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My review of Imayam’s Pethavan in The Hindu

http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/translation-of-pethavan-the-begetter/article7590569.ece

Imayam’s Pethavan (The Begetter)

August 29, 2015 The Hindu Sunday Magazine

If you are looking for a happiness-enhancing read, do not bother with Pethavan (The Begetter). If you are looking for a grand theory of life, do not bother with Pethavan. If you are looking for a clear –as- hell mirror to what life is like for those trapped in the insane, inhuman world of caste identity, then do consider reading this book.  It will deliver that world to you as it is with no extra embellishments, no soothing salves.

The plot is eerily simple. Pazhani’s daughter Bhakkiyam has done the unthinkable. She has fallen in love with a Dalit sub-inspector. The village panchayat has already delivered several ultimatums to Pazhani. He must kill his daughter come what may or face the consequences.  It is a question of caste honour and caste, after all, is supreme. If Pazhani does not kill his daughter, he and his family risk facing a series of terrible consequences: Bhakkiyam herself might be gang-raped by a caste mob, their house may be set on fire, their land and livelihood will be snatched from them, if they are still alive, that is. It is a zero-sum game. The stakes can’t be higher.   When the story begins, a woman with a baby on her hips is dispensing casual advice to Pazhani on how to murder his daughter.  Before we can quite recover from that, we are hurtled into the un-joy ride of the rest of book.  You cannot breathe easy.  For there is more to come. And then, some more.

In her note, translator Gita Subramanian says that translating the story was a very emotional experience for her. She writes of her decision to side-step the dialect of the original, to avoid Indian English and to stick with “simple, straightforward language”.  A wise thing to do really – for anything else would detract attention from the life unfolding in front of our eyes.

In a case of life imitating art, Pethavan eerily anticipated the Divya-Ilavarasan affair. But perhaps it is best not to harp on this unhappy “co-incidence”, given how common and under-reported honour killings are. As Imayam writes in his foreword:

I have only chronicled the lives of the witnesses who bear testimony to the way Tamil society lived. They live: animated witnesses who determine what literature is and who is a writer…. History does not give importance to an individual’s or a family’s life story. On the contrary, it is the story of a society that should be written. That is the life of a place – the life of an era. I write a story to record the contemporary state of society…

There are two very remarkable things about the story: one, its sheer energy and pace and, two, the unexpected tenderness at the core of it all. In a brutally violent world, a world where justice, reason and fair play are entirely absent, how is tenderness even possible?  How can people without choices act with tenderness?  But they can and they do, as Pazhani and Selvarani, Bhakkiyam’s crippled younger sister demonstrate.  Pazhani’s mother Thulasi pleads with him not to “chop off the family’s banana tree”.  Bhakkiyam, we learn eventually, was born after many long years to Pazhani and Samiyammal. The metaphor of the banana tree used to describe Bhakkiyam tugs at our hearts, as do the concluding scenes. The other metaphor used to describe her is equally powerful: “Bhakkiyam lay by the wood stove, dehydrated, like a pumpkin plant that has been uprooted and left to wither away.” Indeed, everything and everyone in Pazhani’s miserable household is withering away.  Pazhani’s wife Samiyammal appears dead to the world.  She too is a victim of an environment that is toxic and inescapable.  Selvarani is “like a chick shivering in the cold”.  There is no escape, it would seem, for any of them.

Imayam’s story leaves us with many unanswered questions.  Here is one that will perhaps haunt me the most: what becomes of Selvarani, Bhakkiyam’s sister?  I don’t know why I should care about her more than I do about the others but I do.

A translation such as this one is as much a political act as it is an aesthetic one. It directs our attention to issues that threaten to undermine the very fabric of our humanness, issues that must no longer be brushed under the carpet.

