Kitaab interview with C. P. Surendran: ‘Indian publishing needs a kick in its lazy fat ass’
by Zafar Anjum, Editor, Kitaab
C. P. Surendran is a well-known Indian poet, novelist and journalist who lives in Mumbai. As a journalist, he has worked with India’s top newspapers such as The Times of India, Times Sunday Review and Bombay Times, among others. He was resident editor of The Times of India in Pune for three years and senior editor with The Times of India in Delhi. Until recently, he was the chief editor of a daily, DNA. A selection of his poems was included in Gemini II (1994) and since then he has published several collections of poems: Posthumous Poems, Canaries on the Moon and Portraits of the Space We Occupy. His first two novels are An Iron Harvest and Lost and Found.
His most recent novel is Hadal, which has attracted a great deal of attention in India because of its unusual theme and the choice of narrator. It is ‘a tale of international espionage, loves lost and found, desire and power’ set in Kerala, Surendran’s home state. It’s based on a true story. At the centre of the plot is Miriam Zacharias, a young woman from the Maldives who has lost her family in the tsunami. When she appears in the novel, she has resigned as a minor security officer assigned to the president of the island nation. Just out of her marriage, she wants to pursue ‘her dream of writing a novel’.
‘She comes to Kerala, where she seeks out a former lover, Roy, who happens to be a senior scientist in the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). She also runs into a disgruntled policeman, bearing the unlikely name of Honey Kumar, who has been banished from Delhi for a routine misdemeanour involving a bribe. These three people find themselves embroiled in an increasingly sordid tale of love and lust and power and intrigue, driven largely by Honey Kumar’s overwrought mind and underserviced libido, which coagulates stickily into an international spy scandal. The time and place for these lives to converge in the most unfortunate way is the visit of the Maldivian president to his ancestral village in Kerala. And when you learn that the president has a double, you know that the plot of this novel is in fine shape…’ (From Hadal’s review in Mint).
Surendran has also written a film, Gour Hari Dastaan which releases in theatres on August 14. The film, directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, is a biopic depicting the real-life travails of Gour Hari Das, a freedom fighter who fought the government for 32 years to be recognised as such.
We recently interviewed Surendran over email and asked him about his new novel and his writing life:
When I heard of ‘Hadal’ I was intrigued by the title. What are you trying to show in this novel?
A process of the mind. How deceptive we are instinctively. A woman– Miriam in Hadal for instance– could be a notion. A crowdsourced product. An Indian genius is the telling of the story. The oral traditions in India are strong even now. The fact that the average Indian is a liar is part of that grand narrative. I hope I don’t sound judgmental, because that really is not the intention of the novel. When I say lie, I’m conscious that a lie is often a wish. When a man or a woman lies about her age, she merely wishes she was younger. In the case of Honey Kumar, the prurient, corrupt and imaginative protagonist of the novel, the ability to fabricate is natural. When he builds out of his head a whole alternative reality with the active help of other people to present Miriam as a spy, the crowdsourced nature of the process takes a life of its own, involves institutions and systems and turns Miriam’s universe upside down. She is caught in the currents and physical laws of another world. It may not be true, but is it any less real for all that? Hadal is about the social media nature as if it were of our reality.
The novel is based on some real-life events. Was that a help or a hindrance?
The ISRO/Rasheeda story was a classic instance of how a whole people bought into a myth. The media because a woman as a spy was involved; the politicians because they are always looking for distraction; the bureaucrats and the police because a story like this invariably helps further their careers. There is a whole economy in scandals. Real events as a launchpad help because you actually have the seed of a plot. It’s another thing – and a very inspirational thing at that—what you do with it. But I must underline that Hadal is not a docu-realistic effort; not an investigation into the truth of the scandal. I am quite aware that the odd critic will turn perversely literal minded if only to get a sense of superior purchase on the book and point out Mariam Rasheeda has been wrongly spelt as Miriam. Or that the actual story spun like a very different top. At least two reviews have already committed that mistake of literal reading. The art of reviewing is itself highly disregarded in this country which explains subs and beat reporters ending up in positions where they get to judge literary works though they can’t formulate themselves one inspirational sentence in their whole career.
