NAW interview with Kankana Basu

Kankana Basu

Kankana Basu is an author, illustrator, columnist and a travel writer. Her first novel Cappucino Dusk was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Watch out for her forthcoming work, The Messiah

NAW- Tell us about your forthcoming book, ‘The Messiah.’ How did you get the idea for it? What is it about? How did you select the title?

‘The Messiah’ is my most quirky work of fiction to date and was conceived in a moment of extreme whimsy. The novella revolves around a flighty and promiscuous heroine, Amruta Deshpande, who visits a tiny hamlet with her live-in boy friend. The boy friend dies leaving her in a precarious situation and to escape the wrath of the strait-laced society of the mountain town, where relationships outside matrimony are strictly forbidden, Amruta feigns spiritual powers. Thrown into one spiritual calamity after another in her role as (sham) god woman, she finds herself drawing desperately on her innermost reserves to survive. Slowly and incredibly, Amruta begins to find actual solutions to the villager’s crises. Her rising popularity pitches her against an old rapacious sadhu or shaman who has had the town in his grip for years and who is livid to find that he is swiftly being ousted by a pert female successor. Amruta copes and copes wonderfully, and at one crucial point, she morphs from a fake spiritual guru into a real one. Amruta progresses from amorous to ascetic and from calling herself the people’s messiah with tongue-in-cheek irony she becomes a true guide of the residents of the mountain-top hamlet. And hence the title of the novella…

This quasi-spiritual novella begins with the line ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I have always been obsessed with the Descartes brand of philosophy and seen it shape many lives around me. It is incredible how some people will themselves to live out certain kinds of lives and become certain kinds of people. Descartes’ theory gives strength to the traditional Indian theory that all thought is energy of some kind and once thoughts occur, they flow out into the cosmos leading to incredible consequences for the thinker. I built the novella around the premise that a man or woman is what his/ her deepest desire is. At some level, it is your thoughts that shape your life and make you what you are.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

My debut book, ‘Vinegar Sunday’, was a collection of short stories all of which revolved around the residents of a ramshackle old building situated in suburban Bombay. The day-to-day hopes, despair, triumphs, joys, tiffs, and endearing eccentricities of the characters made up the stories. The fractured nature of lives led in a teeming metropolis was at the core of this collection. As a newspaper journalist in my earlier days, I was privy to the double lives led by struggling actors, script writers and musicians; people who lived out glamorous lives in the day and came back to sordid lonely homes after work. There were actors who pretended to be dashing bachelors while hiding wives and children from the media, bored housewives who doubled up as call girls when their husbands were at office. There were achingly lonely homemakers who took a break from the drudgery of housework and over a cup of midmorning coffee dreamt of being other people living elsewhere and leading other kinds of lives…. I was intensely curious about the secret lives of these seemingly ordinary people. It was this dichotomy of existence in this city- a city of extreme contrasts and stifling speed- that gave rise to the stories of Vinegar Sunday.

‘Cappuccino Dusk’, a full length novel, came next. This work of fiction also wound intricately around the members of a Bombay family (a widow and her four children) and their friends. Their lives, sometimes interwoven and sometimes isolated, were the trajectories that the novel pursued. I unabashedly unleashed my love for goofy humour while writing this novel and had an absolute blast while doing so.

My third and recently published work, ‘Lamplight: Paranormal Stories from the Hinterlands’, is a collection of contemplative ghost stories which tries to walk the fine line between the real and the imagined. My grandfather, the late Bengali writer Saradindu Bandopadhyay, was in the habit of narrating supposedly true ghost stories to his young grandchildren and a couple of them stuck on in my mind. I had been advised three months of bed rest while recouping from a bone surgery and with nothing to do but twiddle my thumbs, I decided to put these on paper. Next thing I knew, my imagination had taken wing and I had a complete collection of occult tales on my hands. Lamplight has to be my most unplanned and accidental work of writing!