My review of Vikram Seth‘s The Rivered Earth (The Hindu, February 5, 2012):

http://www.thehindu.com/arts/books/article2856798.ece

“Seth wrote and Roth set” — Vikram Seth’s pun on the collaborative project that is The Rivered Earth — can never quite sum it up. It is hard to imagine what it must have meant for a literary artist like Vikram Seth to write with the consciousness that his words would soon be translated into music, composed and sung in some of England’s most beautiful cathedrals; hard despite the lengthy general introduction and the conversations between Seth, composer Alec Roth and violinist Philippe Honorè. For what exactly is the relationship between poetry and song, between librettist, composer and musician? What does it mean to travel that circle? A libretto comes to life in some kind of liminal space.

The Rivered Earth is a collection of four libretti written between 2006 and 2009 and performed during those years at different festivals. For the first three libretti, Seth draws upon the Chinese, the European and the Indian civilisations. The last is a libretto on the elements in nature. It is not always that the libretto is written in close collaboration with the composer.

In this case though, not only has the librettist created the text with the composer in mind (and often within sight); the composer too has composed with the violinist in mind. A libretto therefore is quite a different kettle of fish from a poem on the page; it is realised fully only in its performance.

As Seth says in his introduction, “words are all very well, but the success of a musical work lies in its music”. So while the librettist writes with an awareness of the musical future of the piece, the composer works with an awareness of its acoustic, visual and dramatic possibilities.

The texts are interleaved and each bears the imprint of another’s vision. This inevitably introduces its own complications. Seth tells us that version one of his poem, “Fire”, was rejected by Alec Roth as something that wouldn’t work in performance. This led, of course, to the writing of the rather magical version two.

Special in many ways

The Rivered Earth is special in other ways as well. The venue where much of the work was created, for one thing: the Old Rectory in Bemerton, Salisbury, where the 17th century poet, musician and priest lived and died. “Host”, which is part of the libretto “Shared Ground”, speaks movingly of Seth’s own relationship with Herbert and his house, the house that he eventually ended up buying: “How could I know/Its stones, its trees, its air,/The stream, the small church, the dark rain would say:/’You’ve come; you’ve seen; now stay’.” But Herbert is not an overpowering influence. He is a gentle host who “stands just out of mind and sight” that our poet “may sit and write.”

In his conversation with Seth, Roth too speaks of the effect that the Old Rectory and Herbert’s poetry have had on him: “…as a teenager, when I had singing lessons, I sang some of Vaughan Williams’s settings of Herbert, ‘Five Mystical Songs‘, and I learned quite a lot from that about setting English texts to music. So for me, there was a particular atmosphere to the place where he’d lived.”

Brilliant introduction

The Rivered Earth is one of those books where the introduction outdoes in length the work itself. And yet what in other books would have been an annoyance isn’t so in this case.

Seth’s brilliant and insightful general introduction to the work is of great value in itself, for it attempts to do that difficult thing: reflect on the creative process, which, in this case, is a three way affair connecting words to composition to music.

The book can be a bit of a reviewer’s nightmare precisely because of the interleaved nature of the texts, their existence in another dimension as music and the lack of access, barring one YouTube video, to anything other than the words on the page.

As poems, the ones in “Shared Ground” perhaps work best. They are quintessential Seth made richer by the fact they are directly inspired by George Herbert and pay tribute to him both in their content as well as in their form. Entirely mono-syllabic, in keeping, Seth says, with Herbert’s spirit of simplicity, the poems are playful (invoking the shape of an hourglass in “Oak” and chasing after the word “bright” in “Flash”) even as they skim the surface and plunge swiftly into what lies beneath. In their diction and their hold over rhythm, they work well as poems.

For the poems in the first, the Chinese section, “Songs in Time of War”, Seth has used his translations of the eighth century Chinese poet Du Fu. Since one has already seen these translations in Three Chinese Poets — Seth’s other collection — this section is a bit of a disappointment. But the poems, it appears, have been re-ordered and patterned to a narrative. Deeply poignant and brimming with quiet feeling, the poems remain special and Du Fu speaks to us from across the centuries.

