I never believed the hype about how the Internet would be able to bring people from different points around the world together. Well it’s really nice to report on how wrong I was.
About six months ago I was wandering through a book store, and picked up a book on a whim: Prince Of Ayodhya book one, Ashok Banker’s modern adaptation of the 3,000 year old Indian epic, the Ramayana. I was immediately hooked. Thankfully for me the next two volumes had already been published, so I was able to read volume two,
Having never heard of the writer I decided to do a quick Google search and found that not only did Mr. Banker have a web site but also a blog. (By the way, if you were ever looking to blame anyone for my presence in the blog universe you could lay it at Mr. Banker’s feet. It was through his blog that I discovered Blogger’s free spaces.) The truly amazing thing about Mr. Banker was that he took the time to answer people’s letters at his web site.
It was in this manner that I began communicating with him. When the fourth volume of the Ramayana was published, Armies of Hanuman, I sent him a copy of a review I had written for my blog and Blogcritics. Since that time we have exchanged thoughts through the comment section of his blog, and the web discussion group he founded, Epic India, dedicated to talking about the stories of India and related material.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I thought of the idea of suggesting an interview with him. I knew he had been reading my work at Blogcritics, and had liked it, so I thought he might be open to the suggestion. Unfortunately, my timing couldn’t have been worse.
Ashok lives in Bombay, and if you have been following the news, you know they have had the worst monsoon season there in years, with horrendous flooding and mudslides claiming over a hundred lives. Things still aren’t back to normal there, as they now face the problems of combating water-borne diseases. Last reports have over a hundred people already dead.
In spite of all this, and hours spent swimming in six feet of water, when I suggested the idea of the interview, he responded with enthusiasm. We decided that the best solution to the problems of distance and time differences was to pick a time when we could just email questions and answers back and forth from our computers. Since I wake at an obscenely early time in the morning, this seemed like the ideal plan.
So what you will be reading are his unedited email responses to my questions. Enjoy.
(This is part one of a two part interview. Look for part two tomorrow.)
There are few people in North America who know anything about you. Could you fill you in some of your biographical details, where you are from, why you write. You are pretty open about your less than ideal childhood, could you tell us how that influenced your writing?
I was born and brought up in Bombay, now Mumbai, lived here all my life. My mother was an Anglo-Indian (please don’t use the term “East Indian”) and her mother, my grandmother, was Dutch-Irish-Scots. My grandma, in addition to being of foreign descent, was brought up by nuns in a convent school in Sri Lanka, and came to India in her twenties, first staying at Chennai (then called Madras) and later Mumbai (Bombay). She met and married a Goan Catholic, and had three kids in Byculla, a very central area of the city then, a kind of Brooklyn with a very mixed immigrant population of over 300,000 Jews (who came here escaping the Nazis during WWII), Muslims, Parsis, American Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, and of course, Goan Catholics, Chinese immigrants, and a few Hindus too.
My mother grew up there and was a very precocious girl, quitting school, rebelling, modeling (quite successfully), and generally being a much talked-about young woman of the time. She met my biological father, a US-and-Canada returned Gujarati Hindu who drove a Jaguar (brought back from the US), the son of rich parents, and they married three months later, when she was still only 16. It was a disaster; they split up, and she came back to Byculla to live with her mother, where she had me.
My mother’s life was ruined after the divorce, and she as well as my grandmother largely brought me up, mostly in Byculla as well as a number of homes in and around Bombay. I went to nine different schools, was sexually abused at a boarding school, and had a number of “adventures” as a young boy, none of them pleasant, mostly violent, and involving family members engaged in drugs, alcohol, and petty crimes. I read a lot, wrote a lot, and descended into writing as a means of survival, not escape. I wanted to record what I was going through because I never thought I would make it out alive.
When I was 12, my mother was drugged and gang-raped at a party, and fell apart completely thereafter. From there on, she became my responsibility. Her second husband, my foster-father, dumped us, the family turned against us, and it was basically me and my mom from there on. So, with a sick psychotic and alcoholic mother to support, I had to drop out of college at 16, and started working. My dreams of becoming a novelist (I’d already written three novels and published several poems and articles by then, and was already gaining a name, was interviewed on national TV, radio, and had a self-published book of poems, represented India at a book fair in Paris) went on hold, and I took a job as an advertising copywriter.
My mother died in 1990, when I was 26, and I immediately quit my ad job and went back to writing full-time. By then, I was married with one kid (I had a second child later in 93), to my childhood sweetheart whom I met at 16 and who’s still with me, my wife Bithika.
From the very outset, I was hugely ambitious. I wanted not to change the world or win the Nobel Prize but to connect with as many people as possible emotionally, to write great sweeping epic sagas about Indian myth and legend—like the sagas and novels I read about western myth and legend—and to show the world what great ideas and stories we had to tell.
I meandered for a long time, struggling to deal with the detritus of my childhood, my mother’s demolished life, my father’s abandonment of us, my foster-father and my mother’s family’s neglect of us, and generally life was hard as hell. Financially, I was in a huge hole, and in a sense, have barely climbed out of that hole and begun to walk on my own feet financially. But finally I’m writing what I want to write, and reaching out to some people and telling some of those stories that have been in me for so long.
