Catching up with Richard Crasta


crastaAmong the bunch of famous Indian novelists and writers, Richard Crasta‘s name might not be as widely recognized as that of a Seth or a Rushdie, but few would come close to him in being funny, witty, satirical and daring–all at the same time. If you don’t believe me, I can get American legendary novelist Kurt Vonnegut to  vouch for him who found his first novel, The Revised Kama Sutra, “very funny”.  After Khushwant Singh (who is 90 plus old but still active as a below the belt heavy hitter), if any Indian writer has pushed the boundaries of satirical writing, with dollops of sexual humour (and satirical writing on a lot of other serious stuff) in his own distinctive style, it’s Richard. But, in fairness, his writing is more than that, and multifaceted, covering areas as wide as, in his own words, “autobiography, humor, satire, political critique, sexual critique, and literary criticism.”

In the early 1990s, when a new breed of Indian writers in English were taking birth (most of them midwifed by Penguin Books, India, under the watch of David Davidar), bursting forth with all kinds of coming of age or cultural or exoticised tales from Indian life, Richard Crasta chose to take a daring look at Indian sexuality. One of the funniest and most talked about novels to come out of India, he subtitled The Revised Kama Sutra, as a “Novel of Colonialism and Desire with Arbitrary Footnotes and a Whimsical Glossary”. It was one of the most talked about books when it came out, and was loved as much, if not more, as Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. By the way, both the novelists are from Indian Civil Services, the only difference is that Crasta is now an ex (civil servant).

Richard’s writing is uniquely hilarious, and believe me you, this is not a hyperbole. But in terms of recognition, the man was just a blip in India’s literary firmament. For years, he has been out of the Indian mainstream media’s radar. What went wrong? Plenty, we are told. He was embroiled in controversies. Mainstream publishers shunned him. He became a writer without a platform.

But Crasta did not feel crestfallen. He was in the USA, doing his own stuff–writing more books and publishing them from a publishing house that he owns. And ever since, he has kept at it. After writing 6 full-bloodied books, his latest book is The Killing of an Author, of which veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar says that this is a must read.

In this exclusive freewheeling interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Crasta not only talks about his new book but also looks back at his past, his beginning as a writer, his tribulations and his future plans.  For the readers in South East Asia, the good news is that one of his in-the-works novels is based in Thailand and Indonesia, and is, in his words, “almost as funny and sexually daring as The Revised Kama Sutra.”

True to his name, Richard in this interview is bitingly honest, lucid but insightful, funny and provocative. Here is the transcript of the interview. Have fun!

When your first novel The Revised Kamasutra appeared in India , it made quite a splash. Is it fair to say that the books that followed your debut novel did not get that much attention in the country of your birth? Was there any particular reason for this kind of reception?

I feel gratified that the huge response to my novel came from common readers and middle-class reviewers. It was not engineered from the top, or from London or New York; Indians found themselves loving the book, though they were shocked and sometimes embarrassed by the title or the contents, and its reputation spread by word of mouth. With many later writers, the hype started with a megabucks Western advance. Hype has a way of becoming self-fulfilling, and one can never be sure how those books would have performed had the huge advances and media coverage not preceded the reading of the books themselves.

To be fair, I spent eight years on The Revised Kama Sutra and an average of 18 months for the subsequent books, so the former is naturally richer, denser, and more multi-faceted. Having noted this, there was still, for other reasons, a difference between the reception for the first book and subsequent books: Because The Revised Kama Sutra is fiction, and some people—including my Penguin India editor—thought the book would become a worldwide sensation, and make plenty of money, they could wink at its anti-Establishment tone, which did not directly target either my publisher or his Indian friends. Also, the humor was a cloak, which allowed you to treat the book as a joke. This changed with the second and third books, Beauty Queens and Impressing the Whites; the latter is a no-holds barred satire on the culture of sycophancy and subservience and of giving white people and Western honors far greater legitimacy and respect than equivalent Indian ones. Once my second and third books hit home, my fourth, fifth, and sixth books, especially What We All Need and The Killing of an Author, simply didn’t have a chance.

