Interview 6- Kaushik Barua
He is the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar award for his first book, Windhorse (HarperCollins India, 2013).
This interview will mostly cover his second book, No Direction Rome (HarperCollins India, 2015) and his short story ‘So far away from home (North East Review, 2015).
Hello Krantik, I mean Kaushik. (Pun intended)
I have just re-read your book ‘No Direction Rome’. It reads like a literary thriller and satire. Can’t wait to begin the interview!
About your books
- Your first book ‘Windhorse’ won you the ‘Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2014’. How did the book/award change you?
I like to believe the award didn’t change me. That my writing holds enough satisfaction and terror for me to not depend on external validation or criticism. But then I would be inflating the significance of my writing, even for myself.
I only see the change when it is brought to my attention. When in response to a question about the award, I can indulge in such convoluted and contradictory arguments.
I am glad that the award, especially received for Windhorse, brought some attention to the story of the resistance that inspired Windhorse (and for which I can take no credit).
There, you have it: I’ve already written a few paragraphs contemplating or belittling or denying the influence of the award on my life. That probably says something I can’t deny.
More about the book in the following questions.
- You haven’t formally studied literature. Tell us how you managed a great debut with Harper Collins (for the benefit of ever hungry writers’ souls).
I was lucky to receive a book contract with very little effort. And lucky that Karthika, who was then editor in chief of HarperCollins, spotted the potential of the story.
I never formally studied literature.All of us greedy readers are students of literature. And I think not formally studying literature helps one flirt with different genres or styles, without being burdened by their historical significance.
- ‘No Direction Rome’ is different in tone/theme and many other aspects in comparison to your first book. Was switching styles easy?
I didn’t find it as difficult as one would imagine. I live multiple lives (like so many of us, so I wouldn’t lay claim to a uniquely diverse set of experiences): an Assamese who grew up in 1980s Guwahati, forever stained by the indifference of a larger nation state, an economics student (and wannabe researcher- I can no longer claim to be an economist, but still follow most major debates in the subject, especially debates happening at the intersection with other subjects), a relatively privileged international professional (insanely privileged in the broader context of global inequity), a development professional with the good fortune to travel to many different countries, spending long periods in villages to implement rural development projects, and meet people from fantastically different backgrounds.
I don’t consciously choose from different genres (again helped by the fact that I have no great regard for such classifications). I try to pick and choose words, scenes, characters, cadences or conversations from the different chambers in my life. And of course from different books or movies.
- How long did it take you to write NDR and were you apprehensive of the response?
It took me about half a year: it’s a slim novel with emphasis on the voice and tone more than the plot or characterization. I wanted to experiment with a new voice. In taking that risk, I was exposing myself to some criticism. That’s okay: like a coward, I have many different lives as possible retreats.
- I enjoyed the satirical tone of the book. Were you worried about the backlash from readers who lack a sense of humour?
I definitely wasn’t worried enough not to try it.
- Krantik is an atheist. Are you?
I am. However, I recognize that being an atheist is also a matter of belief and vulnerable to some of the same biases and prejudices that atheists complacently believe afflict only people of faith.
- How was the book received in Rome? Has NDR been published outside India?
It hasn’t been published in Rome or Italy yet. The New York based publishing house, Permanent Press, will publish it in the US in late 2017. I hear they have a discerning set of editors and a small solid literary list (publishing only about 15 titles a year). I’m hopeful that it’ll do well, but my hope is tempered by the vagaries of the publishing industry.
- What do you have to say about the ‘irreverent’ tone of the book? Do you consider yourself a courageous writer?
No Direction Rome has a truly irreverent tone (and I believe reveals much about our indifferent generation). I’m not sure if that alone comprises courage. If I may use such a grandiose term, I would think Windhorse required far more courage, the exercise of which is often more tedious and dogged than one dramatic gesture. The novel needed years and years of back breaking research: reading archives, collecting video footage, gathering oral histories, and thinking over months about the motivation of a small group of rebels who waged an impossible war, whose lives were radically different from mine. But again, I did the whole exercise because I was fascinated, to the point of obsession, with the Tibetan refugee community and their struggles.
- The prose is experimental. Digression is a pattern in the book. Any comments?
I probably should have mentioned the ‘research’ and preparation earlier. NDR also required extensive research, participatory in this case. I spent hundreds of hours on various online forums and sites, studying (only intuitively, not using any fancy analytical tools) how conversations progress online. Also how we interact with the online world: forever switching tabs, following our thoughts along maddening tangents, diving into a rabbit hole of endless images and ideas and memes. I wanted to mimic that sense of constant digression, the inability to hold a thought for longer than it takes to click on the next tab, the disconnectedness (the vague anaesthetic distaste we feel with ourselves after hours spent online), the extreme solipsism and the painful self-awareness of the first generation to live their lives online. It’s obviously not the perfect recipe for a coherent narrative (and I imagine could be frustrating for some readers), but I selfishly enjoyed the process.
- How did the themes of both your books come to you?
Windhorse came to me in a bookstore (dramatic,also true) in Dharamshala, when I stumbled upon a real life ex-resistance fighter: Lhasang Tsering. He introduced me to his colleagues and friends from the erstwhile resistance and they were all unbelievably generous with their tales (I told them from the beginning that I wanted to fictionalize the story).
The voice for No Direction Rome came from a few disparate sources: the tiredness that followed Windhorse, some friends’ long term experiments with various intoxicants, another friend’s failed suicide attempt (the friend is now thankfully reconciled to the failure) and, most of all, time spent online (all those hours I thought were wasted).
- You work in Rome. Is there an expat writer’s circle there?
Not at the moment. We had a group for a year or two. A few people moved and the group withered. I would really like a group of fellow writers to critique my work regularly. I will have to do without such regular peer review for some time, I suspect.
