The man who knows too much
The Rataban Betrayal is the latest thriller by author Stephen Alter, who is also founding director of the Mussoorie Writers' Mountain Festival. He speaks to RAJ KANWAR about the book's cinematic adaptation and his next work on his recent treks in the Himalayas
After Ruskin Bond, Stephen Alter is perhaps the most well-known writer in Mussoorie. He is equally comfortable writing both fiction and non-fiction. Alter is founding director of the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival. Despite that busy job, his literary output has indeed been prodigious: 15 books, nine fiction and remaining non-fiction is no mean achievement. His latest The Rataban Betrayal, is a ‘literary thriller’ with Mussoorie in its backdrop. Alter doesn’t fit into a straitjacket ethnic profile. He is of American lineage, but was born and raised in Landour Cantonment in Mussoorie. His wife of 35 years, Ameeta, is Punjabi. The Indian diaspora in the US is called ‘American Desis’; likewise, Alter could easily be described as a desi American. It was in 1916 that his missionary grandparents came to study at the Landour Language School. In the 1930s, his grandfather became the principal of Woodstock, Mussoorie’s famed American international school. Later, his parents, too, were respected staffers at Woodstock for more than 30 years. In a rare achievement, his father Reverend Bob Alter, too, was subsequently appointed as its principal in 1968 and remained in that top post for the following 10 years.After completing schooling at Woodstock, Alter went to the US and graduated in History from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. For 10 years, he was a Writer-in-Residence in the Programme in Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also taught courses in fiction and non-fiction writing. Before that he was director of the Writing Program at the American University in Cairo, Egypt for seven years.
Tell me something about The Rataban Betrayal, your latest book. What made you write a spy thriller when this genre was not exactly your cup of tea? Do you see a possibility of it being made into a movie?
Yes, The Rataban Betrayal is a spy thriller. As a reader, such thrillers have been my staple diet, and John Le Carre and Graham Greene my favourite authors. It’s not easy to write a thriller because you have to keep the pace going and the characters can’t retreat into their heads very often. It is, of course, set in Mussoorie, but this isn’t the town most people would recognise. There’s a scent of danger in the air, along with the fragrance of pines. RAW and CIA agents chase each other across the Indo-Tibetan border; there are intrigues and covert action. I wanted to challenge the general perception that spy thrillers are pulp fiction; there is a lot of good writing in this genre. I took writing this novel as a challenge and I hope that readers will find this book a literary thriller that combines fast action with psychological complexity. When it is made into a movie, I promise you that I will be the first person to buy a ticket. I believe you have earlier collaborated on two screenplays, would you consider writing the screenplay of this spy thriller, if a movie opportunity comes your way?I have written a script for The Rataban Betrayal and am in discussion with producers in Mumbai.
What was your first publication as a writer?
Neglected Lives was my first novel, written in college and published in 1978. It was about a hill station like Mussoorie and I suppose I wrote it out of a sense of nostalgia for home, though it wasn’t a particularly cheerful book. All The Way To Heaven was published much later in October 2000. I often used to hesitate when asked a simple question, “Where are you from originally?” Although I looked an American with trace of British accent, my reply that I am from a hill station 7,000 feet above sea level, in the Himalayas in India, would generally shock people. In All The Way To Heaven, a non-fiction memoir, I have written about my family, my Indian friends and my memories,both exotic and mundane.
What exactly inspired you to write Amritsar to Lahore when you have never lived in Lahore or even for that matter Amritsar? What were your experiences?
Growing up in India and later, as an adult, I wasn’t able to visit Pakistan for various reasons; however, in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Independence and the Partition, I travelled by train in a third class compartment across the border. Though it was a distance of just about 40 kilometers, it took the officialdom at the border check posts almost 15 hours to check the travel documents of all the passengers. Though I could have travelled by air, the experience gained in that train travel was far more valuable. It was a fascinating journey that enabled me to visit places where my family had lived and worked prior to 1947. My wife, Ameeta’s family is originally from Lahore and it was interesting to visit places that they once called their home. My book was about the unsettling presence of borders and frontiers.
How much success has the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival achieved?
It has been remarkably successful in many ways, bringing together 25 authors, mountaineers, artists, filmmakers and conservationists. It provides an ideal opportunity to celebrate Mussoorie’s literary heritage. Every participant, irrespective of whether he/she is from India or abroad, becomes a Mussoorie writer after attending it. When the festival ends, they all carry some pleasant memories and a feeling of bonhomie and togetherness with fellow writers. The next festival, the sixth one, will begin on November 7 this year.
What is your next project?
I am just finishing a book about my recent treks in Himalaya, including a journey to Mount Kailash and several approaches to Nanda Devi. As for fiction, I hope to write another thriller, maybe a detective story.