Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

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An Interview With Jeffrey Archer


Jeffrey Howard Archer

If life can imitate the thriller’s art, then Jeffrey Archer’s (b. 1940) has been a dramatic roller coaster ride. The former British politician and bestselling author’s combined book sales total more than 135 million copies and Kane and Abel (1980), his tale of two siblings at war, continues to sell at the rate of a thousand copies a day. Archer set his sights on a political career as a charity fundraiser after Oxford and was elected MP (1969-74). As a confidant of Margaret Thatcher he was made deputy chairman of the Conservative Party (1985-86) and a life peer in 1992. Though officially styled as Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare, controversy has long been Lord Archer’s middle name.

Libel suits, links with prostitutes, bankruptcy claims, dodgy accounting practices and allegations of insider dealing have tainted his career; it has even been said that he was never a full undergraduate at Oxford. In 1986, Archer was forced to resign as deputy chairman of the party because he paid a prostitute £2,000 to go abroad; as a fall-out of a libel case in 2000 he was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, expelled from the party for five years, and served a two-year jail term; and in 2001 it was alleged that millions of pounds had disappeared from Archer’s charity for Kurds. The satirical magazine Private Eye’s nickname for him is “Lord Archole”.

But he bounces back with resilience, often in unexpected ways. In jail he produced three volumes of prison diaries and was let out to star in a production of his courtroom drama The Accused.  

This recording with Archer followed a glittering lunch given in his honour by a sports impresario and was attended by the capital’s political, bureaucratic and cricketing elite. A large hall on the luxury hotel’s rooftop was crammed with PRs, event managers and camera crews for press interviews. As befits a former athlete, Archer has the reputation of behaving like a feisty pugilist with the media; he is a master at the politician’s skills of subtle evasion, over-simplification and rhetorical exaggeration. Establishing an easy intimacy, however, he was frank, freewheeling and often quite funny in this interview. 

One bestselling thriller after another and, indeed, sometimes your own life reads like one. Fame, fortune, political dramas, scandals and the infamy of serving a two-year jail term—how much of it goes into your books?

I think any author is prone to use his own experiences. When young people come to me and say, “Jeffrey, I want to write a book, what should I do?” I say that you must not think like that. You shouldn’t do a ghost book or a spy story or a war story because they are fashionable. You must write about what you know. I always quote Jane Austen who wrote only wrote five books in her life, arguably five of the greatest novels ever written. She lived in a small town in England. She wrote about a mother who was trying to get rid of four daughters, a mother trying to get rid of three daughters, a mother trying to get rid of two daughters and a daughter trying to get rid of herself. You write about what you know, what you understand, and if you are any good at it, and you can make readers turn the page, they will turn the page.

You spent two years in jail on charges of perjury and you turned the prison term into a page-turner: you produced three volumes of Prison Diaries and also a play with you appearing on stage. So you turned a period of adversity, in one of harshest prisons in Britain, into a publishing success. How tough was that?

Well, you are right, because the three prison diaries ran into a million words. That was my output in one year. Normally I write a hundred and fifty thousand words in a year. I wrote Prison Diary I, II and III all within a year. When people come to me and ask how to finish a book I say that you must get away from what you are doing. You must get away. You must have at least three months away from everyone. So I was sitting in a cell with a pad and pen, with three meals a day, and no one bothering me. This was exactly what I needed but it was also very noisy.

What is it about your personality that you have managed to turn every disadvantage, in fact serial disasters from public litigation and scandals, into an advantage. You just picked yourself up from the bootstraps, in crisis after crisis, to produce bestsellers which have sold about a hundred and thirty five million copies in all.

I think if you have to sit down and start crying or you have to look over your shoulder you will stop. So, yes, there have been some disasters but you have got to get yourself up and get on with it. You can always find excuses, you can always say it was someone else’s fault, it wasn’t really fair, but that’s rubbish. It is always your fault. So get on with life and start again.

When you came down from Oxford, writing wasn’t really on your horizon. It was a political career that you after, wasn’t it?

Correct.  That was what I wanted to do. I entered the Greater London Council at the age of 25 and I entered the House of Commons by the age of 29 in the days when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. I wanted to be a politician. But writing came strangely because I made a very foolish investment in a company and I lost everything I had earned, and more, because I was stupid enough to invest more than I had. It was then that I sat down and wrote my first book called Not a Penny More Not a Penny Less, the story of four men who between them lose a fortune and, one of them, an American brings them together. Nowadays I read regularly in the press that this was an instant bestseller but, in fact, it wasn’t. It sold 3,000 copies and it took a whole year to sell those 3,000 copies before it began to sell well. My writing life really didn’t take off until Kane and Abel which sold millions of copies, including in India. Even today it’s selling a thousand copies a day. It changed my entire life.

What is at the core of writing thrillers? Is it actually the craft of writing, creating characters, inventing situations or do you first get down and figure out a cracking good plot?

You have to have the plot. You have got to have a story that has a beginning, middle and an end and you have got to make people turn the page. I write up to 17 drafts. I get away for two months and I wake up at 5:30 in the morning. I write from six to eight and take a two hour break, I write from ten until twelve and take a two hour break, I again write from two until four,  followed by another two hour break,  then I write from six until eight, light supper, go to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 and begin again at 5:30 the next day. Fifty days of that in a row.

If anyone watching this programme thinks that it can be done in a weekend it can’t be. I was in a restaurant the other day and saw a man of my age with a young lady, who certainly wasn’t his daughter, and as I was passing his table I heard him say to her, “Oh, look, that’s Jeffrey Archer…does he knock off another book this weekend?” They have no idea that it’s hour upon hour of craftsmanship to hone it sharper and finer.

Apart from the rigorous discipline of sitting at your desk and writing, correcting draft after draft, the key to thrillers is the twist in the tale, to borrow a title from one of your books. Where do the slick, often outlandish, twists come from?

Often the young will come and ask that question. They mean it. I say to them, “Do you play the violin?” They say, “No, Jeffrey, I don’t play the violin.” I say, “Do you paint a picture?” They say, “No, I am not an artist.” I say, “I tell a story. It’s a God given gift.” I can tell a story any day of the week; words never stop coming out, they are there all the time.

But in the end it’s the readership, people out there, who make the decision. Ironically, with all your experience and professionalism it isn’t the prose that makes the decision, it’s the public. You’ve got to give them a story they will love. They won’t come back to you if they don’t. One of the joys of India is that many people come up to me and say, “I have read them all, Jeffrey!”

Despite your success as a thriller writer you never set out to be a writer. Was it an accidental vocation?

Totally. I fall in with the Proustian theory that we all end up doing the thing we are second best at. I wanted to be a politician. But I couldn’t get a job when I was out of politics and facing bankruptcy. I sat down and wrote my first book. Then someone said, “You ought to write a second one Jeffrey.” I always wanted to, and did, instead of listening to my wife who said, “Go out and look for a real job.”

That’s the “radiant, fragrant Mary Archer” as described by a judge in one of the court actions you faced. What is it about your life that lands you in real trouble as opposed to many of your heroes who also land into trouble but manage to get out unhurt?

 I think I trust a person too much and there’s a naivete about me. I often say that if I had to make a decision between being a tough cynic and a naive enthusiast, thanks very much, I will be a naive enthusiast. You only get one life. So what if I have made mistakes, who hasn’t? I am not talking about individual things that happened to me. Most people have disasters in their lives. Most people have had tragedies or things gone wrong from which they had to fight back. Very few people sailed smoothly through life.  If you have, “Well done, sir”.

It’s your first long tour of India and you’re going to several cities. What does the country mean to you apart from a big readership and your old love of cricket?

A love of cricket goes way back. I had the honour today at lunch to meet up again with the Nawab of Pataudi who was captain of cricket at Oxford when I was president of athletics. But he captained India before he met with the tragic accident from which he recovered and played just as well. Indians are among the greatest players of cricket in the last 50 years. Watching Virender Sehwag the other day get his triple hundred and  watching Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid score those amazing runs!  It’s also a personal thrill for me because they read my books. I never thought this book tour of India would happen. I have done Australia, I have done America, I have done New Zealand but a tour of India is very thrilling because it’s the nation everyone is looking up to at the moment. In Britain we are very conscious that India is striding to the fore and people talk about the next two decades belonging to India. When the Wall Street Journal said that Jeffrey you’re better off in India than you would be in America, I believed them. That’s why I am here. It’s alright to be the number one on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s alright to be number one on the Sunday Times but to sell at traffic lights in India is different.

What is it about the British political establishment that produces bestselling writers? There’s Ken Follet, a champion of the Labour Party champion, whose wife is a minister, and who’s your competition in thrillers. There are others too. Top-selling crime novelists P.D. James and Ruth Rendell are both members of the House of Lords. What is it about the British propensity to combine fiction writing with public life?

Disraeli wrote novels during the holidays when he was Prime Minister and so did Winston Churchill.  John Buchan gave us The Thirty Nine Steps when he was the High Commissioner in Canada. Douglas Hurd as Foreign Secretary was still writing novels. I think that one of the things about politics is that you meet fascinating people and you face problems every day that are unbelievable. So when you sit down to write a novel you often say, “I can’t put that in because I know it happened and I can’t put in that bit because no one will believe it.”


One of your achievements as a Conservative Party MP and later member of the House of Lords was your reputation as a fund-raiser. At key moments you raised large sums of money for the party under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Do you think that it was your ability to raise money through charities and fund-raisers that moved your political career onwards and upwards?

I love people and I am a street politician. I am not very good at pages of paperwork. I worked for Margaret Thatcher and John Major because I liked being on the street and doing that side of the work. I don’t like piled-up boxes with memos and things. I like to touch the people and report back what was happening. And we raised a lot of money for the party because nowadays sadly politics, and I mean sadly, is based on how much money you can raise to run your campaign.

Big political changes have occurred in British politics during your long political career, with the move from Conservative to Labour rule. But how have public attitudes to politics and politicians changed?

When I entered politics forty years ago there was a clear left and a clear right and people were not fighting for the centre ground. Nowadays everybody stands on the centre ground. Tony Blair as Prime Minister was, frankly, a couple of points right of centre. Everyone is fighting for the centre ground, that’s the big difference. The strategic difference is what Margaret Thatcher always pointed out. I had to accept her judgement when she said, “Jeffrey, you know, what happens these days, they put an idea in the air, and they get an opinion poll, and if the opinion poll says that’s what the people want, they go ahead with it.”  She said that that was not conviction politics. Conviction politics is a belief in something, believing you will be elected by the people to lead them.

