February 24, 2008

Indra Sinha

Indra Sinha, legendary copywriter, tireless campaigner for justice for the survivors of the Bhopal gas leak of December 1984, highly-regarded novelist (his Animal’s People was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize), is holidaying in India with his wife. Fitting in appearances at the recent Jaipur Festival and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival between sojourns in Rajasthan and Goa, he also made time to chat informally with young writers. And to answer a few questions from Peter Griffin.

Tell us about some of your early memories of holidays around the country.
Lots. The beauty of the Western Ghats in the monsoon, visiting the lake palace in Udaipur before it was a hotel, rowing across the lake to the other palace, where Shah Jehan had stayed, to find its empty dome full of pigeons... I miss my grandfather's village in UP near the Nepal border, smells of straw, woodsmoke, an old travelling cinema kept in a hay barn...

All those years in the UK, and now in France. How often has the Colaba boy come back?
[I have been back] regularly since my association with the Bhopal survivors began in the mid-nineties. I love being in India. The pace of change is amazing, but I love to see things I remember still from the old days, like an old-fashioned bullock cart trundling along, and it was good to see that the forest is still thick on the ghats in places along the Goa road. If there is anything I can do, any organisation I can join or support to help protect the Western Ghats, I would like to do it.

Speaking of change, is it good change or bad that you see?
The pace of change is huge and the wealth in the country is enormous. What is sad and in fact sickening is that the well off seem to have closed their eyes to the vast majority of the population, who do not benefit from globalisation, the booming stock market, et cetera. The long-term result of this can only be fascism and repression; it will be the only way to preserve the continuing luxury of the wealthy at the continuing expense of those who have nothing. Writers have a duty to speak out about this and Arundhati [Roy] has recently written an excellent article on this very point.

Two of your books are set in India—well, four, to count Tantra and your Kama Sutra translation. Written, as they were, in Europe, did the distance aid perspective, or did it get in the way? How did you do your research?
When I write, I am in my imagination. It neither helps nor hinders to be in the place I am writing about, however I like to know the places about which I will write, even though the imagination transforms them. One tries to catch a reality, a feeling, that lies just beneath the skin. Lawrence Durrell was a genius at doing this. He was a favourite and formative influence when I was young.

As an expatriate, and a writer to boot, do you find yourself expected to be the font of all information on the country?
I used to be expected to be Encyclopaedia Indica, but that is less true nowadays. People’s knowledge of India varies enormously. Many people have been here and many more have some family connection. I think people’s ideas are formed largely by the television. Don’t forget there is also a huge Indian population in the UK, so Indian culture, Bollywood, “Indian” restaurants, are all pretty much part of everyday life.

Have you seen any great writing from India?
I loved Siddharth Dhanwant Shangvi’s The Last Song of Dusk, it was arch, amusing, knowing, entertaining—and underneath ran a tale of deep sorrow. The writing about sex is some of the finest I have read.

You’re scheduled to speak at the Kitab Festival. What will you be chatting about?
I propose to devote my Kitab event to talking about the Bhopal survivors who even at this moment are trudging the long road to Delhi in an attempt to get politicians to keep their broken promises. [See bhopal.net for the story.]

Indra Sinha will be speaking at Kitab today, 1p.m., Crossword, Kemp’s Corner. More about him at his website, indrasinha.com. And visit khaufpur.com, companion site to Animal’s People.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 24th February, 2008.

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