Your third novel, The Prospect of Miracles (Aleph, 2019), contains a gamut of big ideas — faith, desire, infidelity, mortality, sanity and madness, and the thin line dividing the last two. Do you begin writing a novel with a sense of its overarching theme?
Put like that, you make The Prospect of Miracles sounds like a chaotic mish-mash — if not melee — of ideas and authorly impulses. In fact, I do personally believe that the creation of any good novel must preclude “overarching” or pre-determined content. The process of writing has to always be an organic one so that — at the best of times — the writer discovers and explores his themes and characters in the course of their creation. Every unanticipated event or insight should surprise the reader as much as it may possibly have — to a small or significant extent — the author/narrator himself — or herself — during its process of acquiring form. Your enumeration of diverse “ingredients” in my novel doesn’t remotely hint at the cohesion which melds their unfolding.
On the other hand, I have to admit that in the case of this novel there was a definite starting point, or trigger: I am referring to a central belief held by many sections of orthodox Christians, an obsessive, yet frighteningly believable notion that is generally described as “End Times”: that our world is predestined — as also predicted by the Bible — to come to a full stop, a cataclysmic end, no one knows when, but possibly even in our own lifetimes. This will be a period of great tribulation for many; but after that, Jesus will come again.
You tell the story largely through the voice of Mary Agnes, the wife of Pastor Pius Philipose, who unravels for the reader the half-truths and lies surrounding his morally upright persona after his death. How did you settle on her voice?
The Pastor, generally regarded by his parishioners as a compassionate and wise man, dies in the novel’s very first chapter. The story of their life together is narrated by Mary Agnes — she is alone now, finally freed of his oppressive, controlling presence — from her very own private point of view. After all, more than anyone else, she was in a unique position to observe him from close quarters. Her version of the story of their life together reveals for the first time, and very gradually — it comes as a revelation perhaps even to her — many desperate ironies that fly in the face of the Pastor’s conventional public image: his slyness, his ambition, his faithlessness.
All these are painful realisations for Mary Agnes, of course. But there is yet another dimension to the story, perhaps its most important one. In the course of listening in to Mary’s willful narrative, the reader gradually realises that, although she appears to be a normal, well-adjusted person to start with, one cannot ascribe to her that assurance one finds in a reliable raconteur of tales of her marital strife. For there are signs of growing hysteria and restlessness in her account, besides much chaotic internal distress, which the reader inevitably realises he is perhaps solitary witness to. The chapters in which Mary Agnes suffers a nervous breakdown are the only ones in which the narrative switches from placid first-person narrative to a somewhat disjointed third-person agitation.
The story is set in Kerala, not very far from Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu), where you live these days. Do you prefer writing stories set in your immediate milieu?
Certainly, one can write best about places and people one knows intimately. That is why for several years, many of my stories and novels mostly featured members of my own community — Parsis. Although, I also firmly believe that there’s little point in writing at all, unless the writing emanates from a place of universal appeal that can move — or disturb — every reader, even one who may be completely alien to a particular set or milieu.
As it happens, I do not know Kerala at all. I chose to set the novel there because I learned (from the internet) that apparently it is a hotbed of Pentecostal Christian activity, something which pertains closely to the novel’s content. I finished the first draft of the story without ever having visited Kerala. A good writer, I strongly believe, should be able to supplement a little research with the power of his imagination, to be able to convincingly recreate totally unknown territories.
So, in a way, I took it on as a challenge to write about a people, culture and region I didn’t know at all. Also, when I had finished my first draft, I realised it was a little too brief by word count to make for a novel; besides I realised it could benefit from some first-hand research about cardamom cultivation, which figures centrally in the story. So, I decide to take a long-postponed but short holiday with my wife, in the regions of Kottayam and Idukki districts. That was my first and only outing in Kerala — I’m not much of a traveller — which lasted a mere ten days.
Like your previous two novels — The Radiance of Ashes (2005) and Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (2012) — this one, too, tells a story that’s pre-eminently sombre. What is it about the dark side of human relationships that fascinates you?
Honestly, I’m quite a normal person; I love to laugh when I hear my friends telling funny stories. It makes me wish sometimes that I was endowed with the same facility, that deadpan ease and timing which are probably key to telling funny stories.
At the same time, it’s also true many critics and reviewers have often remarked on what they call my dark sense of humour. Had I a choice, I would probably have preferred the more rollicking, side-splitting variety for use in my stories and novels. After all, that might have been more effective — the dark side of life is perhaps brought better into focus, and with more heart-wrenching resonance, when divulged through the medium of humour. But, alas, no matter which approach one prefers to adopt, the writer can hardly hope to evade reality entirely. Life is grim, and our lives more deceitful than we are willing to admit.
The novel also echoes a familiar theme from your previous books: the family as a primary social unit that is oppressive and engenders discord, derangement and decay. Is your revisiting of these themes in each of your works conscious?
I can’t call it that even if it may appear so at times to a critic or reader who is searching for a recurrence of themes. Writing for me is not — and I believe it should never be — a hyper-conscious or very deliberate activity. If anything, the reverse of that I find more desirable. I do it, as it were, primarily for my own survival — I don’t mean in a financial sense — but a psychological one. It’s one of the very few things I can do reasonably well, and that’s why I continue doing it. I try not to think too much about it. At least, not while I am starting work on some new story or novel. Subsequent revisions would necessitate a more deliberate and conscious approach. But, for me, intuitive groping towards emotional coherence always takes precedence.
Your first novel, The Radiance of Ashes, had beautifully captured a city, Mumbai, in a churn, caught in the conflagration of communal violence. Today, a similar churn is underway across the country. How do you process the news about the gradual destruction of the idea of India?
That’s an overtly political question. Since my student days, nearly 40 years ago, I have stayed aloof from any involvement in politics. The situation in the country which has resulted in widespread public protests — and a shameful police crackdown on protesters — is certainly very disturbing, to say the least. But if you really want an answer to your question, you’ll have to wait until I finish my next novel.
As a writer, inevitably, my apprehension of, and response to, socio-political realities can only take a written avatar. I’m too old for any direct style of activism. And besides, to confess to a stark and lazy truth, I haven’t yet begun to write that next novel. I hope it can and will incorporate in some way our current disturbing social and political realities, but I haven’t the faintest idea yet in what way.
Like your brother, Rohinton, you, too, wanted to be a musician. Do you still listen to music?
Music is too powerful; it still holds much magnetic sway over me. Hence I rarely listen to it. If I do listen, it makes me feel dreamy, inactive, wistful, reviving old debates in my head about a possibly ill-considered choice made in youth to abandon its pursuit, to keep its hypnotic and overwhelming allure in a state of exile. If that sounds regretful, I should clarify that writing has given me a great deal, too, perhaps more. The regret, if any, is only about not having found the skill and cunning to simultaneously pursue both vocations.
The Prospect of Miracles is your first novel featuring non-Parsi characters. How different was writing about a non-Parsi community? Do you intend to go back to Parsi characters?
That’s probably inevitable, and will happen again one day before. Of course, I have written a play and some stories in the past, which contain no Parsi characters either. But when I wrote The Prospect of Miracles, it was in response to a need to feel completely uncircumscribed by my creative roots — to undertake something totally different from anything I had done before. It was an experiment probably akin to pruning a potted plant in the hope that eventually it would flourish into a generously, multi-branched, arboreal wonder.
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