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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tokyo Cancelled

On Off The Shelf we speak to Rana Dasgupta, the writer who has set literary circuits ablaze with his debut 'Tokyo Cancelled'.

'Tokyo Cancelled' is slated to be the next big thing in the literary world. And its author Rana Dasgupta is doing the global rounds for the launch.

Despite his hectic schedule, Rana took the time to join our Producer Deepika Shetty on 'Off The Shelf' from London.

Here are excerpts from that exclusive conversation:

Q : Tell us what your critically acclaimed debut is all about?
A : My book is about 13 passengers who find themselves trapped in an airport on their way to Tokyo, hence the title. They spend their time telling stories to each other to pass the night. So the book consists of 13 stories, one from each of several cities around the world - Tokyo, Shenzhen, New Delhi and spreading out across Frankfurt, Paris, London, Tokyo etc. Its a book that's an attempt to come up with a collection of contemporary urban fairy tales - stories that use the comfortable, familiar language of the fairytales we all grew up with. But it tries to use that language to talk about issues of contemporary significance. It talks of technology, business and about things that make people most joyous and fearful to be living at this point in time.

Q : Why an airport setting? Do you view it is a place of hope, a place to get away from the gritty reality of everyday life?
A : Well, I think airports offer lots of interesting potential for somebody thinking about writing. The airport especially in my book, when the flight is cancelled and the passengers are forced to spend the night just filling time, becomes a space where they are completely removed from their ordinary lives. So its a place for them to fill with their imagination. It's a place that invites stories. It's also a place where they have no common language to speak of, so they look within themselves for a fundamental language of fairy tales, with which they start to form a connection with where they are. The other thing about airports is that they are a place of meeting. Of strangers meeting each other, of people coming together from all parts of the world. So they are a kind of node in a global network that allows your imagination to flow out around the world and think about what it means to be living in an interconnected world of travel and experience.

Q : So what brings the characters together in your book given the varied places they are from. What's the one thing that ties them?
A : I feel the one thing that ties them in the airport is that they make a pact with each other to pass the night telling stories. What binds them together is the fact they all enter into this pact willingly. What's exciting or utopian about this book is the fact that when this group of 13 passengers are asked to imagine and to tell wonderful stories they are all able to come up with something miraculously fantastic. What binds them is this shared experience of deciding to spend time imagining and narrating stories that are significant to them. And there are lots of themes that run through these shared stories - these are themes of travel and being an outsider in society.

Q : What about the structure of these stories?
A : The structure of the book is that of fairy tales. The wonderful thing about fairy stories is that you usually have the very recognisable familiar space of a small town with a King and a Queen, a Prince and a Princess, a market - and all this little world of order. Outside this you also have the world of the forest and the forest contains all kinds of threatening figures - witches and ogres - so it is a mysterious and vaguely uncanny world. When you transpose all this onto contemporary life the same language can be used to talk about businessmen, movie stars and all these kind of figures and characters. In the forest of contemporary life we also find illegal immigrants, migrant labourers and various types of people living outside the rules of society for reasons of their own choosing or for other reasons. So the fairy tale structure is one that allows to you to sort of embrace a very large range of people who make up our contemporary world.

Q : Now one of the stories in the book was written as a birthday gift. You've been quoted as saying this one took on a different direction, which direction was it?
A : That's right, it all began as you rightly pointed out as a birthday present. And the story that got it all going is the first story in the book. It took on a different direction because I started to write about something that excited me. It was this combination of fairy tale structures and contemporary life and it started to excite me to write something that would be a whole body of fairy tales. I wanted to write a body of myth that would powerfully address some of the issues that we as people living in the 21st century experience.

Q : Tokyo Cancelled has been called the 'Canterbury Tales for our times', 'an epic story', 'a timeless fairytale.'
That almost sounds like a dream come true for any author. How does it make you feel?
A : Obviously, good criticism is great to read. What's most exciting though is when I read criticism that shows that this book has really entered into the thoughts and feelings of somebody and has made them experience the world differently. Good reviews that have not really engaged with the book are less satisfying than bad reviews that really have.

Q : What made you move to New Delhi in India. You are now based there. Why India?
A: I moved to New Delhi four years ago from the United States. I was doing a corporate job there and was getting a little bored of that, partly because I'd also started work on my book and wanted to spend more time on it. I moved to Delhi to be with a group of friends who I thought would be very inspiring to have around while I was working on my book. Of course, financial reasons played a role in that decision too. I could afford to live in Delhi and write. Doing writing alone was something that I could not afford to do in New York. It was an experiment at first, I was supposed to stay there for just three months but I ended up staying on. I find Delhi an enormously fascinating place to be located in and to look out at the rest of the world.

Q : You just mentioned you were in the corporate world, you were a marketing professional to be precise. How did writing happen?
A : I was working for a marketing company for about five years before I started writing. That took me to Kuala Lumpur, London, then New York. Moving around these places gave me an immense experience of the world. But by the end of the time, I really wanted to do something else. I'd started writing this book, pretty much for myself and my immediate circle of friends. Once a body of this work was ready, I sent it off to an agent in London and he loved it. Six months later, I went on a round of six publishing firms, three of them bid for it and I came to an agreement with one of them. That was pretty much it.
Though I must admit that my life in business has found its way very significantly in this book. In its examination of global life, all the effects and experience of business is quite important. I am not one of those writers who thinks business is a very unliterary kind of thing. I find business very exciting and interesting as a subject. So there's a lot of my former life in this book

Q : And you've started working on your next novel. What's that about?
A : It takes further some of the themes in 'Tokyo Cancelled'. But its very focused on the future and it explores the relationship between the past and the future. Lot of imaginations of the future are very terrifying, I'm exploring all of this and looking at rumours and visions, amnesia and prophecy. It's about an old man who is blind and who is receiving visions of the future. It's a kind of exploration of some of the emotions we feel when we think about what is going to happen in the world.

Q : What are the key influences on your work?
A : My writing is above all influenced by conversations with people, particularly the artists and writers that surround me in Delhi. Then its travel.
I tend to prefer the kind of wisdom that comes from travel than the kind that comes from staying in one place. And then of course there is culture - art and films are the significant things for me. And the internet.

Thirteen passengers are stranded at an airport. Tokyo, their destination, is covered in snow and all flights are cancelled. To pass the night they form a huddle by the silent baggage carousels and tell each other stories.

Told by people on a journey, these are stories about lives in transit, stories from the great cities - New York, Istanbul, London, Lagos, Paris, Buenos Aires - that grow into a novel about the hopes and dreams and disappointments that connect people everywhere.

"Intriguing . . . A highly confident literary debut" - The Bookseller (UK)
"A global citizen narrative" - The Asian Wall Street Journal
Deepika Shetty is a Producer with Prime Time Morning