The following interview appeared in The Herald, Karachi, February 2012.
Kunal Basu has written three novels: The Opium Clerk (2001), The Miniaturist (2003), and Racists (2006); and a collection of short stories The Japanese Wife (2008), of which the title story was turned into a film by Aparna Sen. Basu lives in Oxford, UK and teaches at the Said Business School; in the past, he has dabbled in advertising, journalism and film-making. Born to Communist parents, Sunil Kumar Basu (a writer and publisher) and Chabi Basu (a writer and actress), books and cinema were early influences.
RJ: There is an incredible richness of detail in The Yellow Emperor’s Cure. Tell us how you go about your research, especially for a book such as this located as it is in turn-of-the century China?
KB: Once I think of a story that’s worth writing, I identify aspects that I need to research to bring it to life. For Emperor, there were three: History of syphilis; Chinese medicine; and the Boxer rebellion. But beyond such ‘background’ research that helped to establish the broad parameters of the story, I researched the ‘foreground’ of textures, settings, colours, cuisine, festivals, etc. and used my imagination to create scenes that were both vivid and believable. Historical accounts are usually dry, and taking a walk with the characters through fantasy was as invaluable as consulting published sources.
RJ: As a writer do you have a ‘comfort zone’? Do you find it easier to write a story located, for instance, in Calcutta, a city you know well rather than one in Peking or Lisbon?
KB: For me the thrill of writing comes from abandoning the ‘comfort zone,’ and encountering the unfamiliar. I blame it on a wildering mind that refuses (perhaps foolishly) to accept demographic limitations. If I can imagine it, I can write it – I believe. Writing about a familiar place has its own disadvantages, as intimacy often creates a placid state of mind. The story is critical for me, and I’d follow it no matter where it takes me.
RJ: Do you think more Indian writers are locating their stories outside India? Do you see a move towards globalization, a broadening of horizons, a moving away from the small and the local to the world arena?
KB: In terms of historical fiction, at least, I haven’t seen such an expansive move. I am still asked fairly routinely, why despite being an Indian I’ve consistently located my stories outside India, be it Africa, China, Eastern Turkey or Japan. I don’t know if economic globalization per se creates a broadening of horizons in fiction. British and American writing haven’t shown such adventurous tendencies.
RJ: You are off to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Tell us, how important are these lit-fests for a creative writer? Do you feel a sense of companionship with the fraternity of writers that you are likely to meet at such a gathering?
KB: More than fellow authors, it is the company of readers that I find refreshing. After years of solitary pursuit at my desk, it is rewarding to hear someone speak to you about your books. It makes me think that writing hasn’t been a purely imagined activity on my part but real. The presence of readers at sessions is also reassuring because it implies that books are still important to some people despite the doomsday predictions of pundits who claim that they’re fast becoming extinct.
RJ: Would you say writers, especially creative writers, are egotistical and self-centred, or do they show any degree of real interest in what fellow writers are doing?
KB: While some writers can be egotistical and self-centered, I wouldn’t paint everyone with such dark colours. I think there is a duality here: a passion for one’s own writing that can immerse the self completely in one’s work, coexisting with a curiosity for other authors who are practitioners within the same genre. I am looking forward to what Michael Ondaatje has to say, for example, or Ben Okri.
RJ: You have tackled a wide range of concerns so far: the opium trade, the Mughal court, the origin of European racism and now the Boxer Revolution. What draws you to these themes, especially the past?
KB: I am not drawn to specific themes or particular historical periods. My mind engages in perpetual story making that result in forays down different civilisational episodes in our past. There is unquestionably a love of history, an imagination that searches for intricately woven tales of human endevour set in the backdrop of great social turmoil. As a child I was spoilt by the reading of classics that instilled in me an urge to paint miniatures within murals.
RJ: You have been exceptionally prolific, with four major books and a collection of short stories over the past decade. With a full time teaching job, how do you take time out for the research that surely goes into each of these books, not to say the writing? Also, does teaching business studies in any way distract you from the sort of historical novels that you write?
KB: I don’t take time off my job to write, but write about 12 hours every day, and work my teaching around it. There are casualties, of course – sleep and socializing. Teaching business is my day job. It doesn’t distract me from my writing because I know its place in my life.
RJ: There was no ‘India’ in The Racists. There is very little, virtually none save for stray references to Goa, in The Yellow Emperor’s Cure either. Is this deliberate?
KB: This ‘non-Indian-ness’ wasn’t a part of deliberate strategy, but dictated by the stories. In writing them, I wasn’t trying to create a distinction of sorts or making a deeper cultural statement. Perhaps travel and a broad reading habit has led to a kind of cosmopolitan imagination which assumes that every place and time is part of my writing kingdom. My first and second novels though, had large dollops of India (Pakistan/Afghanistan as well in The Miniaturist), as will my next novel which is set entirely in India in contemporary times.
RJ: Does living away from India affect the way you see India, especially Indian writing?
KB: Unlike some Western commentators, I don’t feel comfortable with the label ‘Indian writing.’ In a subcontinent as diverse as ours, defining writers by their common ethnicity seems unduly limiting. Rushdie and Desai, Seth and Hamid, each have charted very different aesthetic trajectories. They make me proud though by their success.
RJ: What are you reading these days?
KB: Belatedly finished Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stories – marvelous!
RJ: I understand you have your next book, waiting in the wings to be released: Intimacies (Niyogi Books). Tell us a little about it.
KB: Before starting on my new contemporary Indian novel, I wrote text for quite a remarkable album of photographs by Kushal Ray. These are utterly unsentimental and un-staged photographs of a middle class Kolkata home, and I’ve fashioned six almost fictional pieces around them.