Vertigo was your first novel that received recognition throughout India. In it you write about a young man supporting his mother in similar circumstances as your own. Was that part of the chronicling as a means of survival, or was it more of a purging? Can you tell us a little about that novel and what it meant to you?
Actually, my first books to get attention were three short crime novels—The Iron Bra, Murder & Champagne, and Ten Dead Admen—also hailed as ‘the first crime novels in English’ by an Indian author. Vertigo was written first and sold first, but published fourth. The crime novels got a fair bit of nationwide attention and gave me a label that was tough to shrug off later. Even Vertigo was mistaken for a crime novel, and as recently as 2003, journalists were still assuming that my Ramayana series was some kind of a modern-day thriller reworking of the epic!
Frankly, Vertigo was a novel. The fact that it was autobiographical in parts, and intensely so—the title refers to the sensation that reading the novel evokes in the reader, by the way—is incidental. There’s as much fiction as fact in it, and even my Ramayana books are very autobiographical, although only I know where and how. To me, it was my first successful attempt at capturing the kind of realistic detailed quasi-journalistic style that I regard as the most important literary effect of late 20th-century literature. Is that too pompous?
Sorry, but I’m just trying to tell you that I take my clues from journalism and non-fiction, and to me, something is fiction or non-fiction only in terms of labels. In reading terms, it simply is what it is, a story. The fact that it’s based on truth, or not, is irrelevant to me.
For instance, I could be a fictional construct you made up and posed questions to for this interview, and then answered yourself. What does it matter that I’m a real person? It doesn’t to me.
Bizarre as it sounds, it’s at heart of my philosophy of writing. To blur the lines between reality and fiction.
You started out as a journalist, do you want to describe what that was like? You have some pretty strong opinions on the state of journalism in India right now, did that play a part in your deciding to focus more on novel writing? Or was the timing just right?
I started out writing everything: poetry, essays, fiction; but it was the poetry and essays that found publication first. Also, I realized early on that while journalism didn’t pay much, there was a great need for writers who could comment on contemporary issues—or report on them. And I loved reporting, much more than commenting. To me, even fiction is reporting—except that one is reporting on things taking place in an imaginary place inside oneself, not out there in the real world.
I think that journalism in India right now, like elsewhere, is reduced to entertainment. There’s more trash in the media today than in the bins of Bombay’s streets. What we call the Page 3 culture here—party news, pics, gossip—and film and show biz celebrity coverage has taken over real journalism completely. The emphasis is on what makes the most interesting news.
I don’t believe this is reader-driven; it’s a conscious decision by publishers to appeal to a certain section of readership—the most illiterate and least-intelligent section. In India at least, there are many intellectually alive, educated, well-read people to sustain a newspaper, and the massive circulation of a Delhi newspaper like Hindustan Times, proves this point. It’s entirely a choice here to publish (or to write or report on) party lifestyles and the rich and famous, rather than report honestly and comment incisively, and that’s the saddest thing: that it’s not even a business necessity.
For instance, Times of India‘s Bombay edition is entirely a Page 3 rag, yet Hindustan Times, which came in only a month ago, is already hitting almost as much circulation as Times, while following a much more sensible kind of journalism.
In my opinion, blogging is the future: with individuals across the world reporting directly on things they’ve seen and heard first-hand, reporting one-on-one to people everywhere. Cut out the systems, the politicking, the petty rivalries of newspaper and media groups and professionals, the self-conceited journalists and editors. I can report, you can too. Let’s do it. I think sites like Blogcritics are doing a great service and very soon we’ll see blogs being read for news and features, and even comment, much more than traditional news vendors in print or TV. And I’m all for that.
I’d like to follow up on something from a previous answer, the meeting of truth and fiction. When you start a project do you set out with an intent to make some point or other, or is the story the intent and points about life and society come out as it progresses? Rama’s occasional comments on the caste system for example: the story is not about the caste system, but since they are Indian that’s a fact of life, so they comment on it.
I write from within a story, that is, I don’t plan externally or even know what I’m doing overall. I simply “see” a point of view, Rama’s for instance, and am transported there to that moment in time and space, in that very room (or forest or wherever) and see and smell and hear etc. every detail. In fact, it’s then a challenge to me how much I can describe and what to leave out, and to try to convey to the reader everything I’m “experiencing.” In fact, to come back to the journalism connection, I consider writing fiction to be reportage too. Except that I’m reporting from “another world,” or “another time,” and so on.
About things like politics, caste system, prejudices, etc, I’d like to believe I’m so broad-minded I can tolerate anything—except intolerance. The caste system is a reality even today in India, but back then it was a fairly benign and transferable form of division of labour. You’re quite right in saying that I simply write about it because it was there in that time period. To leave it out would be to lie. And how can I lie when I “see” and “hear” everything so vividly?
The same goes for present-day biases and ugliness, like war, which I am dead against. I will not stand by and watch warmongers like Bush and his administration (and the people of USA who support them, which is most of the population) wreak terror on the world. For instance, we speak so much about Islamic terrorism, but what about the people who really invented terrorism, the Christians? Have we forgotten Ireland? Bosnia? Lebanon? The Spanish Inquisition? The Crusades? The aggressors in all those cases were Christians—which actually defies the very definition of Christianity itself!
(End of part one)
Part Two of Ashok Banker Interview