- I like the commentary of the social media world we are part of, in the book. Didn’t you worry it would sound banal?
Where it sounds banal, hopefully it succeeds in reflecting the banality of the online world. Now I realize that is also expecting a lot from the text: reflecting and internalizing the banality of the world, not just in theme but also in the voice, while at the same time slyly hinting to the reader that Krantik, the character, is an overenthusiastic observer of the banality and not a participant.
- Why the Colloseum? Isn’t it a cliché like Eiffel Tower-Paris?
I cross the Colosseum every day on my way to work. I decided, on a whim, that I wanted it to feature prominently in my next book. Writing pays so little, the least we can do is feed our whims.
- Didn’t you worry that using ‘shit’ a lot in the book is risky. Isn’t the humour easily exhausted in it?
There is a rich history of scatological humour in books. But the scatology in NDR came from a different starting point. I wanted to portray a slightly exaggerated or grotesque version of the all-revealing, all publicising nature of social media. Taken to its extreme (not really an extreme, just a shifting of the norms), Krantik sharing over-specific details on bowel movements is not so surprising. In fact, people share far more ghastly emotional details online. Yes, the humour could be exhausted easily: as is the case with any specific kind of humour. I found it childishly and constantly amusing (perhaps I should be worried about that).
- There is no reason or genesis to show why Krantik is a cynic in the book. Has it always been his nature or was there a turning point?
If there was a turning point, I have left it outside the book. I think we always demand some evolution or satisfying arc from our tales. Sometimes things just are or remain as they are: not going anywhere, onlymoving in circles or in madly tightening whirls around a central question or an absence. I wanted to capture a kind of stasis instead of a satisfying dynamism.
- You have repeatedly used celebrity names in the book. What was the intention behind it other than to highlightthe obvious worship culture we seem to project towards them?
The world of social media is also a world where we could all possibly be fleeting Warholian celebrities. And conversely, celebrities are demystified. Surprisingly, this easy access to celebrities (the terms of the access probably determined by some smart social media strategies) only seems to enhance their divinity. I wanted to capture some of the current fluidity around the nature of celebrity.
About your short story ‘ So far away from me’
It is a short story about ‘cyber voyuerism’, ‘heartbreak’ and more.
- How did you conceive the story?
From the idea that we are all constantly being violated by voyeurs and stalkers in the online world but, in a twisted way, we have all provided consent to the institutions and systems that enable this voyeurism (I’m sure no one is naïve enough to believe there is complete privacy in the world of social media).
- Your work is very contemporary in a way because of the commentary on how our lives revolve around social media. Did this happen organically or did you consciously decide to write in such a way?
It has evolved over the last few years, especially this obsession with the anonymous urban angst of our times. But my writing is a capricious beast, and might change again.
- How did readers receive it?
I think it changed their lives! Of course, I’m joking. I don’t really know. I got a more than perfunctory or expected response in terms of social media likes, messages and other forms of engagement, and they helped to create the satisfying feeling or illusion that some people who read the story liked it a lot.
I know you’re a committed and discerning reader. So the fact that the story resonated with you is heartening.
- Any advice to young ambitious writers?
I would suggest she should abandon one of the two: ambition or writing. If she abandons writing, I have no advice worth offering. If she persists with writing, I have some very questionable advice: read every day, read across genres, read people if a book is not available, write as often as possible.
- Books that changed you?
There were no a-ha revelatory books, but a slow osmosis over time and through many books. There were many that influenced both my views on the world and my writing. Here’s a quick off-the-cuff list of books (this may change completely when you ask me the next time) that influenced me, and what I found most striking:
-Most of Graham Greene: The cinematic quality of his writing, empathy for a wide range of characters and people (sometimes coloured with healthy doses of ‘benevolent colonialism’), investigating the nature of doubt and faith in everyday people.
-David Foster Wallace (especially his essays): Effortlessly moulding language, heightened self-awareness and awareness of his generation (also ours?)
-Chuck Palahniuk: the breakneck pace, the ability to capture a mood in a fleeting image
-MamoniRaisomGoswami: Tales from home that brought newness to familiar scenes
-Cormac McCarthy: Painting the apocalypse with such terror and hope
-Sylvia Plath: Brutal honesty, 20-20 vision at the edge of the abyss
-Neil Gaiman: Breaking rules, jumping across genres, having bucket-loads of fun (or so it seems)
-Junot Diaz (Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and recently Paul Beatty (The Sellout): Exploring histories and injustices with a sharp eye and rousing humour
- What is your take on the very famous Italian writer Elena Ferrante and the whole hype about her identity?
I have devoured her books since I discovered them (a very belated discovery- I only started a year ago when a dear friend recommended her work) and enjoyed how she managed to cover both the grand sweep of recent history and the texture of intimacy.
I think she has the right to her privacy and anonymity, a right many more of us may wish for soon. I didn’t read the article that revealed her identity, and don’t wish to. If she wants to interact with a reader within the margins of her story, I’m totally fine with meeting her only through her books and her chosen name.
- What’s next? A short story collection? Poetry?
I’ve just had the horrifically cathartic experience of abandoning a book I was working on. After about 50,000 words, enough to know the voice is not working entirely to my satisfaction, also enough for me to have become attached to the novel. It was a brutal murder in the tradition of killing one’s darlings. Once I recover, I’m open to trying different forms or stories.
- You have written non-fiction before. Do you prefer fiction?
I currently prefer fiction. I know, especially in our times, there is immense scope for story telling through non-fiction as well. Also, given the bewildering ways in which the world is changing, for example the fact that people with varying political views basically live in alternate realities, I think one could even explore new genres in non-fiction.
- The question you hate the most.
Why do you write?
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You can buy his books here: