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.

Saikat Majumdar
Saikat Majumdar

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.

Advertisements

Review by Rajat Chaudhuri 

majumdar-firebirdThe Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette, 2015, pp 233, INR 499

From the few visits to Circarina—the Calcutta playhouse with the revolving stage—that one made in the early flush of youth, the figure of an elderly dhoti-clad gentleman who would sit in the front row rises up from the depths of memory. He would always be holding a freshly-picked rose in his hand, which he would present to one of the performers immediately after a song and dance sequence. It was a heady experience watching those plays, the throbbing darkness inside the hall, the coloured spotlight beams lighting up the elaborate sets, the filmi music, the Bollywood style bump and grind and the crackling storylines. All of it came back in a rush while reading The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar’s novel set in the world of commercial theatre. A powerful story of subversion, decay and dissonance in a north Calcutta family with a young boy at its centre.

Ori. A complex and slightly unpredictable child whose mother Garima Basu is a stage actress, a profession that doesn’t find favour in their middle-class family. The young Ori, who studies in class five at the beginning of the book seeks refuge in the tales told by his grandmother—Mummum—or hangs out with his cousin Shruti and her college friends. Ori’s own father is an alcoholic and a sleeping pill-addict who is mostly at the margins of the plot.

majumdar-firebirdThe theatre stood in the neighborhood where Beadon Street cut through Central Avenue, a place where the dust of the city mixed with something…a breezy fragrance, something strange and sweet. It was a place he passed daily on his way to school, a place barely off the main street and close to his home, less than five minutes on the school bus if the traffic flowed easily. Marking the streets were aged tracks along which doddering trams clanged their way west, all the way to Howrah station and the river at the edge of the city. But that was not why the neighborhood felt strange.

Evening hung over the place, though it was not yet six. The darkness did not scare him. He was eager to get to the theatre around the corner. This was, he knew, the evening for the full rehearsal, with costumes and music and everything. His mother never took him along to full rehearsals. But he had wandered from the park where he played in the evening. With quiet determination, he had drifted through the snarl of the traffic. He knew these lanes a little – once, he had come here with his mother and her friends in a car which had left them right in front of the theatre. Today, as he walked on, he caught a whiff of flowers.

He looked around and realized what was different about these roadside stalls selling cigarettes and paan leaves. They all sold flowers. Stems of roses and thin garlands of white evening bloomers, jasmine, tuberoses – cold, moist, exquisitely formed blossoms that one saw in weddings as well as funerals. Music played from the tiny transistor radios hidden under the stacks of flowers and chewing tobacco, love songs from Hindi movies, many of them from many, many years ago, crackling on the airwaves in slow, nasal tones.