Powerful yet light

For the poems in the third section, “The Traveller”, Seth has used the Rig Veda as a structural base and dwelt on the stages of life through which human being travels. Ambitious in its scope, this section weaves together texts from traditions as diverse as Pali, medieval Hindi and Tamil, exploiting the resonance of Kannagi’s anger and anguish expressed in her question “is there a god?” for musical effect.

Seth’s own verses nest boldly amidst the literary and philosophical wealth of the Dhammapada, the Rig Veda and the Silappadikaram, making The Rivered Earth a text that resonates both in the musical as well as in the literary sense. This is equally true of course of the preceding sections and of the final one on the elements for they too pay tribute to other writers and thinkers. The sense of continuum is powerful and could be potentially overpowering and yet The Rivered Earth manages to retain a lightness. In the last section, “Seven Elements”, the poet segues into the spirit of “Fire”: Fa-yaah/O fayah- fayah- fayaaah/Dizayaah/Hot hot hot…”.

With charming candour and lack of self-consciousness, Seth uses every trick in the book to woo us; from translation to calligraphy to references to open tributes to other literary traditions. The Rivered Earth is the sort of text that glimmers with the lovely promise of treasures yet to be fathomed.

The Rivered Earth; Vikram Seth, Hamish Hamilton, Rs. 399.

Keywords: The Rivered EarthVikram Seth

  1. My review of Cheran’s A Second Sunrise (The Hindu, May 6, 2012):

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/article3389292.ece

It is a book I didn’t want to get to the end of. Because I wanted to taste the poems slowly, word by word. The Sri Lankan Tamil poet Rudhramoorthy Cheran writes with tenderness and precision about love, the sea, war, loss and devastation. Brilliantly translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström and Sascha Ebeling, A Second Sunrise contains some of Cheran’s finest, most lyrical poems. The poems are like mini-bombs set to blow a hole through your heart. They bear witness to the tragedy of the Sri Lankan civil war, a war that Cheran describes as an “apocalypse” in a poem of the same name: “We have all gone away; / there is no one to tell our story./ Now there is left/ only a great land wounded.” And yet Cheran is telling us that story.

As Sascha Ebeling points out in his afterword, there is hope in the story that Cheran tells us, hope in the fact that writing survives even in a wounded land. Words must bear witness where nothing else can. “I could forget all this,” Cheran says, proceeding to list half a dozen gruesome war sights. The poems conclude by gesturing gently towards the rape and killing of an upcountry Tamil woman, a tea estate worker who was cooking rice in a pot even as her children sat hidden beneath the tea bushes. “How shall I forget the broken shards/ and the scattered rice/ lying parched upon the earth?”

Quick images

In the spell they wield over us, some of the poems might as well be witchcraft. The images are quick and sharp: “Upon your rain-streaked face/ a single strand of wet hair/ falls to your neck/ a lamb gone astray.” (“A Rainy Day”) The personal is always stretched to invoke the political, and relationships teeter on the edge of the war that is raging. Partly autobiographical, “A Letter to a Sinhala Friend” describes the poet’s meeting with a young Sinhala woman during an archaeological excavation of the ancient city of Maanthai. The poet and the Sinhala woman are drawn to one another and for a delicious, if temporary, moment in time the war is almost forgotten.

Cheran offers a tongue-in-cheek description of the stereotypes held by the Sinhala people about the Tamils, a people from an “unseen and distant land” who (as the Sinhala woman has doubtless heard) “sow lead-shot from guns/ instead of seeds; a place/ half full of two-storey houses,/ half full of terrorists”. That stereotype now lies broken and the poet poses before the Sinhala woman the obvious question: “Did our different languages, after all,/ put such distance between us/ that we could not smile together/ savouring/ the beauty of falling ponnocchi flowers…?” A poem that is quintessentially Cheran in the way it yokes together the themes of love and war.

