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Vikram Chandra: A writer's life is boring

Vikram Chandra’s family includes screenwriters, filmmakers, movie critics. But he prefers the printed page, and we couldn’t be happier.

brunch Updated: Apr 07, 2015 18:10 IST
Nihit Bhave
Nihit Bhave
Hindustan Times
Vikram Chandra,Prem Rog,Sacred Games's face it, Vikram Chandra probably knows more about Mumbai’s underworld than you know about the financial capital above the ground. You’ve probably loved Sacred Games simply because he made the mafia so human, so easy to understand.

If Chandra’s book seemed cinematic (and it will soon be a TV series) it may be because it’s in Chandra’s genes. His mother, Kamna, wrote Prem Rog (1982) and Chandni (1989). His sister, Tanuja, is a filmmaker and screenwriter. And his other sister, Anupama Chopra, is the film critic for the Hindustan Times.

Vikram Chandra, however, has largely stayed away from films; the screenwriter for Mission Kashmir (2004) says filmmaking is too "collaborative" for his taste.

For readers, this is only a good thing, Chandra has written about Mumbai, magical realism, even computer programmes and coding. The writer and university professor talked about why trying new things is important.

Isn’t writing the most romanticised profession?
(Laughs) Yes, that’s true. The reason you cannot make an interesting realistic film about a writer’s life is that then you’d just have to show the person sitting at a desk for hours, writing. Nobody talks about the actual effort that goes into the writing process. It’s a grind. People usually think about the perks after their book comes out. But it’s a boring life. And that’s good! If you have too many distractions, you won’t be able to, well, write.

You spent nine years researching Sacred Games. Is there room for 900-page, in-depth books these days?
There’s a great pleasure in short bites, the flurry of information day by day, minute by minute is exhilarating. Research has become easier. It’s all there online. But it has resulted in suspicious readers. We’ve become wary of the source of information because faking it is so easy.

I, however, research for the sheer pleasure of it – it gives me a lot of knowledge about a lot of things. I spend a month in some obscure nook and cranny of a subject. It might never show up in my actual work, but it has influenced it in some sense.

Is literary fiction threatened by the pop-fiction tsunami in India?
Most literary fiction writers sound dissatisfied – they complain about the fact that publishing houses aren’t coming out with enough literary work, or that authors can self-publish so easily now. But I don’t agree. I don’t think the readership for literary novels is decreasing. It’s just that another form of fiction, pop fiction, has suddenly bloomed.

Why didn’t you bank on the character of Sartaj Singh after the people’s response to him in Sacred Games and Love And Longing In Bombay?
I’m not very commercially smart. I felt like I was done with that character for a while, so I moved on. I’m driven only by curiosity. So I just move on to the subject that grabs my attention. Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code (his most recent book) revealed itself to me as I wrote it. I couldn’t describe the book for the longest time. A university colleague said it was ‘experimental non-fiction’. Perhaps this is the new image I identify with – an experimental writer [Laughs].

Any pet peeves as a reader?
I’m addicted to plot. I like it when things happen. If all the characters do is go to the supermarket and come back, it’s a bit of a downer. The book needs to have good pace; the narrative has to be moving forward.

You aren’t involved in the writing for the miniseries based on Sacred Games. Is it hard to give up control?
Trying to adapt your own work is dangerous. It can drive you crazy. I’m too close to the subject, so I don’t know if I can re-imagine it for another medium. I just saw Gone Girl and it was fantastic. If you can pull it off to that level, then nothing like it.

How often do you get mistaken for Vikram Chandra (the CEO of NDTV) or Vikram Seth?
All the time! I’ve even received e-mails addressed to Vikram Chandra, asking me to appear on a show. I believe somebody on his show even told him that HIS book Love And Longing In Bombay was good! Generally, people from the West who don’t know a lot about Indian writing are hazy about which Vikram I am.

On my bookshelf
Vikram Chandra doesn't stick to a genre while writing and he definitely doesn't stick to one while reading. Here are the books on his diverse Kindle:

He’s consumed by Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling: A sci-fi novel about an old woman who regains her youth.

He’s just finished reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, a historical drama about a young girl trapped in slavery.

Stephen King’s Desperation
is on his Kindle, too, but he’s given up on it for now, but says he’ll return to give it another shot.

There are also obscure books about the history of mathematics and the mathematicians of the 8th, 9th and 10th century, which he’s sure no one will be interested in.

Follow @misterbistar on Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 4, 2015

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First Published: Jan 03, 2015 17:09 IST