Tuesday, March 15, 2005

‘My work is not magic realism’

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first novel, The Last Song of Dusk, won the 2004 Betty Trask Award. Ever since his emergence on the literary scene, Siddharth has been the toast of the media. The Sunday Times Magazine described him as “the next best thing to have happened to Indian writing in English since Arundhati Roy.” A publicity report in the Fringe Club described his books selling like hot cakes in India and the paparazzi waiting outside his house to take his snaps. Tired of all this Siddharth has taken to the Himalayas, working on his next opus. Meanwhile, his mother frets about the marriage of her (in)famous son: “who would like to marry a man who writes on sex?”

I was curious to meet Siddharth. When I reached the Cipriani’s, China Club, on the Bank Street, next to the imposing HSBC Bank building, he was already there. He was wearing a yellow turban and was chatting with Hsu-Ming Teo. Teo was born in Malaysia in 1970 and had emigrated with her parents to Sydney in 1977. She was a research scholar in a university. Her second novel expected to come out soon.

The programme started with Teo reading from her first novel, Love and Vertigo. It was a mother-daughter novel.

Then Siddharth read from his novel. It was a passage where the heroine admires Mahatama Gandhi’s loin cloth, calling it sexy. And so on. The interesting thing about Siddharth is his voice. He reads and talks as if he were in a trance.

After the readings a discussion followed. Everybody, including host Peter Gordon, was asking questions. Peter had read the book last year and was so impressed that he had immediately invited Siddharth for the festival.

Siddharth described himself as a small part of a large family (of writers like Roy and Vikram Seth) whose members were doing exciting things. He didn’t know if he wanted to become a writer. “I am in the process of figuring out what to do in life,” he said with a smile.

He wrote the novel when he was twenty-two. The writing took him about one year. It was his way of dealing with a broken relationship. Then he forgot about the book. In the US, his friend read the manuscript and advised him to publish the book. He found an agent (after interviewing about ten agents) and the rest is history. Now his work is being compared with Marquez and Rushdie.

When Peter called Siddharth’s work magic realism, he protested. “Please don’t call my work magic realism. I don’t like the word magic realism—it takes away from the realism of my story. In India, we have this belief that everything—a house, a tree—has a spirit and we must respect that spirit. So in my novel if a house is talking, it is not magic realism. You may call it heightened realism.”

“What do you think about your novel now?” I asked him.

“I haven’t read my novel,” he said. People guffawed.

He admitted he had a lot to read, a lot to catch up. He doesn’t dig short stories and so he has never attempted one. At present, he said, he was attracted to the idea of the deviousness and viciousness of Bombay. That may well become the theme of his next book. “To be a writer, you have to be alert to your emotions,” he said. “You don’t write a book. The book gets written.”

Hsu-Ming Teo said that she never thought of becoming a writer. After submitting her Ph.D. thesis, she was unoccupied and that was when she started writing her novel. Surprisingly, she works without an agent.

“What do you think about your novel now?” I asked her too.

“It could have been better,” she said.

She said she enjoyed the finishing part of writing more than anything else. Yes, the act of writing is hard work and most authors love to reach that part of the story where they can write ‘the end’. Later, I also had the opportunity of listening to a chapter from her second novel. It was about making love in a toilet. It was really good, much better than her first read.


Susan Abraham said...

Hi Zafar,
I remember in London last year, Siddharth told us, at his then book launch, how embarassed and afraid he would be when his book was finally published in India and his parents would actually read it. And now, he has 'escaped' to the Himalayas. I think he does like to paint a fair amount of drama. It is also quite typical of him to say that he interviewed the agents and not the other way around. In reality, from what I remember at the launch, it was the other way around as it almost always is.
But thanks for the excellent stories, Zafar. I could almost feel as if I were there, myself.

Zafar Anjum said...

Yes, Susan. You may be right. He even said that you need to interview agents and the most important thing to know about them is their star.

Thanks for dropping in Susan.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Zafar,
My take is that he's a highly clever man but one whom I strongly suspect has created an image gimmick to appear somewhat philosphical and 'unattainable' of sorts.

Zafar Anjum said...

Hi, maybe you are right. Only time will tell.

she said...

This was a really interesting account. Shangvi's book was met with really mixed reviews here. Some loved it, some (like Dom Moraes) just wrote it off. I've heard some extremely amusing anecdotes about his quirks.
And picked up the book out of curiosity. I regretted buying it, I assure you! But what did you think of the book, Zafar? I would love to know.

Zafar Anjum said...

Asya, thanks for your comments. To be honest, I am yet to read Sidhharth's book.

The problem with me is that there is a huge backlog of books that I have to read. My first priority is to finish reading them and then I will come to it (the contemporary scene). I might sound old fashioned in this way but that's the way I am. For example, I am right now reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn. I am also reading The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis.

For new books, whenever I pick them up, I don't go by the hype. Sidhharth's book I have seen in many bookstores. I have read the first paragraph and I didn't like it. Sidhharth may be a fabulous writer but he is not my kind of writer. So, I don't know when I might be able to read him.

Even for Tajpal's book I will do the same. Read a few paras from here and there and then decide.

Right now, my emphasis is on Marquez (One Hundred Years...), Borges, Naipaul (a few more titles), Dostoevsky, and Faulkner.
In particular, I love Rushdie's non-fiction and I go back to them again and again.

Keep coming back.

she said...

hi zafar
that's true. picking up books because of the hype is never a good idea. in fact a friend of mine was telling me some days ago about a wonderful calvin and hobbes strip where calvin refuses to listen to a bedtime story unless the writer had made it to the NYT bestseller's list. a wonderful satire on the reading habits of the times.

and shangvi isn't such a great writer in my opinion, at least. too much affectation. someone like rushdie or naipaul is such a pleasure to read because of the beauty of the language used, the preciseness, what someone once called "the inevitable word". there's no point overdoing it, as shangvi does!