If Thomas Keneally is a writer of rather grim tales about prisoners and detainees, the stories he tells you when you meet him are unqualifiedly funny. The 72-year-old Man Booker winner (he won the award for Schindler’s Ark in 1982) is a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.
“I have always tried to adopt his principles in my life, which, mind you, is not easy all the time,” he says in Kolkata as part of a team of Australian authors visiting the now-postponed Kolkata Book Fair.
Keneally’s link with India does not stop with his familiarity with the father of the nation. “It dates back to when I was a very spiritual young man who had no girlfriends and read a lot of Tagore. Though the former state did not last too long, the love for Tagore did,” he says tongue firmly in cheek. But the writer, who believes that his wife Judy is a mixture of “Shiva and Kali” — an impish grin makes way for resounding laughter as he says this — has also known India through the writings of R K Narayan. “Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is one of my favourite books because of the majestic baroque nature of Indian ethnicity,” he says.
Indeed, ethnicity fascinates Keneally who is keen to visit India again and spend more time here. “I’m a fat old man who likes the luxuries of life. But I also believe that to experience a country one has to be with its people. I have done that in East Africa and China and would love to do the same here,” he emphasises.
|Sniffing between the cracks of cultures|
Meanwhile, a book tour or two in India is very welcome. Finding an Indian publisher for his books is also on Keneally’s agenda as he feels that reaching out to India through his British publishers is a fact that needs to be amended.
Like most Australians, cricket is very much in his scheme of things. “Talking politics, football and cricket was a part of every meal at home when I was growing up,” he reminisces, explaining their constant penetration into both his fiction and non-fiction. The writer who believes that one cannot write about human endeavour without getting into politics says, “I try to dress up rugby and cricket in posh terms in my writing. But it does not stop many other writers from regarding me as déclassé. However, it is my way of deconstructing opposition… like Derrida did Rousseau,” he says. “And I am a writer only because I failed to open the batting for my country,” adds Keneally before throwing his head back and laughing aloud.
Born in 1935 to Catholic parents who were “pretty left wing” in their views, Keneally feels that a strong sense of social justice pervaded his sensibilities while he was still young. “I’m not a good person. Like most novelists, I’m like a perverse child. I believe that the great stories lie in the cusp between cultures. There’s enough sex, drugs and rock n’ roll in that fold,” says the author whose oeuvre of fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature has always concerned itself with digging them out.