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'Safe books bore me'

Last updated on: May 02, 2005 14:49 IST
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V S Naipaul must really like Tarun Tejpal. Really. It is not every day, after all, or every year for that matter, that Sir Vidia decides to endorse fiction. Certainly not -- shudder -- Indian fiction in English. And yet, he has. Boldly. On the cover of Tejpal's The Alchemy of Desire: 'At last…a new and brilliantly original novel from India.'

Naipaul isn't the only one who likes Tarun Tejpal. A lot of people do. A whole lot. It explains why Tehelka -- of which he is CEO and Editor-in-Chief -- was launched with 172 founder-subscribers and 15,000 subscriptions. A paper funded entirely by people who had a feeling they wanted to read it.

It may have something to do with a particular knack the man possesses, of taking on issues most of us would shy away from. It may have something to do with the fact that he took on India's defence establishment and cricket heroes, tore down a number of veils, and survived both battles. It may have a lot to do with the hope he manages to inspire in India's subjugated millions, the kind of hope that drives them daily, despite all odds.

I have decided, a week after finishing The Alchemy of Desire, that I like Tarun Tejpal too. It has taken me that span of time to think about why it is an immensely ambitious novel, and one that manages to stay afloat despite the many twists and turns that could easily drag a lesser work down. Discussing the plot is irrelevant, here. The jacket describes it as 'the story of a young couple, penniless but gloriously in love.' But there are other stories within, about India, journalism, terrorism, myth, and alcoholism. And, running through them all, the many faces of desire.

Spread across five parts -- each capable of playing the role of vibrant novella -- this is a story about the spirit of desire implicit in each of us. In a little over 200,000 words, Tejpal manages to encompass whole lives, along with the galaxies of emotion contained therein. It's why I call the book ambitious. Also, consider the events surrounding its birth. Operation Westend was finished. The court cases were not. Through 16 months, as the government had its way with everyone involved in the Tehelka story, Tejpal soldiered on.

The Alchemy of Desire is a bold book. One that takes a long, careful look at sex and the intricacies of longing. It delves into heterosexuality and homosexuality, masturbation and voyeurism, sex with wives and sex with ghosts. Sexuality and sensuality underlie everything -- plot, character, dialogue.

It is also a book about bold statements. Like those expressed by a character called Mustafa Syed, the Prince of Jagdevpur: 'The great progressive impulses of rationality and universal human dignity that had kicked alive elsewhere had passed India by. While Europe in the last three hundred years had made the triple-jump of science, enlightenment and individual rights, and landed firmly in the happy sandpit of social reforms and rule of law, India's potentates had fed their people a thin gruel of bullshit mysticism and half-assed religion.'

Bullshit mysticism and half-assed religion. In fiction, as in journalism, Tarun Tejpal isn't fond of mincing words.

This is also a book about women. Extremely strong women -- something I found extremely pleasing. Fiza, Bibi Lahori and Catherine are the kind of characters you would want to meet in real life. The kind of women you could interview for hours on end, then promptly fall passionately in love with.

At times when you least expect it, it is a funny book. When the Nawab, father of Mustafa Syed, finds that his son is in love with his maths teacher -- who pleasures Mustafa in his room while teaching him tables -- he dictates a new aphorism for his people to follow: 'The tables of arithmetic must never be learnt in a room, but always in the open, under trees.'

When I turned the last page, I realised two things. One, that Tejpal's 18-year career in journalism has taught him a great deal about creating well-crafted prose. Two, understanding the novel better would involve asking him a great many questions. Which is when I decided to approach him with these…

Tarun Tejpal spoke to Lindsay Pereira.

The death of O V Vijayan must have affected you in a peculiar way, considering what he once said to you about being a journalist and finding out, years later, that you haven't written anything. Was that a genuine fear at the back of your mind, after two decades of journalism?

Well, I hadn't met him in the past many years, but yes, he was a friend whose writing I deeply admired. It is true that his words about the consuming nature of journalism have always haunted me, and yes, the nagging need to write the more sustained deeper stuff has always been there, and in fact grown more acute even as journalism has consumed me more and more.

But you have to remember that, at the end of the day, you have to feed life into writing -- journalism gives you an extra dose of life, and thus can help the more serious writing (provided you manage to get down to it).

Did having a great many writers as friends worry you when you began writing? Did you feel the 'anxiety of influence', as it were?

Actually, not at all. In a peculiar way, the travails of my last five years have liberated me from most fears. Also, knowing enough writing and the writers who do it, in some strange way takes you past them, puts you in a place of your own, to do what is different, whatever it is that you precisely want to do. Influence in any case is a very nuanced thing -- it seeps into you over years and decades, and often you yourself are not even aware of it.

For myself, my struggle for twenty years was to find the tone to tell the kind of story I wanted to in the kind of way I wanted to. And a lot of that had to do with trying to capture the noise, chaos and teeming-ness of India without making it phoney and a caricature. This is not easy when you write in English. The English language, after all, represents the character of the people it was born out of, the English people -- thus it is a language of understatement, reserve, coolness.

But Indian reality is anything but that -- it is noisy, emotional, overheated, anarchic, folksy, swinging pell-mell between rationality and irrationality. So the task is to expand the language, bend it creatively without resorting to caricature. To find a tone that allows you a true story without too much simplification. And this has to be done keeping in mind the fact that the soul of literature is actually the intimate story, the small story.

The challenge then was to tell an extremely intimate story without forfeiting the right to talk of all the other larger issues that concern me hugely, and to tell it as close to the skin of India as possible, without 'fakery' or caricature. The triumph for me personally is that I found the tone that allowed me to do all this.

You have said, in an interview, that a book about the more recent events in your life is to come…

Yes, but that will take shape seven to eight years from now. You have to let time act on events -- that's the most important thing in both the creation of art and assessing its true value. The true contours of the Tehelka story will only become clear many years on -- what shape dealing with that material takes remains to be seen.

Considering your novel was born while a number of things collapsed around you, do you believe it takes great pain to create literature?

It's true that the novel came to me, and I wrote it, in certainly the most difficult time of my life, yet there is no reason to assume that books are born out of great strife or grief. Any number of writers, from Aldous Huxley to Gore Vidal, have commented on the fact that great writing can come from any set of circumstances -- ill-health, good health, poverty, wealth, leisure, hyper-activity, recognition, damnation.

The process is always mysterious and varied. The only constant, I suppose, is application, the ability to keep going in a decidedly lonely way chasing something you often can barely intuit with a confidence that it has great and universal value.

V S Naipaul's blurb on the cover has been received differently by different quarters. Going by his opinion, and considering you were co-founder of IndiaInk (that first published Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things), do you believe there has been little originality in Indian writing in English, lately?

For me, his endorsement is of the highest value. Anyone who knows Naipaul knows you cannot get him to write or do anything he doesn't want to or believe in. He almost never endorses any book; he is one of the masters of 20th century writing; if he says something stellar about your work it has immense worth.

As for your question of the originality of Indian writers in English, I think the project of claiming and expanding the language to tell our stories is well underway. There will inevitably be good and bad books as we go along. I think we have to retain the courage to explore and push.

For myself, I can say what excites me is still the original mandate of literature -- the pushing of boundaries, the fostering of new ways of seeing, the opening up of new windows. A lot of writing of the last 20 years is descriptive -- one culture describing itself to another culture. That kind of writing doesn't interest me. Safe books bore me. Literature ought to always remain the outrider of society, the advance party of civilisation.

Part II: 'Women are far, far more interesting'

Tarun Tejpal's photograph: Ranjan Basu/Saab Press | Image: Uday Kuckian

Buy Tarun Tejpal's book.

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