Thursday, 12 April 2012

Writing: Rana Dasgupta on 'Tokyo Cancelled'

(Note: This interview was published in 2005)

Rana Dasgupta believes in fairytales. And the lure of oral lore. Isn't that unusual for the U.K.-born, Cambridge-schooled former marketing consultant, with degrees in French literature from Oxford and media studies from Wisconsin?

He believes in the buzz of business. And in creating a literature of globalisation through contemporary myths and fairy tales that explore the way our continents and cities have coalesced through our communication, our globetrotting lifestyles. That was the incentive for his debut novel Tokyo Cancelled (HarperCollins, Rs. 395), which led to an interface with readers at Landmark store.

Dasgupta, of Bengali-English parentage, arrived in New Delhi in late 2000 to have a shy at writing. At 34, the soft-spoken, intense author now calls the Indian capital home. Acknowledging his debt to medieval literature such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron, Dasgupta introduces us to 13 strangers who tell each other stories to survive a long night at an airport because their Tokyo flight is delayed. Stories that share pulses from Kafka and Marquez, Borges and Calvino, Grimm and A.K. Ramanujan, a fabulous literary tour de force.

How does he achieve this? Through tales such as the New York-based one of Robert De Niro's son, conceived in a laundromat, who finds his ladylove transformed into a store on Madison Avenue. What's startling is that this is Dasgupta's adaption of A.K. Ramanujan's interpretation of the folktale, The Flowering Tree. He renders it as universal, non-didactic and utterly contemporary.

In an exclusive interview at Landmark, Dasgupta sheds light on his life as a writer, straddling cultures and continents. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Why did you decide to redefine yourself as a writer?

I've always been interested in the clash of genres. I used to write stories about my friends — with their names and quirks — but as Arthurian legends. But you can't gain self-confidence as a writer through school and college stuff. It's a real duty...

Were these individual stories that you yoked together?

I wrote the first story as a birthday present for my girlfriend. I was excited by the idea of looking at a contemporary city through fairytale language. I thought of a contemporary mythology through which we could investigate the geography of globalisation. Every tale works both in a straightforward way, and in an ironical one. I wondered: why are folktales not an accepted form of exchange of wisdom in our society? Why have they died out?

You don't really identify who narrates each tale. Was that deliberate?

Very much so. This book is not interested in the politics of identity. I wanted the possibility to be alive that the French story is told by someone who's never been to Paris. In a political way, this book is about what the human imagination is capable of. About the possibility of human beings embracing people very different from themselves.

Did Delhi contribute to your writing? Or did you feel dislocated after years in the west?

I moved to Delhi from New York. Your senses are hyper aware when you've moved to a new place, wherever it is. It was inspiring. Fantastic conversations! In an Indian city, life is out on the streets. You see people in intense moments of their lives. In the west, most of those moments are hidden from you.

How did you get the flavour of each capital city right?

I travelled to nearly all of them. I read local newspapers in French, German and English. I didn't go to Lagos, but I read its local English newspapers online. Full of crazy stuff, this whole world of crime. I looked at maps, spoke to people, walked around. In Istanbul, I had local friends who were experts on city stories.

Were you experimenting with narrative forms within your novel?

The New York story borrows hugely from American movies, and has a Hollywood ending. Really sardonic. The Tokyo story is like a business contract. The last one, set in Buenos Aires, is a tribute to the films of Luis Bunuel...

I believe you're halfway into your second book. What sets it apart?

In Tokyo Cancelled, I felt I was limited by my knowledge of the world, by my ability to write. The new novel is more ambitious with regard to its human terrain, centred on one character, who's a hundred years old and lives in Bulgaria. It's more challenging in terms of what it demands of me as a human being. It's aiming for a more profound poetics of life.

(The Hindu Metroplus, 2005)

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