My most ambitious novel, ‘Spice Corridors’, is presently with a literary agent awaiting a publisher. It follows the travels of a (spinster) food writer across the entire length and breadth of the country. As she goes around trying to track down traditional recipes, the food writer is caught in the snarl of convoluted lives of the people she visits and resides with, for research purposes. She becomes an author of repute over time but never quite forgets the little boy whom she had taught and looked after in her early job as nanny. Years later, on a day of communal riots, the lives of the food writer and the young boy are destined to cross again, in Bombay, and in a cataclysmic manner.

I’m also working on a collection of poems tentatively titled, ‘I, Alien: Bombay Poems.’ As you can see, an obsession for the city of my residence plays itself out in every work of writing.

NAW- Tell us about your journey as a writer. Did you have your fair share of struggle or was it easy to get published?

I had a fairly hard time trying to find a publisher for my debut book, ‘Vinegar Sunday’. I was an unknown name at that time and most publishing houses did not want to take on short stories. Publishers, very kindly, offered to go through any novel I may have even partially written but short stories were all I possessed. It was very disheartening.

Ironically, when an enthusiastic acceptance from one of the smaller publishing houses came along, I was on the high seas sailing with my marine engineer husband and missed the mail altogether. On returning back to land months later, one of the first phone calls I got was from an irate commissioning editor who demanded to know what my long silence meant and whether I was interested in being published or not! What a wonderful muddle that was and how I enjoyed sorting it out. ‘Cappuccino Dusk’ got the nod pretty fast from a leading publishing house and mid way through the editing process, the novel was declared long listed for the 2007 Man Asian Literary prize.  All of which worked out very happily for the prospects of the book! ‘Lamplight’, likewise, was taken on by the same commissioning editor as ‘Cappuccino Dusk’ but edited by a different team of editors, the previous editor having migrated to the television medium by then. It was with ‘Spice Corridors’ and ‘The Messiah’ that I ran into a rough patch, being forced to pull out my novels from a publishing house due to the sudden collapse of their editorial department. For the first time in my writing career, I’ve tied up with a literary agent and decided to leave matters concerning the two manuscripts in her capable hands. The entire process of having three books published and two aborted mid way (hopefully to be reborn again) has been a huge learning experience and I now look at the world of publishing with an entirely new gaze.

NAW- What do you like writing most, short fiction or novels and why?

There is a delicious sort of challenge in writing short stories. To etch characters, carve in an interesting plot, throw in a couple of punches and, if possible, tweak a twist to the tail end of the story, all within the constraints of limited pages, is a wonderful exercise for any writer. Having said that, I also love the meandering pace of a full length novel, a limitless canvas where one is free to weave an intricate tapestry, add minute details to characters, locales and situations, create multiple detours and loop the literary loop, so to speak, as one desires without being bogged down by word count restraints. Both forms work well for me, but I confess that I am fractionally partial towards the short story form. It’s a crisper medium, a more forceful one because of its brevity, and invariably gets the adrenaline flowing.  Besides, we live in fast paced times with leisure hours shrinking continuously. Sustaining interest and maintaining a level of cerebral continuity are problems frequently faced by those reading tomes. I find more and more of my busy book-loving friends opting to read short story collections and I’m happy to see that after a lull, short fiction is once again gaining popularity with writers, readers and publishers.

NAW- Writers today are judged by the amount of money they make and not on the basis of the quality of work they produce. Do you feel serious fiction is losing the battle in this age of quick read books?

