What can I say about myself? As a child I lived all over India because my father was a field geologist and this work made him move around a lot. Thirty or forty years ago when phones and television and internet had not connected everyone, moving from one part of India to another was like moving to another country. The language, food, culture, architecture: everything changed totally. I went to many schools, then moved to Calcutta for college and then to Cambridge for university — so I have roots everywhere and nowhere and am an insider and outsider simultaneously anywhere I find myself. It was only when I began working at a publisher’s office in Delhi that I first spent a long stretch of time in one place and now I live with my husband and dog partly in a tiny town in the hills and partly in Delhi.
2) When and how did you get the taste for writing ? What did your write first?
I’ve written stories ever since I can remember. I published my first few in an Indian newspaper when I was fourteen. The money I earned from those stories financed a box camera. One or two of them even attracted letters from readers. So immediately two of the “side effects” of writing became apparent.
3) Novel is a tradition in Bengal literature from 19th century : do you consider you are continuing this tradition ?
I haven’t read enough Bengali fiction to think I am continuing that tradition. I feel myself a fusion of all sorts of traditions from Bengali literature and nonsense verse to Chekov and Hardy and Asterix and Henning Mankell.
4) Who are the writers, from India or any other place, from present or past times, whom you consider have an influence on you or you admire ?
This novel was most influenced by the films of Satyajit Ray and the fiction of Bibhutibhushan, a Bengali writer whose work is exquisite, poetic, and deeply moving, filled with humanity and empathy for landscapes and places.
I admire many writers: Chekhov, Yasunari Kawabata, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Anne Stevenson, Ahmed Ali and Bibhutibhushan are among the writers I re-read. I love Kawabata’s very Chekhovian novel The Sound of the Mountain which reveals the extraordinary through a series of daily events and perceptions – nothing earth-shattering has happened, yet by the end of the book after layer upon layer of incidents, memories, talk -- everything is altered. The same applies to a novel like Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I think I gravitate towards fiction that doesn’t feel the need for obviously grand themes but is about the lives of ordinary people.
Among the present-day Indians who write in English I enjoy and admire Vikram Seth’s writing because he is so versatile, and uncaring of trendiness. You have to be very brave — apart from brilliantly gifted — to write a novel in sonnets as he did, or a novel which focuses on Western classical music.
There are some books I love but know to be quite different from anything I would ever aspire to write. For example I’ve just been reading Imperium, Ryszard Kapucinski’s book about the Soviet Republic and the brutality and tragedy he writes of, and the kind of travelling he does to reach his stories, are both unimaginable and terrifying for me. Currently I am reading Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is a book about Dyer’s inability to write the book he is meant to be writing. Like all his writing it is hugely witty, highly intelligent and acrobatic in its ability to keep seemingly insignificant ideas afloat, draw meaning out from them. Again it is a book I can only be helplessly admiring of. But I suppose all that anyone reads settles in, layer upon layer, and turns into a kind of rich compost in which their own writing sprouts.
5) An Atlas of Impossible Longing is your first novel : how did you get the idea to write this story ?
The novel grew out of an image of a large house half-submerged by a river. It was a haunting photograph of an actual house that had to be abandoned by my aunt’s family. This image kept coming back to me, gradually people—the novel’scharacters— floated up out of its surroundings and the novel began.
6) Would you please give a clue about the story ?
It is a family saga, a kind of trilogy-in-one-volume structurally, and follows the fortunes of a cloistered, conservative family in India, into which is introduced – almost by accident — an orphan who moves by degrees from the periphery of the family to its centre. The novel is set over a long period of time, 1907 to the 1950s during which time India went through gigantic transformation (from being colonised to becoming an independent country, the Partition of India among other thing) and some of this is reflected in the lives of the characters; but it is primarily a book about solitude, loneliness, domestic politics, love, lost landscapes, the migration to big cities. These themes could have worked in the present day equally, but I wanted a language and pace from time when things were slower, and the slowness allowed for a different kind of richness.
7) What is the most important in this novel : characters, places, emotions, ambience, social message... or what else ?
For me the most important reason to write the book was that I had to tell the story of the people in it, and of the landscapes and houses that were inextricable from those people, and which vanished with them. They felt like real people and places to me: things happened to them, and I had to write about those things, convey what the gradual dissolution of one way of life meant.
8) How would you define your style ? Is style a special preoccupation when you write ?
If by style you mean the prose, I revise and rewrite and rethink quite obsessively until each sentence sounds right to me – but of course you can never get everything right. I really dislike having to go back to read anything I’ve written because I know those deformed bits I’d rather forget will pop out and stare at me. Language is everything in good fiction: I can’t read indifferently written novels and wouldn’t want to write one.
9) Being also a journalist, has this activity any influence on your writings ?
I was not a full time journalist for long; I understood very quickly it was not my world. Since then I’ve only written as a freelancer or been a consulting editor, which is not at all the same thing as being a journalist. But even my brush with it did some good: for a start, it made me very obedient with deadlines. So if I have promised my publisher that I will finish reading proofs by a certain date, for example, I will stay up nights and wake at dawn to get it done by then. I think a spell of journalism demystifies writing, makes you aware of the drudgery, makes you understand that if you need to write something, you have to be at your desk and chair for long hours and get down to it. If you have something you need to write, you know you can’t wait for absolute solitude and a darkened room and a year in which to devote yourself only to writing.
10) Can you tell us about Permanent Black ?
Permanent Black is an independent publishing house doing mainly books on Indian politics and history. My husband and I started it in 2000 and have been running it since then; we have published over 250 books in these years. The best and most renowned social scientists and historians have published with us as well as absolutely new, brilliant young scholars of promise. One of the French writers we have published is Christophe Jaffrelot, who writes on political and caste issues.
11) What are your plans now ? Maybe soon another novel to be published ?
My second novel, The Folded Earth, was published this year in Britain and India and is due out in the US in 2012. The first of its translations is going to be out soon, in Norwegian. This book is set in the present day, in a small town in the Himalayan foothills – in the town where I live.