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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It was in February 2006 that I first heard of Kunal Basu. It was thanks to a review copy of Racists. The book kept me up all night. Could something like this have happened? The intensity of the rivalry between the two scientists was almost too real. What about the infants left with a mute nurse on a remote island in Africa? This story was taking me places, just as great stories are meant to. The next morning it was down to googling the name Kunal Basu. No, this couldn't be an Oxford don, teaching Management by day and writing such gripping stuff by night or perhaps the other way round. After 'Racists', I quickly got down to reading 'The Miniaturist' which took me from the 19th century to the 16th century into Akbar's court, completing the journey with 'The Opium Clerk.'

Kunal happened to be passing through Singapore and we finally got a chance to meet on 16th March 2006. I wished the conversation could have lasted longer. There was so much more I wanted to know about his writing. As I always do with authors whose writing stirs me, I mentioned the Ubud Writers Festival, the invite from Janet followed and he was there. There were no promises of an airfare (he paid for his ticket), when his books didn't show up on time, he made no noise. Here was someone, fired by the conviction that his work would speak and it did. Readers loved the sessions, festival organisers wanted him at their next fest and Kunal stayed himself. Feet firmly on the ground, unaffected by the adulation.

Could it perhaps have something to do with the parallel life he led? Just like my other good friend Captain Elmo Jayawardena. There was something about their approach to life, their optimism, their drive to change things, the way they talked about the issues of our times, the way they wanted to live more than just this lifetime to continue doing all the things they were already doing..... In their midst, talk of the number of books sold, royalties, advances lost its sheen. There was so much to them, so much I could learn, perhaps we all could - but I'm not in the business of speaking for everyone.

All I can do is share some thoughts, some snippets stored on tapes that I'm in the habit of rolling at literary festivals, during interviews, tapes that definitely don't deserve the solo space on my recording shelf....

Q : Kunal, ‘Racists’ is a book I’ve found hard to put down. What inspired you to write it?
A : To be honest, how I thought of the story of ‘Racists’ is a complete mystery to me. I’m not the type of person who spends a lot of time thinking about race or racial matters. I would like to say I’m race blind really. I’m not a biologist or a scientist, so I don’t think about the history of evolution, the biological thinking about race. So why on earth did I think of a story which has one child from one race and another child from another race marooned in an African island with scientists studying them remains an utter mystery to me. But once I did think of the story, I went back and started doing research into it. I went to libraries to find out about 19th century racial science and a whole world opened up in front of me. This turned out to be a world where scientists were really passionately engaged in trying to solve the puzzle of human variation.

Q : The story is set in the world of 19th century racial science. What made you pick this setting?
A : This world had as its grand ambition the hope that science would be able to solve the puzzle of human variation, the difference among the races, among the Europeans, the Africans, the Chinese, the Indians and so on. It’s a story of an imaginary experiment with two scientists, a British craniologist Samuel Bates and his French rival Belavoix who maroon two infants a black boy and a white girl on an African island. Now, the two children are raised by a young nurse, who is very pretty who is mute. They’ve deliberately selected a mute nurse because she would otherwise influence the children in terms of the races they come from. So the children grow up for a whole decade on this deserted island without speech, without any connection with civilization, punishment or play. The scientists come to visit them twice a year, they bring their fancy instruments, observe their behaviour as if they were two rats in a laboratory. But what they are really after is to determine whether one child is superior in intelligence and morality than the other. They are doing this to determine which race of the two is superior to the other.

Q : Kunal, you say this is fiction, a story fired by your imagination. But how important is research when it comes to developing a story like this?
A : You know this was a very fertile field of research in the 19th century. Lots has been written on this. For instance, what is the logical measure that would show one race is superior to the other? Thankfully, no such experiment, the one you read about in my novel was ever performed, although scientists came pretty close with something called the ‘forbidden experiment’. Scientists flirted with the notion of the forbidden experiment. Why forbidden you may ask? Forbidden because the planned neglect of children is really unethical.

Q : But your characters very well fleshed out, there’s a lot of attention to detail. Samuel Bates seems almost too real as does his French rival. Did you have a real person in mind when you were writing about them and their intense rivalry?
A : I did not model either of the two scientists around a historical figure of that time. I’m sure there are perhaps figments from here and there, but they were not modeled around actual human beings.

Q : You seem to have a passion for going back in time. In ‘The Miniaturist’ you take us back to the 16th century....
A : Yes, its sets in the 16th century and is the story of a child prodigy, an artist who is enormously talented and he is the son of the chief artist of Akbar – the great Mughal Emperor. The protagonist of this novel has everything going for him, he is talented, he is the son of the boss and everybody expects that he will grow up to be the chief artist and that everything will be great for him, except that it doesn’t. Things change when he commits an unpardonable crime – a crime that I won’t reveal for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book. It results in his exile from Akbar’s kingdom and he then goes around the inhospitable terrains of Central Asia, as far as Turkey. What he is looking for is an answer to the question – what is the real value of art, the real purpose of art and what constitutes artistic success?

Q : Kunal, as you tell me this, its hard for me to imagine that another part of your life sees you teach Strategic Marketing at Oxford. How do you create these creative spaces to write about the fascinating stories you present to your readers?
A : The most difficult question to answer in any interview is – where do I get my stories. The best explanation and its perhaps the right explanation is that I’m a great day-dreamer. I’m constantly thinking about things, listening to conversations, finding out about people’s lives, picking up bits and pieces from here and there and then the stories starting shaping in my mind. Once I’ve got an idea and am fired by it, then comes the research into the subject to bring the story to life, to do it full justice. In terms of my professional life, yes I am a Professor of Management, but it’s a life which is quite distinct and different from my life as a writer so there is no secret corridor that connects the two.

Q : Speaking of secrets and corridors, lets track back a little bit to your first book. ‘The Opium Clerk’ which is a journey from Calcutta to Canton tracks the lives of young men whose lives get linked to the fortunes of the opium trade. How did you stumble upon this story?
A : I was trekking in Thailand some years ago, I was near the border of Burma and I came across this dog-eared paperback which was describing the Golden Triangle and the whole opium trade. I was never interested in the drug trade. Intellectually, it doesn’t hold my curiosity, but there was a phrase in that book which leapt out and fired my imagination. It said, “In the 19th century Calcutta was the world’s capital of the drug trade and the drug of choice was opium.” I thought to myself that this can’t be right. I’m born and raised in Calcutta and I thought I knew everything about Calcutta. But in my history books, I hadn’t found any references to that. At that time I was living in Canada, so I went back to my University library and started reading up just about everything I could find on the opium trade and the whole story revealed itself to me. I learnt all about this enterprise that spanned from Europe to Asia, India, China, Malaya and all the different parts of the world and the book came together.

Q : As a writer, should you be a better observer of things around you, should you be one who is interested in the past or should you just let your creativity speak for itself?
A : I think all of the above. I think its important for me to lead a full life and leading a full life means to engage with the world around me. Also the memories and nostalgia of the world that has gone by resonates with me and my books do capture that. Talking to people from different parts of the world helps enormously when it comes to writing. And my professional life, helps me engage with so many different and fascinating minds everyday. Apart from that, I’m constantly observing people, whether it is on the road, in the supermarket, the way they walk, the way the talk to each other, the way they converse with you. Then, of course there is reading, almost all kinds of stuff from the popular press to the more serious literary works. All of that creates the crucible from within which dreams are formed and ideas take shape.

Q : Apart from writing books, you have also written plays, documentaries, acted. How do you balance so many things?
A : I balance a variety of different things by not trying to think about too much about the differences. I think I’m guided by my passion, guided by what I’m excited about and if something keeps me awake at night and says this is something I ought to do, then I do it. I think I’ll do myself a lot of disfavour if I said to myself that - Oh my God, I do management writing, I write fiction, poetry, screenplays – how does it all fit together? I don’t think all the pieces of my life need to fit together as long as they make sense as individual bits and as long as people appreciate them, I’m happy to lead a disjuncted life.

You'll be hearing a lot more of Kunal in the days ahead. The Japanese Wife, a short story written by him is being made into a film by acclaimed film director, Aparna Sen. In an interview with Tehelka, she said she was smitten by it. "The improbability of it attracted me, I found it haunting - a love poem in celluloid. Mainstream cinema is peopled by people who have buying power. This is completely different, it's about people who are essentially good and innocent and yet all of it is not in earnest, there is gentle humour. It's funny, really."

If you happen to be in Singapore in December, you can hear Kunal talk more about this and his work at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival. He'll be appearing on several panels, though for purely vested reasons I'll extend the invite for the one on:
Saturday, 8th December, 1pm
A Tale of Two Cities features David Davidar and Kunal Basu
At the Chamber, The Arts House

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