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Talk with a writer


Indra Sinha

Man Booker 2007 Nominee

Eyes wide open


I didn’t really want to sound like Salman Rushdie, who actually to me, does a caricature of Indian speech and Indian writing…

The day is an absolute scorcher. I have flown down to Toulouse from Paris, then driven back up north for some 150 kilometres in a rental car, lost my way, and am now at their doorstep, hot, flustered, unsuitably dressed in black and hugely embarrasse d, as much by the lateness of the hour as about arriving empty handed — my gift-wrapped bottle of Chateau Carbonnieux 1998 having been curtly disallowed by airport security.But Booker short-listed novelist Indra Sinha and his wife Vickie are warm and welcoming and dispel my misgivings in the twinkling of an eyelash. “How good are you at mending sluice gates?” Indra asks slyly. “We might need a pair of hands if you feel up to it”.They live in an ancient, re-converted mill and as such are the keepers of the locks that control the water level in their neck of the river. The tiny village of Castelfranc is somnolent in the intense heat as is the stunningly beautiful wine-growing countryside that produces the rich, full-bodied Cahors.

No politics please

In a rambling interview conducted partly in his gravel-strewn garden, munching sweet, early apples and partly indoors over a simple but delicious meal of salad and poached salmon, Indra Sinha talked about growing up in India to Indo-English parents, his years spent in London as a top copywriter (Collett Dickenson Pearce), his involvement with Bhopal, Amnesty and other social causes but also about his book Animal’s People and the media-made(-up) controversy about Indo-Pak rivalry over this year’s Booker. It was the collective spirit of the Bhopalis, he feels, their feisty humour in the face of what they have lived through, that somehow got channelled into the character of Animal.

Sinha seems riled by the comments in the Indian media hinting at Indo-Pak rivalry over this year’s Booker. “Absolutely not true. I met Mohsin (Hamid) at the shortlist party the other day and we embraced each other and we said we’re not going to play along with these reports. We are writers, not politicians,” he says firmly. Nor does he particularly relish how the British reading public tends to question the inclusion of “people from faraway exotic places” on the Booker list. “And then they say things like, ‘Three desis on the Booker List’? It shouldn’t be like that, really, because it completely demeans and denigrates your book. And it’s a bit sad if it’s imputed that you are really there because of tokenism.”

His mother was a writer and he grew up with thousands of books so it wasn’t surprising that he first started writing at the age of ten. “She wrote under the name Rani Sinha and was published mostly in the New Statesman, whose editor John Freeman, liked to nurture new talent. She died in 1986, having left two unfinished manuscripts. My sisters and I plan to make a slim volume of her collected short stories,” he says.


Listen to him talk about growing up in India and you can feel the nostalgia setting in, feel him go back in time to bygone golden days. “I have very vivid memories of being a child running wild in the Western ghats. This would have been during the late 1950s, the same time my mother was writing her stories. India was young then, Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker were kings of cinema and the progressive writers were at their peak. It was a wonderfully optimistic time, a special, unforgettable time”.

There have been attempts to draw parallels between Salman Rushdie and Indra Sinha. Some of the similarities are startling — they were both born in Bombay, attended Cathedral School, went to Cambridge and became advertising executives only to give up lucrative careers in order to write full time. But there the similarities end. Unlike the much-married and gregarious Rushdie, Sinha is quintessentially a family man, deeply devoted to Vickie, his wife of 30 years and their three children. And towards the end of his career in advertising, when, aged 45, he decided to chuck it all up for writing and charity work, he had already taken a completely different route, campaigning for Amnesty International and the Bhopal Medical Appeal with ads that are even today considered amongst the best in their genre.

Cocooned from reality

So what made him go towards the Amnesty and Bhopal appeals? “I think for the first 10 years proper in my career in advertising I was just having fun. London advertising in the 1970s and 80s was full of some very amusing, very clever people who all liked a good time and it was a big laugh and everyone knew each other. We had a very easy lifestyle and we were horribly spoilt, paid far too much. You only had to be seen lunching with the Creative Director of another agency and you’d be summoned by the Managing Director who said, here, have another £20,000 or something like that. It was silly money. I didn’t regard it as real and so there was no reason to open your eyes. And then we were asked to do this pitch for Amnesty and I saw all these pictures…”

Pictures of terribly tortured bodies, of hollowed out people, so gruesome they were unprintable. And that marked a change, he says. “Suddenly in the office someone says, ‘Coming for lunch?’ and you think ‘I don’t want lunch; I don’t feel like eating, I don’t feel like making jokes, I don’t feel like being amusing. I feel destroyed by what I’ve just seen’. That’s how it was.” Close on the heels of a very successful ad campaign that helped Amnesty win many new members, an activist from Bhopal, Sati or Satyunath Sarangi, walked into his life.