The era in which I was brought up was under Harold Wilson, a highly intelligent and sophisticated man, who knew that he couldn’t move without the backing of the trade union movement and he couldn’t run a parliament without their support. That’s no longer true. But, in the end, people get bored with the person who is in power. After Margaret Thatcher had ten years they wanted her out for no other reason than she had done ten years. After Tony Blair had done ten years they wanted him out. The truth of the matter is that, after a certain period of time your sell-by date comes up, and they take whoever is the leader of the other party.

You’re a rich man. Your books have made you a millionaire many times over. What do you spend your money on?

Art mainly, I love collecting art. So if a large cheque comes because of a book I go out to buy some art.

You have an impressive collection of Impressionist art, haven’t you?

I love the Impressionist period and I have been collecting for 20 years but I will let you into a secret: I can’t afford my own pictures now and I will tell you why. The world has gone mad. You could once buy a Picasso for a certain sum, then you could buy a Pissarro for a certain sum but, now, the Russians and the Chinese have knocked the markets silly. I can’t afford to buy those paintings any longer. I have come down to lower levels.

So what are you buying nowadays?

I have just seen and am fascinated by Australian artists. They’re much underrated. I have also been buying Fernando Botero, the great Columbian artist now lives in Italy. I am always looking for the next young artist who I think will make it good. But in my own country, if you take someone like Damien Hirst, he is now five or six million dollars for a picture. The world has gone mad.

Perhaps you’re in the right country, after all, because the Indian contemporary art market is undergoing a boom. And it was recently reported that you met M.F.Husain, one of our great artists in London. 

I had a great honour of meeting him and what a dignified gentleman he is! But if I may say so, the difference between him and many other modern artists is that, you give Husain a pencil and he knows what it’s for and that he can actually draw. I went to an exhibition the other day where they put two egg boxes together and framed it and where charging 72,000 pound sterling for it. I say the best way to find out if someone can draw is to give him a pencil.

Do you think India will feature one day in a Jeffrey Archer novel?

You’ve got to be careful about that and I will tell you why. This nation has produced some of the greatest writers on earth, some legendary names, and it would be very foolish to go and tread on their territory just as I wouldn’t expect them to write a book about a man who escapes from Belmarsh prison and seeks revenge on four people, which is all very English. Indians have a worldwide reputation in literature and I am not going anywhere near that.

May, 2008


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An Interview With Mahasweta Devi

Mahashweta Devi Pic 1

Mahasweta Devi, 1926-2016

One of the ironies of a journalist’s life is unexpected settings for interviews. Whereas I recorded an interview with the German writer and Nobel laureate against the backdrop of a crumbling 19th century mansion in north Kolkata, this interview with the remarkable Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi (b.1926) took place at her hotel suite at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Indian literature and writers were being honoured in 2006 and Mahasweta Devi was at the centre of the celebrations. Although I had read some of her work in translation, and was acquainted with the essential facts of her exceptional life, I did not know what kind of person to expect.

Sitting on a dining chair in the living room was a small, bespectacled woman in a crumpled sari. It was the end of what had obviously been a long and weary day. But her voice was clear and strong; and once the interview began all traces of fatigue vanished. It became vigorous and expressive as she spoke about her life and work with candour, precise recall and emphatic opinion. There were moments—as when she recited the folk lyric about the Rani of Jhansi—when it resonated and filled the large room.

Mahasweta Devi was born in Dhaka into a family with strong intellectual roots.  Her father, Manish Ghatak, older brother of filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, was a well-known poet and novelist; her mother, Dharitri Devi, was a writer and a social worker and sister of Sachin Chaudhury, founder-editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, and the sculptor Sankho Chaudhury. She took a degree in English literature from Santiniketan and knew Tagore; much later, after marriage and motherhood in the 1960s, she went on to complete her M.A. and taught English at a small college in Kolkata. By then her short-lived, turbulent first marriage to playwright-actor Bijon Bhattacharya had ended.

Mahasweta Devi broke from domestic confines to start travelling into the hinterland and produced her first book Jhansir Rani (1956), a retelling of rebellion of Rani Laxmi Bai through oral accounts and regional folklore. Her journeys to the poorest tribal districts of present-day Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh became a leitmotif of her life and vast output: she has produced more than a hundred books of fiction, non-fiction and collections of her fiery, crusading and relentless journalism. 

Many of her real or fictionalized accounts of marginal lives—the landless, dispossessed, uprooted or grief-torn—are widely available in translation. Among the best-known include Hazaar Churashi Ki Ma (No. 1084’s Mother, 1975), Aranyer Adhikar (The Occupation of the Forest, 1977), Agnigarbha (Womb of Fire, 1978), Choti Munda Evam Tar Tir (Choti Munda and His Arrow, 1980) and Bitter Soil: Four Stories (1998). Her prodigious writing and activism has transformed the narrative of her life into a seamless whole; she has been honoured with the Magsaysay and Jnanpith awards and was given the Padma Vibhushan in 2006.

Asked once what her leisure reading included, she admitted to a weakness for thrillers by John Grisham and Dick Francis, adding, “Dick Francis can’t make the horses talk but he does invest them with some kind of character”.  

It must be a good moment for you with several of your works being presented in German translation and a whole seminar built round your huge body of work. What does it feel like?


Why unthinkable?

I wrote because that was the only thing I could do. I couldn’t do anything else—cultivate the soil or break stones or other things. Also, writing meant earning, so I am writing and surviving till date. Book fairs and seminars don’t touch me anymore. I have come here and I am mighty proud because my government has sent me, and it is very good to meet people, to touch their hearts and to talk to them. Yesterday when I spoke I said that the right to dream is anyone’s first fundamental right. We must be allowed to dream. People must have the liberty to dream. As long as we can dream, we will go ahead.  

You come from a family steeped in the reading habit. Your mother made you read Chekhov and Dickens and Tolstoy. How big an influence was that early immersion in books?

We grew up with books; from childhood on all I have seen is books. Purchasing books and keeping them, maintaining a library. My mother was a great reader as was my father. My maternal grandmother was also a voracious reader. From my childhood, she would give me many books to read, all serious books.

Other influences were your first husband, playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, who was deeply involved in the Indian People’s Theatre Association, IPTA, and your father’s younger brother, the noted Bengali filmmaker Ritwick Ghatak. So reading, writing, making films were a family tradition…

My first husband was both a great actor and playwright; he was one of the founder members of IPTA. From his famous play a fantastic film was made by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas called Dharti Ke Lal. Many families were like that. I repeat, that in our time, our view of the world, whatever we knew about the world outside Bengal, was only through books. Also in my childhood, I was in Santiniketan when Tagore was alive. I saw him very closely. In those days Santiniketan was a very different kind of institution. We were encouraged to read books, use the library, study them and write about what we thought of them. It was something in the air of the country.

What were your earliest writings?

When I was a student of class eight, there was a famous children’s journal and the editor asked me to write a piece on Tagore. That was the first my published writing. But after that I did not pursue writing. Time passed, I got married and later I worked in a garments office. Slowly I started writing for weekly papers. It was great to get ten rupees or fifty rupees for a piece of writing in those days.

A turning point in your life when you started travelling, of journeys to places like Palamau, now in Jharkhand…

Palamau came later. My first book was Jhansir Rani, the biography of the Rani of Jhansi. I read all the available historical material but then I had this intense desire to go and see those places. I knew nothing about Jhansi, Bundelkhand and Gwalior. I just borrowed money from relatives, got into a train, left behind a small baby with his father and went to Jhansi.  From that moment my second interest, of collecting oral traditions, became vital for me. I honour and cherish our oral tradition greatly. I will never forget sitting by a fire in Jhansi under the December sky. It was very cold. These Bundelkhandi people were singing, “Patthar mitti se fauj banayi, Kaath se Katwar, Pahad uthakar goley banaye, chalo Gwalior” (From stones and earth she created an army/And from wood she fashion a sword. She turned mountains into cannonballs/ And lead with cry, “Onwards to Gwalior.”) From then on, the Rani of Jhansi became a real woman for me.

Despite your rigorous chronicling of the oral tradition you also speak of your method of research as being forensic—that you are obsessed by statistics, gazetteers and collecting facts…

 Yes. But I am also someone who always comes back to history. To me history means the blank space between two printed lines. Therein is the true history of the people. This song about the Rani of Jhansi is an example of that space because the words “Patthar mitti se fauj banayi…” would never appear in history books. So whatever I have learnt in my life is from the people. I have gone to them, I respect them, and I return to them.

You know the name of Draupadi from the Mahabharata, she had five husbands. Fine, Draupadi’s story is well-known and I have written a story about her. But in the 1980s I went to the Himalayas and there I came across Gujjar tribes of cattle-grazers. One woman would marry two, three or four brothers. I asked them why? And they said, in our community, every woman has a Draupadi gotra (lineage). One woman marries three or four brothers. Officially this woman remains the wife of the first brother. Other brothers also marry different wives. But in order to write this, to write the story of Draupadi, I had to read the Mahabharata.

The great impetus of your writing came from giving voice to the dispossessed  and documenting their lives. Was that what triggered off your trips to tribal districts that later became Jharkhand?

Yes, I went there in the 1960s, and I saw this horrible custom of bonded labour. There was a man who was bonded to a rich farmer. I saw a bullock cart stacked heavy with paddy. The bullock could not pull it and it crashed. So the rich farmer forced the bonded labourer to pull the cart. While attempting to do so, this bonded labourer named Nageshya broke his shoulder. I asked the rich farmer how he could do such a thing. He said to me that his bullock had cost him a lot of money and that if he had to buy another bullock it would cost him 2,000 rupees, but this man here, he is only a bonded labourer. From these experiences emerged the 1980s movement against bonded labour.

Another change occurred in your life in the 1960s. You had a B.A. in English literature from Santiniketan but you decided to do an M.A. and began teaching English in a small college in Kolkata then you became a teacher. Was that a difficult transition?

It was exactly like that. I was a graduate when I got married but I didn’t do my M.A. I did it long after as a private student and taught in a college. I was this person who had read all these things, so it was alright. I could do it—it was not difficult—but it wasn’t a distinguished career. I had no desire ever to become a distinguished teacher.

Teaching and travelling ceaselessly to tribal districts, to record and collect stories, and also become actively engaged in their struggles—did all this take a toll on your personal life?

My engagement with tribals started with travels to Palamau. I worked extensively there, then Singhbhum and Hazaribagh, which led to my involvement in the movement for Jharkhand. I remain very connected to the forest movements of the tribals; anywhere you go to in India, to the tribal people, mention my name and they will know me.

