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An interview with Vikram Chandra

...Vikram Chandra has discovered a wee bit of Bombay...

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The Rediff Special/ Vaishali Honawar

April 25, 1998

In the heart of Washington, Vikram Chandra has discovered a wee bit of Bombay. The sounds and smells at Teaism, a bustling restaurant that serves up a mean cuppa chai and even lassi, evoke strong memories of a roadside tea stall in Bombay. For someone who loves and misses that city as much as Chandra does, being here can be an exhilarating experience.

But right now Chandra is riding another high. News of his second book, Love and Longing in Bombay, being nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize from the Eurasian region is just out. To get there he beat Arundhati Roy's Booker-winning God of Small Things.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, sipping chai from an earthen mug, the 36-year-old writer comes across as surprisingly calm and even modest about his success. A soft-spoken, small-sized man, especially in the huge black coat he wears over a cotton shirt, he admits he takes both the bouquets and the criticism with a "pinch of salt".

Celebrity --- and awards --- are not new to Chandra who made news with his first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain in 1995. That book, centered around an America-returned student in India and a monkey with the heart and mind of a poet, went on to win the David Higham Prize for Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book.

Now, within sight of the 10,000-pound Commonwealth Writers Prize for 1998, Chandra says he is not keeping his hopes too high in the face of the tough competition he faces from the other regional winners. "It would be stupid to even speculate who will win, at this stage,'' he says.

Instead he is enjoying the immediate rewards of his book's success --- the glowing reviewsTable in publications around the world and the reactions of his readers who communicate with him through e-mail. While not many writers and publishers encourage such direct interaction, Chandra finds it stimulating to communicate with his readers.

A couple of times, he says, he has been recognized on the streets, especially after the Washington Post carried news of his winning the award, along with his picture. And while he does not seem to mind being the object of some attention, he does find it "disconcerting" to read about himself in the media.

"You start to see the formation of an image of you --- through the interviews that you give --- and it is somebody who looks like you but is not exactly you. You don't have complete control of that image...and when you meet people they seem to interact with that image rather than the reality of you," says the writer who teaches a creative writing course at George Washington University in Washington.

Who, then, is the real Vikram Chandra? Is he the sum of the characters he portrays so incisively in his books?

"There are certainly some autobiographical references, but the way one's life ends up in fiction...there is a very strange alchemy that takes place. Stuff that may seem unlike you is actually, you realise, an exposure of who you are, whereas stuff that seems autobiographical isn't very necessarily that. It's a tricky business."

What he is, for as long as he can remember, is a storyteller. "I was always making up stories, even as a little child."

He loved listening to them too --- particularly mythological stories told by his grandmothers and aunts. He recalls how, as a child, he would watch the Ramleela, perched on his father's shoulder. It was in boarding school, at Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajasthan, that his literary talent took definite shape. His work was published, for the first-ever time, in the school's literary magazine. He later on attended St Xavier's College in Bombay where, too, his stories were published in the college magazine.

Chandra came to the United States as an undergraduate student in the early '80s, attending school in California. "But though my BA concentration was in literature, I thought I would end up in films. My mother's been in films and I've been surrounded by it all my life."

Kamana Chandra has worked on the scripts of films such as Prem Rog, Chandni and 1942 --- A Love Story. So when Vikram chose to study film-making at Columbia University in New York, it seemed the right way to go.

But his ambitions changed route after he chanced upon the autobiography of Colonel James 'Sikander' Skinner, a 19th century, half-Indian, half-British soldier. Inspired by the book, he dropped film school to begin work on Red Earth and Pouring Rain.

The book took him six years to write, during which time he also acquired an MA from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an MFA from the University of Houston.

Whenever he had some time off from school and writing, Chandra returned home, to Bombay. In his case, certainly, distance made the heart fonder and then some more.

Staying away from the city also helped him get a better perspective of the life there. "Going back after having been here for a while, you see everything as fresh. Things that you might slip and miss if you are there all the time become new in some strange way." He spends around five months in Bombay each year, going back twice, or even thrice, every year.

The next novel he is working on, as yet untitled, also starts out in Bombay and is all about the city's cops and its underworld. "I was hoping it would be a tight little thriller, but I think it's getting too long for that," he says.

This time Chandra has moved away from his format of telling a story within a story. "I think it's changing. I am not certain...but it seems to me different which I don't know how yet." His protagonist in this novel is the policeman, Sartaj Singh, who appears in one of the short stories in Love and Longing.

One cannot help but wonder if Chandra's characters are, in some way, real. It would be easy to believe, for instance, that there really is a Subramaniam sitting in some Bombay pub, spinning out a yarn, as he does in the pages of Love and Longing.