Hadal’s focus is on how we bring into being a phantom world whose crowdsourced nature allows us to indulge in our phantasies. How that rather imaginary exercise takes over reality and hurts actual, innocent people. I am not interested in arbitrating in my fictional world justice to the victims either. I am interested in understanding a world that can easily do without it though. I believe that the imagination is an extension of reality. No matter what the level of your genius, it is just about impossible to conceive of an image of anything in your mind that doesn’t resemble a prototype that exists physically.
You are a well-known poet. How do you juggle between poetry and prose? How do you determine which form to adopt for a certain kind of creative expression?
Poetry to me is not a rhyme scheme or a Wordsworthian rushing out of powerful feelings. It is rather a ceremonial state of mind when the ordinary word assumes the fullness or satisfaction of theatre in terms of sound and image and steps out of the green room of the moment. Its logic is associative and cursive. And in my case it’s a journey inward. For the resolution of its movement it can tap into the ear and eye of the language. Prose on the other hand moves outward. No matter how abstract, it tends to have a certain linearity of logic of things as they are. By that I mean quotidian objects and our daily lives are source material for fiction. The challenge is how to invest in these ordinary events a quality of the epic. For example, the act of shopping: the enterprise of the outing, the loaded trip from home to mall, the screaming children, the fight between parents, the near accidents, the act of choosing brands, the anxiety and catharsis associated with splurging are all I see as great material for fiction. A poem – at least the kind of poems I write—directly refers one’s spiritual need to refer to one’s sense of loss or inadequacy in terms of one’s experience of the moment. Prose is a more jovial, robust, very physical bird. Which medium to choose for what is influenced by one’s social circumstances and, to a great extent, one’s foolhardiness. Even bravado?
Being a full-time journalist, how important is literary writing to you? How do you strike a balance between your job and your passion?
Both are fiction at one level, aren’t they? Any good report reads like a story, fields its characters, unravels a thickening plot. At one time in my life when I used to handle columns in the Times of India on a weekly basis, it was important to me that I used that space almost as a substitute for poetry or fiction. Partly because of one’s delusional need to react to the life around you, partly because one thought one could stay immortal once every seven days if one kept the paper’s deadline. I no longer have any such dependencies on journalism, though I believe the news is a great source material for fiction. As for balance between journalism and writing, it’s a bit fraught. Writing is an act with a gravitational pull all of its own and it tends to suck you into a different world where normal things like brushing one’s teeth could be seen as alien. At worst it can render personal relationships distant and meaningless. The result of holding the trades together tends to make you look like a bit of an oddball.
What do you think of the state of Indian writing in English? I hear that most publishers don’t want to touch literary fiction. Is that true?
Indian publishing is going through a political phase. Most publishing houses are dominated by women, and that is almost as bad as men dominating other walks of life. As a result, my reading is that edit decisions tend to be take on themes of correctness. Honey Kumar in Hadal is an incorrect, corrupt male voice. Miriam is seemingly a victim. These narrative positions have been adopted because Hadal’s fictional word resonates India’s seamier and– what I take to be – its truer side. For that reason I had a tough time to get this book published. The other abiding problem of Indian publishing is that the market is still immature. The publishing houses naturally are either resistant or quite incapable of recognising a new voice. All over the world, editors and agents put up a great show of being on the lookout for the great new voice. The fact is that they are not having a good time recognising one. That is what happens when you play it safe. Everybody is in it for the business. Which is the reason why a substantial number of published books are of the same type and tenor. In India, a wannabe country with a vengeance, the situation is more complicated by the neo-literates of political correctness. The danger is that the offensive nature of the logo-centric creativity may be hijacked. The wannabe culture is responsible for the derivative values that define the arts here. So, if literary fiction is going out of fashion in the West, the trend is on display here too. If romedy is the fashion out there, you can bet that that will be the flavour here as well. The little literary fiction from India consumed internationally tends to feature the migrant-theme, or just India as exotica. And of course that there is no money in publishing here does not help. All in all, Indian publishing needs a kick in its lazy fat ass.