Writing Matters: In conversation with Sudeep Chakravarti
Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.
Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?
Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.
I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.
Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.
There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.
Another beautiful image showed an artist painting a goddess’s face in Kumartuli, where major statuary for various pujas is still made. We felt that could alienate readers in Bangladesh, which has by far the largest number of Bengalis in the world; besides Muslim-Bengalis even in West Bengal, let alone Bengalis of every persuasion across India and the world.
The image of the boy playing football overcame all that.
Shikhandin: How did writing this book impact you emotionally? Could you share some anecdotes? (I am assuming you were affected – there is personal history here)
Sudeep: It made me confront my own personal history. Displacement and dislocation are difficult to explain to those, millennial or not, who have not experienced it. It is even trickier when it comes to the example I offer in The Bengalis in the case of my grandfather, who was not part of a mass migration, but was selected for victimization much after Partition. Either way, the point must be to move on. I can feel the hurt my grandfather and father felt, but I cannot bear hatred for decades on that account. Those who victimized them are mostly dead. Their children are trying to lead productive lives, as are we. That was the central thought when I visited Kushtia, the old family home. When I visited the mazar of Lalon Fokir, the great Baul my grandfather respected to the extent of looking after his shrine, it underscored for me the pointlessness of carry-forward hatred, of carry-forward hurt.
Shikhandin: Did you face hurdles in your research, which often entailed journeying into the heartlands of some turbulent places?
Sudeep: Journeying into the heartlands of turbulent places, as you colourfully and correctly put it, is not alien to me. It’s what I have done in a media career of several decades, as both novice and old hand, as reporter and editor. Perhaps I have brought that sensibility into my research for both narrative non-fiction and fiction these past twelve years or so that I’ve published books — and, naturally, even essays and reportage I continue to occasionally undertake for magazines and think-tanks. Hurdles are ever-present. People are sometimes reluctant to talk for reasons that could range from insecurity of their situation to fear of exposure. That is true of the so-called common man or woman as well as the powerful and wealthy. But generally I’ve had more politicians, businesspersons and police place hurdles in my way than, say, a person who can’t get a proper meal a day. It’s an occupational hazard for a writer, and I thrive with it.
Shikhandin: There must have been lighter moments too behind the scenes. Could you share some of that?
Sudeep: Identifying and chronicling the numerous idiosyncrasies of Bengalis. Nothing quite beats that for sheer joy — as much as the wonderful truth that Bengalis can actually laugh at themselves!
Shikhandin: What were your immediate families’ reactions when they learnt about your project?
Sudeep: They were all greatly interested, and I dare say a few were apprehensive! While some were openly concerned that they may feature in name and characterization in a not very complimentary manner, others very close to me were concerned that the Bengalis may take unkindly to a book that discussed the community in a no-holds-barred passion play, if you will. When the book came out though, increasingly gathering good word of mouth and reviews, the feeling changed to relief and joy.
Shikhandin: Now that the book is out, have you encountered any reader reaction from Bengalis and/or not-Bengalis? Bouquets, brickbats, opinions – being opinionated is a highly Indian trait, I think, and not just limited to Banglasphere.
Sudeep: Indeed, but Bengalis do take a special pride in being opinionated and argumentative. I am delighted to say that reader reactions, from both Bengalis and those I call not-Bengalis have been very, very positive and encouraging. I’ve had strangers walk up and compliment me for writing the book. I continue to receive emails, and messages on Facebook and Whatsapp from both Bengalis and not-Bengalis — and these go beyond folks who are friends and acquaintances — who thank me for having written the book in the way I did. I’ve been to Bangladesh twice and to Kolkata thrice since the book was published, and I’m still alive! The book is already in reprint.
Even reviewers have mostly been very kind; those that have cribbed about one aspect or another have said nice things overall. One reviewer from Chandigarh was driven to describe the first three chapters as ‘prolix’ (my editors, on the other hand, and many other reviewers, thought it the best aspect of the book!) and then went on to describe the remaining chapters as worthy of Hemingway! Madness, but I’m not complaining, just soaking it all up, loving it, learning from it, and moving on.
Perhaps the generally laudatory tone arrives on account of the manner the book is approached. It contains more than two decades worth of research, if I look back at several instances of travel and reportage in what I call Banglasphere from the early 1990s, in both India and Bangladesh (and even earlier if you consider some of my recollections from childhood). But the book contains a vast amount more: research into history, linguistics, culture, politics, besides my more recent travels and interviews. All of it was cranked up in the past three to four years. It took me a quite workaholic eight months to write the first draft, and a couple of months more to polish the second draft.
There is literature on certain aspects of Bengal, and some aspects of our history, politics and culture. There are also books on diverse aspects of West Bengal, Bangladesh, and Cachar and Assam — where many Bengalis live. But my book is perhaps the first that attempts to bring together several aspects of what I call ‘Banglasphere’ and Bengalis as a whole, and specifically address the Bengali.
I have written it so that anyone, a Bengali, part-Bengali, a NRI Bengali, a Bengali who does not know much about his or her own collective past, or a Bengali out of touch with Bengali roots can benefit from the book. And the readership extends most certainly to those not-Bengali, because such a person may have Bengali friends and associates, or may even be married to one — and may therefore be curious about knowing their collective history. Beyond this audience I hope the book will interest anyone interested in a good story! In fact several readers who are not-Bengali (I dislike using the word ‘non-Bengali’, as to me it is offensive) have written to me how much they have enjoyed reading The Bengalis, and many of them have actually gifted several copies to their Bengali friends, colleagues, and business associates!
Shikhandin: Thank you for that chapter on football. Do you play the game or are you a ‘knowledgeable’ non-player? Cricket?
