"India is oddly respectful towards journalism"
The Guide's Kanika Sharma caught up with celebrated British writer, journalist and ex-Granta editor, Ian Jack, of Mofussil Junction fame, who was recently in the city for a literature festival. Excerpts
Tell us about your fascination with India...
Like a lot of people from the little country I come from (Scotland), my grandmother was born in India. My dad worked for a company called the British-India Steam Navigation Company. My real interest was in Indian Railways, which was quite typical with my generation and my country. I took a sabbatical from The Sunday Times to do a few pieces.
And then, Mrs (Indira) Gandhi called elections in January 1977; I stayed on to cover those. So what begun as six weeks in India turned into I guess, three or four months. I liked two things about India that are true - for an English language journalist, it is a wonderful country to operate in (being the lingua franca, you can understand what’s going on around you), friendly towards people from Europe such as British people, and oddly respectful towards journalism, which Great Britain really isn’t.
Having edited Granta from 1995 to 2007, how did non-fiction acquaint you with India? What do you think of the genre at its present?
I had read VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, Jan Morris and I think, I had seen a film by (Satyajit) Ray. Naipaul’s book was a brilliant piece of writing. His awareness of his own irritability and consciousness is interesting. At one time, how many ways of seeing India were there? He is one of the best writers of English sentences, alive. The French filmmaker Louis Malle who made Phantom India had BBC banned in India for some time. They couldn’t bear that India was a country of great poverty, which was true.
The rise of non-fiction in India has lent to many ways of seeing India as it is now. You could read Suketu Mehta on Bombay if you wanted to. India is beginning to produce in the last 40 years, I think, narrative non-fiction writing which it simply didn’t have before. So in a way, you were always kind of reliant on foreign people and myself including in a tiny way, bearing an excessive influence when it came to Indian views and voices at that time.
Was publishing Mofussil Junction challenging, being an outsider to the culture?
This book was suggested to me by a couple of people; I didn’t know if I had enough decent put to stuff in it. As it turns out, I think I did. The reception has been enormously generous and kind. I wasn’t apprehensive. The worst thing there was in the book was about Mrs Gandhi, which I said years ago. That was just a terrible mistake. Truth is a very grand word, as far as is possible, a reasonable consensus of what actually happened. A famous example is George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. There are certain incidents that didn’t quite happen the way he said. There are two kinds of non-fiction that are inventive as they borrow heavily from the genre - memoir and travel. My writing is quite utilitarian.
During your stay in India, which place left an indelible impression on you?
There were many places that made an indelible impression, but they only exist if you don’t go back to the place. I went to Darjeeling in 1976 and the place was impressive because it was cold, with coal fires in the hotel room; you had lady sherpas taking your bags up the station - all those things were romantic. Now, there’s a kind of sadness because of population, industry, growth and money that has led to a kind of aesthetic getting disappeared, which existed in the early days. I went to Matheran in 1983 and now I have heard it is terrible. It was a curious place. I would really recommend it.
What’s next...fiction perhaps?
Well, I guess, I am supposed to be writing another book and then there’s the weekly column for The Guardian. In Scotland, 1961, there was hardly anyone who could be called a novelist in the population of 5 million. Now, it is bloody full of novelists. When I was editing Granta, I gathered that Granta made a name for itself out of publishing non-fiction. The fun of editing at Granta was commissioning non-fiction. Fiction just happens. You either get good stuff or you don’t.