Celebrated Indian author and journalist, Tarun J Tejpal speaks to our Producer Deepika Shetty
Speaking to author, journalist, literary critic and essayist Tarun J Tejpal is like poetry in motion. His answers are almost as lyrical as his columns that appeared in India's leading newsmagazines - Outlook and India Today and now on Tehelka. For those of you who have missed out on that, Tarun has to offer his first novel, the critically acclaimed 'Alchemy of Desire'.
He joins me on the phone from New Delhi and as the interview progress I hear his cell phone ring in the background - several times, he has a plane to catch for his book launch in London, with the fire of journalism burning bright, there are those pressing work-related calls, I am sure. I remind myself, this must not take too long, this is after all India's number one sting man I'm going to be talking to. Ten minutes and no more it shall be (at least that's what I'd promised his publicity agent who organised the interview) but there is absolutely no way of cutting this conversation short.
As the Q & A progresses, I know why they say 'few people know the power of the pen better than Tarun Tejpal'. Let me add to that the power of the spoken world as well. A leading name in Indian journalism, he was on Business Week's list of 50 leaders spearheading change in Asia. And change is something he has brought about in just about everything he has touched with or without his magic pen. He also made a brief foray into publishing to set up India Ink. The first novel he published Arundhati Roy's 'The God of Small Things' won the Booker Prize. Then came the internet boom and Tarun established Tehelka, what he did with it is what they call history. If that's enough for you to think that you know all there is to know about this writer and personality extraordinaire, then think again. He talks and unravels his literary journey one step at a time. It's an unhurried walk, so sit back and read on:
Q : Your book has been called a complex chemistry between sex, ambition and love . What else is there in it?
A: I think there is a lot of India in there. There is a lot about illusion and history, all of which are part of the story and the book.
Q : We come across four very independent women in 'Alchemy', different women in different eras. Why is that so?
A: I've constantly said that women are far more interesting than men. I find men incredibly two-dimensional. I think women because of their peculiar status in society for millenia across cultures, across societies, across centuries, they are far from layered, far more nuanced, their emotional complexity is far from interesting, their ability to withstand adversity is far greater. I just find women more interesting basically. And I am glad that readers across India, at least are already noticing that and are reacting to the fact that the book inhabits the skin of women rather well.
Q : It's quite a long journey, between Chandigarh, New Delhi, to the hills, then to the US. How long did the actual work on the novel take?
A : The book was written over 16 months of writing everyday in the year 2002-2003 which was easily the most difficult time of my life. I was writing everyday and the great thing was that it was written with great stately calm. The book came to me very smoothly, there were never any false starts. The book that you read (eager to find out what Tarun's work is all about I read a draft of the book) is pretty much the book that was written. I just held it from both ends, shuffled it and tigthened it in parts six months after I finished writing it, but it's pretty much the way it was written in the draft.
Q : What in your view is the true strength of your book?
A : I think the book breaks new ground in many ways and slowly people are beginning to realise that. All I can say is that for me for twenty years the struggle has been to intuit a kind of tone that would allow me to tell my story in the way that I wanted to tell it. The challenge really is that when you write in English about India, you are already two degrees removed from the skin of India. The struggle then is to get as close to the skin of India as it is possible. And the problem really is, English as a language reflects the character of the British, which is understated, cool, reserved but Indian reality is exactly the opposite - it is emotional, loud, clamourous, over-heated. There is thus, a dejunct between the language and the reality that one is portraying. So you have to bend and look for innovative ways of telling the story. In a sense, though its often criticised, Bollywood captures the Indian reality better than any prose can. So the struggle really is to retain the tone and gravitas of literature and be able to capture the teeming, noisy and archaic reality that is India. The struggle for me for 20 years has been to try and understand that and to get to a tone that would help me tell my story and you have to do that while performing the essential role of literature. And the soul of literature really is the intimate story, the small story. The challenge then is how do you tell a very very intimate and small story without forfeiting the right of telling a large story. That's something that interests me hugely. Once the tone, which as I mentioned, came to me at the most difficult point in my life, I found I could tell my story in exactly the way I wanted to, in fact, better than I'd thought I could ever.
