I have always admired Tarun Tejpal, India's ace journalist, editor, publisher and now a novelist. I was excited knowing that Tarun was coming for a talk in the Singapore Writers Festival. Yesterday, an anxious crowd listened to this man who knew the secrets of The Alchemy of Desire (the title of his novel). The organizer of the Bali Writers Festival had especially flown in to listen to Tarun--such is the pull of this ponytailed creative powerhouse! In the audience, I could see writers like Manju Kapoor (Difficult Daughters) and Suhayl Saadi (The Burning Mirror), and Ruttawut L. (Sightseeing).
Tarun was introduced by Channel NewsAsia anchorperson, Deepika Shetty. She had already interviewed him for her Off the Shelf programme (here is the transcript). She spoke glowingly about this man who had changed whatever he had touched. His Tehelka expose, the discovery of Arundhati Roy through his publishing firm, IndiaInk, and now a novel that was getting noticed in the literary circles.
Tarun read from his novel several passages. The language was powerful, magical and poetic. Then questions and answers followed.
Tarun said that he was first and foremost a journalist but at heart a lover of literary fiction. He didn't see much conflict between the two vision: the journalistic vision and the novelist's vision. Though this is a debatabale point, he held forth by saying this: "A novel presents the inner world of its characters whereas journalism or non-fiction is about the manifest realities."
"In that sense, by playing that role, literature will always survive. Books will always survive, more than many of the physical forms of today's world," he said.
Tarun did not have much regard for the fame and hoopla surrounding his novel or many Indian novels of late. "This is the fluff of art," he said. "The true worth of a book will be known only 10 years or 15 years down the line--we will have to see if the readers still reached for this book, if it was still wanted." I could not agree more with this Naipaulian truth. I must mention here that Tarun and Naipaul are very good friends.
Tarun wrote the novel in 16 months during the toughest period of his life, he said. "I was being hounded by the government after the Tehelka expose and the novel was his 'centre of calm'," he said. "I returned to it everyday to find my calm."
"Did he always want to become a writer?" I asked him.
"In India, anyone who could write a straight line of English dreamed of writing a novel one day and I'm no different," he said.
He said that he was looking for his voice, the tone of the novel, for a long time but it only came during the worst period of his life.
About the Tehelka and its aftermath, he said: "I don't regret it. I am proud of it, and I am proud of it that it happened in India. I know scores of countries where it could have happened and the journalists would not have come out of it alive. I felt, during this time, I have lived a four or five lifetimes."
During the Tehelka expose, Tarun confronted fear. "Yes, fear came to me but once I crossed the line of fear, I felt so free. Fear is just a line in the mind. Once you cross it, that's it. Ater that it's a different experience. Once I had decided that at most they would put a bullet through my head, I thought: big deal! Then it was over for me. Everything became different..."
On the art of writing the novel, he said: "Writing journalism is like hugging the shore, to use an Updikian phrase. But writing a novel is like navigating in the open sea. You need to have your senses gathered to navigate the ship to a piece of a land. That's the ability needed to write a good novel."
He was influenced by Kafka and Orwell, among many other writers. No wonder as Tarun has gone through Kafkaesque experiences during the investigation and the crackdown on his office. He admired Orwell a lot. "Here was a courageous guy who went to fight someone else's war just because of his convictions. I don't think we are like him any more. We have much more secure lives. Even at the worst of the times, I had 24-hour police security with me!"
On the whole, it was an enriching session. After the talk, Tarun was surrounded by his admirers. There were many people who wanted his autograph on a copy of his novel. I gently slipped out of the room.