The devastation that war brings in its wake is powerfully expressed in “Amma, Don’t Weep”, a poem about a woman who has lost her husband and must now raise her little boy. In a land where there is “no longer a Pandyan king/ to recognise blood-guilt”, the poet advises the woman to tell her young son that “this sorrow continues/ tell him the story of the spreading blood/ tell him to wage war/ to end these cruelties.”

A Second Sunrise was written on the occasion of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 by Sinhala policemen. Many rare books and manuscripts were consumed by the fire. The poem’s quiet, almost eerie beginning sets the stage for what is to come: “No wind that day;/ even the sea was dead, no waves rising.” The poet sees “another sunrise”, the burning of the library. In a clarion call for action, he asks his people: “Who were you waiting for,/ your hands tied behind your backs?… Out of the streets/ where the embers still bloom,/ rise, march forward.”

Anger and anguish in Cheran’s work are tempered by a quiet, deep stillness, a stillness that is reflected most fully in his awareness of the sea, a recurring image in many of his poems: “Waves lap along the shore/ spreading within me/ the sea” (“The Sea”).

Playful poetry

On occasion, the poems are playful. “Kissing a Woman with Glasses in the Summer”, for instance. As Lakshmi Holmström points out in her note on the translations, Cheran is also writing from within the Tamil poetic tradition, drawing on its categories of akam (the inner poetry of love) and puram (the public poetry of war).

Given syntactical and other differences between languages, poetry is never easy to translate. Perfect equivalence or word by word “faithfulness” is not a sensible goal. In the translations of Holmström and Ebeling, Cheran’s poetry lives and breathes anew, retaining its magic of image, mood and tone.

III. My review of Salman Rushdie‘s The Enchantress of Florence (The Hindu, May 4, 2008)

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2008/05/04/stories/2008050450020100.htm

If you are the sort of reader who begins at the end, you will first bump into the six page long bibliography appended to The Enchantress of Florence. Despite this, however, Rushdie’s latest novel remains a rich re- imagining of history with scarcely a trace of the scholarly heaviness that one has come to expect of fiction that grapples with historical and political themes. The enchantment, thankfully, is alive and kicking – at least for the most part, and the narrative retains a seductive lightness. But while readers escape the fate of having to plod their way through historical detail, there is another path, the path of mirrors and reflected story lines in Mughal India and Renaissance Florence, that they have to traverse. This then is the trade off, essentially.

