Saturday, February 18, 2012

Interview with Nilanjan P. Choudhury

Nilanjan, congratulations on your first book 'Bali and the Ocean of Milk' and on such encouraging response from the readers.

  1. What all research went in creating 'Bali and the Ocean of the Milk' and what has been the most interesting phase of this whole process starting from conception of the idea to having the first copy of your book in your hands?

This is not a research heavy book. It is essentially a work of imagination, not a retelling or strictly speaking not even a re-imagination but a new story altogether. Apart from drawing from the very well known myth of the churning of the ocean, the rest of it is pure fiction and the characters and situations are of my making. Although it would appear that the book is about mythology, it is used only as one would use a vase of flowers in a room - for fragrance and colour - the heart of the book lies in its human characters and political satire.

  1. What made you pick the names Samba, Viru and Jai for the holy trinity? Why did you not make Gabbar the Creator?

Those are the names of the Holy Trinity referred to in the Hurrian myth, on which the story of Bali is based. As the preface to the novel says, the actual Hurrian names are Sam Bah, Vee Lu and Jeh, which have been Indianized to Sambha, Viru and Jai in this version. It is mere coincidence that they are also names of characters from a film called Sholay.

Why not Gabbar? Probably because the Hurrians didn’t think that it was a very god-like name…but then that is mere conjecture….

  1. Do you plan to write a sequel of this book too ? Would you like to share your ideas for the next book with the readers?

I don’t know yet. I have been toying with the idea of doing something based on Greek mythology but it’s just a twinkle in the eye right now. I might also want to get my teeth into something completely contemporary.

  1. In your opinion, why more and more writers are digging the mythology to pick ideas from? Is it a quest to find answers to current age doubts or is it an attempt to redefine the age old belief system to check its relevance in current times?

Superman meets Satyajit Ray, escapism with an anchor – to my mind that is the USP of high quality mythological fiction. Magic, fantasy, mythology all offer an escape from reality and ooze the colours, sights, smells and textures that contemporary literary fiction often lacks. However since the cornerstone of most mythology is often a strong narrative with fascinating characters, dilemmas and situations, good myth inspired tales have an core human appeal that stays after you strip away all the special effects.

I also think that both writers and readers find it interesting to explore old characters in new contexts. There are close parallels between the ancient and the modern, suggestive of the fact that humans haven’t really changed much over the ages. That is perhaps another source of amusement.

  1. There is a new trend in the literary arena, more and more professionals are taking up writing . What do you think is the reason for that? Are IIT, IIM tags becoming qualification criteria to be writers, or are the professional courses honing the writing skills more than what they are meant to do?

In general, I am quite sure that the IIT/IIM tag has nothing to do with good writing. The only connection I can think of is that people graduating from such places often get stuck in well paying but mundane jobs and they may take to writing and so on as a release. In any case, the number of “writers” compared to number of people graduating every year from IIT/ IIM is miniscule. Having being asked similar questions earlier as well, I sometimes wonder whether they would have been raised, if say, a St. Stephen’s or a Presidency College were to produce a flurry of authors…

Coming to my personal reasons for writing this novel – like in the murder mysteries, the answer has three parts - motive, opportunity and means.

Motive - I wanted to write a black comedy, let’s say the literary equivalent of Dr. Strangelove, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron etc. which I thought wasn’t really available in Indian literature. Tall order you might say – but that was the starting point.

Opportunity - time on my hands during the recession a couple of years ago.

Means - long commutes in Bangalore with a laptop, a driver and the backseat of a car.

  1. It is a popular belief that getting published in India is no longer a daunting task but a majority of what is being written is more or less clones of Chetan Bhagatism or such. What is your opinion about the literary scene in India?

Yes there has been an explosion of genres, voices, writers and publishers - mostly for the good I think. Today’s writing also caters to wider segments of society - not just the literary types and we should welcome the phenomenon of Indians writing for Indians rather than for western markets or the diaspora. However while publishing may just have got easier, standing out of the clutter has become a good deal more difficult. In all probability, we will soon have many writers who will become famous for 5 minutes, rather than the more respectable 15.

Without reference to any particular writer or his/her clones, I would add though, that a lot of the stuff that comes out today is pretty sad in terms of quality – and by quality I mean the flesh and blood of fiction writing i.e. characters, motivation, conflict and so on rather than poor language, style etc which are important but secondary.

  1. I see two very diverse camps of authors in India. One category comprising of - Chetan Bhagat, Parul Sharma, etc. and the other comprising of the likes of Vikram Seth, Gurcharan Das etc. These camps are almost like popular choice and critics choice. Which camp do you want to belong to?

It would be nice to belong to both. But like all good clubs (especially those of British vintage) both camps have their own sets of unwritten laws, snobberies and prejudices. The sales of many bestsellers would probably have halved for every favourable review published in a “reputed” publication, scaring the lay reader into thinking that “it’s too hi- fi for me.” Similarly, influential critics look askance at anything that seems to be enjoyable and easy to read, as if they were on a diet that prevents them from appreciating anything that is easily digestible.

But to draw a parallel from cinema, surely modern Indian writing needs the literary equivalents of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee – neither David Dhawan nor Ritwik Ghatak. I think that good writing that is also accessible to the lay reader is the missing link today.

The in-built snobbery of the snooty critic and the irrational apprehensions of the “I toh only read Filmfare, baba !!” reader shouldn’t prevent the rise of high quality, “middle-brow” writing.

  1. Which books make to your reading list ? What is your opinion on writings of Gurcharan Das, Devdutt Pattanaik, Ashok K. Banker, Amish Tripathi, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - the writers who are writing on mythology with modern and unique perspectives?

A large number and a wide range of books fill my shelves. But apart from Amish, whose Meluha book I read about a month ago (to avoid any influence) I haven’t read any of the others that you mention. A brutally shortened favourites list include Vikram Seth, R K Narayan, Hemingway, Jhumpa Lahiri, Steinbeck, John Mortimer, J K Rowling, Tolkien, Doyle etc etc.

  1. On your facebook page many people have commented that you are finally doing what you always wanted to do? Since when did you know that you would want to write a story?

It wasn’t as if I suffering from deep agonies along the lines of “I must write or I will die” – I began writing as a lark and found myself enjoying the process. Like Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life” and a deep interest in literature, theatre, music and film has long been a part of me. I guess it just took a long time for the interest to change from passive to active.

  1. Some people have natural flare for writing. In your opinion how much of this skill is innate and how much of it can be acquired? What do you think is true about yourself?

In my case it is certainly acquired. I also think that many people can become decent writers with generous helpings of hard work, humility, self-belief and a wide range quality reading. Of course, there are the geniuses with god given gifts who defy all such analyses.

  1. You are into dramatics too, would you like to share some interesting things about yourself and some of the other things that keep you occupied?

Yes, theatre has been an important part of my life for several years now and has in many ways influenced and helped my writing.

Thank you Nilanjan! It was interesting knowing your views on varied topics.

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