Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Emperor of Narratives

Photo: Courtesy Lucy Cavender

David Davidar is a rare creature. You can count on your fingers the number of top-notch publishers who are also admired novelists in their own right. Mr Davidar, who is credited with the flourishing of Indian writing in English when he was the head of Penguin Books, India, now heads the same company in Canada.

Educated at Madras (now Chennai) and Harvard University, Mr Davidar, in 1985 became one of the founding members of Penguin in India where he edited or published authors like Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, William Dalrymple, Mohsin Hamid and Ramachandra Guha, among others. Now in Canada, he has been publishing authors like Philip Roth, Khaled Hosseini, John Le Carre, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, and Hisham Matar, among others.

Mr Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, was published in 2002. It was translated into 16 languages and was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense Pick. His latest novel, The Solitude of Emperors, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007) has just come out. I managed to catch the busy writer-publisher for an interview sometime ago. Excerpts:

Your latest novel, The Emperor of Solitude, is on communalism in India. What prompted you to write a novel on this subject?

David Davidar: The main cause was, you know, that India, as I say at some point in the novel, is one of the longest running plural societies in the history of civilizations. Every religion, every race, creed, known to man, has lived in India for thousands and thousands of years. Every time fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, try to disturb the piece, I think people who believe in the amity of nations, communities, all right thinking man, in whatever way they can, should protest and say it is not right or point it out in whatever way they can. So, I thought given the fact that journalists are doing the standard job in India and elsewhere to point out how wrong all this is, I figured out I will take a different approach and try and use the medium of fiction to express my views.

So, in a way, this novel is your protest against communalism?

DD: Ya, I think so. Absolutely!

Do you think communalism is still a major phenomenon in India?

DD: Well, it flares up from time to time. India is a very large country. From time to time, there are sort of riots in some parts of the country, inspired by religion or by caste, whatever the reason. So, I don't think it will ever go away. One has to be vigilant. I think despite the problem of the 1990s and the riots of Gujarat in 2002, the country is quite calm. But there is communal violence everywhere else in the world. Everywhere you look there is some incident or the other. And while the book takes place in India, I hope what I am trying to work through in the course of the narrative is of universal importance.

The protagonist of your novel Vijay comes from small town South India and goes to Bombay to work for a magazine. You also went to Bombay as a young journalist. Did your personal experience help you draw material for this work?

DD: Ya, ya. But it is not autobiographical in any way. I have never worked for a magazine called The Secularist, I have never witnessed a communal riot, but, yes, I was perfectly happy in the small town I was born in. It gave me some ideas, for sure.

Some of the scenes of rioting are so realistically written in your novel. Did you see anything like that personally or was it just research?

DD: Friends of mine lived through those dark days in Bombay. I talked to them. My closest friend who lives in Bombay who I have acknowledged in the back of the book, he and I spent many hours talking about those days, what he had witnesses and so on. So, ya, it is not based on first hand experience but second hand experience.

You wrote your first novel while you were still in India, and your second novel has come out while you are based in Canada. When did you start work on this novel?

DD: About 18 months ago.

That was relatively quick. Your first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, took you about ten years to write, didn’t it?

DD: For the last one, I actually did the major work in two years. I started it and stopped in between. This one I just wrote it continuously.

You are also a busy publisher. How do you strike a balance between the two roles, as a writer and a publisher?

DD: Well, I work very early in the morning, between 4 to 6 every morning. But I am not sure that I will be able to keep it up.

Any plans to come back to India?

DD: I don't know. At some point in the future, maybe, depending on the opportunities, for sure. Ya, I mean, it is a very exciting part of the world. Definitely. I wouldn’t rule that out.

You as a publisher were instrumental in the flourishing of the Indian writing in English (IWE) while you were the head of Penguin Books, India. After you left the scene, many success stories have emerged. How do you see the future of IWE in the coming years?

DD: Oh, I think it will continue to flourish because I think it is only getting started, you know. I mean the people I worked with were the first generation of great writers after Indian Independence and onwards from there. I mean they were all born around the 50 and 60s and 70s. Now people born in the 80s, 90s, and even in the new century, who knows in which direction they will take the novel. Creative writing in general has an exciting future.


Sharanya Manivannan said...

I enjoyed this interview. Thanks!

Obiter Dictum said...

Just got hold of his Solitude and am looking forward to reading it. Didn't enjoy the blue mangoes so much but yes, his contribution to IWE is fantastic.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharanya. I hope to come out with more interviews soon.

Zafar Anjum said...

Hi Obiter dictum, thanks for your comments. Do share with me what you think of this novel later on.