Sudeep: Funny you should ask. I played cricket and football in school, besides actively participating in athletics and boxing, and after that merely followed football and cricket from time to time. I keep track, though not obsessively, and key events are certainly on my radar as they define people and attitudes. Personally though, I’m now driven more by martial arts. I learn and practice a form of karate at my dojo when I’m home in Goa, and try get in some workouts on the road. I also absolutely love diving, the feeling of being under water: it’s like being off-planet. Both these are for me great joys, and both bring peace and a certain balance.
Shikhandin: Your readers are curious to know the Bengali who wrote The Bengalis. Indulge us with a bit about yourself. And that includes your relationship with fish and mishti/sweets.
Sudeep: I disliked fish as I was growing up because it was an imposition. My parents soon learnt to not press me too much, and leave me with relatively tamer fish like rui, catla and bhetki. I would approach nervous breakdown when attempting ilish, or hilsa, though I loved the taste, especially ilish fried in mustard oil and then eating it all with steaming rice. You could attempt to purchase my soul with fried ilish roe, or daab-chingri, prawns cooked with tender coconut.You could also attempt to buy my soul with a good sample of mishti doyi and norom-pak shondesh, and jhola gur (especially palm treacle) eaten with fresh luchi.
But these are indulgences. I live for weeks, even months, without a taste of Bengali food simply because I travel so much, lived so much of my life away from Bengal, and on account of my associations with those not Bengali. A solitary gypsy takes his chances, and indulges when he can.
I love cooking. I live in a small Goan village. When I am home, cooking is as much a necessity as therapeutic activity. I cook a pretty good chhanar-dalna, though tofu stir-fried with sprouts, mushrooms and snow peas also brings much joy!
Shikhandin: Did you always know you would be a writer? Which authors were your early influences? Which authors do you enjoy reading currently?
Sudeep: I knew I loved to write. That’s what perhaps drew me to journalism. When I decided to leave tenured journalism to pursue independent research and writing, segueing to books seemed like a natural course. Writing is a significant part of my life, not merely a profession or process of income.
When I was a youngster, Saadat Hassan Manto turned my head, as did Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Mahashweta Devi, Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Angela Carter and Philip K. Dick. I was blown away by the scale and complexity of Ramayan and Mahabharat, which my grandmother read to me, even as I was concerned that, in these epics, men seemed to mess with women on an epic scale. Bhibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was a revelation. Badal Sircar was acid and revolutionary. Peter Shaffer was disturbing and mesmerizing at the same time. Sukumar Ray would make me laugh, so would Dr Seuss. There were so many writers, too numerous to mention.
I have grown to read and absorb genres: history, politics, biographies, crime, literary works, so-called literary works, poetry, plays, graphic novels, fiction for young adults —where much excellent work is done — travelogues, historical fiction, pulp fiction, anything, really that catches my attention. I am not drawn by big names, but by interesting ideas and arresting work.
Shikhandin: You have written about Naxalbari in the chapter “Agni Jug”. An earlier book of yours, Red Sun, was all about that movement. Can you tell us about your experience in writing it?
Sudeep: Red Sun was really about the present-day Maoist rebellion in India and South Asia, but naturally, to provide a background and context for the present-day, I had to look quite deeply into the birth and evolution of what is called the Naxalbari movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because so much of the present day is rooted in the past: even though several of the reasons for rebellion have changed, the central reasons of repeated, institutionally overlooked loss of dignity, institutionally mandated attacks on identity, rampant corruption, lack of development and governance, and shabby delivery of the criminal justice system persist to this day. Else, why would a rebellion persist, in one form or another, for over fifty years? There must be something fundamentally wrong in the way we govern, because all that people who rebel are asking for are things enshrined in India’s Constitution, not to break from India.
I had to confront my own background, education and career while researching and writing Red Sun. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty. Yet it had to be done to present an unemotional though engaged account. It made me confront the liberal myths of India, the delusions of the middle classes—what I like to call Mall Stupor—the blithe existence of those in what I call Inland, places of entitlement and privilege, at the cost of ignoring and misunderstanding those in what I call Outland: out there, beyond the pale of easily digestible constructs, and blessedly out of sight. That is how trouble begins. That is why trouble persists. Red Sun made me really see my country, learn about it in ways I hadn’t earlier.
The pleasant surprise, though not an entirely unexpected one, was encountering learned opinion even from junior and senior policemen, even those tasked with combating Maoists, that they were not asking for what was not the due of citizens. Their methods may be violent, their professed ideology of aggressive communism might be seriously outdated and to an extent flawed, but there was no sin in demanding good governance and becoming angry and upset at not receiving it for days, weeks, months, years, and decades on end. A senior police official in Maharashtra told me (and I liberally quote him in Red Sun) that he would kill Maoists because he had to, and disliked their greatly authoritarian ways, but he admired the core of what they stood for.
The other revelation for me was how much people were willing to open up, open their hearts and minds to me even at great risk to their lives and livelihoods, to get the story of the rebellion, the truths and lies around the rebellion, and how it affects the players of the rebellion—from farmers to fat-cats—to the classrooms, living rooms, boardrooms and battle rooms of India, to share stories in the hope of better understanding, in the hope of a solution. I saw their raw courage and steadfast conviction, and then I was not for a moment afraid for my own life.
Shikhandin: What are you working on now? Would you like to give us a peak into your current book? Tell us a bit about it?
SC: My third novel, The Baptism of Tony Calangute will be published over April-May 2018. It’s a darkly satirical work set in the self-proclaimed paradise of Goa, my home of fourteen years. I am also writing a book set in medieval Bengal, to be followed by a biography, a work of translation, and a book of non-fiction set in North-east India, for me a favourite region and subject. I’ve been writing some poetry too, and scribbling a play. I hope it will be a busy few years.