I wanted to do it. I had set myself free and I did not want to listen to anyone. I did what I wanted to do. Of course, I had left my husband and my son who was quite young. Leaving him was very heartbreaking. I remarried and that marriage also—it lead to nothing. But by that time I had become absolutely absorbed in my work and the people I was working for, the books I was reading and writing.

And you produced not only novel after novel but short stories, prolific journalism and reports.

You may be surprised to know that for the past 35 to 40 years I have been the most indefatigable journalist. I have travelled and walked through the districts, tribal and non-tribal areas, forest areas and hill areas. I came back and wrote for the newspapers. Three columns, say, in a week. Many of them are now being published together because my complete works are coming out in Bengali.

This large corpus of reporting sustained your fiction and also your activism. Do you see any contradiction in these different roles?

No contradiction anywhere.  Because I became the voice for a large number of people I would collect data and statistics and bombard the government with my reportage and letters to the authorities.

You also recorded the Naxalite movement in your fiction and non-fiction, the most famous example being your novel Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma, later made into a critically acclaimed film, about a mother who rejects her comfortable life after the killing of her younger son…

 Movements such as the Naxalite outburst of the 1970s made up a mighty decade. Many of our boys were being killed. I think the reason why Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma was an instant success was because of the way, the technique, in which it which it was told—a mother remembering her son’s life. It touched the hearts of many mothers and these killings were happening all over India. But these are things I have to write about and can’t stop. I have two books ready in my mind which I have to put down.

Do you believe that the act of writing—given the range and scale of your work and the readership you enjoy—can bring about social change or the writer and activist go hand in hand to deepen awareness and bring change? 

One individual cannot change things but can contribute to a movement in every way possible.  Even in my state, West Bengal, there are still two or three persecuted tribes who cause I have espoused. For 20 years I have been publishing a quarterly journal , Bortika (The Lamp), in which tribals contribute stories, not middle class writers.

I used to print questionnaires because I have a vast rural network so that it would reach people in districts. I would ask them important questions like, “Are you a school teacher? Are you an agricultural labourer? Are you a cycle-rickshaw puller? Write your life story”. It is not possible for me to do everything alone. But, I hope, many people in India have been moved to think and to work in this way.

In the end, do you see yourself as a novelist, chronicler or a crusader—or all three?

As a writer. If I write novels, reportage, stories, it is all with the pen. No computers, no e-mails. Only a pen and paper.

October, 2006   

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An Interview With Amitav Ghosh


Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh (b.1956) appeared several times on Just Books. In part, this is because he is the most approachable and affable of authors but perhaps also because, of all the writers featured in this book, I have known him the longest. We were near contemporaries at Delhi University; that makes access easy and creates a congenial rapport.

Of his generation of Indians writing in English, with hasty inaptitude dubbed the “St Stephen’s school of fiction writing”, Ghosh is the universally-applauded topper and his is the master class in story-telling. His subjects and themes have grown diverse and increasingly complex, from the passion and remorse of an Indo-British family saga in The Shadow Lines (1986) to explorations of the India-Burma connection in The Glass Palace (2000), the Sunderbans mangroves in The Hungry Tide (2005) and the 19th opium trade and migration of indentured labour in Sea of Poppies (2008), the first part of a planned trilogy. Each successive novel is more densely plotted, with a beguiling cast of characters who powerfully drive the narrative. Ghosh has been as prolific in producing non-fiction, including essays and travel writing that include Dancing in Cambodia and At Large in Burma (1998), Countdown (1999) and The Imam and the Indian (2002).    

Ghosh was educated at Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and at Oxford where he took a D.Phil. in social anthropology. He has been a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and taught literature at Queens College, City University of New York  and at Harvard University. He has been honoured by numerous awards at home and abroad; in 2008 Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

These two interviews were recorded at the Frankfurt Book Fair after the success of The Hungry Tide and in New Delhi before the launch of Sea of Poppies. Ghosh looks very much the distinguished campus professor, with his prematurely shock of white hair, and is a man of flowing moods: the concentrated frown swiftly dissolves into ebullient smiles and loud chuckles.

With friends he is affectionately teasing and altogether delightful company. As happens with people who have known each other a long time, we catch up with news of family and friends during random encounters; on the last occasion we were musing about how much Delhi has changed since university days and I began to describe the new shopping malls sprouting all over the city. He thought I was being disapproving but, on the contrary I said, malls were a good thing: an easy pacifier for children, happy air-conditioned family outings with movies and food courts, and a useful crutch for the tired and elderly who could be parked on benches.

For a few moments, Amitav Ghosh fixed me with his basilisk gaze, then exploded in mirth. “What a wonderful image that conjures up of you, wandering round malls. But tell me, truthfully, are you in need of pacifying or a crutch?”

The book that everybody’s been talking about since it came out is The Hungry Tide which takes readers into the mangroves of the Sunderbans. It’s had a very enthusiastic response. Do you think it’s because of the book’s theme of the survival of threatened ecosystems and endangered river dolphins in conflict with indigent human populations that is very much a raging debate of our times?  

The book has had a wonderful reception in India. When people come and talk to me about the book I can make out that they are really touched and moved by it and that it has given them a place to inhabit imaginatively that simply didn’t exist before. Sunderbans is one of the most astonishing ecosystems in the whole world but it is strange that it is absent from the Indian imagination, even from the Bengali imagination. When you ask anyone in Calcutta what does a forest look like they only think of the Himalayan forest or the deciduous forest, they never think of the forest that is literally in their backyard.

Did the book come out of your visits to the Sunderbans when you were young?

Yes, absolutely. I had an uncle who was an officer on Sir Daniel Hamilton’s estate who lived there and I had a close relationship with him. The extremes that one sees in the Sunderbans  are shocking and my visits there profoundly influenced the book. One of the first things that local villagers will tell you is, “Oh, to you we are just tiger food, aren’t we?” The suffering there is very moving. The local people don’t necessarily see their existence as a choice between the tigers and their livelihood. That’s the dichotomy: I think both can live together but what you have to do is to provide some form of income generation or some form of other livelihood which compensates them for the loss of the forests.

What makes The Hungry Tide so accessible to readers is also that the conflict between endangered species and local inhabitants is presented through intricate relationships between outsiders and locals, for instance, between Piyali Roy the Indian-American marine biologist researcher and Fokir the young, illiterate fisherman . They have no language in common yet they develop a close association. In such ways you communicate a layered story with many points of view. How did the characters develop?

When one writes it is essentially the characters that are at the centre of the story and I write about characters who are alive for me. This young researcher was like young researchers are known to be and her translator could be any of us. One of the things that interested me, and which really compelled the book, is the idea that how do you create some sort of equitable balance between the demands of nature and the demands of people in an incredibly impoverished land. I think that, in some general sense, we cannot protect other species if we are completely indifferent to our own species. The suffering of our own species is certainly no less than the suffering of other species.

Many of your novels including The Glass Palace, which is set against the backdrop of the sack of Mandalay by the British and King Thibaw, the last king of Burma’s exile to India, move across frontiers and sometimes and across big time spans. Generations come face to face at particular moments, whether in Egypt, India or America, linking the past with the present. Dense patterns emerge, complex realities interconnect…   

What has been a very conscious thing for me since the start of my career, since my very first book, is to write about the realities of lives, of my life or of my lives. And what are our lives? My family is originally from Bangladesh, what was earlier East Pakistan. My great great great grandparents migrated from that part of Bengal to Bihar in 1856.

And you had an uncle who served in Burma…

Exactly, it is that reality, the reality of our lives which become dispersed. It’s our experience, it’s not an experience contained just in Calcutta or just in Delhi. All of us have travelled. We have studied in various places and we have lived in various places. It is a dispersed experience. It’s not the experience of, say, the 19th century novel where everybody is rooted in a single place. Our dispersal is what I have always sought to write about. When I first started writing about this, the reception of my books was, “Why do you write about people who travel here and there.” Now, 20 years later, people see that writers like me are writing about a world which is coming into being— the globalised world.

In the sense that there has always been an Indian diaspora?

There has always been an Indian diaspora but our consciousness of it is that it did not exist. I remember when we were growing up in Delhi we thought of all those Indians who were abroad with a sense of dismissal, as if they were somewhere else, as if they had left the country. But the current state of India is very different—I mean where did the IT industry come from? Even current forms of culture and the way the Hindi films are made. There has always been an important link between India and the diaspora— Gandhiji  connected it to South Africa and Netaji’s Indian National Army to Burma and Malaysia. These links are old and powerful but we have ignored them for so long.

You are part of the Indian diaspora because for more than 20 years you have lived and taught in New York. How do you keep this intense connection with India alive? You live in America but your subject matter remains India—most of your characters are Indian and your inner and imaginative life is Indian.

c And that’s where I feel very grateful for having had this time outside because it made me realise that to be Indian is not just to be living in Murshidabad or Moradabad. It’s much more than just a localised experience. I found myself fascinated when I wrote The Glass Palace by these people who had never been outside a small village in Orissa and they found themselves travelling in a ship to Burma or Malaysia. It must have been an extraordinary experience.

Your principal occupation is as a fiction writer but you trained in social anthropology as an academic and you taught for many years.  How did these two lives co-exist?

 I really stopped teaching as a professor when I left Delhi University in 1988. Since then I taught occasionally. I have arrangements which allow me to teach a semester and take one off.  Teaching has not been the centre of my life for the last 18 years. Actually, what has been much more central to my life is journalism. I have done a lot of journalism in the last 15 years or so and that’s informed my work very much.

Your long report on India’s emergence as a nuclear power for The New Yorker was later published as a book called Countdown. In that context what do you make of the Indo-American nuclear deal?

It was interesting for me to write Countdown because I have always been anti-nuclear. Maybe I belong to that generation of peaceniks. I certainly believe in non-violence as a central aspect of political strategy. The Indo-US deal is a very technical deal. Some friends of mine who are experts say that it’s good for India and some say it’s not. I am not technically qualified to judge it but one thing concerns me—I have a close relationship with America, I am married to an American and so America is the country that I regard with the greatest sympathy.

So is America a sort of home?

It’s not home. It’s a place where I live. I don’t really think of it as home. But the one thing that worries me is that America is like any other great power. When it creates any relationship it is usually in order to manipulate or to use towards its own advantage. I think India has for many centuries experienced these forms of subordinate relationships. The time has come when India must think of its own future and think about its own interests. What we see very much at play in today’s world is a manipulation of India into some sort of adversarial relationship with China. I think this is a very dangerous thing because I don’t think that such an enmity exists between India and China. In 5,000 years of our history we have fought only one war with China. No other two civilizations have attained that record. We have existed peacefully with each other and there is a deep sense of understanding between the cultures.

