Why do you tell stories?
I was the kind of child who believed that almirahs might lead to Narnia, and that there were secret passages that led to other worlds. Then you grow up, and you discover that there is really a magic portal. It’s made of four words—once, upon, a, time—and it will take you anywhere you want to go. When you have a time travel machine like that, why wouldn’t you use it?
What do you expect from the LitFest this year?
World domination and a much better haircut than the one I presently have.
More seriously, just the chance to meet readers and writers in a city I love, and that I grew to know through writing, from Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel’s poems to Kiran Nagarkar, Rohinton Mistry, and Salman Rushdie among so many others.
Tell us a story about cats in 140 words. My nine lives?
I had a house, once, and Bigfeet of my own: then they packed everything, except me, and left. There was a word for kittens who wandered outside for the first time: prey. Seven bird kills, eight battles with bandicoots, two with puppies, and I found a word that fit me better: predator. No river cat remembers the names of the boats we lived on; the fish, yes, we taste their names in our mouths still. In Sikkim, I made babies with a monastery cat, solemn kittens with Buddha bellies. The vet took one of my lives, the time I crossed the road without looking, but he gave me back two. Two is ample, I thought, and then one was squandered in a bandicoot brawl, oh it was worth it. I have one life left. Three paws. Enough.
Tell us the best and the worst writing advice you’ve ever received.
The worst: wait till you have enough (insert word of your choice here: reputation/money/bylines/ money/fame/money/experience/money) to start writing.
The best: here is what you need to write. A chair with an upright back and a comfortable seat. Paper, or a typewriter, or a Macbook, or an imagination and a memory. Start. Tell us something about the book’s protagonist Mara that was absent from The Wildings but is lying somewhere in the first draft of your book. Mara was the one character who didn’t change, all through the multiple drafts. But when I wrote the first draft, the real Mara was alive, and that version had a great deal about the way she and the Bigfeet got along. When she died, all of the Bigfeet left the book, too.
Why did you write Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age? And since we are at it, tell us why you tell stories?
I was fascinated by the story of how African-American musicians came to Bombay in the 1930s, taught musicians from this city how to play jazz and how these Indian musicians then went on to influence Hindi film scores in the 1950s. It was such a strange journey that I felt compelled to follow it to its end.
I like to tell stories, I suppose, because people like to hear them — especially stories about their immediate surroundings or their city, which help them learn something new about their lives or their neighbourhoods.
Tell us a story in 140 words. Then, tell us another story in 140 characters.
I can’t! I am just not into stories of 140 words or characters.
Give the readers one piece of writing advice.
It isn’t just the story that’s important — it’s the manner in which you tell it that also gives your reader pleasure. So find a way to tell your story in your own special way.
Tell us an interesting detail about jazz that was absent from Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, but is lying somewhere in the drafts of the book.
I was intrigued by Bombay’s obsession with Hawaiian music in the 1930s and 1940s. Famous musicians from Polynesia came to the city and performed to vast crowds — and then Indian musicians started imitating them. The bits that didn’t fit into my book all went up on my website, www.tajmahalfoxtrot.com, along with sound clips and photographs.
What do you expect from the LitFest this year? And what can book lovers expect from you at the festival?
I had a really warm response at the LitFest last year when I did a presentation about how the US had used jazz as a Cold War propaganda weapon in developing countries, including in India. This year, I’m participating in a panel on narrative journalism and moderating one on Bombay novels. I imagine that the audience will be as enthusiastic.
Why did you write The Red Market?
I didn’t plan to write a book on organ trafficking, the topic sort of found me. I was living in Chennai and all of the women in a tsunami refugee camp near my house sold their kidneys. Once I started digging into the issue I just couldn’t stop researching. One topic led naturally to another.
What makes these red markets so complex these days?
The same laws that make our electronics and shoes cheap also apply to the human supply chain. These markets for human bodies and body parts move across borders so quickly, and with such little regulation that it takes a herculean effort just to track them, let alone enforce legal claims.
In the book, you’ve uncovered and discovered details which are commonplace in red markets but difficult to digest. Tell us something that is equally bewildering and did not make it to the book for some reason.
It turns out that there are so many ways that the body gets bought and sold that there was simply no chance for me to cover everything. In early drafts of the book I was planning on writing about how “plastinated” cadavers are procured for blockbuster anatomy shows like Body Worlds. I would have also liked to explore the hidden markets for human hard tissues like bone grafts and ligaments--which for many years were simply stolen from cadavers in mortuaries in the United States, but when the scheme was exposed the businesses found new sources in Eastern Europe.
In the book, you discuss how transactions are dependent on social class — could you suggest alternatives to this problem?
If there was one rule for red markets it’s that human flesh always moves upwards, never downwards through the social hierarchy. In a way the criminal markets that I uncovered are really just a sideshow to entrenched global inequalities. I don’t think any one person is going to come up with a solution to a problem that big, but my suggestion on a mirco level as it pertains to markets for human tissue is that we need to institute transparency in the supply chains so that criminals can’t hide behind standard medical privacy clauses to mask organ trafficking.
What will be your next project be?
I’m trying to tackle two very different research threads simultaneously. The first — I’m interested in exploring the way that people run into trouble on their personal spiritual journeys. This month I have an article in Details about Americans and European travellers who come to India and experience “India Syndrome” (http://on.details.com/R7kH6F). I have another piece coming out in Playboy in March about a group of Tibetan Buddhists in Arizona that some people are calling a cult. If all goes well these two articles will be the basis for my next book. The second major thread that I’m interested in is exploring illicit supply chains for drugs, timber and arms.