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'Every human emotion is on parade when you write about a disease'
Why would you, an Indian author, think about writing a story involving China and Portugal? Does it have something to do with your frequent visits to China?
My imagination is solely to blame. It has a habit of making up stories that are set in locales to which I can claim no ownership by birth or by adoption, be it Africa or China. There's also this fascination with the unexplored and mysterious that drew me to the story of a Portuguese doctor's quest for a cure for syphilis in 19th century China. While travel writing per se doesn't appeal to me, I am excited by the possibility of extending my mind and emotional hardware across borders of time and place. There's something though to answer for as I've set two of my novels in China, starting with The Opium Clerk. It's the dead weight of the Middle Kingdom - near yet remote, incredibly inventive but dour in the face of change, full of subtleties and crude violence - that has set it apart as a full blown literary character in itself. Starting with my first visit in 1989 when I had to be evacuated after the Tiananmen event, the story of China has brewed long enough inside me to find its voice in The Yellow Emperor's Cure.
Besides your syphilis novel, Siddharta Mukherjee's 'The Emperor of all Maladies' is woven around cancer. How hard is it to write a book about a disease?
Painful as it must be to suffer from syphilis or cancer, it is absolutely marvellous to write about them. There is so much to play with - the awful symptoms, dubious causes, myths and quackery, stories of famous victims - mixed with the heroism of the warriors. Every human emotion is on parade when you write about a disease. I remember visiting the Bodleian library in Oxford frequently to consult books on the history of syphilis, mesmerised by the almost poetic language in which the venereal pox was described and discussed through the ages. Turning pages of syphilis's pictorial albums though, was the difficult part. It made me shrivel up at the thought of sex!
What about your past has prepared you to write this novel.
A reading of classics, surely. I was raised as a bookworm in a bookish family, and developed an early taste for grand novels that told intricate human stories set in tumultuous worlds. The likes of Tolstoy and Hugo, Rabindranath and Bankimchandra, have shaped what I like to read and write. The human obsession with solving great problems - be they medical or social in nature - has intrigued me just as much as the quest for love under impossible conditions.
How much does the theatricality of your novel's settings derive from historical detail as opposed to imagination?
As much as I need to read historical works for the sake of writing my novels, I dislike dry academic tracts with a venom. A novel is fundamentally an act of fantasy, rooted to something the reader recognises as real, either in the past or present. Fiction that reads like a well constructed and slightly disguised essay bores me. To succeed, all novels, including literary/historical ones, must carry the reader along in a breathtaking journey. For me, a book works when I am unable to put it down, which is precisely the standard I set for myself. No matter how much research has gone on underneath the words, they must feel immediate and inspired by the moment. Notwithstanding historical details, my literary fiction must have the depth of a Dostoevsky, the scale of a Dickens and the pace of a thriller.
Your other books have some memorable characters. . . the artist Bihzad, for example, in The Miniaturist, the tale of a Mughal artist. Do they still exist somewhere for you?
Mrinal Sen once told me that all film directors are scavengers at heart. They fully inhabit the world of their characters while shooting a film then promptly forget afterwards. So it is to some extent with authors. Yet no character fades away completely. It is impossible for me to think about Agra or Fatehpur Sikri without Bihzad flashing through my mind. Whenever I am in North Kolkata's bylanes, I am reminded of Hiranbabu, my opium clerk. I don't think I'll be able to forget the characters of this novel either, especially Joachim Saldanha, a Portuguese priest, who is a real glutton, or Fumi, the Chinese medicine teacher - deeply mysterious and sensual.
'The Japanese Wife' is considered your best known book. As a writer, do you feel the other books too deserve equal attention?
Nothing is equal in life. Cinema commands a broader audience than books, and it's not surprising that The Japanese Wife has received appreciation. I am not unduly fussed about which one of my litter gets more attention than others. As such, an author must leave behind a full body of work that collectively showcases his/her worth.
Would you like to share your next project with us? Tell us something, too, about the soon to be published book of photographs, called Intimacies for which you've written the text. Your first 'picture book'.
My next project is another novel which I'm writing now set in contemporary Kolkata. As a fiction writer I wasn't considering writing text for a photographic album, but when I saw Kushal Ray's work they struck me as being a collection of stories worth telling. Completely unsentimental and lacking in sensationalism, these photographs portray a cast of characters living in a middleclass home in Kolkata, depicting their daily life without undue theatricality. Yet, there are unspoken clues everywhere that point at deep human drama and of course, intimacies. They tempted me to weave my text around them almost fictionally.
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