By Neha Mehrotra
Head of the English department at Ashoka University, Saikat Majumdar is an academic, novelist and critic. He is the author of Silverfish (HarperCollins, 2007), Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (Columbia University Press and Orient Blackswan, 2013 and 2015), The Firebird (Hachette 2015 and 2017). The Scent of God (Simon and Schuster) is forthcoming in 2019.
The Firebird was one of Telegraph’s Best Books of 2015 and a finalist for the Atta-Galatta/Bangalore Literature Festival Fiction Prize in 2015 and the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Market in 2016. His 2013 book on global modernisms was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association Annual Book Prize in 2014.
In addition to being published by major journals such as PMLA, NLH: New Literary History, Cambridge History of the Indian Novel in English, Modern Fiction Studies, and Literary Activism: A Collection of Perspectives, Saikat’s writing also features regularly in mainstream publications such as The Hindu, Outlook, Times Higher Education, Hindustan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Indian Express, Caravan, Scroll, Telegraph, and Times of India.
How do you identify as a writer?
Primarily as a novelist. That’s the core to which I keep returning. I do other kinds of writing too, but I realize I do them all on a novelist’s terms. So my literary criticism is criticism by a novelist, and my nonfiction and newspaper essays are often novelistic in spirit and style. Not to say they are ‘fictional’ – hopefully I speak the truth when I mean to – it’s rather about the assumption of a voice of my own and a kind of an eye through which I see the world and think about it. Even when it’s the real world and not a fictionally crafted one. But since I actually do different kinds of writing, I like the term ‘writer’ and the looseness it evokes, and the way it avoids attaching itself to any particular genre or book. I’m not a fan of the word ‘author’ unless it’s used in connection to a particular work – it carries too much authority.
What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?
A ghost grabs me and makes me. Seriously, I don’t choose any of the themes or stories of my books – they always choose me and when I realize I have no choice whatsoever but to write, I know I have a real book there. Usually it’s a ghost from my past. A bit different with newspaper articles, or contributions to edited volumes or collections and there is more conscious choice there. But the books, the most important things, especially the novels, I can only write when I feel that absolute compulsion, and at one level I can never make out where they come from.
Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.
This morning I put the finishing touches to an essay on Calcutta that is part of an anthology of writing by novelists on the cities they’ve written about, Writing in the City, edited by Stuti Khanna, with contributions from Siddharth Chowdhury, Manu Joseph, Amitava Kumar, Indra Sinha, Amit Chaudhuri, Rupa Bajwa, Anjum Hasan, Manju Kapur and several others. Much looking forward to seeing this in print and how everybody has approached the subject.
What changes did you notice in yourself as a writer after you got published the first time?
I was first published by the poet and publisher P. Lal, who brought out a collection of my short stories from his small publishing house, Writers’ Workshop, when I was a first-year student in college. It was reviewed and discussed at a few places and it just felt there was no going back after that, that I had to be a writer. I regret that a little bit. I am very happy that I got published early and all that – but I wish things didn’t quite unfold like a script after that, that I didn’t feel quite cast on a predetermined path. It was all my own choice of course; no one forced me to do anything. But now I feel a little bit of meandering, a little getting lost here and there is good for a writer. Some great writers have come into writing accidentally, and I admire that.
What is your latest book about? What challenges did you face in writing it?
My latest book, The Scent of God, is a love story between two teenage boys in a monastic boarding school. It deals with the simultaneous arrival of sexual and spiritual awakening in the teens, and the way monastic life makes space for both. The hardest thing was to attain this fusion of sexuality and spirituality. I’ve known worlds where they exist together, especially when you’re of a certain age, so I knew this was real, but still it was hard to capture in writing. It’s due out in early 2019, so you can tell me if this has worked.
Do you think of writing as a spiritual, meditative exercise or is it more conscious, craft driven for you?
The first bit, pretty raw and wild, and often a kind of a clay-modelling of memory – whether last hour’s or something 20 years back. Once motion sets in things take a life of their own. But that doesn’t necessarily mean good writing. After the first draft is over comes the more detached concerns of craft. Most important at that stage is not reading it as my own work, but as a work I’m reading, and whether I’m enjoying it or not, and what I should do it make it work better.
How important are names of characters and titles of books or stories for you?
Terribly important. With Indian characters, I can’t help make the names meaningful, and they must also sound nice to those who don’t get the meaning. Book-titles are hugely important too, and similarly, I like titles that are musical in their own right but also resonate through the book. “The Scent of God” indeed came to me as a God-gifted phrase, and I love the natural smoothness with which it arrived. I also like the sound of it.
What has been the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted?
Every work is a challenge – till they get their own life. Nothing is easy – even when it’s flowing well, because you’re kind of bleeding along with it.
What does success as a writer mean to you?
My words meaning something to others, and perhaps touching their lives in some way.
Which books do you like to read again and again, for pleasure or inspiration?
These days I don’t read books for inspiration – just for pleasure. Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, Zoë Wicomb, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, Virginia Woolf’s essays.
What is your writing regimen?
Ideally early in the morning, but really whenever I can get a block of time, though that’s been happening much less after the appearance of children in my life! Whenever I can get a bit of time and space to perch my laptop high up and get to pace the floor trying to shape sentences, pausing only to write them. I can only write standing, in between pacing the floor. Can’t think while sitting.
Tell us about two books / authors you loved and two you did not. (Feel free to add to the numbers.)
I’m a huge fan of Shashi Deshpande’s work. Also Sunetra Gupta, especially her novel A Sin of Colour, which is one of my favourites. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Last Song of Dusk is another favourite, as is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. There are many others. Where’s the time to talk about books I didn’t like?
Do you usually have an idea of the end when you start writing or do you find out along the way, perhaps even get surprised by how the story ends?
I know the larger contours – they don’t change. In between, countless smaller ripples do. In the end, the biggest surprise is always that the smaller ripples are more important than the larger contours.
What changes would you like to see in the publishing industry – either in your country or universally?
I’m not a publishing professional so I’ll leave that to those who are. One thing I like to suggest – and have been trying to bring about in ways I can – is to bring about greater collaboration between the university and mainstream trade publishing. There are many resources that one can offer to the other, including human ones that can build new collaborations. You are such a fine example of this yourself, Neha!
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
All the books for children and young adults that I want to read but haven’t got around to doing. And books in Bangla, lots and lots, classics and the new writing that I haven’t read yet.
Neha Mehrotra is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University majoring in English and journalism. She has previously interned with media outlets like Verve, Outlook, Tuck magazine, Indian Express and The Wire, and wants to now engage with literature.