Q : It's interesting that you mention the book came to you at the most difficult part of your life. For our viewers beyond India, give us a sense of some of the difficulties you were facing at that point.
A : In India, everyone knows the big Tehelka story. On March 30th, 2001 we broke what is often called the biggest story in Indian journalism - on corruption and arms procurement and after that the government went for us with everything they had at their disposal. Over a period of 3 years, we were completely sort of pummeled, our offices were shut down, my staff went down from 135 to 4 people, we logged up huge debts, my colleagues went to jail, we had dozens of court cases against it. To cut a long story short, we were fighting a battle everyday and in the middle of this crazy battle the book came to me and I wrote it even when the battle was on. In a peculiar way, the book became a centre of calm, which in some way allowed me to face everything else with far greater ease.
Q : Going back to your book for a moment, Tarun, you say you've captured the spirit of India at a time of great change. How tough was that?
A : That was the challenge, but the triumph for me was the tone for the book. You've read the book and I'm sure you can tell what the book hopes to achieve. I waited for almost 20 years for the tone to come to me, but once I got that there were absolutely no struggles at all.
Q : You've been a literary critic and essayist as well, in fact, I've followed your writing for several years, right through the India Today days. Did you always know you would write a novel someday?
A: Well, the thing about India is that most of us go to missionary schools and each one of us who writes a straight line of English imagines that he should write something more substantial than that - so I was no different from anybody else in that sense. The ambition to do literary writing was always there. In some sense it also fuelled my entry into journalism 22 years ago. But as you know, journalism has a way of consuming you, but the nagging need to do sustained writing has always been there. The struggle was to write the kind of book that I really wanted to. I wasn't interested in writing just another book. I'm not turned on by so-called 'safe books'. The kind of book that interests me both as a reader and a writer is one that fulfills the original mandate of literature which is to push boundaries, to foster new ways of seeing, to open up new windows - that's the kind of literary writing that excites me.
Q : Now this is something that any writer would wish for - an endorsement by V.S. Naipaul, 7,500 copies selling out on day one, people lining up to hear your first soundbite on the book. Is this the kind of response you'd expected?
A : I feel this is all very temporary and one must pay very little regard to it. This is what I call the 'fluff of art' - its a phrase that I've used in the book as well. The only real judge is time - if three years from now or five years from now, it still resonates with readers, then you can be sure you've got something there. Otherwise with all the marketing hype, the deluded pronouncement of all work - whether its cinema or books, with all the spin doctors and publicity agents working on it, its almost impossible to arrive at the true worth of any work. You have to give it time, you have to wait and watch. I personally am very willing to wait and see how it travels.
Q : Tarun, I know I've taken up a lot of your time, but I just can't resist this question - How much of 'Alchemy' is really fact or is it all fiction?
A : (Laughs) You know all writing comes from your own life. It comes from lived lives, from what you have seen, smelt, tasted, lived. It has to come from your life. But then that's just the raw material, every book is utterly original as I would imagine. Let me give you an analogy - you take the bricks and mortar from your own life but the edifice you construct is original and your own. Always the task is to take ordinary material and convert it into art.
Q : It's pretty obvious that your novel is a sure shot best seller, but how are you responding to comments in some quarters that there's a bit too much sex in it?
A : I find that absurd. At the beginning my title announces itself. I haven't called it something like Short Stories from Partition, it clearly says 'Alchemy of Desire' so when you go in there, you expect to deal with one of the subjects, which has to do with desire. Secondly, for me love and desire are the central driving impulses of our life. What else do you live for, if you don't live for love and desire? I know some people live for bigger houses, bigger cars, unfortunately I'm don't. At its heart, the book is about love and desire, there is not a single voyeuristic line in it. I think the greatest triumph of the book is that at least among Indian writers writing in English, this book addresses emotion and passion in a very even-eyed way. Enough people have already commented on the quality of the book. I have no issues with it at all.
