Every book has more than one story to tell. Beyond the author's words on the printed page lie the invisible chapters, the unexplored phrases, the inward journeys. For breathes there a person without a story worth telling — or listening to? Some share it in a conversation; others in a book.
Sunil Sethi's live interviews on NDTV's Just Books tended to be well-researched, non-aggressive, sometimes rather pedantic. In culling from 300 interviews over six years, he defines a framework in The Big Bookshelf , “Readers buy books because they want to be gripped by a story, engaged by an author's ideas or be better informed about the world they inhabit. But they also want to know more about the books they read, and in the process, about the lives of those who write, their motivations, and the labours of the writer's craft. How is a writer made and what is the nature of the writing impulse? Are writers born with a creative drive or do they steadily hone their art? How do they shape their characters and stories in fiction, or develop their subjects and themes in non-fiction?”
At first read, it was easy to delve into these lives, whether they were Nobel/Booker awardees like Orhan Pamuk or Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer or Kiran Desai. Or even bestsellers like Ken Follett, Jeffrey Archer and Alexander McCall Smith. Or living Indian legends like Javed Akhtar or Mahasweta Devi. Or the new-found voices of Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid and Daniyal Mueenuddin.
En route, I learnt that Chetan Bhagat is determined to use Bollywood, and to guard against reverse exploitation. That Shobhaa De feels she entered an inward-looking phase of her life at 60. That Khushwant Singh gets down to work at 4 a.m. daily, and entertains visitors strictly by appointment from 7 to 8 p.m. And that BBC's legendary Mark Tully originally wanted to be a priest.
The mystique of a writer is both individual and complex. I learnt to differentiate niti from nyaya via Amartya Sen. And sync in to Ramachandra Guha's redefinition of a historian as an artist and writer. And realise the symbiotic relationship between Anita Desai and Kiran Desai. And understand why a diasporic writer like Amitav Ghosh feels, “My inner life and my imaginative life is completely fuelled by India, but it's not fuelled by localised India; it's fuelled by that aspect of the Indian experience which is a globalised experience.”
What of the writer's craft, steeped in solitude and much misunderstood? Myriad takes surface. US-based Ved Mehta, his brilliance unhampered by his visual impairment, observes, “I think the best writing comes out of dreams and discipline comes out of reflection.” To Kiran Desai, “I think you write out of emotions that are hardest to deal with — one's doubts, shames and humiliations. I think that's where the heart of the story lies.”
As for Nadine Gordimer: “Reading… is the only training for a writer from a young age. You only become a writer by being a compulsive reader.”
Rushdie couches it more elegantly, “You have an ongoing conversation with yourself, and you also have this ongoing engagement with the world in which you live, and you try and find books which you write at the place which these two conversations intersect…”
Though writers are seldom the most eloquent speakers, Sethi does establish a comfortable equation with his interviewees. But more wit, some sparring, more personal anecdotes, would have been welcome in this selection. These encounters have not totally survived the transition to the written page. Without the talking images, they seem leached of life and colour.
Personally, these interviews left me yearning for a deeper scan of unvoiced worlds latent within my favourite writers like Nadine , Ghosh, Pamuk, Vikram Seth or Mahasweta Devi. As for the Bapsi Sidhwa interview, it was far too brief to warrant page space.
Perhaps what I hoped for from this selection was the intelligent excavation, the searing cut-and-thrust of a BBC Hard Talk session with Nadine, or the life force couched in The Paris Review literary encounters.
And yet, some tantalising thoughts linger on through Sethi. Such as Pamuk's wisdom on the politics of literature, “I strongly think we should not derive forms of representation of Islam, or India, or whatever, from the language of America. I think non-western countries should develop new languages, new concepts to look at themselves.”
A whole new, parallel literature is latent in that idea within our globalised Anglocentric world. But then, that's a whole new story — and a possible conversation trigger.