Nicholas Shakespeare did not expect to field questions about his famous last name. But ever since the 56-year-old British novelist and biographer arrived in town for the seventh Tata Literature Live! Festival, he’s been patiently answering questions about his connection to the Bard of Avon.
“I’m not a direct descendent of William Shakespeare. The person who really was died centuries ago. There are about 17 people in England whose last name is Shakespeare, and we’re all distantly related to the poet and playwright, but that’s all there is to it,” he says.
In any case, the name has helped draw more audience to his sessions, and Shakespeare has been holding forth on a number of subjects, such as the healing power of literature and about writers married to each other — his wife, the children’s author Gillian Johnson, is at the festival too.
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Shakespeare has been hailed as one of Britain’s best biographers for his definitive work on Bruce Chatwin, and for Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France, based on the life of his aunt who was imprisoned in a Nazi camp during WWII.
Sitting in the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba, Shakespeare recounts the last time he visited Mumbai. It was in 1963, he was only six years old, and the city was called Bombay.
“I cannot say that I perceived very many things at that age. But I do remember the sunlight, how bright it was, the energy of the city, and the smells,” he says. His father, a diplomat, was born in Shimla and the family was making the journey backwards, from England to India to Cambodia, when their ship stopped to refuel at the Bombay port.
“I think I’m also one of the few authors who know that this hotel is one of the locations where the 26/11 attacks took place,” says Shakespeare, no stranger to bombings himself. As a diplomat’s son, he lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Lima, Peru, in the 1970s, when the military government was in power.
As a young man in London, his friend was gravely injured during the IRA bombings; and in the 7/7 suicide bomb attacks in London in 2005, his niece narrowly escaped death — she’d chosen to take a train at a different underground station than King’s Cross St Pancras, where the first bomb had gone off.
“I don’t know how that made me feel about London. I’d already lived in all these other cities where terror attacks had taken place. In South America, I’d been arrested several times for just being young and out on the streets, even though I had a diplomat card. I’m more at home in Sydney, Lima and Mumbai than in London. The city is so smug,” says Shakespeare.
Mumbai, or Bombay, is also the setting of a short story in his collection Stories From Other Places (Vintage), released this year.
The White Hole of Bombay, first published in 2007 in Granta 100, takes place at the Breach Candy Swimming Pool Club, where Sylvia and Hugh Billington continue to spend their spare time lazing about at the poolside as the sun steadily sets on the Indian shores of the British empire.
“It’s a story I’d heard from a friend, and I wrote it with my own additions. I find that some of the best stories we tell are the ones we hear from other people,” Shakespeare says.