Q : So you are more than happy to have your daughters read it, I'm sure....
A: In fact, both my daughters have read it. The older one has been deeply impacted by the book. She read it as I was writing it, she would head back from school and read what I had written for the day and I think by the end of it all she'd probably read 'Alchemy' eight or ten times.
Q : Moving on, I read this interesting comment in The Telegraph in which you'd said reviewers had to "earn the right to say something".
Do you think reviewers have lost the cutting edge when it comes to assessing the written word?
A : I think so. I think it was said by either Amit Chaudhari or me. Both of us were in conversation and we'd said it in different ways. We both felt reviewing in India is almost non-existent. It's normally dished out to an academic or a journeyman and there isn't the kind of rigour or empathy that reviewing should have. I mean, one you've got to do your homework, you've got to have both the heart and mind to review books, you've got to have the ability, above all to inhabit the mind and ambition of the writer. I mean you don't go to see Satyajit Ray's 'Pather Panchali' and then say why aren't there big battles scenes like the ones seen in Kurosawa's films. That's the kind of reviewing we are seeing, I find that bizzare and absurd. As a reviewer, you have to have the ability to inhabit what the author is attempting to do and then establish what the author has achieved.
In fact, Amit Chaudhari at that particular interaction clearly said that 'Tarun's narrative style is exactly the opposite of mine, but Tarun is the only one who in 1992 gave my book Afternoon Raag a good review in India.' And I responded to that by saying that 'when I am reading you, Amit, I am trying to see what you are trying to pull off and how well you do it. It's as simple as that.' In fact, I told him that I've stopped reviewing for the last 13 years because I just don't have the time to read books anymore. I mean anyone who reviews must be consumed by the tradition, by the range of work that is going on and has to have the sensibility and most importantly the empathy. The fact that this kind of reviewing does not exist in India is borne out by the fact that no amount of reviewing can actually make or break a book here. Just look around you good books are ignored, bad books are pushed. Reviewing here doesn't seem to make any difference to the present or future of any book and that says something about how seriously its taken by readers even.
Q : Going beyond your novel, to your other critically acclaimed work. You've got hard-hitting journalism going in the true sense of the word. You've got the Tehelka newspaper, fighting the system, just so many things going on in your life. How do you even find the time to write?
A : (Laughs) I suppose we all under-estimate our own resources, how much we can really do with our lives. Yes, Tehelka has certainly been the biggest challenge and triumph of my life, there is absolutely no doubt about it. The good thing is the paper is doing really well now. That paper has been created against most unimaginable odds and seeing it grow is something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Q : This is one of my favourite questions and I ask every author I speak to about it. Would you like to say anything to aspiring writers, the one's who have the stack of rejection slips to deal with, the ones who have written a great piece, a great novel but it hasn't been recognised by the publishers out there?
A : I think there are two things here, there is always the case for great perseverance and great determination and that is the oldest cliche in the world. Everything happens because someone insists that it should happen. But having said that let me also say that there is also a great case to understand and have a measure of your talent. I mean anyone who works, writes or pursues anything creative, must have a good measure of their talent. You know one of the things they used to say about Philip Larkin, the poet was that no other 20th century poet had a clearly mesure of their talent than him. Larkin never attempted a poem outside the scope of his talent. But what he did, he did more brilliantly than any other poet. In writing, cinema, art or even in life, understanding that can often lead to a very valuable and satisfying curve for both your professional and personal life. And once you get a meaure of that talent, the next thing is to push the boundaries as far as we can. And a lot of that is just considered hard-working.
Q : And before we go, are we likely to see your second book any time soon?
A : There is no second book in the works right now, but you never know considering the first one came out of nowhere, the second one could possibly come any time. At the moment, Tehelka still consumes my life and the battles of Tehelka still go on.
Deepika Shetty is a Producer with Prime Time Morning