Your novel, The Revised Kamasutra, came in the early 1990s, several years before Arundhati Roy went on to win the Booker prize. In that sense, you and your contemporaries were sort of pioneers of Indian writing in English. Do you agree? If you do, do you think you got the due recognition in India ?

Thank you for saying that. It was a book that came from the heart, a book I had to write at all costs, using all the freedom that the most radical Western writers had availed themselves of.  If I hadn’t thought that what I was doing was important—to express my soul, and the soul of my people, with no censorship or fear whatsoever—I would never have sacrificed all that I did. The immensity of that sacrifice is narrated in The Killing of an Author. My disappointment with the Indian publishing establishment  is that once the money started pouring in, which happened partly with Suitable Boy, and then with The God of Small Things, people became greedy and had dollar signs in their eyes, and honesty and a sense of balance and fairness were thrown out the window. The worship of honors and big money meant that quality came to be equated with big Western royalty advances. A Delhi “friend” of mine, whose hobby was crashing book launches and enjoying the free cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, got a bit drunk one day and then said to me, “True, I haven’t read any of your books. But if your books are so good, how come they aren’t bestsellers? How come all those other writers get big advances and big parties and you don’t?” It had become as shallow as that. Also, once I had criticized the system, the very system of impressing the whites and then worshipping the literary gods and goddesses they had set up for us, it became a matter of loyalty: none dared praise me, lest it be construed as disloyalty to the reigning gods and goddesses. Literary criticism had increasingly become sycophantic and dishonest. A rare exception: the fearless and independent Khushwant Singh, who has continued to praise me, and in effect described The Revised Kama Sutra as a landmark,  while most others have in effect “banned” me.

I must also admit my own fault, though, in spending too much time responding to criticism or in promoting my book. I now wish I had shrugged off the whole affair, shut my ears, and concentrated on writing new books.

Let’s go back a little. You were once a civil servant—a profession highly respected in India . You left your job to write full time. Was it necessary?

To be a tool of the Establishment while writing one of the most anti-Establishment, unconventional, and freewheeling books ever written by an Indian—it would have felt false, like the Pope writing a book disproving the existence of God even while preaching God to the public. I have no talent for leading a double life; I have to live the way I write.

What made you leave India ?

To study literature and start my writing career in the U.S. I didn’t think of it as “leaving India”, because I take India with me wherever I go—it doesn’t matter what my passport says, some people spot me as an Indian or an Ah-lab from a mile away. I feel I am a world citizen, not bound by national borders–passports being merely an unfortunate necessity, like credit cards or library cards.

After your first novel, you sort of changed track and published several volumes of essays. Were you bored with novel writing?

I wouldn’t say they are all essays. Beauty Queens, Children and the Death of Sex is a mixture of autobiography, humor, satire, political critique, sexual critique, and literary criticism. Impressing the Whites is a monograph: a book on one subject, the East and the West, and how we play games with each other, and dilute and betray our authenticity. What We All Need combines fiction with nonfiction. The Killing of an Author is a combination of literary memoir and critique, and it has a single theme.

But there is something else. The moment I started criticizing the System, which happened in my interviews in 1994, six months after the launch of my first novel, the Establishment pulled the plug on me, and my distribution was restricted. So I was writing shorter nonfiction books partly as a means of survival, and of fighting back. Novels take longer, one needs to set aside at least two years in which one has no other obligations. At least that is the way it works for me. I have not enjoyed such a luxury since 1995, though I am working on three novels. Without the security, one tries to sell essays to magazines. This short-term thinking conflicts with the long-term focus that novel-writing demands.

Honestly, I really would like to finish the three novels I am working on.

Did you have to face criticism from religious bodies because of your writings? Why did you have to publish under pseudonyms?

The New Leader, the premier Indian Catholic newspaper, warned its readers not to read my book. And people who hadn’t read the book used its rumored anti-Catholicism as an excuse not to read it. But many others were gracious and read it and appreciated its complexity. The way the novel is framed, with a mellower older narrator who doesn’t take the younger narrator-hero all that seriously, none of the objections can strictly be leveled against the book itself; they pertain to the limited viewpoint of a younger, greener character in the process of growing up, making mistakes, and learning.

