ‘buoyed by the burgeoning of an aggressively consumerist, astonishingly wealthy urban elite and the rise and rise of the bellwether stock-market index’. And then there is the far larger and less glamorous India of widespread poverty, inequality and insurgency. How great is the divide, really, and will these two Indian realities ever reconcile into an acceptable whole?
I can’t quite see that happening. For a long time. The divide is too huge and because of India’s great economic success story (despite the downturn and inflation), the chasm between those who are the forefront of that revolution and are its biggest beneficiaries and the seventy per cent of the population that lives on less than a dollar a day is dramatically widening.
But it’s not merely the gap between the urban elite and those in the poverty-ravaged hinterland. India’s cities are changing rapidly, radically, by the day. And yet, at some level, they remain the same. I wanted to, in the novel, explore this dichotomy and map, in some way, the dizzying change in urban India –and among its metropolitan elite.
More and more young Indian writers are finding international superstardom. Adiga was a surprise winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize; Kiran Desai (herself the daughter of one of India’s most acclaimed novelists) won the prize two years ago; Arundhati Roy, whose The God of Small Things, arguably the most successful of these novels, picked up the prize in 1997. The list is long and impressive. Many of the writers now live in Britain or America. Is the literary scene in India really as outstanding as it seems to us in the outside world?
Well, I don’t know about that. The names that you mentioned, that’s, what, three names in eleven years. And even if you include Rushdie, that’s four in forty years of the Booker – if the Booker were to be any index, that is. I don’t think that suggests a prolific abundance. There are, of course, several gifted Indian writers (not all of them young and not all of them living outside of India) around, and they have been around for years now. And we are here merely talking about writing in English, not in any of the Indian languages.
In India, the cultural discourse about books is dominated by news of prizes and advances. A lot of people here tend to think that writing is a get-rich-quick policy. While that is puerile and shameful, it does inspire more and more people to write. Most of the people who write because they want to get rich are unlikely to produce anything of any worth. But at least it’s become okay to say that one is working on a book, that one wants to do one. This is relatively new. Ten years ago, if you were writing something, it was a furtive exercise, a sort of sinful, closet endeavour. That has changed, and I think that is good.