A maker of modern myths
Tokyo Cancelledis slated to be the next big thing in the literary world. A tête-à-tête with the author, Rana Dasgupta a few days short of the book's international launch.
13 passengers at an unnamed airport. 13 stories that follow - one from each of the passengers. From where does this rather unusual narrative structure spring?
Yes, the book has 13 separate stories that are at best connected by common underlying theme. Just the last story connects to the earlier ones, and the number 13 occurs in each one too. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales explored its times and I went through a lot of other medieval texts too.
These characters are also unusual …
I am interested in the uncanny, in the strangeness and horror of the uncanny. Many of the characters in the book live on the margins. I have flooded unknown spaces with narrative imagination, which transcends specific locales. The space remains undefined.
They are also from all over. Is that intentional?
The characters are from all over too, but geography is not important. The airport is in a sense 'non-space', not identifiable with any particular region. The book has utopian aspects - it crosses boundaries and the characters say marvelous things to each other. It raises questions of how we situate ourselves in this world, in our contemporary times.
But while the stories are from all over, they are not typical - there is very little description of the 'local flavour'. The book is rather ruthless in its introduction of places, and in this sense I expect it to be a challenge for the reader.
So what brings the characters together?
The people whose stories we hear are very isolated from each other. However there is a certain sameness about the people all over, whether they are from New York or London or Lagos. While there is celebration of the global space, the challenges - there is also cynicism. This book is not about solving things but asking certain questions.
The mythology of contemporary urban life is explored. The locations in the book are only incidental, they are not crucial to the crux.
The book instead looks at our egos - our place, our culture is better than anyone else's. And that is something I explore, looking at the sameness across cultures and trajectories of times. The degrees of textures of everyday lives span cultures and are very similar. Some stories reflect depression about the kind of lifestyles - for the most part we live in incredibly passive cultures. The airport in that sense is also a place of hope, of getting away.
Given that the characters are from different nationalities and cultures, how important are boundaries in your scheme?
The issues of movement and illegality are central concerns. There is definitely the dream of global imagination, where the boundaries can no longer play the role that humans have been accustomed to in recent history.
It is interesting to note that the number of refugees in today's 'normal, peaceful' times is as much as at the end of the Second World War, which is a period of devastation. Thanks to the media, refugee is today a word that almost at once has negative connotations - illegal, outsider, unauthorised. Whereas the person is just trying to improve his lot in life, they are deemed as criminals as soon as they try to move. European governments especially seem to follow this parochial humanism, being most suspicious of anyone they deem to be an outsider.
Actually movement also depends on factors like whether one has a passport or not, skills etc. The internet has blurred borders to an extent, but boundaries still play a crucial role in the contemporary world.
What have been the major influences on your narrative structure?
Well, as I said, medieval literature is one. I am also interested in fairy tales and children's literature. I have also been going through a lot of religious writing.
After French literature in my undergraduate course and media studies later, I worked for the corporate world for a while. But since 2001 I have been gathering my thoughts and have been writing, But it is only of late that I found time to put it all in one place and approach publishers.
Any Indian angle…
No particularly. While I have been in India for some time, and Delhi has provided its own perspectives to the book. But the book does not focus on India.
Your admired contemporary writers …
Well, Rushdie for one. Kafka, Joyce… but a lot of contemporary writing is not particularly ambitious. I find the earlier writing giving a freer reign to imagination. Films have been a major influence and my writing is quite filmic. I have watched a lot of Hollywood. When I have felt that I have put in enough in a particular part, I have stopped.
And you've started working on your next novel?
Yes. Actually this one is more of a story cycle, while the next one will be a novel about a prophet and his sayings. It is still in its early stages and will be able to talk about it more in some time.