So much of your new book, I Have Become the Tide (Simon and Schuster, Rs 499), reminded me of incidents taking place around us that I wondered if you meant these to work as the ‘little history’ that Svetlana Alexievich spoke of in the context of her book Second-Hand Time?
AK Ramanujan says it very beautifully in one of his acknowledgements, ‘What do we have which we have not received?’ So how can you write a novel without deriving from reality, even if you are writing a fantasy, and this is no fantasy. Fiction looks for different kinds of truth. It needn’t be about a specific person or an event, but it’s about the histories that we are living through. So, it’s very clear that the novel sits in the same room with the Rohith Vemulas, the (MM) Kalburgis and with the self-appointed censors and assassins of the practice of culture, academics, and, indeed, citizenhood in the country. In that sense, it is very much about the India that we knew, the India that is unfolding — and, most importantly, about the India we want.
How was the book born?
In Times of Siege (2003) was my first overtly political novel. My other books, too, looked at the power structure but I finally decided that I had the confidence and the rage to write about where I was living. In retrospect, that NDA-1 period seems almost innocuous. But that was the ploughing of the field for this to happen. Fugitive Histories (2009) built on that. It wasn’t about Gujarat 2002 but that was at the core. I wanted to examine what happened to the Nehruvian vision that so many people of my generation almost took for granted. I am perfectly aware that the fault lines existed even then. We are not going to pretend that caste did not exist before the right wing became this powerful. But, in addition to that terrible history, there are now new manifestations, new indignities, new exclusions, and, of course, institutional discrimination. It is that journey that an individual, and hence, a section of a community, makes that I wanted to explore. That’s all you can do in a novel — to look at the terrible cruelties every day in words and deeds, but also at the extraordinary courage we are witnessing from regular people. That’s what I wanted to bring out.
Can a writing life remain unaffected by a writer’s political vision?
It depends on the kind of writer you are. I don’t think that writing can be apolitical. Politics is not a little, shallow pond. There are many ways of engaging with it. When we say politics, we are revealing ways in which power structures work in our day-to-day lives, in the family, at the workplace, on the streets, in the classrooms and so on. As a fiction writer, how do you look at the ways in which these power structures play out? Through situations, characters and their interaction, through a story. There is another deeper aspect captured through an old-fashioned word: a worldview. There is no such thing as an objective fiction writer. There is a worldview you have — you are projecting a better world or you are tearing apart what you think is wrong with the world. With both, you are struggling to ask the right questions.
Are you bothered by the labels that often mark a writer’s introduction?
Perhaps it did, a long time back. But labels are useful if they are used in the right way — say in classrooms, in anthologies for writers whose voices have been systematically suppressed. Labels are important to study the emergence of those voices, the doors that were opened and also to look at the tragedies involved in how those doors were opened. But when that label is used either in a lazy way or deliberately to diminish, it’s a sad thing. Not one person goes on stage and says, ‘Upper-caste male writer’. If you actually want to honour, say, a Dalit writer or a woman writer, who have got where they are with considerable difficulty, there’s something very sad about saying Dalit writer so-and-so. What we have to work towards in India is saying ‘writer in Bangla’ or ‘writer in Hindi’ or ‘writer in English’.
What does an increasing emphasis on projecting a monolithic culture mean for the imagination of a community?
All of culture, its beauty, joy, challenges, its ability to make you think — let me plant some doubt here amid all those certainties you have, tease out your prejudices and show you the stereotypes in your head, but also let me show you the little beauties around you that you haven’t noticed — all of that will go. And, in a place like India, where we are spoilt for choice whether it comes to the richness and diversity of beauty, or of human suffering, these are things you learn from cultural practices, and from literature.
In everything, there’s an attempt to tame culture, yet it is quite powerful and so multifarious that some of it one doesn’t understand. And it’s not like you are being given a guideline. It’s the uncertainty which makes your voice go silent, because you don’t know what will be objected to or what will get you into trouble. It could be a little dream, it could be a word in the film or the song. That is how you create a bunch of robots, a herd of sheep. What did Govind Pansare say? What did (Narendra) Dabholkar say? He didn’t say don’t celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi. He said don’t pollute the water which we all need. What did Gauri Lankesh say? When you are in a situation when people are no longer allowed to do what they must, how else do you imagine? As a child, you take a dupatta lying around and pretend to be a queen or a farmer. That is your first glimmer of empathy. But if you are saying, you can’t speculate, then where do you go?
At the same time, we should also be proud that there are so many writers, artists and citizens who are facing down the thought police in whatever modest ways they can. Together, it is a grand thing. You can feel anger, but I don’t think you can feel pessimistic.
What is the role of the public intellectual in such a scenario?
We love the cult figure and we are blessed to have so many who speak for us with perception and insight. But, think of 2015 (the year many writers returned their Sahitya Akademi Awards in protest against growing intolerance), and the range of people who spoke up and in such different ways. I think the role of the public intellectual is not only to speak up but also to listen to everyone else, to try and imagine what it must be like to be that person. Otherwise, we are never going to be able to join their fight or stand behind them as they fight for their rights.
How does this sit with the apolitical stance of institutions which were set up to promote and represent cultural communities?
There’s really no point in saying shut down these institutions, which have either gone into some sort of a long hibernation in terms of imagination or initiative, or, even worse, become slaves to the ruling ideology. Because, who owns those? They belong to us. We have to take them back. I remember Nayantara Sahgal telling me that during the Emergency she had suggested to the Sahitya Akademi that they should take a stand and they said, quite proudly, that ‘We never take a political stand’. Well, if you are an institution that genuinely represents writers, it’s as if you are saying that writers and artists never take a political stand. That is absurd.