While The Enchantress of Florence is a story about many things and a story about story-telling itself, it is anchored if somewhat insecurely around the visit of a yellow-haired European, Nicola Vespucci or Mogor dell’Amore, to the court of Akbar. Claiming that he is the son of Akbar’s grand-aunt, the European restores public memory of Qara Koz or the hidden princess who was cast out of Mughal history for choosing her conqueror over her family. The hidden princess becomes the ultimate traveler in this cross-cultural tale, a traveler who shifts allegiance with disloyal ease. When Akbar falls in love with her memory, moving his imagined queen Jodha out of the way, it is a love that smacks of incest and blasphemy.
Snooping around the gaps of history, Rushdie delves into the minds of historical characters such as Akbar to string together a multi-themed narrative about time, travel, identity, power, desire and story-telling. The over-arching metaphor that binds these themes together is the mirror: the hidden princess has a slave girl who is her mirror, the Florentine Argalia is, to an extent, the mirror of Mogor dell’Amore, Jodha Akbar has a mirror in the hidden princess, the artists Mughal artist Dashwanth who paints Qara Koz and the Florentine artist Filipepi who paints the other enchantress in the novel – Simonetta are mirrors of one another, and so on. On a larger scale, the Mughal empire and Renaissance Florence mirror each other as well. As Mogor dell’Amore tells Akbar, “This may be the curse of the human race…Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.” As the stories twist and turn in front of mirrors, reality becomes a mirage. The lake at Sikri is a mirror too, reflecting the shifting fortunes of the city.
With his usual irreverence, Rushdie transforms Akbar into a fictional character, exploring his psyche at leisurely length. There are insightful if somewhat tongue-in-cheek comments on Akbar’s attempt to switch to the democratic “I” from the royal “we” and the difficult issue of handling power, the ethical burden of being king. On the other hand, Qara Koz’s access to power is of a very different sort. She has to be enchantress in order to rule. The identity of women in the narrative is highly fluid and under constant threat.
In Rushdie’s universe, there are two kinds of people: those who travel and those who prefer not to. Jodha as the queen who never leaves the palace thinks of travel as something that removes you “from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it.” In this, she is like Ago Vespucci, the Florentine, who believes that it isn’t “necessary to go questing across the world and die among guttural strangers to find your heart’s desire.” Yet, stories travel only because people travel – people like Mogor dell’Amore, Argalia and Qara Koz herself. Connected to travel is the notion of time. Mogor dell’Amore tells Akbar that in the new world, “the ordinary laws of space and time did not apply”, that time had been introduced to this world by the European voyagers. The point of the novel, however, is not that one culture is superior to the other but that both are equally fantastic, that both abound in stories and that travelers ensure that these stories, which are really mirrors of one another, travel back and forth.
There is a downside to reading The Enchantress of Florence which perhaps those who know Rushdie would in any case anticipate: it is overdone in parts and at times the story more than runs away with itself. There is also the curse of the long sentence: perfectly constructed and reasoned out no doubt, but still a bit over the top. Take, for instance, this one: “[Akbar learned] about the dignity of the lost, about losing, and how it cleansed the soul to accept defeat, and about letting go, avoiding the trap of holding on too tightly to what you wanted, and about abandonment in general, and in particular fatherlessness, the lessness of fathers, the lessness of the fatherless, and the best defences of those who are less against those who are more: inwardness, forethought, cunning, humility, and good peripheral vision.” The occasional lapse into hyphenated coinage is no less annoying: He must have been mad to bring you,’ Argalia told her when blood-filthy and kill-sick he found her abandoned at the death-heavy end of the day.” One can’t help feeling victimized at times by the mirror itself Its many reflections, made possible by a Rushdiean cleverness, get a bit tedious and reading the novel begins to feel like work. Fortunately, Rushdie’s humour compensates for much of this. We smile when Rushdie describes Queen Gulbadan:
“When Gulbadan started climbing the family tree like an agitated parrot there was no telling how many branches she would need to settle on briefly before she decided to rest.”
The Enchantress of Florence is a book that will work for readers who are okay with getting a bit lost. Like Dashwanth, the artist who disappears into his paintings of the hidden princess, Rushdie demands that we permit ourselves to be sucked into his magic world of mirrors.

  1. Conversations with Paul Theroux*

Posted on May 12, 2009

*Interview with Paul Theroux by K.Srilata (The Hindu Sunday magazine – 24/2/2008)

Excerpt from The Old Patagonian Express (London: Penguin, 1979)
One of us on the sliding subway train was clearly not heading for work. You would have known it immediately by the size of his bag. And you can always tell a fugitive by his vagrant expression of smugness; he seems to have a secret in his mouth – he looks as if he is about to blow a bubble. But why be coy? I had woken in my old bedroom, in the house where I had spent the best part of my life…

Paul Theroux, American travel writer and novelist, whose best known works are The Old Patagonian Express and The Great Railway Bazaar, walks into one of the business rooms of the Taj Connemara where I am waiting. He gives me the impression of being a restless man, the sort who might well be a difficult interview customer. But then, the restlessness perhaps is an extension of his wanderlust.
In introducing myself to him, I tell him helpfully that my name rhymes with Srilanka. For the first ten minutes before we ease ourselves into the interview, he is asking me half a dozen questions about the civil war in that country and what people make of it…

