Indians may not be too familiar with the plays of Tom Stoppard, but the prolific British playwright is no stranger to India. "Like Vikram Seth, we were Bata people. My father was a doctor with the Bata shoe company at Zlin, Czechoslovakia," he says at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Fleeing Nazi occupation, Stoppard (originally family name Straussler) came to India with his mother and brother and ended up attending Mt Hermon's School in Darjeeling during the war years. Several decades later, he came back to Darjeeling to find the place "smelling of exhaust fumes and Land Rovers rather than horses".
At the impromptu press conference though, Stoppard refused to take the stage, preferring to balance himself at the edge of the slightly raised platform. One learns that he does not use a computer to write. And that he finds it "difficult" to come up with stories, plots and characters. "Writing mostly boils down to what will be the next line. As for the structure of the work, you can anyway be inventing it. If a play works out well, the author should be feeling lucky rather than clever," he says.
The canvas of inspiration is diverse for Stoppard. His 1993 play Arcadia, which probes the relation between past and present and order and disorder, drew from James Gleick's chronicling of the development of chaos theory. "Arcadia mines in a crude way the progression into mathematical chaos," Stoppard says. His 1988 play Hapgood is a metaphor on quantum mechanics.
In fact, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the 1966 play that catapulted Stoppard to dramatic superstardom, was one of the few occasions where the play's idea was suggested by someone else. Stoppard had been attending a production of Hamlet with a friend, and his friend asked him to focus on these two characters on the margins of Shakespeare's play. The discussion inevitably turns to filmmaking. Stoppard won an Academy Award for co-writing Shakespeare in Love. "Film work is more of an interruption," he says. "Shakespeare was pretty gay in the film I was given to look at. I didn't wish to adapt it. But I just loved the job, and I rewrote it."
At another session, speaking about the experience of translating one of his plays to film, Stoppard reflects on the horrors of foreign hands touching his work. "I realised I was the only one who wouldn't be concerned to protect it. I was the only one who could mess around with it. The idea of someone adding something was nauseating."
The question of favourites comes up. Stoppard admires the works of contemporaries like David Hare and Harold Pinter but doesn't want to answer. "I don't have an ear to the ground, am not the minister of theatre," he says. He does, however, air his displeasure about the fact that three-fourths of the London stages run musicals.
A member of the audience asks whether Stoppard expects his readers to understand all the subtle references or in-jokes he peppers his works with. "One doesn't expect everyone to get everything," he shoots back. "In fact, I like putting in a few references in every work that almost certainly no one will understand I am most often described as 'too clever by half'. I have been hearing that for 40 years now. I guess they call me that because I am."