Soon 'gay novelist' will sound backward
It is a debut novel that is being described as "searing, savage and gut-wrenching''. Novelist Neel Mukherjee took the literary world by surprise
when his Past Continuous jointly won the Vodafone Crossword Fiction Prize, upping veteran writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie. In the novel, a young gay Bengali student in Kolkata gets his ticket to freedom when he wins a scholarship to Oxford.
As he struggles to build a new life, old ghosts, especially that of an abusive mother, haunt him. In its review of the book Bibilio said, "Instead of the cloying nostalgia that fills so much diasporic fiction, we have a hard, painful hatred, a desire to burn the past into the bitter ashes of the cremation-ground.''
The Kolkata-born Mukherjee, who lives between the US and the UK, was in Mumbai this week to accept the award. In an email interview he talks about, among other things, why the term gay novelist in an antiquated one.
Q. Tell us about the process of writing the book. How much of it was autobiographical? After all, you also made the journey from Kolkata to England.
A. The process was the usual (and very boring) one of turning on the computer or, in my case, mostly, uncapping a pen, turning a fresh page, and beginning to write. Following some story I'd heard about Graham Greene, I tried to write 500 words every day but it was never as regimented and disciplined as that. Most days yielded 200, some rare ones, 1000.
Yes, there is a lot of me in Ritwik, one of the two protagonists of the novel, but one wouldn't get very far pursuing one-to-one correspondences.
Q. This is the first openly gay novel coming out of India. Also, you dedicated your award to the Naaz Foundation and its fight for gay rights. Please talk about that space.
A. Is this really the first openly gay novel in India? Surely not! If you follow historians such as Saleem Kidwai, you'll find out that gay writing has been there for a very long time. As for the term `gay novel', while I don't dispute it at all, I find Ritwik's homosexuality of decidedly less importance than the book's other themes: mothers and sons, alienation, loneliness, outsiders, home and homelessness, exile.
Yes, I dedicated my award to the Naaz Foundation and the nameless lawyers who have carried on the long, exhausting battle for equality. In that sense, it is not so much about `gay rights' as about equality. My position is that of Amartya Sen's, as outlined in that astonishing open letter he wrote in 2006 (or was it 2007?). And as a novelist who also happens to be gay, I think it's time for us to stand up and be counted. Besides, we don't use the terms `woman novelist' or `female novel' any more; hopefully, in the not too distant future the term `gay novel' or `gay novelist' will seem equally antiquated and backward.
Q. Can you talk about the city as a metaphor. What does one leave behind when they leave a city?
A. Gosh, this is a very big question and I don't feel this is the right space to address it. To answer the second half of the question: one leaves behind a past, a history, a context, the very matrices of one's being up to that point in time before departure. But they're always present, so `leaving behind' is illusory. You may leave them behind but they don't leave you; they live inside you forever.
Q. You novel ends morbidly in an act of extreme racial violence. Why did you feel the need to do that?
A. I hope not `morbid' but I can't answer this question without a `spoiler alert'. Suffice it to say that the book continues, very deliberately so, after this act of `extreme racial violence', in the final chapter of the historical narrative. What does that say about the book?
Q. How do you feel about winning this award? What comes next for you?
A. Thrilled and delighted. What comes next is the UK publication of this novel, under the title A Life Apart, in January 2010. I'm also working with a Bengali artist on a graphic novel. And writing my second novel, which, needless to say, is going very, very slowly.
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