Srilata: In The Old Patagonian Express, you have this line about travel being a vanishing act, while a travel book is the opposite, “the loner bouncing back bigger than life itself to tell the story of his experiment with space”. What makes you bounce back and tell that story of your travels? Don’t you ever find it burdensome – to have to come back and tell it all, the way one sometimes finds the camera a burden – or is it the eventual telling that drives you to travel in the first place?
Paul Theroux: When I am traveling, I am going with the motive of bringing as much back as possible. For instance, two years ago when I was in Chennai, I did a continuous trip – Uzbekistan to Jodhpur, Jaipur, Delhi, Amritsar, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and then Trichi and Colombo. Every day I woke up and wrote my notes intending to find out something about where I am. That is different from what I am doing on this trip. I am doing a lot of talking, very little listening. If I am planning to write a travel book, it is a mission. The travel writing is deliberate. So is the information gathering. I am offering myself as a sacrifice to experience…
Srilata: How do you approach fiction writing? For instance, in The Old Patagonian Express, you speak disapprovingly of the convention in some travel writing to start in the middle of things, landing the reader in a place you haven’t guided him to. You write of how travel really begins the second you wake up – for you are already headed for that foreign place…
Paul Theroux: It is a deliberate thing. Fiction again is deliberate. But with fiction, you are groping towards a conclusion of which you are unaware. So you have character, situation, story but you are never quite sure where you are going. That is the pleasure and also the anxiety of fiction. That you wake up in the morning and instead of going somewhere you are thinking -now what?
Srilata: What happens to the notion of plotting in your travel writing?
Paul Theroux: The plot of the travel book is its itinerary. It is a straight narrative of starting here and ending there. Travel writing is also a form of autobiography. I am writing about everything that happened to me, leaving very little out.
Srilata: The “I” in travel writing – doesn’t it become a character too?
Paul Theroux: Yes and you can pretend that you have a personality which you really don’t. But you can’t carry that off book after book. After a while, the truth comes out. In fiction, you can disappear…
Srilata: After all, both fiction and travel literature offer you ways of leaving the familiar behind or of seeing the familiar in fresh ways.
Paul Theroux: The Ice house in Chennai for instance… The ice came all the way from Maine, New England… It is a great connection between Chennai and the United States…
Srilata: How much do you read up about a place before you set off?
Paul Theroux: Quite a lot. But I don’t read travel books. I do factual reading, study maps. I like reading novels by people who live in a place and know all about it.
Srilata: It becomes apparent quickly enough that for you travel writing is not about pretty landscapes but about people. These people become vivid to us, vivid and sharp-edged. But you leave them behind, the way one doesn’t in fiction. There is not perhaps the same burden of pulling all the threads together, of relating what eventually becomes of these characters.
Paul Theroux: The English writer Pritchett – he wrote about Spain – he said that he was not really interested in churches and museums but in human architecture, the complexity of the people he met in Spain. I would say the same thing. The idea, as a travel writer, is to be an anonymous person. I talk to you, we talk about where you have been, what you have done, your family, your hopes, your experiences, your disappointments, your education, books you like… and then I go back and write it down or I write it down at the time. That is the stuff of writing. What I am doing now is the opposite. I am the focus of attention. That is a very bad thing for a traveler.
Srilata: Do you find that travel writing – more than fiction – frees you up to say what you wish, allows you a birds’ eye view of things?
Paul Theroux: Probably less. With travel writing, you have to stick to facts and you have to stick to chronology. You are a slave to the framework. There is much more freedom in fiction, much more invention. The writer can pretend to be anyone. You just need to be persuasive. But unless you are unusual, you can’t write fiction your whole career. George Simenon was an exception. He wrote 75 detective novels and 200 plus psychological novels. He was a serious novelist.
Srilata: You are a fairly prolific writer yourself… with 15 non-fiction and 31 fiction titles to your credit. Is that correct?