India and China have a lot in common and the most important thing they have in common is that neither seeks to dominate the world. I think what India and China want in the future is a system of equal and multilateral relations amongst the important nations of the world. I think China should be our ally in achieving this.

Before the 18th century fifty per cent of world trade originated in India and China. Today, here in Frankfurt, so many people come and say that India and China are the big threat. And I say, but what is the threat? What you are seeing here is the restoration of balance. It is the restoration of balance that once existed and it is going to exist again in the future. India and China have more than half the world’s population, so obviously we are going to produce at least half the world’s goods and services.

Perhaps the long view of history is that it’s not linear but cyclical?

It’s exactly that and the world will have to adapt to it…but I think we should also frankly admit that India has been a very self centred civilization for a very long time. In general Indians really did not look outside in a very enthusiastic way…

Is that because there are so many Indias that Indians, whether at home or abroad, often regard one another as outsiders, “the other”. Even though well-versed in the idea of nationhood we are beset with divisions of region, religion, caste, class, Indian and overseas Indian?

 I think that began to change in about the 1960s. In literary terms I would say V.S.Naipaul as a writer is an aspect of our connecting with the larger world. In Bengali we had some very major writers who began writing about their experiences of the world. I like to think that I represent part of that phenomenon. I represent the generation that come from a post-Independence India which is reclaiming its place in the world. I think of it as a very important responsibility that rests, in some ways, on our shoulders because never again must India allow itself to be blind to the world. This was the terrible mistake earlier generations.

When we look back to the Middle Ages, at the Mughal Empire for instance, a very great with enormous resources but it never woke up to notice the powers building around them. They just never noticed. Emperor Babar’s wonderful memoir the Babar Namah is so amazing, because all his life even though he was in India, he was always looking back towards Central Asia. He was never looking towards the sea. He was never looking outwards towards the world. This is something which we can never allow to happen in India. We must be aware of the world and we must understand how the world is changing.

What’s your next book going to be about?

It’s too early to say. I find it very hard to talk about a work in progress.


Sea of Poppies is a work on a large scale, five hundred pages long, possibly your longest novel. It’s also peopled by an enormous range of characters and situations. The two major themes you deal with are the opium trade and the flight of thousands of impoverished Indians forced to cross the ocean as indentured labour. What triggered off this foray into 19th century history?

Sea of Poppies is about the same size as The Glass Palace, so not quite the longest but among the longest of my books. The subject has been an interest of mine for a long time because I have always been interested in the story of migration and people leaving India. But I really became interested in the early years of migration of indentured labour, especially the movement into Mauritius, which started in the 1830s, and the migrants who were from the major poppy-growing regions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Among the range of characters that you develop is an upper caste widow, saved at the last minute from her husband’s funeral pyre, and low caste Dalits. So the migration that took place and the relationships that developed cut across caste lines. Is there basis to this, given that the migrants came from a society with deeply entrenched caste prejudice?  

It’s one of the most interesting things about migration. When you are actually on that ship, people who are forced together on that ship, and are crossing the black water, kala pani,  in a sense all of them become outcasts because they are crossing the polluting kala pani ; and so they create their own communities you know they create their own world. They create their own little sansar.

So the jahaj, ship, on which they travel, creates a kind of bhai-bandi, a brotherhood and a sisterhood. It becomes a floating island on the ocean.

In fact if you speak to girmitiyas, as they are called, they will tell you that you know his father and mine were jahaj bhais, a kind of kinship; they think of themselves as cousins, like you and I might think of ourselves as being from the same village. The migrations may have diluted caste but they didn’t do away with caste altogether. Because if you go to Mauritius today, caste is very important, important to their politics and important in many parts of their lives. But it’s not like caste in Bihar, it’s something else, it has changed and become more malleable.

What’s also fascinating in Sea of Poppies is your richly detailed and researched portrait of 19th century Calcutta—its high life and low life, from the indebted raja and his rajabari, feudal estate, to overnight fortunes being made by European ship owners to the flood of impoverished humanity from the hinterland to be shipped overseas…

Not just opium, they were shipping out prisoners as well, that was the other great trade. Calcutta was the port of shipping out, as it used to be said in those days, of drugs and thugs…

Many of the characters speak a variety of tongues in Sea of Poppies—linguistically it is fascinating for the range of patois it employs. For instance, there’s a veritable mining of Anglo-Indian dictionaries like the Hobson Jobson for the Anglo-Indian speech of the British in 19th century India…

Let me put it like this: if you read 19th century English books they tell you that the British nabobs who come back from India spoke incomprehensibly. They spoke a kind patois—so many were brought up by Indian servants and they grew up learning Hindi or Bengali. So I thought to myself, why does no one ever actually recreate that patois? Because when Thackeray writes about these people they end up speaking standard English but I am sure they were speaking standard English. They created a complete language of their own, interestingly linked to Hindustani, Tamil and Bengali.

 One of the things that’s happened to 20th century English is that it has undergone a sort of “whitening” process. People today think that English is a global language so it is accepting many different influences. But actually the opposite is true. I think in the 19th century English was a much more open, more permeable language and it took in a great variety of influences. In the 20th century, through some sort of anxiety, many of these words came to be excised from English.

The Hobson-Jobson is one major dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases but it’s by no means the only one; there are three or four of them. One of the interesting ways that Indian languages entered English was through gypsy slang which was a very major part of English slang in those days. Take a term like “Ray Sahib” or “Rai Sahib” and the famous 19 century novel Romany Rye by George Borrow—the Rye in it is actually the same as Ray in “Ray Sahib”; it means gentleman but it enters through gypsy slang.

Other than exploring the Anglo-Indian hybrid you also use the lilting cadence of Bhojpuri music and songs and the all-but-forgotten nautical lexicon Laskari, another patois that developed by laskars, Asian and Arab sailors and pirates…

That was one of the most exciting things about writing this book. I have always been interested in ships and sailors and I suddenly started looking at actual crew lists, not only of ships sailing out of India, but of crew lists of ships taking immigrants from England to Australia in the 19th century, you will often find that there will be four English officers and sixty laskars. And the laskars came from all over the Indian Ocean—there were Tamils, Malays, Chinese, Filipinos, Arabs and Africans who created their own lingo. I had the great good fortune to actually find a dictionary of that language. It was a dictionary written in 1812 in Calcutta by an Englishman but it was a very popular dictionary for more than a hundred years. Every sailor who sailed in the Indian Ocean had to have this Laskari dictionary.

Many streams come together in Sea of Poppies—the migration of girmitiyas, the opium trade, the rise of Calcutta as prosperous entrepot and the exploration of vanished tongues—but it is also about another important thing: the evocation and exploration of the Ganges, the river of north Indian plains and its vast estuary in Bengal. It’s a geography that many Indians regard as sacred but in the 19th century it was a strategic and economic waterway, and the main seafaring route to other parts of the world. Were you conscious of this when writing the novel?

A large part of it has to do with my being Bengali because we are the riverside people; rivers mean a lot to us and we think of rivers all the time. But, yes, I really do believe that one of our great national tragedies since Independence is that our indigenous shipping industry on the great waterways has completely dried up.  Rivers were the trading heart of India. The Ganges had so much traffic for centuries and today you can barely sail a hundred miles on it. It’s also an incredible tragedy because if you think of the technology of sailing it is such an environmentally friendly technology; it’s a technology to which we will have to return even though we have wilfully allowed ourselves to forget it.

Your affection for the Ganges estuary is a recurring metaphor: the Sunderbans was the landscape of The Hungry Tide and, again, it’s crucial to the sailing of the vessel called Ibis in Sea of Poppies.

Absolutely. I slowed down the Ibis a little bit when it got to the Sunderbans because I have such a love of the place that I just wanted it to go through it very slowly.

But, ultimately, it’s the cast of characters that drive the narrative of Sea of Poppies, which is the first part of your planned trilogy. How do you conceive this huge canvas and its large cast?

The geography, the history and all that is incidental in a novel.  A novel is about characters, and if the characters don’t work, nothing else will. Until you have the characters, and if the characters aren’t compelling for you as a writer, then they won’t be compelling for the reader. In the end, it is the characters that carry a book.

Things happen to characters in a novel, situations and actions drive them, and that is the novelist’s gift to make readers believe that it happened. Sometimes, though, what happens is rooted in reality. For instance, in the Sea of Poppies, some of the migrants leaving the Bay of Bengal are so frightened by the receding shoreline that they throw into the sea. Did such suicides occur?

Yes, you read about them all the time in the accounts of these journeys. At the last minute, they would completely panic and they would think, “What am I doing? Where am I going?” because they had no conception of what lay at the other end. They thought of a place peopled by demons; there were all sorts of rumours about the things that would be done to them. So it was with incredible terror in their hearts that they set out on these journeys. I must say that visiting Mauritius today I felt so proud of these people; because having arrived generations ago, they have created a viable working vibrant society. Twenty years ago Naipaul thought they were doomed.  Far from it. They have actually made a wonderful go of it which makes Mauritius perhaps the most successful nation in Africa.

Migration has been with us a long time and though there are differences between 19th century migrants and migrants today looking for job opportunities abroad, there are also similarities in the apprehension and uncertainty Indian labour to the Gulf must feel. What are the differences?    

Migration in the 19th century was very tightly controlled; sometimes there was a little bit of coercion but, I think, there was often some degree of motivation as well. But the basic thing is that migrants were controlled, they were kept in camps, their every movement was watched and there was incredible surveillance. It’s very hard to do that today. But you are right, migration continues and people often leave at incredible cost to themselves.

There’s another parallel to our times that drives a couple of characters connected with the sailing of the Ibis in the Sea of Poppies, and that is extreme religious fervour. Benjamin Burnham, the wealthy Calcutta merchant, is a raving Christian fundamentalist while Nob Kissin Babu, the crazy Bengali overseer, believes his female guru is beginning to inhabit his body and that he must follow this avatar of Krishna across the ocean. Were you conscious of the parallels when creating these evangelists?   

Nob Kissin Babu was founded upon people I have known.  It’s not uncommon in India for people to think that they have been transformed in their inner selves, especially people with a great devotion to a certain deity. In front of Lord Krishna everyone is Radha so that is the transformation you see. It seems far-fetched but I think it’s a glorious thing in our tradition that it’s possible for people to transform themselves from male to female, it speaks of the fluidity of being. As for Burnham, yes, a lot of those opium traders were fierce evangelists in the same way as the neo-cons in America today.

And in that way Christian religious fundamentalism is also linked to the arguments they make about free trade?

