Thursday, 12 February 2009



I have never read anything by Hari Kunzru. Not a single word. All I knew about him was that he’s a half British-half Kashmiri (Indian, I hope) writer who stays in the UK; he has written books that earned him some recognition; I saw his book displayed at local bookstores. So, when I was assigned to interview this man, I had no clue what to ask. And, it can be difficult to interact with a person professionally without knowing anything about his or her background.
Therefore, I remained glued to the Internet and Kunzru’s books for hours till I felt that I could face Hari Kunzru at the scheduled time and place.

The British-Asian writer, who is also the deputy president of English PEN, was in Pune, India, as part of the British Council’s literature programme titled India ’09: Through Fresh Eyes that aims to highlight the India Market Focus at London Book Fair 2009. As part of my job, I caught up with him on a hot and sunny afternoon yesterday.

Deccan Rendezvous, a small hotel around Apte Road in Pune, was the destination. The manager of the local British Library Ms Kajari Mitra was waiting for me. So was Hari Kunzru --- a rather gentle soul --- who rose from his chair at the dining space to greet me.
We shook hands and sat down for the interview.
Till then he hadn’t looked at me properly. There was almost no eye contact.
I was happy to find another shy guy like me.

I began the conversation about whether it’s his first time in Pune.
Hari Kunzru then looked at me properly.
He was in the town when he was 10 years old…
What are the places he can visit, he asked.
I am not a proper Pune resident. So could not help him.
And he gave me a shy smile.

Looking at my shabby bag, crumbled shirt and not-so-clean-shaven face, Hari Kunzru possibly recalled his days as a journalist. “I didn’t want to be a journalist,” he said. “But, later I realised that I cannot be arrogant to not take up that vocation,” he added, almost like a murmur. “For a writer, getting out in the world is important. Journalism offers the opportunity to meet people, form opinion and produce crisp writings, a feature, for example,” Kunzru said as we dwelt on his progression from being a travel writer, television host to award-winning novelist.

‘Why do you write?’ Kunzru looked amused upon hearing the question. “I was convinced from my university days that I want to write since the idea of taking a reader into the realm of fiction has always fascinated me,” he replied. But, after he got out of the university, things were bleak as there was recession in the UK. “So, to earn money I had to do lot of jobs, some of them being menial or unsatisfactory. For example, as a television host on Sky TV in the UK, I didn’t enjoy talking artificially to the camera,” a soft-spoken Kunzru was candid.
I liked his honesty.
I could relate to what he was talking.

So far, Kunzru has written three novels. Among them, the debut novel The Impressionist won a Betty Trask Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. We turned attention to Pran Nath Razdan, the lead character of The Impressionist. Wasn’t it difficult to handle such a character with so many shades, I asked. “Yes and No,” Kunzru said. “The novel is structured into series of plot. Pran Nath has no sense of real self and he changes himself according to a social situation. I wrote one shade at a time, so it wasn’t too difficult. But, yes it was a challenge for me to keep the flow of the character,” he added.

Being a son of an immigrant, and having Asian roots, Kunzru has seen the world of immigrants in the UK from close quarters. I mentioned the tendency among several writers of Indian origin in depending on the themes of exotic India or life of non-resident Indians for their novels. Kunzru agreed and said that novels, written for the western readers, are often driven by the market. “It helps if there are South Asian plots where the lovers cannot get together because of their disagreeing parents or immigrants are struggling,” he told me with a trace of a smile. “It has become a bit repetitive. I also suspected that readers in the West want me to get typecast as an Indian origin writer who will write about the global Indian (as in Transmission) or the British Raj days (as in The Impressionist). So, in my third novel My Revolutions, there isn’t a single Indian character. The political thriller is all about the UK and the West. So far, no has complained that a writer of Indian origin is writing about non-Indian characters.” For him though, it was “not a tactical exercise, but an “exploration of radicalisation.”