The pseudonym was briefly used in the U.S. and it was used to evade the racially profiling radars of the cops of Western publishing, according to whom you couldn’t be an Indian if you had a “Christian” name; it simply wasn’t exotic enough. The pseudonym worked mildly in that the book received a good review from Publishers Weekly; but I wasn’t comfortable with it and dropped it immediately.

Your latest book is called The Killing of an Author? Is it a collection of essays? What is it about?

If contemporary Indian writing is “The Empire Strikes Back” (or the “The Empire Strokes Back and Front” in some cases), this book is “The Revolt of the Literary Slaves.” I call it an autobiographical literary thriller. It reads like a novel, a thriller, but it’s a true story, with not much sex, but real characters, including a few big names like John Irving and Jackie Kennedy, and also my personal story (the Appendix is a must-read).

It is about my struggle for Indians and Third World peoples’ freedom not to be cultural or literary slaves of Western publishers or publics. The freedom—and even the responsibility—to express ourselves, our real inner selves, and not to be punished for it, whether by Western editorial masters or their Eastern henchmen; it attacks literary apartheid and racial profiling in literature.

I hope it is widely read and discussed, but it is quite a challenge to get it distributed.

Why did you turn publisher with Invisible Man press?

I was unwilling to be censored; this had happened with my second book, which had appeared in print with sections deleted without my permission. If I wrote for a regular publisher, I would have censored myself in the very act of writing. Any fair person will admit that the result, especially in my books Impressing the Whites and The Killing of an Author, is writing that would be impossible to find in the popular press. Three readers from Punjab who read Impressing the Whites traced me and said, “We didn’t know it was allowed to write this way. We didn’t know anybody could write this way and get away with it.”

I do believe the Invisible Man Press is a terrific idea, if well-financed and managed. None of the big publishers dared take a chance on James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, or Henry Miller when they came out with their controversial novels, which are now considered to be literary classics; they thought them smutty! To publish invisible men and women, and to publish books that no one else would dare, to be the Voice of the Literary Opposition, India and every country needs small publishers like that. Any time a publisher becomes too big, it begins to have its own vested interests, it gets into an empire building mentality. But, though this enterprise took six full years of my time, I couldn’t get financing, and couldn’t do more than publish my first invisible man, my father, who was an Indian soldier in the British Army, posted in Singapore and Malaya, and became a Japanese prisoner of war. His story,  Eaten by the Japanese, took me nearly two years to edit and publish, and I consider it a duty as well as a labor of love to my father, but also as a worthwhile project in itself in honor of thousands of Indian soldiers who were never recognized for their valour and suffering in the Second World War. Also, as I say, I published three other books that could never have been published; it is unfortunate that one of these, What We All Need, which was a bestseller in one store (120 copies sold, equaling 12000 copies in the whole of India, which would be a bestseller), was denied distribution, and that Impressing the Whites, which was an Outlook India bestseller for a short while, was quickly returned by the stores when its contents sank in.

How do you distribute your books in India and in South East Asia? How can readers in Singapore and Malaysia buy your books?

At the moment, there is no distribution. Booksellers and distributors are welcome to email me at rc@richardcrasta.com. The book can be ordered online through http://www.richardcrasta.com. Also, an e-book version of The Killing of an Author can be ordered from http://www.lulu.com by typing my name in the search column. I am considering publishing more e-books to get around problems of distribution and overheads.

What are you working on next? Should we expect another novel from you?

I am working on three novels and three nonfiction books. One novel is based in Thailand and Indonesia, and is, I think, almost as funny and sexually daring as The Revised Kama Sutra. One is a nonfiction book giving my experiences of massage in many different countries and cultures. I hope with all my heart that I can give these six books, and many more to the world. But I am financially strapped; I need support, either in the form of a grant, or a book advance, or larger orders from would-be book buyers. I am hoping to find someone who cares for literature and for my writing to come forward, and don’t think this is too much to ask in the 21st century, when publishers throw hundreds of thousands of dollars on airheaded celebrity books and on parties, and a few crore rupees can be spent on a single birthday or wedding party in Delhi.