Paul Theroux: I have 43 books in all. But then I published my first book in 1967, have been at it forty years. I don’t have a full-time job. So I wake up in the morning and sit down to it…
Srilata: You did teach, didn’t you?
Paul Theroux: Yes, very early on. Since 1967, I have published a book every year. Some are longer than the others. Some more ambitious. Yes, if you google me, you will come up with a long list. But then, also, I am an old man!
Srilata: What does it all boil down to in terms of writing discipline? Hours a day, word counts, number of chapters…
Paul Theroux: I work every day when I am at home. Even when I am not at home. It involves having breakfast, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and then working till lunch time. And then afternoons – I work too. I like working outside. I live in Hawaii and so I can
Srilata: Where you do some bee-keeping…
Paul Theroux: I am a bee-keeper and I raise geese.. Just in a friendly way! Not to be killed and eaten. Yes, my day is disciplined. No one is telling me to work but there is really nothing else to do. I have realized that if I don’t work, I am not making any money, not really emptying my mind. I feel I must be creative… Not just creative but busy. I grew up in a family where if my mother saw me not doing anything, she would prod me to work. There was a serious work ethic in my family. That is not always a great thing. It is a nuisance sometimes.
Srilata: You have done some work on Naipaul and he is one of your inspirations…
Paul Theroux: Yes, I would urge you to read my book Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Let me ask you something. You have done some work on Indian writers, Indian women writers… Naipaul in his book A Writer’s People has been fairly critical of Indian writers, Indian women writers. He attacks their novels which are mostly published in the U.A. He says they are about Indian women who go to the U.S and write about their families. They are writing these family novels. Who are they writing for? Who is going to read their books? It is attack, attack, attack…
Srilata: Well, Naipaul is not one of my favourites! And I feel, like others, that Naipaul has not really looked at Indian writers who write in the regional languages. Some of these writers cannot be globalised easily, marketed all over the world. But it doesn’t make their work less significant.
Paul Theroux: Yes, writing is a mirror that a person is holding up to his society. So he has a readership right here. But in criticism, you have got to read the most savage and Naipaul is provocative. But I agree with you totally.
Srilata: The sheer range of your writing is impressive from The Mosquito Coast which is an adventure story of a family that rejects its homeland and tries to find a happier and simpler life in the jungles of Central America to The Elephanta Suite. There is a lot of “India” in your books. Is there a unifying thread somewhere?
Paul Theroux: India is big, complex.. .Like the states with its West, East and empty spaces and complexities. America was created. It was a deliberate construction. It is based on the constitution, not on religion. India is an ancient place but in terms of largeness and complexity the two are similar. About the unifying thread, I am very fascinated by the idea of an isolated person. I was fascinated by the idea of a little American in Africa. But I haven’t analysed it too much. If you get too conversant with your work, you begin writing to prove that that is your theme. I don’t re-read my books. I try not to take in interest in the thematic or in motifs… I like to think that everything I write is new.
Srilata: What is it like to live in Hawaii, knowing that it is set up to cater to tourists? What do you feel about that, as a travel writer?
Paul Theroux: If you drive 40 miles north of Honolulu, you are in the countryside. Honolulu is a busy place. I live on a farm, six acres. I don’t see my neighbours. More than 7 million tourists come to Honolulu. You don’t see them. We have an efficient society that processes 7 million tourists and most local people don’t notice.
Srilata: One last question. A standard one: What would you tell aspiring writers? You are doing a workshop tomorrow on travel writing…
Paul Theroux: I would say: Go away from home. College doesn’t matter. But read. If you come from Chennai, go to Assam… The first thing is to go away. You need to be independent… Don’t stay home and take lessons on writing. Every night, you mother will say to you: “You are a great writer!” or “Get yourself a real job.”… Writers associated with colleges and universities tend to have a very different career. I am not saying that it is better or worse. But it helps to go away. More precarious, but in the long run, more satisfying.

  1. On Humanities Education (The Hindu, September 3, 2012):

http://www.thehindu.com/education/college-and-university/article3854484.ece

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