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Unraveling Siddhartha Deb, a layer at a time

Siddhartha Deb is a New York based acclaimed author with his roots in Meghalaya. He contributes to various prestigious magazines and latest from his stable is "a nonfiction novel" - The Beautiful and The Damned. It's an incisive account of "new" India, writes Anjali Dawar. Read more

books Updated: Sep 26, 2011 08:27 IST

Just finished reading The Beautiful and The Damned and it brought back Gurcharan Das' India Unbound and Mark Tully's No Full Stops in India to my mind. Both chronicle India at important junctures. Siddhartha Deb's latest offering - The Beautiful and The Damned - a nonfiction novel by his own admission, has penned not only incisive but a very sympathetic picture of "new" India. Reached him on phone and then interviewed him by e-mail. Here's an insight into the author of this noteworthy work of nonfiction.

AD: North-east of the country was hit by a quake recently, are your friends and family safe? At a time like this, what do you feel being so far removed from your roots?

SD: Yes, everyone's safe, as far as I know. I've been reading some of the responses coming out of Sikkim, which seems to have been hit especially badly. But what I feel is not so much a sense of removal from my roots as a feeling of alarm at what looks like a series of warnings from nature; an earthquake in Sikkim, a hurricane in New York.

AD: In your own words, you "grew up in Shillong, a small town in the north-eastern hills of India that few people can find on a map." Now that you are biting the Big Apple what is your state of mind - one of constant nostalgia or an explorer's joy?

SD: I've had both states of mind -- the nostalgia and the exploration. Both have been immensely valuable, and both remain, but I'm at the beginning of another phase, the simplest manifestation of which might be a yearning for open spaces rather than the crowded street. Perhaps that's just nostalgia taking over, perhaps it's the sense that I'll need some distance from New York if I want to write about New York.

AD: A post grad from Presidency College and an MPhil from Columbia University, a contributor to The Guardian, The New Statesman, Harper's Magazine, London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement and presently an Associate Professor with The New School in New York; a fiction and non-fiction writer - how much of it was conscious aspiration and how much of it life unfolding?

SD: When you put it like that, in one long thread, it seems impressive. But I disown the Presidency College part of that bio. (In terms of facts, I did attend that overrated college, but I was miserable there and had a far better time when I did my master's at the rundown English department of Calcutta University, which was considerably less elite than Presidency and significantly more interesting.) Of course, there was aspiration: not one of these things came of themselves, and each involved considerable reinvention of the self. But there was a lot of struggle, defeat, failure, and loss between these achievements, and although my accomplishments are perfectly bourgeois in themselves, I had to be willing to give up on some other bourgeois comforts in order to achieve them. As a result, I own very little except for books and some gadgets, I live in a rented studio apartment of very modest dimensions, and it is only in my late thirties that the next meal and the next bill ceased to be a source of anxiety. I feel, most of the time, that the exchange was worthwhile, but for a while back there, I wasn't so sure.

AD: I listened to a podcast of you and Arundhati Roy speaking about 'Corruption and wealth in the new India' and your views border on activism. Do you feel as a journalist that there is a thin line between these two callings?

SD: I believe the neutral, objective journalist is a myth, one created by the vast structures of power that dominate us. Ultimately, I write because I care, and I care beyond the fame, recognition, success, and money that writing might on occasion bring, although I care for those things too. In that sense, I'm not a journalist, but a kind of freelance hack moving between forms to try and get at semblance of the truth. I don't have Arundhati's courage, which may be why I've never embraced activism full on, but that doesn't mean I never will or that in my own way I won't try to support those who are activists.

AD: You came across two approaches to tackling aftermath of gas leak in Bhopal - on one end of spectrum is Abdul Jabbar's closed, suspicious-of-West approach and on the other there's Greenpeace with their open and media savvy ways. But one gets a sense that you aren't really taking sides. Is it deliberate or inadvertant?

SD: I felt both approaches were relevant, the old-fashioned, rooted mass organization approach of Jabbar's (notice that I've changed the descriptive details -- there you have a wonderful instance of how no journalist is objective; not you and not I) as well as the virtual, globalized model used by Sathyu's. This is not just me being "fair" but something I feel.

AD: Your approach is quite literary. NYT reviewer Samanth Subramanian sums it up succinctly when he says that the book possesses "the fluid art of literature but also the sweat-stained craft of journalism." Even upon a surface reading one can see comic, tragic; flat, round characters emerging - the engineer with vague views; the paranoia of nano poem creator; Sarkar, the menacing hiring agent at the steel factory; the prostitute in Churachandpur figuring out how an IPod works or Chak's son losing one. But in the middle of all these nuanced characters some stereotyping seems to figure in your narrative - the affluent farmers speaking in unison, how politicians look and behave in reference to Rajkumar or the Bihari and Assamese guards. Comment

SD: Thanks. I was very much trying to write a nonfiction novel. I didn't want to make anything up but I wanted the texture of narrative, and these little details were what made that possible. As for when I chose the detail about the rich farmer texting while wearing sunglasses, I was using it for its combination of comedy, its menace and its place in the narrative arc as well as for the social critique it made possible. But if it didn't work for you, it didn't work for you, and maybe I failed there as a writer.

AD: There just isn't any black and white portrayal - Chak, Mahipal Reddy and Rao are as grey as they get. It seems you've takes explicit sides in the last section, where Esther is marginalised because of an unsympathetic employer and an equally dissonant social milieu, but elsewhere it's either the government or the capitalist bend which end up as culprits. Is that a fair assessment?

SD: A very fair assessment and this has to do with the novelistic approach. It's hard to write about anyone in detail without some empathy, and the villains in the book are really at the systemic level. I'd even say that Esther is no different from the other characters in that her employer isn't a villain, although she is perhaps one of the characters I warm up to most. (There's a little bit of north-eastern bonding going on, which led a British reviewer to speculate on a romance between me and her). But the government, the free market, management theory, neoliberal jargon, casteism, right-wing politics, Hindutva, the social milieu -- these are definitely the villains -- and we're mini-villains too for the parts we play in keeping these things as they are.

AD: The phrases you've used - high and low context struck me as immediately palpable in Indian context. And we heard Chak's interpretation of how US too has a tiered society. But what is your personal take? Compare the life in two countries keeping hierarchy as context.