I sought his opinion about the perception that many Indian writers in English have British awards and recognitions from the West in their mind when they write. “It seems that Indian critics are uncomfortable with Indian writers in English gaining international recognition,” Kunzru said, adding, one cannot blame the writer if he thinks in terms of recognition because that brings along the money which is essential for a writer to survive and concentrate on his creativity rather than worry about the means for sustenance. “I am now on a fellowship and stay in New York. I get a salary. It definitely helps to free my mind,” he added. “For others without such a recognition, it becomes difficult to juggle between literature and other jobs.” Getting back to my question he said that the situation has changed over the last 10 to 15 years for Indian writers in English. “In recent times there is an increase in English writings for Indian readership and it’s good.”

I mentioned his rejection of the John Llewellyn prize in 2005 because it was sponsored by the Mail on Sunday whose editorial line, according to Kunzru, has been racist. “A writer may or may not stay connected with other social aspects. I prefer to stay connected and felt that I need to raise voice against the toxic atmosphere against the non-Whites that British press was creating,” Kunzru asserted.

In this context I asked him about his opinion on Arundhati Roy’s views on Kashmir. “She’s now more of an activist. Whether I agree with her views or not is a different matter. But, I have no problem in her voicing an opinion,” Kunzru, who is partly of Kashmiri descent, replied.

We then talked a bit about situation in Kashmir. Kunzru hoped that situation would be better there, though there is politicisation of the entire issue.

I had met well-known Kashmiri poet Rehman Rahi few days before. I told Kunzru about that meeting and whatever the poet had told me about the need to inculcate Kashmiri language and literature. Kunzru kept quiet for a while. “My family left Kashmir many years ago. I don’t know the language,” he said with a sad tone that sounded genuine. Then as if to make up for his not knowing the language, he added that he knows “bit of Hindi” and is a fan of Bollywood.

We go back to his writings again.
His second novel Transmission sees Arjun Mehta, an Indian software programmer, who wants to live his American dream and joins an American software company only to be laid off, creating a computer virus, to save his job. The novel includes lot of technical intricacies and at times becomes a sci-fi. I mentioned that to Kunzru. “I prefer to describe it as a mainstream novel rather than a sci-fi,” he replied. He then referred to his days as a ‘Technology journalist’ when he had to travel the American West Coast and meet experts. “That experience did help. Moreover, I also sought expertise of some anti-virus experts to know about the process of virus writing and the global network that is used to sample a computer virus,” he informed about the research work that was necessary for the novel which might be turned into a film. “There are three offers for Transmission. Mira Nair has the rights for The Impressionist,” Kunzru said about the silver screen possibilities of his works.

I read out few among the many accolades and praises that he has earned over the years from the reviewers. Kunzru smiled. ‘How do you define your writings,’ I asked. “That’s an impossible thing for me to judge,” he replied. “But, I guess, now my writing is getting quieter,” he added.

Kunzru has also penned short stories, a collection of which, titled Noises, has been available to Western readers. “It’s not widely available in India,” he said. ‘Which among the two formats of short stories and novels do you enjoy writing,’ I asked. “Well… I enjoy writing short stories though it is a difficult format with limited space and word limit,” he said. Some of his short stories are now getting published in The New Yorker, Kunzru informed.

Anything that he is planning to write or would wish to write, I probed. He didn’t try to avoid it like some other authors I have interviewed before and told me about his a possible novel based in the deserts of Nevada. “There are lots of themes on which I want to write, including the war in Iraq. But, a writer must know what material he can handle,” Kunzru said. Besides, he is also planning a BBC radio documentary on 19th century anarchists in the UK. That’s good, I thought. Hari Kunzru has a rather groovy voice.
Girls might love it.

What followed next was our discussion about his Pakistani friends and the race relations in the UK on which I had done a study.
That was off the record.
(A part of the interview was published in Sakaal Times of Pune
on February 15, 2009)