Most definitely! A traditional Indian theory states that we are presently living in the age of Kalyug, the last bit of a cosmic cycle characterized by the thriving of vices, and the death of virtue. I fear that the same holds true for literature. We are living in an age where an author is as good as his marketing. There are vast quantities of mediocre writing floating around jubilantly, buoyed by air bags of smart marketing and aggressive promotions. There is a marked lack of originality evident in the bulk of writing being churned out and quick-fix books reign supreme. Books revolving around young love, campus capers, Bollywood and Bridget Jones style diaries are being churned out with depressing regularity and mythology is being recycled so often and in so many ways that very  soon it might divorce entirely from its source- the ancient texts. The characters of these mass produced books, likewise, are invariably created in a hurry and come across as two dimensional and plastic, the stories run the risk of lacking in any kind of depth or internality. Add to that rigged best seller lists in the newspapers and magazines, exaggerated back cover blurbs and you have a widespread conspiracy being waged to downgrade the intellectual requirements of the average reader. While magnum quantities of fluff fiction may translate into quick profits for the publishers, it can only spell death for quality and merit.

As someone who reviews books regularly for the newspapers, I have the privilege of frequently reading splendid works of fiction by lesser known authors, a lot of it regional language fiction translated into English by a competent lot of translators. Sadly, these rarely come into the limelight, they merely fade away quietly. Good writers rarely have the time or the inclination for blatant promotion of their works, I’m convinced, they’d rather expend their energies on writing their next novel!

NAW- When you are reading, do you prefer ebooks or printed paper books?

I am a tactile person who loves the feel of paper under my fingers and I also get an olfactory high from the smell a new book emanates. From time to time, I secretly gaze at my enormous collection of unread books and blissfully wallow in the belief that one day, I’ll read them all! Another of my favourite activities is delving into the riches of pavement book collections. It’s amazing what gems one might unearth in these modest places, some of them merely bits of road-side wall used for book  display. The ebook phenomenon passed me by completely, though my two grown up sons are always trying to persuade me to make the switch…. When I’m travelling long distances, however, or stuck for hours in transit lounges, I find ebooks very handy.

NAW- Name your favourite writers. Are there any you’d like to name as influences?

I grew up reading a lot of Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Graham Greene and J.D Salinger, besides the usual classics. Currently, my list of favourite writers include Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Amitav Ghosh, P.G Wodehouse and of course, my late grandfather Saradindu Bandopadhyay . When it comes to old fashioned murder mysteries, I turn to Agatha Christie, Ngaio March, Ruth Rendell and Mary Stewart. I love the esoteric mindscape of Haruki Murakami and for modern day thrillers, it is invariably Jo Nesbo.

As a child, I was mesmerized by the magical man-nature connection portrayed in John Steinbeck’s ‘To A God Unknown’, and was inspired to attempt a similar track in my novel , ‘Cappuccino Dusk’. I can read Atwood at any time of the day (or night!) and have found the crystal fluidity of her prose very effective in clearing a blocked mind. But chiefly, I like to draw literary inspiration from real life people and situations.

NAW- How do you write, in fits and starts or in one go? Take us through your writing process.

I am a morning person, it is the time when my mind is clear and at its most productive. By noon, there is a deafening clamour of thoughts inside my head and I can only polish my lines, creativity eludes me. Crucial thoughts have a habit of hitting me at the most inopportune of moments but no matter where I am, I note them down instantly. The creative bits happen in a haphazard manner but the final manuscript, with the weft, warp and all the embroidery so to speak, is done in silence and solitude, and in a methodical manner.  My windows overlook an endless expanse of green- a lucky thing considering I live in a bustling city- and the branches of a Laburnum tree nearly gatecrash into my window. I like to watch nesting crows, inquisitive squirrels and chirpy hummingbirds as I write- these little joys subtly enrich the writing process. I need quantities of tea when I’m writing and sometimes, while checking the final draft, soft music. Though I’m averagely tech-savvy, my first draft for a book is always written in longhand. I share a very touchy-feely camaraderie with ball-point pens and my outsized note- books.

I lead a fairly hectic social life trying to juggle four to five mutually exclusive groups of girl pals. I have two grown up sons and a husband, all three of whom are adventure junkies and drag me to every one of their escapades. Trying to balance a busy life with quiet hours of introspection and creativity is my biggest challenge. I pine for silence and solitude and yet, ironically, it is life’s busy moments that throw up the richest literary fodder.

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