But Chandra points out that he does not use real people as characters in his stories, because reality can often be too boring. What he does sometimes use are nuances of people he may encounter in life, such as an interesting accent. Fiction writers "give birth to their own reality," he says, adding that it's the writer's job to convince his readers that the persons he creates are actually real.

Chandra, whose younger sister, Anupama Chopra, works as a journalist with India Today, has also written some non-fiction in the past, but that has been "under duress", he says with a laugh. One such article he wrote for Time magazine was about Hindi film music and its importance in his life.

It is easy to see that Chandra's love affair with Hindi cinema is far from over, despite his inability to keep up with it when he's in Washington. He takes up with gusto against any argument about Hindi cinema being 'escapist' and the only Indian cinema he finds boring, he says emphatically, is the so-called 'art' or 'parallel' cinema.

He has had his moment in the arc light as one of the scriptwriters for 1942 --- A Love Story. And while he has had to give his film ambitions a backseat for the time being, he would like it very much if one of his books were made into a film, he says, adding there have been some offers. "For Love and Longing there were a couple of people talking about making a film...that might happen, I am not sure."

A television company has also expressed interest, though he is quick to add that it is all very "vague" right now. Love and Longing in Bombay, hailed by Shashi Tharoor in the New York Times Book Review as a "considerable achievement," is a collection of five short stories set against the backdrop of Bombay city, spun together by a common storyteller, Subramanian. If filmed, it will be interesting to see Chandra's characters and locations come to life on celluloid.

Already, through his books, these characters have captivated thousands of readers across the world and given critics something to talk about --- in superlatives. Paper Magazine describes Love and Longingas having "echoes of the cacophony of Rushdie and the sensuousness of Ondaatje." Francis King, writing in The Spectator, compares Chandra's writing with that of Somerset Maugham, adding that "such stylistic dazzle was beyond Maugham, so unadventurous in his writing."

Chandra himself is an avid reader of other writers's work. "I cannot imagine not reading...the smell of the book, the anticipation of reading it... I am an addictive reader." Reading a good book, he says, is as pleasurable as eating chocolate. Writing is pleasurable but it is work, he adds with a laugh.

He makes sure to keep abreast of contemporary Indian fiction as well and it is clear to see he has read a good deal of Indian mythology, into which he often dips for material, and vernacular Indian fiction.

Premchand, whose works he has read in Hindi, is among Chandra's personal list of favorites. Growing up, he was also very influenced by the work of R K Narayan, Jim Corbett ("I think I'm allowed to include him among Indian writers as he lived and died in India"), and later Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie. "I love Amitav Ghosh's writing," he says. Asked what he thinks of Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things he says he admires her writing.

One of the best features of Indian English writing today, he says, is the difference in writers's styles --- which is helped by the fact that they don't have much in common apart from the fact that "we all grew up in an urban middle- or upper-class setting. In terms of the scenarios, technique and the structure of the books, we are very different." In India, he says, there is no literary movement connected by an aesthetic manifesto such as modernism. "That is a great advantage."

But one thing Indian English writers, including Chandra, do seem to have in common is that many of them live outside India. One of the reasons for this is the money, he says, as it is simply not possible to earn the sort of money you would at a job in India and then take time out to write. Over here, he has to teach just two days a week, which leaves him with enough time to devote to his writing.

He is angered by arguments that one cannot write about India while living abroad. In India, he says, we cling to the notion that anyone who leaves the country is some sort of an outcast --- a belief that has to do with sexual politics, because in India it is believed that somehow in the West people are less virtuous and "loose".

"It reminds me of the caste system when anyone who crossed the black waters would lose his caste and had to undergo a ritual of humiliation to be allowed back into the fold," he says, adding: "It is an interesting dynamic. And it frightens me."

He thinks of himself as an "Indian writer living in a semi-expatriate status." Despite having lived in the United States since the '80s, Chandra continues to hold his Indian citizenship. "It is something I am sticking to. Symbolically and emotionally, it will be hard for me to give up." This way, as he points out, he has the best of both the worlds.

Though still single and far from his family, he has carved out an interesting life for himself in Washington. In Bombay he co-founded 'Adda', along with his friend, film-maker Anuradha Tandon, where creative persons from various fields get together once a month to hang out and share ideas. Recently, he undertook a similar venture at a place called the Chi-Cha Lounge in Washington.

In May, he will pack his bags for Bombay, on yet another journey of rediscovering the buzzing, multifaceted city so unlike the softly explosive world of Washington. It is, in his own words, "a privileged life."

Copyright © The Rediff Special April 1998

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