I was visiting my parents in Bombay after some years, and a friend had dropped in. When I walked her to the gate, Herbert was standing across the road. As he crossed over, he greeted me, “Utuma!”
But for that, I would not have known him, for the yellow-eyed, shabbily clad dark youth had little in common with the chubby, curly haired neighbourhood boy who had anglicised my name in our childhood.
“Seeing you after a long time!” Herbert exclaimed.
“Fifteen years at the least,” I replied.
“Where are you living now?” he wanted to know. I told him that I had moved to Delhi and asked him when he had got back from Kuwait.
“When Mummy died,” he said. “You know that we’ve sold the house?”
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.
Syntax is an endlessly entertaining, Tetris-like game that I never tire of playing, even when standing on the MRT. I love seeing how sentences come together with just a little nudge.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I don’t like superstition when it’s not confined to the quaint past or some jungle in Brazil, but on occasion I allow for its protection in this one instance: never discuss a work in progress.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Who are your favorite authors?
Flaubert retains the yellow jersey, Patrick White and Nabokov are vying for second, and the rest are in a tightly-packed peloton. I appreciate writers who take risks, and sometimes fail. The same pen was responsible for Madame Bovary and Salammbo; I find that both frightening and confidence-inspiring.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
I wrote a novel about a North Korean defector. Only in writing it did I realize how much of a swindle the whole idea was. I did endless research, travelling, interviews, but it was no good. No matter what the depth of the writer’s imaginative investment or the extent of his research, the readers – who just purchased the book for $25.99 – have too clear an idea of how much the writer profits from the enterprise. Straight journalism – of which there is plenty if you look for it – is infinitely better than this kind of socially-aware fiction about, let’s say, the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide or 9/11. And you can’t Flaubert your way out of it. The better the writing, the deeper is your moral dilemma – that’s Sebald’s lesson. But of course the whole issue of appropriation of voice is passé, don’t you know. Those who say you can’t write about this or that are closing down the discussion. (Which is, of course, the writer’s own way of closing down the discussion.) I will say that no one else can make the decision for you. You have to trust in your own moral compass.