English writing in India has to still find its voice: Aatish Taseer
One of the most intelligent and balanced voices to chronicle the diverse Subcontinental landscape in all its hues and history, Aatish Taseer discusses his new book, Indian writers in English
“The last thing I want to be is an actor!” chuckles Aatish Taseer, when we prod if he’s ever been offered a role in Bollywood by any of his director friends.
Aatish Taseer, writer-journalist. Pic/Satyajit Desai
“Honestly, I am a little envious of their creative process, as far as script writing goes,” confesses the British-born writer-journalist with movie star looks. The son of veteran journalist Tavleen Singh and late Pakistani politician Salman Taseer was in Mumbai last week to attend a literature festival, where his newest work of fiction, The Way Things Were, created a buzz.
Thirty minutes earlier, as we slip into our time slot, we are curious to know how his latest work, set during a cataclysmic time in Indian history, took shape and form. “I had an image in my mind, of a boy returning to a temple town in India after the death of his father. This thought emerged in 2011, months after my father passed away. It took me a while to begin work,” he recalls, adding how his enchantment with a classical India was always going to hold the key to this 560-pager.
“The protagonist, US-based Skanda, wants to stay on in the country. But it isn’t for nostalgic reasons. My material for the period from 1975-92 was circulating around for a while. 1984, India’s darkest year, was tough to capture. Certain things nag as you grow older. The writer in you realises that it’s important to trust those points,” he says.
He continues, “For eight months, I would sit to write every day, but something felt wrong. Suddenly, the moment struck. The past was going to be heavy on this character. I was possessed, and wanted to work on this idea structurally. This was in July 2012, and I completed it in September 2013.” At its heart, he never felt more confident, “I was happy with the culmination of my research. This wasn’t about a family but India as an idea, a reality.”
Of language and identity
Taseer had spoken in an interview recently, of a sense of embarrassment that he felt earlier as an English author in India. “Well, it’s not as if English writing in India is as closely followed as compared to Bollywood. However, this feeling has diminished after I took up Sanskrit.” Taseer recalls how learning the language since 2008 reassured and helped him understand India’s role among ancient civilizations, and its connect with English. “I still engage with Sanskrit for two hours every day”, he shares.
Having a journalist-author for a mother, we ask if writing was the obvious calling. “When I was 19-20 years old, I was sure that I wanted to be one. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of what would happen if it didn’t click. As a 19-year-old, if someone told me that some writers took decades to get published, I would probably have given up,” he smiles.
The Way Things Were, Aatish Taseer, Pan Macmillan, R699. Available at leading bookstores.
>> Character in The Way Things Were: Uma is an enigma. She is charismatic. She is a ballsy woman, a bit like Kali. I’d say a combination of women I grew up around including my mother and Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
>> Benaras experience: The six weeks of covering the Indian elections were impactful. My next, a non-fiction, will be about it. That time opened my mind about small town India. Earlier, I would be wary of moving around these parts but it vanished post
>> Bombay/Mumbai: It’s so weird that I have to still figure it out despite coming here since I was 13. It’s far sexier, more vivid and closer to life compared to Delhi.
>> Bollywood: I have many friends here — Karan, Ayan, Ranbir, Katrina and Zoya. I felt Kangana was ‘The Queen’ in the film. I like how Bollywood movies make us cry. How we love melodrama!
>> Authors who captured Bombay/Mumbai best: Salman Rushdie caught something about the city — a Bombay that doesn’t exist anymore. He had the city in his bones. In non-fiction, I’d pick Suketu Mehta. I’ve heard that Sonia Faleiro is good too.
>> Literary festivals: I hate them! But it’s now central to books, and helps with the sales. In fact, I am fine with anything that will help people connect with books. It’s a delicate time for books in India.