That’s absolutely the case. I didn’t make up that line about Jesus Christ is free trade and free trade is Jesus. It was said by an Englishman at about the time of the founding of Hong Kong. There was this great evangelical fervour and, at the same time, these very people were selling opium; often on the same ship they would load opium on the one side and Bibles on the other.

Where does the Ibis go from here? Do you know how the ship’s voyage and the future of its cargo will develop in the coming parts of the trilogy?

No I don’t and, even if I did, I wouldn’t say.

After years of living in America you have now found yourself a new home in Goa and  spend part of the year there. What prompted the move?

It is true that I spent a lot of time in America but, actually, I was spending a lot of time in India too and I never thought of myself as living in America permanently.  My children were going to school and college; but at a certain point, the realities of life kick in, so I am doing what I always imagined I would do. Now I intend to spend most of my time in a small village in Goa where I have a house.

January 2007 & June 2008                    


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An Interview With Nadine Gordimer


Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014

In the winter of 2008 Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist, political activist and Nobel laureate was travelling in India as a guest of the Indian government and I made considerable efforts to reach her through official sources.  But such are the misjudged notions of government hospitality, her escort was neither a literary-minded civil servant nor someone especially knowledgeable about India; it was an armed forces officer who successfully stonewalled contact at every stage. Finally, it was through the good offices of her hotel in Delhi (who ferried a personal written request) and the novelist and career diplomat Vikas Swarup, then India’s deputy high commissioner to South Africa, that she agreed to the recording.

Nadine Gordimer (b.1923) grew up in a mining town near Johannesburg, the  daughter of Jewish immigrants. Her education was scanty but she was writing from an early age, first children’s stories and later stories for The New Yorker.   

Since her first published novel The Lying Days (1953), she has published more than a dozen novels apart from plays, collections of short stories and essays.

She was an early champion of the anti-apartheid crusade, joining the African National Congress when it was illegal and befriending Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyers. Several of her novels, A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981) were either banned for long periods or censored. Many dealt with intense political and sexual relations between black and white people when such connections were considered criminal. When Mandela was released 1990, Gordimer was one of the first people he wished to meet.

Her post-apartheid fiction such as My Son’s Story (1990) and The House Gun (1998) deal with rising crime, political violence, racial hatred and personal and grief. Nadine Gordimer has been crowned by many literary laurels in her long career culminating with the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.  “Writing is making sense of life,” she has famously said. “You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.”

In person she is a small-built, white-haired woman, the image of a cosy grandmother. But her grave, reflective manner can become animated and charged as when she described how she was attacked in her home by robbers in 2006. I carried twin burdens to the Gordimer interview—the nervous anticipation of meeting a great writer but also a heavy bag weighted with her books from friends and colleagues to be inscribed. With infinite patience and good humour she finished the pile as I passed her chits with the correct spellings.    

You are on Indian soil at a pretty historic moment. America has just elected it’s first black president. What does Barrack Obama’s arrival on the world stage mean for you? 

It means a great deal because he is black and white. He brings the two together in his own blood and DNA. He has a white parent and a black parent. So it is symbolic but, at the same time it goes further, because I’m sure that it influences him in his values. One can see that this will then pass into the government and administration and I hope to the American people. The fact that he won the candidature represents a big break within the Democratic Party. When I was much younger, the Americans said, “You can never have a Catholic president in Protestant America.” And then we had Kennedy, and now, all these years later, a black. But, as I say, he is not black. He is black-white which is even better.


Black and white—that has been the subject of your life’s gaze both in your writing and in your social and political activism. Yet the abolition of apartheid in South Africa has not ended tensions of race and. Iit remains, like India in many ways, a divisive, often violent and difficult society. Do you think it’s still a matter of two racial communities, black and white, coming to terms in democratic South Africa?


It’s not a matter of the two communities. The progress is amazing there. The Congress alliance, which was the African National Congress, was completely black which then became an alliance of white members, he Indian Congress comprising of South African Indians and the small communist party. The strong links forged in the freedom movement brought about the change led by a man like Nelson Mandela who has no racial feelings. Throughout the anti-apartheid movement there was already a meeting of the so-called irreconcilables of an earlier time.


What we have now is something we had never thought of because our eyes were on getting rid of the enemy of apartheid rule. We did and, that too without a terrible civil war. People say it’s a miracle. It’s not a miracle because a miracle comes from somewhere else—this was brought about by the people of South Africa. But now we have class differences. We have a small but growing black middle class which is a very good thing when it is supposed to be a democracy. But we also have a black upper class along with the white upper class. So class differences have risen.


And when social and political structures rapidly change other problems arise, like corruption…


Yes, and the corruption that comes with change. As you well know from your own country’s example, corruption goes all the way from the traffic cop who takes a bribe way right up to the cabinet. It’s the same there.


In one of your recent novel, The House Gun, you dwell dramatically on tensions of class when, a white couple, whose son is accused of murder, hires a black lawyer…


Actually if you look at that book it’s got nothing to do with colour or even class, for that matter. The white couple happen to choose the black lawyer but not because he is black or white; it’s just because he is a good lawyer. What is troubling, therefore, is another question—equitable economic opportunities and employment policies for blacks.  Just look into our past, these are necessary, because blacks were discriminated against for so long.


People think discrimination began with apartheid in the 1940s when racial segregation was institutionalized but it actually began in the 17th century—and we have had exactly 14 years to put it right. The world expects us to provide a perfect democracy without any overhang of racial feelings, with houses for everybody, with level education for everybody—in other words equality where there was none before—after all these centuries of discrimination. It was not all that long ago that the civil service or the post office was not only completely white but completely Afrikaner. Now the post officers are 80 per cent black and the other 20 per cent are Indian and coloured. In the banks there were all white employees; now they are 90 per cent black or Indians and a few coloured.


Despite equitable representation and job opportunities, why are cities like your hometown Johannesburg and others, racked with street crime, social tensions and violence?


This is because of poverty. The poverty exists because we have this tremendous burden of refugees. We have over three million from Zimbabwe alone. We have refugees from Somalia and from the Congo. They arrive and they have no way to live because they have no work. If I arrive from somewhere, and I have smuggled some of my family in, and my children are hungry, I walk past you, with your camera, cell phone and wallet, I am afraid that I, too, will become a thief. So we cannot be moral about the motives of the crime that exists.


I was attacked in my home, over a year ago, in the middle of the day. Somebody climbed over from the neighbour’s garden, the dog barked at the man, I came out of my little room where I write, but someone was already in the house and I was clasped from behind. There were three very young men. I can’t tell you much about their faces because my head was pushed between the shoulder and the neck but an arm was around me. It was a very young, smooth black arm with a beautiful hand. These were young people who shouldn’t have been robbing an old woman and her housekeeper. They were not experienced criminals. They did not have a gun and they didn’t threaten with a knife.  But they treated my black housekeeper terribly. She cried and screamed, so they knocked her down on the floor and, at one point, I just lost my cool. I wrenched my head up and said, “What is the bravery in all this? She could be your grandmother, leave her.” And I’m afraid, since they were so young, it worked.


The life of the fictional imagination and a life as political activist come together in you.  Do you believe that a writer can change the world through his or her writing?


I think when we look at it very humbly, where has this happened? In recent times great writers like Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir didn’t have much influence on the French government, on the War or on French colonialism. In my own country, I had three books banned and I fought for the collection I had put together of stories by young black writers.  I got it published and it was promptly banned. Those of us writing in English have the advantage that it’s a world language and the books can be published elsewhere.


 Where we fiction writers come in is that we go into the lives of the people, into what I call the inner testimony of people—how they lived before the turning point, what brings them to the point of conflict and how they deal with its aftermath. Our work as fiction writers is to give another dimension that you can’t get from first information and because you don’t know what happened afterwards.


Everybody saw on television and newspapers what happened in the anti-apartheid battles in 1976 when the youth rose up. Some died. But how were their families, their brothers and sisters, affected? You see the moment of conflict on TV  and you read the political analysis afterwards in the newspaper—but you do not know what brought the crowd of people to that point, what gave them the guts to face the police?


Did the novelist’s imagination, or the search for the inner testimony as you call it, develop in your case because of your interrupted and incomplete education? Because, despite this, you began writing when very young, before you were a teenager, and never stopped. So where did the training to become a writer come from?


Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age. You only become a writer by being a compulsive reader. I can thank my mother for making me a member of a children’s library when I was six years old. And as she was a friend of the librarian, by the time I was ten or eleven, I was like a pig in clover. I had the freedom of the whole library. I was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H Lawrence and I first read A Passage to India by E.M Forster then. I also read non-fiction biographies. That was my education. It didn’t come from my convent schooling.


Later on, when you became a political activist, was it your encounters in the turbulent politics of South Africa that became the subject matter of some of your most original and insightful fiction?


Yes, because I began to move amongst people whose existential state it was. You could not stay apart from it. You know what Flaubert once said—it’s not very polite but true. He said, “I tried to live in an ivory tower, but the shit kept beating against the walls.” That is what happened. You couldn’t just say that I’m going to be a writer and I will write about problems between human beings on the personal side—love, sexuality, the relationship between children and parents and so on. The outside world presses in upon your most personal life.


So the writer must wade deep into the sea of humanity…


Right. The writer is immersed in it. The writer is imbued by what happens in his or her immediate surroundings—at school, at work, in society and, above all, in the laws that enclose us all.


There is a large and old Indian community in South Africa and you are well-acquainted with many of them. Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist revolution also arose out of his life and experiences in South Africa. How has South Africa’s freedom changed the lives of Indians in South Africa?


I am proud to say on behalf of the Indian population there that they are unique. There were Indians everywhere, mostly merchants, but the only place where they entered the prominently entered the freedom struggle, was in South Africa. They have earned their place to be Africans because they took part in that struggle. Of course we have to thank the Mahatma because he started it off. The African National Congress was influenced by Gandhi’s thinking and, indeed, during the 1950s its policy was one of non-violent resistance. But then we came to a stage where the South Africans in power were ill-treating those who took part in non-violent resistance. They were poisoned, they were beaten and they were treated with unbelievable cruelty. There was no white innocent, including myself. If you were born white you were part of the privileged race.


Nelson Mandela has been canonized in his own lifetime but in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has proved to be far from than saintly. What’s your opinion of Mugabe?


