Amish's next chapter: Government job

Updated: Nov 17, 2019, 07:53 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Writer Amish Tripathi has moved bag and baggage to London to head The Nehru Centre; first on his agenda is to tweak programming to make it enticing for millennials

Amish Tripathi
Amish Tripathi

The absence of a writer can always be felt in his home city. In October, when novelist Amish Tripathi, announced that he was moving to London, to take charge as director of The Nehru Centre, he left his fans unsettled. After all, just four months earlier, he had released his new book, Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta (Westland), the third novel in the five-part Ram Chandra series. "I will keep coming back [to Mumbai], every two or three months. I have to...My son is there," Amish tells us over the phone, when we reach out to him, on a "cold and wet day" in London, which is going to be the author's home for the next three years.

A banker before he turned star author, Amish's new role as head of the cultural wing of the High Commission of India in the UK, which he calls his "first government job", is another curveball in an ever-evolving career. The Nehru Centre has a rich legacy. Founded by late scholar and freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Muhiyuddin Ahmed, also known as Abul Kalam Azad, the institution, with its head quarters on South Audley Street, has previously been led by eminent Indians, including diplomat and politician Gopalkrishna Gandhi, playwright Girish Karnad and writer-diplomat Pavan Varma. Amish is now part of this A-list.

The 44-year-old writer first learned of the opportunity two years ago. "Someone had asked me if I was interested in applying [for the role], but it wasn't available at the time, and I too, wasn't very sure about leaving India. But, a year later, a confluence of personal circumstances and a vacancy showing up, made me apply."

Amish outside the Nehru Centre office on South Audley Street, MayfairAmish outside the Nehru Centre office on South Audley Street, Mayfair

The application process was rigorous and thorough. "I am deeply entrenched in Indian culture. So, I didn't require too much preparation [for the interview]. But the government-style of working is different, and for that you must prepare. I remember reading an interview by Nandan Nilenkani, when he joined the government. He spoke of how many of us outside, harbour biases. But, there is a reason why things are the way they are here. You have to work within the system. You can't go into the private sector and say, 'I want to work the way the government does'. Similarly, the opposite doesn't hold [true] either." Amish explains that he is getting used to procedures that have to be followed, because controls are greater. "But, the scale and the opportunity you have with the government is also of a different order. So, one can do so much more."

The Nehru Centre office comprises an entire heritage building with an auditorium, art gallery and a warren of offices. "It truly is a wonderful venue, and has been at the heart of Indian cultural activities, and the diaspora conversation for decades. The challenge is to build on it," he thinks.

The calendar for November and December is already packed. There is an exhibition of artworks by RK Laxman; a poetry and music evening by Kamalbir Singh; a Bharatnatyam performance by Neha Dicholkar, and a session on Tagore in the Light of Rembrandt. If this list is esoteric, it's because of the focus on the Indian classical arts. "I agree that cultural centres across many parts of the world, in India and Nehru Centre as well, tend to appeal to the elderly. But, we don't have to alienate one kind of audience, to get another group. So, while we will, continue with programming that appeals to our current audience, a key brief to me, is to start activities that will attract youngsters, especially second and third generation Indians, and most importantly, the non-Indian, native British."

Work in that area seems to have begun. Amish's Instagram feed has selfies and photographs with visitors. He met poet and writer Jeet Thayil, who visited him at the Nehru Centre. "Lots to talk about; Publishing industry gossip, the art scene in London, good coffee shops, and the innate liberalism of ancient Indian culture," Amish captioned it. He has also hosted filmmakers Shekhar Kapur and Atul Manjrekar; the latter suggested that Amish start a film appreciation group within the space.
"I have been meeting a lot of Westerners, outside the cultural space, like bankers and politicians, and I have asked them, what would get them interested in Nehru Centre. One of the things that came up, was that the programmes they have seen are targeted at those already passionate about India. This would be a small segment of the native population. We need to find things that can be done, which ride off their existing passions."

And, where does writing fit into all of this? "I wrote my first two books along with juggling a banking job. That had very little to do with culture and literature. This in fact, is not disconnected from my work," says Amish. "But, a lot of time goes into setting up a home. India is so much more convenient that way. Opening a bank account in India is a two-hour process. Out here, it takes two weeks."

When in London

A place to eat: I'd recommend Benaras in Mayfair, which is close to my home. It has a very interesting take on traditional Indian food. The dishes are a fusion of Western and Indian cooking. It also has great decor.
A place to visit: Hyde Park. I go there for jogs and walks.
A place to experience: Nehru Centre (laughs).

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