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The Rediff Interview/Tarun Tejpal

May 03, 2005

Bullshit mysticism and half-assed religion. In fiction, as in journalism, Tarun Tejpal isn't fond of mincing words.

Tejpal spoke to Lindsay Pereira about his book The Alchemy of Desire in a lively interview, the first part of which we published yesterday.

Part I: 'Safe books bore me'

Some of your more acerbic opinions -- even though it is your characters mouthing them -- are reserved for religion, journalism, and the politics of the rich. Has the anger you felt towards these separate entities diminished in any way over the years? And is the future of Indian journalism bleak?

I don't see my book as an angry book at all. I would prefer the word 'meditative'. The fact is even though good literature is not overtly political, it is bound to carry the politics of the writer, and also possess the undertow of the writer's beliefs. I suppose The Alchemy of Desire does that too. I feel absolutely no anger towards anyone -- perhaps some cynical amazement at how misdirected people's energies and lives can be.

The future of Indian journalism will be fine -- there are enough good people out there in the business who answer to the highest calling and are imbued of splendid belief systems.

Tehelka is about hope. The Alchemy of Desire has a more pessimistic tone. Would you agree?

Tehelka is certainly about hope, but I don't see The Alchemy of Desire as a pessimistic book. It is full of the joy and vitality of passion, love, desire, ambition, lived lives of the most ordinary -- in fact, my publisher in London [Images] has described it as a book that "burns with the fullness of life." Yes, there is perhaps a melancholy strain running through it. But then life is like that -- no matter how vibrantly we construct it, there is a coda of sadness always waiting for us.

What pleased me most about your novel -- apart from the quality of prose -- was that the strongest characters were female. Where does this attitude come from? The female figures in your life? Also, at the risk of sounding incredibly simplistic, do you think attitudes towards women are changing at all, especially in the North?

I am glad you saw that, as have many other readers. Yes, the book's strongest characters are female, and the book is decidedly very pro-female. Personally, I just think women are far, far more interesting than men. It has to do with their immense layering, an emotional 'nuancing' that is the creation of millennia of facing up to difficult odds. In comparison, men are almost two dimensional, emotionally and sexually lesser beings.

Yes, most of the important people in my life are female -- mother, sister, wife, daughters, colleagues, friends. Yes, they are changing -- no options: The future belongs to women, but they are changing at too slow a pace. The north, of course, could certainly do with a dramatic behaviour reorientation. Mostly very badly behaved, I have to say´┐Ż

Apparently, at the launch of your book in Kolkata, you said: "I don't care about Indian reviews." While I understand that you may have strong views on journalists who do not do their homework, what inspired that outburst?

I think between incompetence and malice, almost no decent reviewing takes place in India. Mostly it is the clever, collegiate 'quiz competition' kind of notices that pass off for book reviews. Media journeymen -- out of work journos, copy editors in publishing houses, peripheral academics, precious column writers -- these are the ones who are handed out books. Most of them lack the skill, the craft, the heart, the understanding of the tradition, to assess serious books. They lack the ability to inhabit the intent or ambition of a book. They praise bad books, damn good ones -- all without understanding or reason.

At best, some of the more enterprising ones trawl the Internet and acquire some jargon and some familiarity -- the quiz-master kind -- with arcane literary names. And worse, they mostly write for small backslapping coteries -- again the same kind of collegiate sensibility, strongly reflective of half-knowledge mostly acquired through a few books and having nothing to do with adult lived lives.

Unfortunately, literature is neither a college quiz nor a college canteen caucus of precious-clever girls and boys, giggling over their first planned fornication or their last smart quip. Faulkner and Kafka don't live there; nor do Naipaul and Marquez. They move amid lived lives -- its concerns are different from those of quiz books.

However the sweet thing -- and proof of their incompetence -- is the fact that this reviewing makes no difference to the life of a book. Reviewers in India can neither make nor break a book. In the final analysis, the reviewer here is merely another reader, but cursed with the burden of having to make a telling pronouncement. Into all this thrown envy and malice. A very sad potion is what you get.

Of course, it's not to say it's all bad, but mostly it is -- inconsequential. Writers should deal with reviews largely by ignoring them -- both the good and the bad. If a writer has done his work honestly he's already done the best he could -- there is no cause to fret about anything.

In a humorous way, I would agree with Truman Capote -- he said he was only interested in unadulterated praise once his book was published. But more seriously, there is always a great case for humility, because the only judge of the worth of a book are readers (who pay for them) and time (the only true arbiter). Books need not months but years before anything about them can be said conclusively. We should always be prepared to be proven completely wrong.

Journalism prepares you, in a sense, for gauging the pulse of a reader. That reader, however, is radically different from the one who picks up a novel, even more so when it aspires to the literary. Where do you expect the readers of The Alchemy of Desire to come from -- here or abroad?

Everywhere. Already the reader feedback is fairly overwhelming, both astonishing and moving, coming from a wide variety of sources, the well-known and the unknown. I hope the book speaks to people of different cultures and languages, and travels the world. It is deeply India specific but its emotional concerns -- the heart of all books -- I hope prove universal. No way of knowing. Time will tell.

I think the closest you come to setting down your views on Indian politics is via Mustafa Syed. Is there any co-relation between his radical views and his homosexuality, or am I reading too much into that?

No, there is none. But yes, Syed is a character very dear to me -- a riven man whose body is forever betraying his deeply noble instincts.

Are you prepared for the possibility that most readers will simply concentrate on the sex, at the risk of relegating plot, character and the quality of language to the background?

I don't think that will happen at all. The sex is not overt, not voyeuristic in the least. One of the book's breakthroughs for me is that it addresses emotion and passion and love and sexuality in an adult even-eyed way, which hardly any India book does, which is strange considering these form the very basis of our lives. I hope the many faces of desire in the book are seen the way I have tried to write them -- essential, driving, liberating, fuelling relationships, conduct, ambition, life itself.

In any case, all the passion in the book is deeply organic to the characters and the narrative, completely inevitable. I hope it forces readers to look at desire without the crippling impulse of shame and hypocrisy. The nice thing is all the reader responses so far -- and they have been scores -- have dwelled on the emotional charge the book has given them. Most have spoken of characters, language, nature, humour, the street voice that the book captures. Some have described the book as the greatest emotional roller-coaster of their lives. This is moving for me.

Image: Uday Kuckian

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