I have been appalled by Robert Mugabe. It is so sad because he was part of the anti-colonial struggle. He was a brave man; and when he first became president, his reforms of the education system, which had favoured the white community, were remarkable. I don’t know what happened to him. He is the perfect illustration of the old saying that when power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely. I don’t know how Zimbabwe is going to get rid of him. There is abject poverty there and people are starving. As I said, we have millions of them in our country, adding to our problems. Nothing can be solved there because our former president Thabo Mbeki has tried for many years to bring the different sides together but Mugabe wouldn’t give an inch. If God came down from heaven, Mugabe would say, “You are a white imperialist in disguise.”


This is your second trip to India. You were here 15 years ago and I hear your favourite spot in this country are Ajanta and Ellora caves. What are the most noticeable changes you have observed?


I must be very careful about this. I found that Mumbai is 20 times more crowded than it was 15 years ago, mainly because of people flooding into the city for work. Kolkata I had never been to before—I found the poverty appalling. Because here I was in a beautiful hotel and though it wasn’t like Mumbai, where the poor live in other districts, they were on the pavement right outside, stall holders, beggars and people sleeping on the street, while I was in an air conditioned room. There was a wall between you, that was all. I was also very upset to see the abandoned animals, not only dogs, but horses and cattle that, unable to pull carts, were just abandoned. And I thought, India has had   independence from oppression by outsiders since 1947 so why is there is still so much cruelty? But I also realise that India is an enormous country and what a struggle it is to deal with it.

November, 2008  


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An Interview With Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth (b.1952), arguably the most gifted of his generation of Indians writing in English, nurtured no early ambition to become a writer. He loathed his boarding school because he was “extremely introverted…incapable of looking people in the eye”. But he was academically outstanding and won a scholarship to a British public school, and later to Oxford where, left to his own devices, he began to write poetry. “I was incredibly unskillful,” he said of his of his first attempts. In 1975 he moved Stanford University and spent the next “eleven years not getting an economics PhD.” 

In 1980-82 while researching his unwritten doctorate in Chinese demography at Nanjing University he undertook a journey that unexpectedly led him home to Delhi across the overland route. From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), an original and diverting travelogue, won a prize, got him noticed and was a promising start.

It was California, however, that liberated his personality and unleashed his creative powers. Chancing upon an old copy of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin inspired him to write The Golden Gate (1986), set among East Coast yuppies, and composed of nearly 600 sonnets in iambic tetrameter. It brought him instant fame; Americans, it was reported, threw flowers at him at poetry readings.

 Vikram Seth’s story is legion from then on: of how he retreated for six years to his parents’ home in Delhi to write his epic-length novel A Suitable Boy (1993), of his shrewd negotiations to sell it for £250,000 (“a very large novel written by a very small Indian,” he quipped) and how his next novel, An Equal Music (1999), about a group of western classical musicians was inspired by, and dedicated to, his French violinist friend Philippe Honore. Seth has also produced several collections of poetry, including translations from Chinese and Urdu; the best known are All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990) and Beastly Tales (1991). His last book, Two Lives (2005), was a biography of his great uncle and his German wife. In 2009 he announced that his next work would be A Suitable Girl, a sequel in which Lata, the would-be bride of A Suitable Boy, goes in search of a match for her grandson.

A linguist (he is fluent in Mandarin, German and French) and music lover (he plays the Indian flute, the cello and sings Schubert), Vikram Seth is a man of changeable moods: he can be reflective, even remote, or warm and quizzically loquacious. There is no accounting for where the creative impulse will take him next. The last time I saw him at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair in 2009 he was armed with paint box and sketchbook, and off to paint in the desert.

This interview, recorded after the Indian release of Two Lives, nearly didn’t happen. I had carefully planned it as a walkabout on a winter afternoon along the outer wall of Humanyun’s Tomb, but just before we were due to start, the camera’s batteries failed. Replacements were sent for but daylight began to fade, and he grew restive. Luckily, a mutual friend, passing by on a stroll distracted him for a few minutes, and his mood improved. We got going in the nick of time and he was soon his insightful, witty and engaging self.

 More than one of your books are inspired, or based on, family life. Your early travel book From Heaven Lake culminates in returning to the family fold in Delhi after your journey across China. Your fictional opus A Suitable Boy is inspired by incidents and characters of family history. But Two Lives is pure family history…

Yes it is. It is based on the story of my great uncle who was Indian and my great aunt who was German. I stayed with them as a young student when I was about 17 years old when I was sent to England. They were, in effect, my local parents there. Of course I knew my uncle but my aunt looked very strange. He was quite short and didn’t have a right arm and he practiced as a dentist with his left arm. My great aunt was taller than him, very German, very particular, meticulous and rather brusque. He, on the other hand, was very welcoming and warm. They were both born in 1908 and they lived very long lives. My aunt died at the age of 80 and, in the last decade of his life, my uncle was very lonely. He didn’t really know what to do with himself. And I, for my part, having written A Suitable Boy, was at a bit of a loose end. My mother suggested, “Why don’t you interview Shanti Uncle? Why don’t you talk to him about his life? He has lived in very interesting times and he has had a rather heroic life.”

Although a biography, Two Lives is also a fragment of autobiography, with you, arriving at Shanti and Henny’s doorstep in London. What was it like to recapture your life at that moment, about to enter an English school and later compete for Oxford ?

I was painfully shy in those days. The idea of staying with people whom I didn’t really know very well, didn’t please me. And they were unknown quantities, in more ways than one. For instance, Aunty Henny and Uncle Shanti would start talking in German suddenly at the breakfast table when they wanted to say something in private or if they were bickering. It wasn’t as if they would go into another room, they would just talk in German. So I didn’t really understand what they were on about. It was only after I discovered, owing to an obscure regulation in the university statutes that I had to learn a European language in order to go to university in England, that I decided I had better learn German, since they also spoke it.

A close bond developed between you and your German aunt, almost as close as with your uncle? You almost became the child they never had?

I think that is true. For instance, my aunt was very particular in referring to me as her husband’s nephew. But once I started speaking German, then she quite often introduced me as “my nephew”. And for my uncle, who used to call me “my nephew” I became, “mein kleiner Sohn” which means “my little son”.

You knew very little of their early lives because Aunt Henny was secretive about her tragic past…

Not only was she secretive with strangers, or with people like me, but even with regard to Uncle, who had lived with her family when he wanted to take a room in Germany, where he was studying dentistry, she wouldn’t talk to him about the past. I should backtrack a little: Shanti was sent by his family to Germany in the early 1930s when he was a young man of about 23 to study dentistry. His family had an accountant, a lawyer, a judge and an engineer, so why not a dentist? He didn’t know a word of German. He had to take courses in perhaps the most advanced dental institute in the world. One thing he decided to do was not to stay with any family that didn’t speak in German so that he could get a bit of practice. Aunty Henny’s family took him in. He had to convince them to charge a slightly higher rent than they would have done because this was the first time they were letting a room out in their rather palatial flat in a fashionable part of Berlin. Eventually he became accepted as a part of the family. But Henny’s first reaction, when she heard from her mother and her sister that they were taking in an Indian lodger was, “Nehmen Sie den schwarzen Mann nicht” which means “Don’t take the black man”.

Both were caught in the whirlwind of history. She has to flee from the horrors of Nazi Germany and he goes to the battlefront. They meet in Berlin, are separated by World War II, and meet again in England later. Both have lost their homelands. Are some lives stranger than fiction?

Yes. In the case of Henny, it was the loss of her family and the loss of her homeland. In the case of Shanti, he was sent abroad and eventually chose not to return. He didn’t get a job in Germany because of the various laws in effect there under the Third Reich. He re-qualified in Edinburgh and started practicing in someone else’s surgery in London. Then war broke out, he signed up, and was taken to various places in Africa and the Palestinian front. His right arm was blown off by a piece of German shrapnel during the famous battle of Monte Cassino in the Italian campaign.  

In the course of telling their individual stories, the microcosms of their life led me to meditate on the macrocosms of history. After all, both their lives began in 1908 and were almost co-terminus with the 20th century. Whether it was the Indian freedom struggle, or the Italian campaign of World War II, Nazi- Germany or Israel and Palestine. These matters come in ineluctably into the story.

You call Two Lives “history writ little” as opposed to history writ large. What is it about ordinary lives that make them dramatic, almost heroic?

It isn’t necessarily that heroism is foisted upon them. It could just as well have been the opposite. In case of these two people, I feel that, yes, a great deal of endurance and heroism became their portion in life. Obviously it isn’t something they would have necessarily chosen. But it was their reaction to circumstances that made their story dramatic.

There is heroism, too, in the fact of a dentist practicing with one arm?

I was very intrigued by my uncle’s story and ability to pursue a profession with just his left arm. It was an act of courage to re-establish his confidence. I was treated by him and he was a wonderful dentist. Competent, kind, thorough, and explaining everything that needed to be done. He believed in preserving teeth at all cost. He didn’t believe in the British idea of “if in doubt, take it out.”

Two Lives is also a portrait of a 38-year-old marriage. It’s a subject you’ve dwelt on at length in your fiction. What is it about the alchemy of marriage that interests you?

If I could put my finger on it, there would be almost no need to write a book of this complexity and length. The fact is that it is very difficult to say, there is no such thing as an ideal happy marriage. Happy marriages in themselves are every bit as various, just as unhappy marriages are.

In this particular case, their marriage was a mixture of reticence, of having great confidence in each other without necessarily sharing great confidences. For instance, Shanti knew Henny’s family and grieved for them. But when he tried to talk to Henny about the great disaster that happened, the fact that they had been killed in Nazi concentration camps in Herzfeld and Theresienstadt she told him, “Shanti, I don’t want to enter the graveyard.” Whether this was to spare him the hurt, or whether to close off a certain area of her life, so that he wouldn’t bring up the subject, is difficult to say.

There is a key difference between writing fiction and biography. In fiction, you can reconstruct and imagine life even if it inspired by real incidents or people as in A Suitable Boy but in biography you can’t…

The facts are the facts. It is certainly true that you can select certain facts, you can give a certain kind of interpretation, you have to analyze them and so on, but you can’t set up three or four different scenarios, as in fiction, and then say, I wonder which is going to be the most exciting or the most interesting or the most true to character, and follow that particular construct. In biography you need to take these hard nuggets and make what sense of them you can.

For Two Lives I had to find the material wherever I could. There were these very moving letters sent to Aunt Henny by her friends when she is trying to find out what has happened to her mother and her sister. Also Aunty Henny, being so German, sometimes kept carbon copies of her own letters. So these were primary source material. But then I tried to find out exactly on which train her mother and sister were sent out of Berlin to the concentration camps, quite late in 1943. And that took me—when I happened to be in Israel because of a translation of a book of mine—to the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. There I saw the actual Geheime Staatspolizei, the secret state police documents, with the lists of all these people and the incredible comment that their property had not been destroyed and would be sent to the financial administration to be dealt with.

But in the end, a book is a book, whether biographical or a novel. However, when research comes into it, it’s not a dissertation. You’re not supposed to yawn when you read it, you are supposed to be gripped. I felt that some of the aspects that I learned from fiction have carried over into non-fiction as well, in that, character is very important and the grip of the story is crucial, and the world in which these characters move have to be made as tangible—smellable, feelable and tastable—as possible.

In fictional narrative, there can be a single or multiple narrators. But in biography—which in this case is also a piece of autobiography—how did you arrive at the decision of where to put yourself in or keep yourself out?

This is, of course, the problem of writing the kind of book I have written. There was no definite rule—how much do I introduce myself into the book or how much do I withdraw to keep a correct authorial distance? This is one of my chief fascinations in writing this book. And I don’t know if I have got the balance right, even for myself, let alone anyone else.

You live in Britain but come to India more than once a year. That combination of distance and proximity must make you observe changes in India. Which are the ones that strike you the most?

The considerable change is politically and economically. On the whole, I feel pleased with the change. What particularly pleases me is the fact that two generations have been brought up with a form of reasonably functioning democracy. It’s a huge achievement. Secondly, the worst of poverty could, to a certain extent, be said to be being reduced. There are also two particular areas of anxiety—the fact that rural India should not be left behind, and second, India shouldn’t lose its sense of tolerance, its sense of being a country for all its people and not just people of one particular religion. These are two things I am most concerned about. Yet there is a great sense of calm confidence—at least that’s what I noticed.

But, for me, the main draw is my family. First and last, I am a family person: it isn’t just that I feel that there is a haven in the family; my family, in a sense, has also been my patron. When I had two degrees in economics from rather high-powered universities, my parents still allowed me to live at the top of the house and write this interminable novel, A Suitable Boy. In effect, I sponged off them for years. They acted as my patrons, or patron and matron, you could say.

Does India remain, or will continue to remain, a central motif of your writing?

I would say it does but I can’t predict from one book to another or what I will next be writing about. With A Suitable Boy I was taken to task, usually by foreign publishers, for not having enough foreign characters. But there weren’t any in that particular world as I imagined it. On the other hand, in The Golden Gate or in An Equal Music there are no Indian characters, and again, many people ask why there aren’t any Indian characters. The fact is that you cannot compel your muse in providing you with a certain quota of Indian and foreign characters in any particular book. Nor should one try to.

And how does the muse come and go, especially for a poet?

I have always, at heart, been a poet. In fact, one of the things that has recently given me a great kick is that my Indian publisher has issued all my poetry in such a beautiful edition that, even if it were blank pages, I would probably go out and get them for myself. Poetry is so dear to me that, even in every prose book that I write, I somehow manage to inveigle a poem at the beginning by way of a dedication or something like that.

A verse novel set in California, a big fictional opus set in India, a novel set in London and a biography. Your writing not only moves from continent to continent but across a gamut of genres. What makes you want to try out different forms?

There is no particular desire to experiment. If the inspiration comes to me in a particular form, then it’s a desire not to shy away from that form. Let me phrase that negatively: had the idea of, say, A Suitable Girl come to me or An Unsuitable Boy, I would not have followed my previous genre, the previous category in which I wrote, but since it didn’t, I thought what’s the worst that could happen? I could fall flat on my face but that’s not a bad thing. I’ll then try something else.

And what will you try next?

Ah, now if I knew that, and I was at this particular moment inspired by some other form or some other idea, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. I would be hard at work.                                                                                                                                            

January, 2006

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An Interview With Khushwant Singh


Khushwant Singh, 1915-2014

“So you’ve come to write my obituary?” That was the salty sardarji greeting me when, some years ago, I went up to his summer home in the hill station of Kasauli to record an interview. Khushwant Singh’s (b. 1915) preoccupation with death, sex and much of the daily business of life betwixt and between, makes him one of India’s most widely read columnists, a hugely successful editor in his heyday, and a notable fiction writer. In a long life crammed with incident and a phenomenal output, there is scarcely a genre of writing that he has not attempted: as biographer and memoirist, historian and chronicler of people and places, mass retailer of dirty jokes and ex-MP, his is the contrarian’s take on everything from the body politic to bodily functions.

Khushwant Singh is a life-enhancer, and spending an evening in his company, is an unmatched pleasure. Erudite and exhibitionist in equal measure, he is the bon vivant par excellence. Pouring Patiala pegs of single malt that evening in Kasauli, savouring every sip himself, he urged more libations on my crew and me. “Keep me company. Have another, there’s lots to go.”   

Born in present-day Pakistan, Khushwant Singh, the son of a wealthy builder, was        educated at Government College, Lahore, St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and King’s College, London, before reading for the Bar at the Inner Temple. But he practiced law only briefly; his true calling was writing and his first novel Train to Pakistan (1956) on Partition-torn Punjab, was an instant critical and commercial success. More fiction followed and a landmark two-volume A History of the Sikhs (1963) established his credentials in scholarship. But his rise to national prominence came during his editorship of The Illustrated Weekly of India (1969-78), a dowdy journal that he turned into a sparky, controversial magazine that pumped up circulation and set the course for  With Malice Towards One and All, his immensely popular and ongoing column.

Khushwant Singh had a tangled relationship with the Gandhi family and Congress Party. He supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule in 1975 and was a champion of her son Sanjay Gandhi’s ill-starred politics. Nominated to the Rajya Sabha as MP (1980-86) he kept his seat but returned the Padma Bhushan after the Indian army’s siege of the Golden Temple in 1984. Later he fought a long and costly legal battle against Sanjay’s widow Maneka Gandhi to lift the restraining order on his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice (2002).

I recorded more than one interview with Khushwant Singh for NDTV but the most complete, took place at his home in New Delhi after the publication of his anthology Why I Supported the Emergency: Essays and Profiles (2009).  Subsequently he turned down all requests for TV interviews.

“Please do not ring the bell unless expected,” reads a neatly printed notice outside his flat. However, some days before the publication of his novel The Sunset Club in November 2010 I rang it, courtesy of his daughter Mala Dayal and our mutual friend Nandini Mehta.  The Sunset Club is about three friends in their eighties—a Hindu, Muslim and Sikh—who meet on a Lodi Gardens bench each evening through a single year, 2009-010, to pick over their lives and events of the day: politics, scandal, sexual fantasy and their past; it is a valedictory rumination on friendship, old age, infirmity and changing India.

The author was in fine form. “Pour yourself a stiff one,” he said cheerfully, motioning towards the whisky. Conversation was stimulating and punctuated with laughter—Philip Roth’s new novel and constipation (“Why do Jews and Indians share the same problem?”), poetry (Ghalib and Hilare Belloc), crossword puzzles (“I finish three to four every morning), daydreams and nightmares (“I have a fear of having no money, of being unable to pay a restaurant bill”). A few questions from that evening are incorporated in this interview. 

A new novel at 95 is pretty good going. How did you find the time and stamina to write it?

I can’t garden or do other work; the only thing I can do is scribble. Writing two columns a week plus book reviews is killing but I also keep a daily diary recording what I did that day, the weather and changing seasons. While going through a year’s diary I came across incidents like the Haryana politician Chander Mohan Bishnoi who became Chand Mohammed to marry his Hindu girlfriend who became Fiza. He then left her and reconverted to becoming a Hindu. I thought why not put stories in like that, mix public and personal events, as seen through eyes of three octogenarians.

Is Sardar Boota Singh in The Sunset Club a version of yourself?

My characters are a combination of fact and fantasy. I start with a character but then it  begins to dominate. It won’t do things I want it to do and starts doing things on its own. The Sunset Club is mostly from my imagination. I have been going to the Lodi Gardens for years; I used to know every tree there. So I thought why not set it is a place I know so well?

You are one of Delhi’s great chroniclers. The city features again and again in your writing and you’ve even written a novel about it. Your father Sir Sobha Singh was also one of the builders of modern Delhi. How has the city changed in your lifetime?

This was essentially city of refined Muslim culture. Then it was suddenly invaded by  Punjabis, Hindus and Sikhs, and that completely changed its character. When my father built this block of flats it was beyond the cemetery, that is, beyond what were then the city’s limits. He built the Ambassador Hotel and rented it for Rs 10,000 a month. Today I am told each flat in this block rents for two and half lakh rupees.

I used to love Delhi but now I find it uninhabitable. I can’t find my way around. I wish I could go out and once again and see the moon and the stars but even the joy of darkness has been robbed. The frogs, sparrows and owls have all gone. The corruption and extravagance are unbelievable. Diwali is just over and I am amazed at the gifts people send. I shouldn’t complain too much, though. I had a lovely haul of whisky, 14 or 15 bottles I think. But I find living here a pain in the arse.

You started out as a lawyer and then became a diplomat. You took to writing later in life. Would you say you became a writer accidentally?

Completely. I flopped at everything I did in my early years. I threw up job after job. I became a writer because my generous and remarkable father stood by me. I lived off his bounty for years.

Many regard Train to Pakistan as your best novel. But looking back on all these years of writing—fiction, histories of the Sikhs and many other books—is there one work you are especially proud of?

Train to Pakistan was the most popular and later made into a film. But I think my novel on Delhi is quite good. Also some of my other fiction, for example, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale is probably better and more filmable. But you can’t really tell with books. As for my histories, I seem to have become some sort of a guru for the Sikhs. But they don’t realise that I am an agnostic.

Your first moment of success in journalism came when you became editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1960s, staying on for nine years. Did you have a formula in mind to turn it around?

I was fortunate that I had no boss at the magazine. I was free to do what I liked. The Weekly was full of silly stuff like pictures of newly-marrieds and Aunty Wendy’s column for children. I had a three-pronged formula: inform, amuse and provoke. It worked because a stagnation circulation of 80,000 rise to 400,000. Also there was no competition.

But in the end, the Jains who owned the company, managed to retrieve it from the government. They couldn’t take me anymore and fired me. That was fine because I had had three or four extensions. So I wrote a small tribute to the Weekly’s readers, wishing the magazine well. They wouldn’t allow it to be published and wanted me to leave before my contract was up. I thought that was very discourteous; I just picked up my umbrella and left. My letter was published in other papers afterwards. The owners lacked breeding.

Do you have another book in mind? 

I don’t know. According to the Hindu sages I have reached the fourth stage of my life—vanapratha, the final retreat to the forest or wilderness. I plan to see no one and I must learn how to do nothing. The English poet Hilare Belloc’s lines keep turning in my head: “When I am dead/ I hope it will be said/ His sins were scarlet/ But his books were read.”


