Neel Mukherjee: A journey outside and within

The author made his mark as a book critic before writing his debut novel Past Continuous a book that bagged the Vodafone Crossword Fiction Award for 2008 despite well-staked claims from the likes Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Neel Mukherjee

It is hard to contain his book within a description, save to say that it takes one along on a journey with Ritwik, the lead character, who appears to have much in common with his creator.

Excerpts from an interview with Neel Mukherjee:

Is it tricky to avoid over-indulgence or over-writing as a first time novelist?
Yes. But there is a special language thing that characterises first novels. It’s like first love, with all its negatives and positives. Writers tend to lose this ‘special relationship’ with language in their subsequent novels. Which may not be a bad thing but I have a sneaking affection for it.

What classical masters do you love? Can you discern any obvious influences on your form or content?
Dostoevsky, Anna Karenina and Jane Austen, (whom I wouldn’t read initially due to irrational prejudice), the Brontës, especially Charlotte. I used to love Woolf, but I’m slightly agnostic now. Reading Patrick White and V S Naipaul was a turning point. The deepest influences are unconscious, working in unapprehended ways. If I had to name one conscious influence, it would be Naipaul.

The Calcutta Chromosome in contemporary Indian writing is significant. What is it about the city that fuels literary imagination such?
You tell me! I suppose it’s the pride in and aspiration towards the intellectual and the cerebral that sets Calcutta apart. The culture is marked by an insane affection for books, films, music and the furious flapping and flying of opinions. By contrast, Britain, which has been my home for the last 17 years, is a country where the zeitgeist actively and aggressively discourages anything remotely intellectual because of a fear of being branded ‘elitist’. Anything that is not pegged to the lowest common denominator is shunned and derided. It’s as if the whole country is engaged in a competitive race ‘southwards’, all in the name and imperfectly understood idea of democracy and inclusiveness. It’s long finished as a nation and no longer has anything important to say about anything. The toxic combination of Thatcher and Blair has dispatched the country to irreversible mediocrity.

Can you make sense of your relationship with the city? What do you think of when you think of Calcutta?
Having said nice things about Calcutta in the previous question, I’m now going to declare why I hate it. I think of chaos, choking density, pollution, narrow provincialism, appalling traffic, the grinding attrition of daily life and the poisonous ‘what is, will remain’ attitude. But, I also think of the Bengali books I grew up reading and the arthouse film-culture unthinkable in any other city. I think of that very great man, Satyajit Ray.

Doesn’t a critic become prone to a sort of deconstruction that can interfere with the writing process?
Not consciously. But the hand that writes reviews is not the one that writes novels. It’s a kind of built-in schizophrenia that most writers have.

What was the experience of reading reviews like?
I was less bruised by the negative reviews than someone who doesn’t know the reviewing world. I have dished it out, and now it’s my turn. I’m kind of tough that way. As for positive reviews, one is always thrilled. I was honoured by the brilliant essay in Biblio by Professor Supriya Chaudhuri. Not only was it dazzling in its content and style, but I got that ‘click’ when one knows that a reader has ‘got’ the heart and soul of one’s work.
You’ve said you identify with Ritwik. And that you might not write about Calcutta again.

Why was it important to start from home? Is it a debt or a rite of passage or a catharsis of sorts?
I like the idea that it is a kind of repayment of a debt. In fact, I’m writing my second novel under the shadow of this idea. But maybe it’s also a combination of a kind of risk-aversion and an internalisation of that great lie taught in writing schools, ‘Write what you know about’. By the way, the second novel is set entirely in Calcutta, so much for my claim.

Did the nearness of the subject to your life impede your process or inform your perspective of your life?
Can I exercise my right not to answer this question, if you don’t mind?

If the protagonist is gay, it tends to get highlighted in the analysis of the book. Since the sexuality of your protagonist is not central to his journey were you wary of this?
I am wary of it. But a book is as much the reader’s, so I can’t set limits on interpretation. Having said that, I’m aghast at the way the book is being described as a ‘coming-out’ novel. Have they even bothered to read it? There was even one stupid and objectionable piece on a blog, which saw Ritwik’s homosexuality as a kind of pathology. I thought the enlightened classes had moved beyond that kind of prejudice.

Migrant writing is a much-discussed ‘type’. Rushdie reacted sharply to another similar typecasting, — commonwealth writing. Do you see the usefulness of such grouping?
Even though I find it reductive and faddish, I benefit from being seen as a ‘migrant’ writer because it is in vogue in the Anglo-American world. This opinion is cynical, but also, I hope, honest. The literary world too is subject to fickle fashions and ‘migrant literature’ is one such. It was a useful concept in the beginning, now it’s become a lazy category for the agent-publisher-writer-media nexus. I can think of scores of books, approaching greatness, if not great, which do not sport the label and are all the better for it.

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