Yet, watching his show, I find myself, almost reluctantly, liking him. In times when most channels and shows are dominated by bland, young, smooth anchors — Sethi is a novelty, and makes the television show interesting. It’s not just his old-world charm that makes Just Books engaging, it’s also his erudite and well-researched questions.
The Big Bookshelf: Sunil Sethi in conversation with 30 famous writers, is a compilation of transcripts from interviews with famous, heavy-weight authors aired on the Just Books TV programme. Sethi’s programme is a necessary one, for, as he discusses in his introduction, the books business in India is expanding — by some estimates, by as much as 35 per cent per year.
The 30 authors that Sethi picks for this book are an interesting, diverse bunch — ranging from Nobel laureates Gunter Grass and Amartya Sen to paperback best-sellers like Chetan Bhagat and Shobhaa De, writers of literary fiction like Mohsin Hamid and Anita Desai to popular genre writers Jeffrey Archer and Ken Follet.
The list includes Booker Prize winners Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai, and authors who write on India — William Dalrymple, Mark Tully, Ramachandra Guha and Patrick French. Sethi mentions, in his introduction, how migration and displacement are themes that arise in many of his discussions. While reading the interviews, a common thread does emerge — many of these writers are outsiders, who don’t ‘fit in’ and have had to face personal challenges.
A writer who exemplifies all of these traits is Ved Mehta. Contending with blindness from the age of four, he was sent to a boarding school in Bombay and later to the US. Nadeem Aslam, migrating from Pakistan to London at age 14, had to learn a new language, English — a language in which he now writes. Writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, having returned from the US to administer his father’s estate in Pakistan, lives between two cultures.
Foreign writers who have written on India — French, Dalrymple and Tully — who are often controversial in India, also inhabit a complex space between multiple cultures. Sethi’s interviews, provoked for me, the realisation that perhaps these writers, by virtue of their ‘outsider’ status, can often draw the most revealing or intriguing portraits.
Sethi’s questions are perceptive, provoking intriguing and frank responses from many authors. Salman Rushdie and Shobhaa De are unexpectedly candid. Jeffrey Archer speaks openly of the scandals that beset his life and of his term in jail. Nadeem Aslam — speaking of the difficulties a non-English speaker faces adjusting to England and English — is admirable and courageous.
Nonetheless, the transcript format of these interviews — without the gestures, the body language and the actual speech of these writers — makes, most of the time, for drab reading. It is unlikely, in my opinion, that a reader (unless they review books for a living) will read The Big Bookshelf cover to cover. The average reader is more likely to flip through the book, and stop when they come across an interview with a writer they admire. Sethi claims, justifiably, that a record in the print format — as a book available in a bookshop — is necessary for these interviews to last longer than his weekly television show. However, in my opinion, it’s a far better use of time to watch the interviews, rather than read them. These interview clips are up on YouTube and unlike the book, are free to watch.