You supported the Emergency though you say you were a reluctant supporter. You told Indira Gandhi that you opposed press censorship but you were quite partial to her son Sanjay Gandhi.

Yes, that’s quite correct but let me explain why I supported the Emergency when it was imposed. In every democracy there are rules for the government and there are rules for the opposition which they must not break. The government was under severe criticism for what Sanjay Gandhi was doing but the opposition was just enjoying seeing the whole law and order system collapse—no buses running, no trains running on time, planes not running on time, schools closed, colleges closed, huge processions smashing private and public property and no action being taken. The last straw was when Jayaprakash Narayan himself endorsed stopping elected members of the legislature from performing their functions.

He called for a total revolution…

Yes. In Gujarat students gheraoed the Vidhan Sabha and then threatened parliament here. Narayan then called for almost a revolt—exhorting people to not pay taxes, for army and police to revolt. No democratic government in the world can really support that kind of breaking of rules by the opposition. I wrote to Jayaprakash Narayan protesting. I said you can go so far but you can’t stop people who have been elected from doing their jobs. He wrote back to me, a very lengthy letter that I published in full in The Illustrated Weekly of India.

I remember the day on which the Emergency was imposed—hundreds of our leaders were put in jail but there was not a squeak of protest, in fact there was a sense of relief  that law and order had been returned; apart from people like George Fernandes who went underground there was no protest and it was generally welcomed. Amongst the people who supported the step was Acharya Vinobha Bhave.

What went wrong was the misuse of power. Mrs Gandhi set a bad example by settling personal scores to get two women, who were organizing farm labour, to be arrested and put in jail; the Rajmata of Gwalior and Gayatri Devi of Jaipur were put in jail, and then members of her family followed suit. Mohd. Yunus was settling his scores, Maneka Gandhi and her mother were settling their scores, anyone who said anything against them was promptly locked up.

Many of the Emergency’s excesses were allegedly committed at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi whom you were fond of.  You called him a “loveable goonda” (ruffian). You were quite infatuated by him, weren’t you ?

Well I admired him because he got things done though he made a mess of the Maruti car project no doubt. I liked him because he was a man of action who said kaam zaida baatein kam (work more, talk less) and he didn’t shoot his mouth off over unnecessary issues. You owe a lot to him, for instance clearing up slums and planting trees…

But he also promoted the forced sterilization campaign which made the Congress Party lose the 1977 election…

I think that was a vastly exaggerated story. What he had in mind was right. This country needs compulsory family planning. It won’t respond to these advertisements of hum do, hamare do (We Two, Our Two). They don’t cut ice. The population problem is a priority problem in this country and Sanjay had it right. The stories of compulsory sterilizations, of picking up people from bus stands and cinemas, are not true. There were some excesses but there were no numbered targets of vasectomies. It was totally exaggerated but it paid the political opposition a dividend.

You were also very fond of Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi.  After all you helped her with her magazine Surya during those days…

Yes I did, I was not particularly fond of them, but they came to me and later Maneka’s mother came to see me in Bombay…

Maneka’s mother?

Yes, Maneka’s mother asked me if I could help them because they had no experience. So I got permission from my employers who dared not say no because of the Emergency. I used to come almost once a week to Delhi and spend the weekend here and the first few issues of Surya were entirely organized me.

And what was your friendship with Maneka like?

It was working relationship and nothing more. I saw a lot of them in their home, also members of their family and others whom I perforce got to know. And they were in and out of this house all the time.

Maneka Gandhi and you had a bad falling out later when she took an injunction against your memoirs and hauled you over the coals for writing about the way she quit Mrs Gandhi’s house after Sanjay Gandhi’s death.

Yes, she did. A judge of the high court gave them the injunction. It took me ten years in an appeal to get injunction removed and that hurt me in more ways than one. We were not in talking terms. But now the injunction is over, my autobiography is in the market, and I have forgotten all of that.

What’s your opinion of Maneka Gandhi now?

Anyone who switches parties like she does and takes her son round to the BJP, which I regard as a fundu (fundamentalist) party, basically based on suspicion and prejudice against Muslims, to make way her into parliament from Pilibhit, where the substantial population voting also Sikh, is without principles of any kind. Well, that’s up to her. But I give her credit for one thing—she is the only one who speaks for animals. For the rest I don’t think she abides with principles of any kind.

You recently called Maneka Gandhi a liar and you said that Varun Gandhi probably inherits this lying streak from her. What do you think of Varun’s speeches of hate against Muslims [during the 2009 general election] and do you believe it was right to jail him under the National Security Act?

I think the National Security Act should not have been used in this case but Varun Gandhi should have been taken to task. The Election Commission censured him for what he said. I censured him personally because I can’t take any words of hatred against Muslims. He went further and slurred the entire Sikh community saying, Inke bara baja dunga (I’ll settle them). You may say those things in your home but you don’t speak them on election platforms. He did that and I think it was unpardonable.

But you also said that Varun Gandhi was a very personable young man when he brought his book of poetry to you…

His anti-Muslim speeches came as a very unpleasant surprise to me. I thought the man was into poetry. He couldn’t be doing anything wrong and his writing was generally good poetry. I thought, thank God, at least one member of the family is out of the dirty business of politics but I didn’t know this would happen. When I heard what he said in his mother’s constituency, and the words he used, I was very deeply disappointed.

You’ve had a complex, often contradictory, relationship with the Gandhi family and the Congress Party. You returned the Padma Bhushan after Operation Blue Star but you stayed on as a member of Rajya Sabha. And you never really came out in strong condemnation of Rajiv Gandhi statement’s about the killing of Sikhs when he said, “When a great tree falls, the earth shakes.”

I did. I protested I thought that what he said was unfortunate. I mentioned it several times in my articles that he should not have used those words. I am glad that, after all these years, the Congress Party itself felt that it did badly because it was the principal mover in the massacre of Sikhs. Manmohan Singh gave a public apology in parliament. I think to some extent that softened the hard feelings of Sikhs.

Three thousand Sikhs were killed in those terrible weeks following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. You yourself had to leave your home and seek sanctuary with friends. Yet it is only in recent days when a Sikh journalist hurled a shoe at the Home Minister that Congress Party candidates for parliament like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were made to withdraw. Don’t you consider that too little, too late?

I go along with all that you say. This should have happened much earlier. It’s been too late and the people who were the criminals, including those in the Delhi government and in the police, should have been punished long ago. So far, to the best of my knowledge, only 13 people have been convicted. But there is also a positive side that people tend to forget—the number of Hindus who came to help the Sikhs during that period. I remember that 72 gurudwaras were destroyed in a few days but it was a Hindu industrialist family which undertook to rebuild them all.

You have written at length in your new collection about the working of the Justice Nanavati commission which investigated the targeting and killing of the Sikhs in 1984 but do you believe that the government inquiry or the many other informal inquiries conducted ever really gave the Sikh community justice?

That’s a very large question. At least the Nanavati Commission indicated that Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler had much to answer for and so did some of the others. There was an independent report published titled Who Are the Guilty? that listed their names. Tytler came to see me once soon after and gave me his safai (justification). I said “Jagdish, if you allow me to cross-examine you and you prove to me that you had nothing to do with it I will write in your support”. He never came back. So there it is. He should have been punished. He should have withdrawn his candidature himself.  That would have been a more gentlemanly thing to do rather than embarrass the Congress party.

Nearly 70 years or more of writing that includes a vast and varied output of fiction, history, memoir, journalism, biography and a weekly column brimming with malice. What makes you so prolific?  

Somebody asked me how I was so prolific and out came my answer without a second thought: “Because no one has yet created a condom for the pen.”

Also you have never missed a single deadline or column in 60 years…

Never, even if I am sick, or I have to keep up all night, I meet my undertaking. I have given my word it will be there at this time it will always be there.

Does it come from a strong sense of discipline and commitment—of waking at four o’ clock every morning and getting down to work?

Yes I get up at 4 am. I lead a very disciplined life. It’s regulated by the stopwatch not the ordinary watch. I have also learnt how to be ill-mannered. People don’t drop in. I don’t see them without an appointment and when I invite them it’s strictly between 7 and 8 pm. I can be very rude to anyone who stays even a minute after eight.

And at seven o’clock the good Scotch comes out…

That’s the one luxury I have never denied myself. I don’t have any other bad habits.

You tell a marvellous story of your mother who at the age of 94, ill and dying in hospital, was barely conscious but still asked for a little whisky. 

That’s right, those were the last words she spoke before she went into a coma. She said “whisky”. I taught her how to drink and enjoy it.

One of the reasons for your wide readership is your sense of humour. Amongst all your serious writing is a bestselling pile of Khushwant Singh joke books and your columns are peppered with corny jokes, ribald jokes and bad jokes. What is it that keeps you laughing at your own community and at fellow Indians? Is it your belief that by and large Indians lack a sense of humour?

I’m a born joker. I don’t take myself seriously and I don’t take anyone else very seriously either. Everyone has a laughable side, including oneself and I look for that. I meet a lot of politicians and when they start bragging that’s good material for me. It’s an Indian habit to talk about oneself. A favourite topic is what they did and how important they are. Well, that’s excellent material for a malicious man like me.

You are also malicious about yourself. One funny piece in the present collection is called On Being Buggered about a doctor examining you for piles.

Yes, that thing was ticking inside my bottom and I was in pain, when the doctor asked me to fart to bring some relief. I thought it was too funny to be forgotten so I immediately thought of writing about it.

At a more elevated level, one of your abiding passions has been your love of Urdu poetry. Before I end this special interview, will you recite a verse by Ghalib, another denizen of Delhi, who too lived in turbulent times?

Ghalib is my favourite and my favourite lines are about himself, Asadullah Khan, ageing and the joy of life ebbing from him. I find these lines apply to me very much:

Woh badah-e-shabana ki sarmastiyan kahan

Uthiye, ke bas ab ki lazzat-e-khwab-e-sehar gayi

Maara zamaane ne Asadullah Khan tumhe

Woh walwale kahan, woh jawani kidhar gayi?

(What happened to those nights of intoxicated ecstasy?

Arise, for the sweet dream of morning has gone.

Time and age have beaten you Asadullah Khan,

Where has the effervescence of youth gone?)

One of your recent collections was called Death at My Doorstep, a collection of obituaries you have written. Are you tempted to write one of your own?

I have already done so. I have written my obituary two or three times. In Death at My Doorstep I have put them all in.

How would you liked to be remembered?

As somebody who brought a smile to people’s lips.

November, 2010 & April, 2009