“Like many others I was unaware that nothing had been resolved in Bhopal. Nine years after the tragedy to learn that people were struggling on with all these illnesses, that the politicians didn’t want to know, that they’d been sold down the river by Rajiv Gandhi’s government with a settlement so feeble that the company’s share price actually leapt when the news came out… I remember it was a lovely sunny day in the Weald of Sussex when Sati told me. And suddenly I felt as if a dark cloud had descended upon us. I told Sati that the only way I could help was to write but that there was no guarantee of success.”

For a whole year Sinha struggled to find money for the ads. Taking a huge financial and personal risk he inserted a double page spread in the Guardian on the 10th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. “When the ad actually appeared, on a drizzly week-end in December, I was in a bit of a sweat, but when Monday came along, it had covered its cost already. And then it went on to make something like 60 grand so a net profit of £48,000 — enough to buy a building, hire people. So that became the Sambhavna Clinic.” The clinic is still up and running and has treated over 30,000 patients.

He says he owed his “freedom” to his wife Vickie who encouraged him to hand in the letter of resignation he had penned on an impulse on his 45th birthday. “That was a truly fantastic gift,” he smiles. Sinha has since become a familiar figure in Bhopal and that is where he perfected his Hindi. “Growing up with an English mother who spoke no Hindi at all and was divorced from my father at an early age, I didn’t speak any Hindi except Bombay gutter Hindi until I was 10. It was not until I got involved with Bhopal that it became necessary to improve Hindi not just because they don’t speak any English but also because many of the documents are in Hindi. So you just have to learn it.”

Flavours of the street

The peculiar inverted syntax used by Animal in the book has been described by some critics as “Yoda-style” speech. Sinha says Hindi is a language that lends itself to just such inversion. “Animal says ‘Khamosh, silent then I am.’ I first heard his voice which is expressed in low grade English with some Indianism — a sort of mix that would be accessible to the English. It needed to have an Indian street flavour. And I didn’t really want to sound like Salman Rushdie, who actually to me, does a caricature of Indian speech and Indian writing rather than the actual thing. For every book you need a good editor, and for Animal’s People I had a really wonderful editor, Ben Ball, who made me extract everything from what was there. I’m very grateful to him and whatever success the book has owes a lot to him”.

Sinha is irked by suggestions that it was unfair to base a novel on such a harrowing, real-life tragedy as Bhopal. “I think it was Boyd Tomkin in The Independent, who asked how far the book relied for its power on the fact that it was based on a real tragedy — which I find an impossible question to answer because if you were playing by some rule which said that you must never write about something real, then many, many terrific books wouldn’t be written in the world. Plus, one isn’t writing books for prize juries. I don’t personally feel books should go out into the world and change things. Animal feels that — but that’s because he’s a Khaufpuri. But for me it’s enough that a book should have good characters and a strong story and should satisfy. If it can go out into the world and do some good, so much the better.”

Getting it right

The two distinctive voices in the book, that of Animal and the bewildered French nun, Ma Franci, both came to him in the space of one week. He’d been struggling hard to breathe life into his characters but they remained wooden, unmoving. Until the day someone showed him a picture of a young boy, who, like animal, walks on all fours. And suddenly, Animal came ablaze in his mind. “We talked at once and had huge arguments. He didn’t want a bit part. He wanted to tell it all. And I don’t know where it came from. I think it was the collective spirit of the Bhopalis somehow got channelled into one character who presumably symbolised just how disadvantaged you can be”.

Sinha stoutly defends the long passage towards the end of the book when Animal hallucinates in the forest. “He needed to have a complete meltdown in order to be reborn. He could only reject humanity by acknowledging that he was human in the end,” he says. In order to write that passage Sinha consumed a bagful of magic mushrooms for the same trancelike experience and recounts what he saw, the colours, the visions, in hilarious detail. “And it was in that spirit that I wrote that section. Now this sounds like some rather corny mysticism but at the time it was very powerful. Someone described this as some kind of Christian redemption — the cave and wandering in the forest and so on as being Christian symbolism. But the cave could be Amarnath and the wandering in the forest could be Rama. You could bring your own perspective to it. I don’t know about redemption, but the truth is, nothing’s changed except that that there is some happiness in their lives. I think I did want that because it’s been a very grim book in many ways. I know the humour has carried you through and kept you from really drowning in that horror, but the horror’s been there all the time. Let’s at least have a little bit of a light touch at the end.”

© Copyright 2000 – 2007 The Hindu

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