Among the bunch of famous Indian novelists and writers, Richard Crasta’s name might not be as widely recognized as that of a Seth or a Rushdie, but few would come close to him in being funny, witty, satirical and daring–all at the same time. If you don’t believe me, I can get American legendary novelist Kurt Vonnegut to vouch for him who found his first novel, The Revised Kama Sutra, “very funny”. After Khushwant Singh (who is 90 plus old but still active as a below the belt heavy hitter), if any Indian writer has pushed the boundaries of satirical writing, with dollops of sexual humour (and satirical writing on a lot of other serious stuff) in his own distinctive style, it’s Richard. But, in fairness, his writing is more than that, and multifaceted, covering areas as wide as, in his own words, “autobiography, humor, satire, political critique, sexual critique, and literary criticism.”
In the early 1990s, when a new breed of Indian writers in English were taking birth (most of them midwifed by Penguin Books, India, under the watch of David Davidar), bursting forth with all kinds of coming of age or cultural or exoticised tales from Indian life, Richard Crasta chose to take a daring look at Indian sexuality. One of the funniest and most talked about novels to come out of India, he subtitled The Revised Kama Sutra, as a “Novel of Colonialism and Desire with Arbitrary Footnotes and a Whimsical Glossary”. It was one of the most talked about books when it came out, and was loved as much, if not more, as Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. By the way, both the novelists are from Indian Civil Services, the only difference is that Crasta is now an ex (civil servant).
Richard’s writing is uniquely hilarious, and believe me you, this is not a hyperbole. But in terms of recognition, the man was just a blip in India’s literary firmament. For years, he has been out of the Indian mainstream media’s radar. What went wrong? Plenty, we are told. He was embroiled in controversies. Mainstream publishers shunned him. He became a writer without a platform.
But Crasta did not feel crestfallen. He was in the USA, doing his own stuff–writing more books and publishing them from a publishing house that he owns. And ever since, he has kept at it. After writing 6 full-bloodied books, his latest book is The Killing of an Author, of which veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar says that this is a must read.
In this exclusive freewheeling interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Crasta not only talks about his new book but also looks back at his past, his beginning as a writer, his tribulations and his future plans. For the readers in South East Asia, the good news is that one of his in-the-works novels is based in Thailand and Indonesia, and is, in his words, “almost as funny and sexually daring as The Revised Kama Sutra.”
True to his name, Richard in this interview is bitingly honest, lucid but insightful, funny and provocative. Here is the transcript of the interview. Have fun!
When your first novel The Revised Kamasutra appeared in India , it made quite a splash. Is it fair to say that the books that followed your debut novel did not get that much attention in the country of your birth? Was there any particular reason for this kind of reception?
I feel gratified that the huge response to my novel came from common readers and middle-class reviewers. It was not engineered from the top, or from London or New York; Indians found themselves loving the book, though they were shocked and sometimes embarrassed by the title or the contents, and its reputation spread by word of mouth. With many later writers, the hype started with a megabucks Western advance. Hype has a way of becoming self-fulfilling, and one can never be sure how those books would have performed had the huge advances and media coverage not preceded the reading of the books themselves.
To be fair, I spent eight years on The Revised Kama Sutra and an average of 18 months for the subsequent books, so the former is naturally richer, denser, and more multi-faceted. Having noted this, there was still, for other reasons, a difference between the reception for the first book and subsequent books: Because The Revised Kama Sutra is fiction, and some people—including my Penguin India editor—thought the book would become a worldwide sensation, and make plenty of money, they could wink at its anti-Establishment tone, which did not directly target either my publisher or his Indian friends. Also, the humor was a cloak, which allowed you to treat the book as a joke. This changed with the second and third books, Beauty Queens and Impressing the Whites; the latter is a no-holds barred satire on the culture of sycophancy and subservience and of giving white people and Western honors far greater legitimacy and respect than equivalent Indian ones. Once my second and third books hit home, my fourth, fifth, and sixth books, especially What We All Need and The Killing of an Author, simply didn’t have a chance.
Read the complete interview here