Interview: Siddharth Chowdhury, author, The Time of the Peacock
Your novel is set in and around contemporary Indian English language publishing, a world that you know well. You seem amused and equally exasperated with the ongoings. Would you agree?
The making of books interests me very much. The commissioning and selection, the editorial process, the casting off, the design, the fonts, the jacket copy, the marketing choices, the dynamics between editors and authors; everything about publishing and the writerly life fascinates me. In Peacock I set out to write a Marx Brothers farce but the final result, I am afraid, is anything but that. But then that always happens with my novels.
Like your other writing, you return to Patna in this novel. Why is there so little of/from Patna in Indian English language fiction? Do you ever think of yourself as a Patna writer based in Delhi?
With Peacock, I bring back Ritwik Ray from Patna Roughcut after 15 years. He is not a young novelist anymore. India has changed, so has publishing and he is at odds with this world. Well, he was always odd to start with but he has got odder along the way. Patna has always been part of Indian writing in English. From Forster onwards. A Suitable Boy is primarily set in Patna, only Seth calls it Brahmpur. I think of myself as a storyteller, not necessarily one based or invested only in Patna, London, or Delhi.
One of your characters in the novel speaks about writing short novels. Is that a form you find alluring?
I have always admired short novels. The density and fitness of a Catcher in the Rye or Answered Prayers is very alluring to me. The control is greater too I feel. I strive for that in my fiction.
I also noticed your usage of Hindi and Bhojpuri words such as jagruk, dukandari, batiyayen without italicizing them. These words are part of our everyday speech or perhaps the way you imagine your characters would talk. Would you tell us a little more about this linguistic aspect of your writing?
In my fiction, I mostly use the rhythm method. The vernacular words whether it be Hindi, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Malayalam or Urdu are sometimes used just for their shape and sound, how it rolls on my tongue, as a suggestion of a mood. And, of course, also to further the story and as a code between intimates. There is no need to italicize them because they are everyday words and most Indians would know them anyway. As for readers outside the subcontinent, they could always find out if they are interested. Like I do with Roth or Marquez.
In the novel, you say very few biographies reached Patna bookshops though most fiction did. Do you think provincial readers read differently as compared to their metropolitan counterparts?
Well, very few people read literary biographies. It is an acquired taste at the best of times. So of course fewer copies would reach bookstores. Why only Patna, I am sure it is the same for Delhi and Calcutta too. ‘Provincial’ readers, when I was growing up, read everything that they could get their hands on. If, in the morning it was James Hadley Chase, at night it could be Patricia Highsmith; or Harold Robbins and Nirmal Varma for that matter. They didn’t have the luxury of discrimination. Books were expensive and hard to come by. Nowadays, of course, internet bookselling has changed everything. You can order the very same books in Patna or Delhi or Mumbai. You don’t have to depend on the ignorance or the lack of it of your neighbourhood bookseller anymore.
Sukanya De, the literary agent in your novel is also an interesting character. How do you view the rise of the literary agent in the last decade or so in India, and do you think it has impacted Indian publishing for the better?
I think the rise of literary agents in India is a good thing for young writers. They can help them negotiate contracts and heartbreak better. But I think the policy of some Indian publishers in recent times, like their counterparts in the West, to only consider agented manuscripts is self-defeating. You are giving up your agency and privilege. I am a great believer in the unsolicited manuscript and the slush pile. The best and most widely read editor in the house, not necessarily the youngest one, should be assigned to that detail. Sukanya De, in the novel, is going through a moral and existential crisis, which many brilliant editors, agents and publishers suddenly encounter in their forties. When they look back on their legacy for the first time and realize that 90 per cent of the books they have published are garbage. It is not uncommon. But most overcome it. After all, 10 per cent is not a bad average. The constant hucksterism of modern-day publishing doesn’t help. One has to do a reset with one’s priorities then.
Angika Raag, the writer in your novel who wins a foreign residency is misrepresented as a Dalit writer. What does this say about our literary culture or what are you trying to say through such a character choice?
Along with many other things, Peacock is about caste. About phylum. And the rabbit hole that it is. John Nair, the editor in the novel realizes that too much knowledge about caste is as dangerous as too little. One should ideally be indifferent to it. I second that. As to fully fathom the feminine mystique that is Angika Raag, one will have to read the novel in its entirety. I am not giving anything away here.
Finally, your novel also critiques the current political regime. Ramanuj, the poet-activist character in your novel remarks, “You write in English. Nobody shoots your kind. You are safe.” Is that why you are writing?
I write the way I do because I can. And I can shoot too. I do not need any nigehbaani. I am, of course, thinking of the great Jagjit Kaur and Libby Rana here.
Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune