Many critics of your work compare your writing to 19th-century novelists from Dickens to Tolstoy. Would you agree with that characterization? Do you find yourself drawn more to literature of that period?
I enjoy that kind of writing and that period as much as anything else. People often mention Dickens and Tolstoy in connection with my work but it is not as though I have undertaken any special study of their work. The only Dickens I had read till I took night classes in Toronto was in high school; I think we read Oliver Twist and an excerpt from A Christmas Carol. At university, I remember reading Hard Times, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and I think that was it, really.
I have not undertaken any special study, nor am I particularly drawn to these authors. In fact, if I were to choose my favorites, what I enjoy most, they would probably include some American writers, like Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Updike. Of course I do enjoy Chekhov and Turgenev - these 19th-century writers - but I do not have any special attachment to that period. But I'm not an expert in all this so if the critics think my writing is Dickensian or Tolstoyan I will thank them, and say I am flattered.
Would you agree though that at least stylistically your work is, in some ways, more reminiscent of 19th-century literature (for instance, the traditional mode of storytelling, the social realism, the linear narrative, and so on). A lot of contemporary writing tends to be more fragmented, non-linear, etc. Does that writing appeal to you at all?
It appeals to me when I read it but I cannot write like that. I have tried to write like that; for a while I get really involved and enjoy it but then it all starts to feel like a pointless exercise. It is just too clever by half; I don't like clever books, I like honest books. People may take issue with this saying the two are not necessarily incompatible. For me telling the story and being true to your characters is more important than demonstrating your skill with words, all your juggling acts, the high-wire acts, the flying trapeze acts. Some writers perform on the flying trapeze, which is fine, I suppose; you can go to the circus for an evening but you cannot go to the circus every day of your life. It gets too tedious.
Your previous novel, A Fine Balance, had in a sense a broader canvas than Family Matters although in many ways the two are quite similar. Could you comment on this?
So much of this is not conscious. I do know that both these books, for example, started with an image. It was not the idea of writing a big long story with a vast canvas at all; A Fine Balance was going to be a short novel. It started with the image of a woman at a sewing machine. There was this image, and then I decided that my novel was going to be set during the Emergency. So I had that conscious decision and I had the image of the woman at a sewing machine. Later of course I brought in more characters: the two tailors she hires and the student.
This book was going to be narrated in the first person, or if not the first person, at least from the point of view of the student. He was going to be living in that flat and was to observe the interaction of these four people while the Emergency would provide the backdrop.
As I began writing, though, the story grew and I found myself getting interested in other details of the characters' lives: Dina's life and where she had come from, why the tailors were there and where had they come from, and so on. So it all just grew and I was enjoying myself. It seemed to be working as I wrote so I began letting the canvas grow, as it were, letting it expand. I quickly realized that if I continued in this way, it was going to give me a unique chance to tell not just a story set in the city, but also a story about village life. India still lives in its villages (about 70-75 per cent of the population is rural) so this had a particular appeal for me. The novel would give me the chance to write about this student who comes from the North, the foothills of the Himalayas. I had traveled a little bit there, and found myself writing about it. That's how it turned into such a big book.
With Family Matters, the image that started it was the old man with Parkinson's and I think that may have come from a short story I wrote about 10 years ago. This story does not appear in Firozsha Baag; it came out much later. That story, about 15 pages long, narrated in the first person, is about a man in his mid-80s who is slightly paranoid and feels he is being exploited and ill-treated by his family. He has these delusions and lies awake at night and tells his story. I enjoyed that character very much so that is where this image may have come from to write Family Matters.
Family Matters I think has an internal canvas which is as complex as the external canvas of A Fine Balance; that is the only similarity I can perhaps point out. But there are concerns, primarily political ones, which both the books share. If you write about Bombay in the mid-'90s, especially if you give your characters a political consciousness, it is inevitable that they will sit and talk about what is happening in the city, what is appearing in the newspapers.
Despite the fact that you have lived away from Bombay for over 25 years, you depict the city in extraordinarily evocative terms: the splendor, the decay, the restlessness. How is it that you have retained such a vivid sense of a place you left so long ago?
I have never found it difficult. I think I have kept in touch well enough; I go back and visit, I talk to people here who visit there. Now of course air travel, the media, the global village, and the Internet keeps it all within reach. But nothing substitutes for first-hand experience; and I visit often enough to give me what I need.
Though I must say, it is not a conscious process of observing. I have never caught myself consciously observing and making notes. I do not do that. When you have grown up in one place and spent the first 23 years of your life there - that's how old I was when I left - it is almost as though you are never going to be removed from that place. Twenty-three years in the place where you were born, where you spent all your days with great satisfaction and fulfillment - that place never leaves you. All you have to do is keep updating it a little bit at a time. And it works.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I don't have much time to sit at my desk and work these days, thanks to these book fairs. But I'm always jotting down little ideas and phrases and fragments which may be useful some day.
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.