Interview with the Author
Twice Written is a story of three young people: Prahlad, Ananya and Laila, set in the Bombay of the 80's. The story maps their hopes, aspirations, confusions and contradictions in terms of their histories, and in doing so, I am able to engage with the history of Bombay itself and present it as part of the narrative. A chance meeting of these three with a writer, Dorai, who returns to Bombay after disappearing for a period of thirteen years, brings in a new dimension into their already uneasy relationships. The writer eventually decides to "rewrite" their lives and the second part of my novel deals with this rewriting. So I wrote the first half of the book and Dorai the second half!
I live in Mumbai with my wife and daughter and I have lived here all my life except for some stints in London and Geneva. I work as a theoretical physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and I specialise in High Energy Physics. But, for me, it has never been physics to the exclusion of everything else. In fact, I believe my interests in literature, philosophy and culture invigorate my physics. So, at least for me, there is no tension between science research and novel-writing.
It took me four years and a half to complete the book and then it has been a (not-so-patient!) wait to get it published. I wrote whenever I felt like it but I am an early-morning person, so I often wrote in the mornings.
A spark may not be the right metaphor. It was more like a process of brewing and, at some point, you knew it had brewed enough and you needed to do something with it. So somewhere in the middle of 2004 I started thinking seriously about writing but never really got down to it. In November 2004, I met the late Meenakshi Mukherjee (who was then Prof of Literature at JNU) and she was the one who really encouraged me to go ahead and write, helping me to put to rest whatever doubts I had about writing.
Reactions? Well, most friends have been hugely supportive though I guess, especially in the initial stages, somewhat indulgently. Needless to add, some have and continue to remain skeptical. My wife and daughter have been the two most important people in making me believe that I could actually complete the book. At the same time, they also pulled my leg about my project which was a good reality check for me! Conversations with my wife, not just through the phase when this book was written but through many years earlier, have been a major formative influence. It also mattered immensely to see my daughter's positive reaction to the first finished draft of the book.
If I have to, then I see this book as having three protagonists: Prahlad, Ananya and Laila. They are intelligent, well-read and confused 20-year olds striving to make sense of their lives though each one of them approaches it from a different vantage point. I think there is something about that quest which appeals to readers across historical and geographical boundaries.
I and people in my life are in the book in big chunks -- not just in bits and pieces. But the reader will notice that I start my book with a disclaimer: "The characters in this book are all real and, therefore, bear no resemblance to any person living or dead." I have a memory which does not allow me to forget my past experiences so these experiences definitely make it to my novel. The act of writing is an act of remembering. But, as Kundera puts it so evocatively: Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. It is a form of forgetting.
I meant to say this in the answer to one of the earlier questions that Bombay is yet another character in my book. I relate so deeply to this city that it had to be part of my story. My book is simultaneously a paean and a lament to this wonderful city of ours -- lament because of all those institutions that have disappeared -- erased and written over like in a palimpsest. But it also a paean to the compositeness that a palimpsest necessarily brings in.
This is certainly an interesting question. How the book writes the author is a palimpsest at another level. For me, writing this novel has been a process of analysing myself and has been a way of dealing with issues which have otherwise found limited expression. The need to write was very much connected with the need to talk about these issues in whatever manner I could. Also, writing has allowed parts of my creative self to emerge which only get stifled in the professional environment that I work in. This itself has allowed new energies to be brought forth and invigorate me.
I think the problem is to find one's voice as a writer -- to write as oneself and not being an imitation of someone else. It is like trying to find your balance when you ride a cycle -- you need the balance in the first place to ride and pick up speed and once you have done that you realise that the balance comes more naturally. That is the first issue -- to find one's voice and then having done that you ask whether people respond to that voice, relate to it, like it. I think the first experience of writing can be daunting if one lacks self-belief and I am fortunate to be blessed with a good measure of that!
The way I did it was to work the book out in my head and then write. What I typed was more or less the final version. I preferred to tackle the obstacles in my head before actually getting down to the writing.
That is a tough one. It is difficult for me to identify any one bit as a favourite part. When you have spent so much time with it, all of it becomes very dear to you.
Yes, I have commenced work on my second novel. It has two protagonists: one who is a contemporary of ours and the other who is a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavira and I plan to move back and forth over this span of 2500 years.
13) Who are the authors who inspire you? What is your advice to aspiring writers?
There are quite a few writers whose work I admire. But if I have to name a few then Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera are among the ones I respect the most. It is a pity I am able to read these great writers only in translation. But, even translated in English, their mastery over the medium is evident. Of Indian writers, I am very fond of the work of Amitav Ghosh and Kiran Nagarkar though I am also very influenced by an older generation of Indian writers, especially someone like Raja Rao. Of course, I cannot not add P.G. Wodehouse to this list. I don't want to sound pretentious and "advice" aspiring writers but I think it is good to remember that one writes for oneself. One cannot start writing by positing an imagined reader.
I would like to see myself as having completed Novel No.2 and Novel No. 3 in the next five years but, at the moment, the priority is to complete a physics book that I am working on.