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Literary Explorations with Neel Mukherjee

Posted: 28/12/2012 00:28

Despite the apocalyptic prophecies of the literary world's grand old sage Philip Roth, who in 2010 said that the novel faces a future of denigration and dismissal by the masses, the novel continues to go from strength to strength, remaining steadfast as a source of much pleasure for society. It was G.K. Chesterton who said "People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are." Chesterton's simple yet articulate words ring truer today than they ever have, with society's literary tastes becoming ever broader and with the success of smaller publishers, over the conglomerates of publishing, taking bigger risks; creativity is encouraged from both angles.

The literary world today is forever in flux, with new themes and genres explored. Surprising tales that go beyond the standard uniformity of expectation are now trickling into the mainstream, one such is Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart, a deeply elegant and grammatically rich novel, where not every virtue is rewarded and not every wrong is righted. Set in two countries across the decades, A Life Apart is centred on the adventures of Ritwik, a poor boy from Calcutta, whose life is blighted by much tragedy and heartache. Escaping the hardships of life in West Bengal's capital, after his mother's death, to a seemingly rosy life of academic indulgence in leafy Oxford, happiness however remains a distant dream, as tragedy ensues. Throughout the novel, a series of themes are explored, relationships are formed, good and bad, and fundamental questions are answered. A Life Apart is a world away from the traditional Indian novel, with not a bejewelled Haveli or symbolic Bengali tiger in sight. It is a refreshing change which should be lauded.

I had the opportunity to interview Neel about his novel as well as breaking away from the clichés.

First and foremost, what inspired you to write 'A Life Apart'?

I don't believe in inspiration(s). I had just begun an MA in Creative Writing and I had to write a novel, so I began writing a novel that later became A Life Apart. There was no ta-da! moment.

Why did the title change from 'Past Continuous' to 'A Life Apart'?

The reason is a bit banal. My US agent wanted a different title before shopping it there, so my UK agent suggested A Life Apart. I liked the title since it had a nice metaphorical resonance with the story; of a different kind from Past Continuous, of course, but, still, a kind of reverberation. So we ran with A Life Apart.

The character Ritwik is beautifully deep, who were the specific inspirations behind the character?

I believe, among many things, that 'Character is plot' so it is vital to get the people right. If one gets that correct, I feel a lot of the book can look after itself. Characters in books tend to be a composite of several different things: people one knows in real life + fictional characters one has read about + imagined characteristics and traits + a little bit of one's own self + god knows what else. So I cannot answer a question about 'specific inspirations', instead only gesture towards some of the ingredients that go into the mix.

Ritwik's naivety of Britain being a gilded Kingdom quickly proved his undoing. Did you share any of his naivety when you first arrived?

I don't remember now, it was all so long ago. Honestly. But it stands to reason that I must have done. If not exactly naivety then certainly an ignorance about how things really worked. But that, I would think, is true of anyone entering a new country and a new culture, don't you think? All understanding takes time, it's never handed to anyone on a plate.

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Ritwik eventually finds some comfort in the elderly Anne Cameron, why is this relationship so important?

I feel Anne Cameron is the fulcrum of the novel, its real central character. Both Ritwik and Anne Cameron are outsiders: they have lost pretty much everything in life and they stand outside the great flow of things. I imagine them as two people, standing outside in the dark and cold, noses to the window, looking in on the warmth and light and life unfolding inside. The chemistry of two outsiders forming a bond interested me a lot. Also, personally, I have a lot of time for elderly people: I find them fascinating, and their lives hold my interest in a way a lot of things don't (a random sampling: social media, tennis, gadgets, fashion, Martin Amis). I had to find a way of having an elderly character in my first book.

I thought the inclusion of Ritwik's story of Miss Gilby, the Governess was a wonderful juxtaposition to the contemporary heartache that was occurring. What was the reason behind including such a story?

The story of exile and alienation has been told so often, and abased, particularly in that dreaded subgenre, 'the immigrant/diaspora novel' (ugh, ugh, ugh), that I felt a reinvention or a renewal was necessary if it was to be pressed into the service of truth-telling. One way to do this was to strip the story of migration of clichés and sentimentality and all the bad habits it has fallen into and to try and think it anew. Since so much hoo-ha is made of 'the post-colonial' novel, I got to thinking that the project of colonialism itself can be seen as a kind of economic migration. So I tried to cross two flight-paths, as it were, two different arcs of migration, in different times, under different contexts, and see what kinds of meanings emerged. Another reason was aesthetic: the novel is built upon and structured around the (musical) principle of counterpoint and I wanted to give Ritwik's story its contrapuntal weight to enrich and deepen the music, which would otherwise have been only plainsong.

Though he has experienced heartache throughout his short life, Ritwik is still an innocent in many respects, yet that innocence is quickly destroyed. Do you think it is always the fate of the innocent to suffer?

Innocence is a pretty dangerous thing, you know. Revisit Dostoevsky's The Idiot or, for that matter, Greene's The Quiet American, to find out how destructive it can be.

Finally, although a shift is occurring in the publishing world when it comes to Indian writing, the general assumption is that all Indian authors will produce novels filled with Jasmine strewn gardens and colourful exoticism or the burgeoning economic divisions of the "new India". Did you still experience a sense of surprise when you presented the idea for 'A Life Apart' to publishers?

I think you're dead right in pointing out that the previous generation's clichés - spices, tigers, rope-trick, sadhus - have not been eradicated, only exchanged for a new set - the yawning and unbridgeable inequalities of the 'New India'. The earlier set, remarkably tenacious, still lingers on, of course; I suspect it will continue for a long time. The new orthodoxy is as dangerous, if not more. I could go on and on about this but I shall limit myself to answering to the point. My book was turned down by every single UK publisher (some turned it down more than once) until an Indian publisher, first, came to the rescue in 2006, then a UK publisher in autumn 2008 (but that was partly because he was a friend). Between the book first going out to publishers here and eventually being published, there was a gap of 7 years. If by 'sense of surprise' you mean on the part of publishers who rejected the book, I couldn't say, but one can speculate entertainingly.

Neel was born in Calcutta and educated in Calcutta, Oxford and Cambridge. He is currently a contributing Editor to Boston Review and literary critic for The Times, The TLS, The Daily Telegraph, New York Times and others. His second novel The Lives of Others is to be published in 2014.

 

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