27 January 2010

Sujit Saraf: "Indians are cutthroat. [But] people in India are merely reacting to their environment, just as people abroad are."

Sujit Saraf
Penguin India
296 pp; Rs 399

Sujit Saraf, 39, is a space scientist who has worked at NASA. He is also the author of The Peacock Throne (2007). Saraf was schooled in Darjeeling and Delhi and studied engineering at IIT Delhi and the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Palo Alto with his American wife and their two children. He spoke to Trisha Gupta about Indians, politics and his new novel, The Confession of Sultana Daku.

You once said in an interview that people in Delhi may not be conscious of it, but just being a Dilliwala gives you a sense of relevance, even if you’re just a speck in the larger scheme of things.

I’ve lived in Delhi for seven years – school, IIT and later when I was teaching. But I am not a Dilliwala. I grew up in a small town, and Delhi was the first big city that I ever saw. And like every other country bumpkin, when I first arrived in Delhi, I was certainly very conscious of the fact that this was the capital of India – and the Prime Minister, the Parliament – these are within a mile of you. There is this certain air of power that non-Dilliwallas associate with Dilliwalas. And Dilliwalas don’t care. They take it for granted. And a certain arrogance creeps into their attitude or their speech, which they may not know the reason for – but I think it has something to do with being in the capital.

Would you say both your books are about people trying to acquire power?

Since I have spent a lot of time in India and a lot of time abroad, I am very conscious of how aggressive and cutthroat Indians are. How in any line for a bus, say, they will cut across and find a seat. I, of course, grew up in that environment, so I myself would do that. Then, after I had lived abroad for a few years, I became soft. (laughs) I’d come back to India and I’d be shocked. I’d be horrified, and I’d be contemptuous – ki kaise log hain. Then over the years, it hit me that people in India are merely reacting to their environment, just as people abroad are. Because there are ten people and five seats, they behave in this manner. The moment you double the number of seats or halve the number of people, this behaviour will change. Because I have seen similar behaviour in the most rarefied Western environments, when faced with a temporary shortage. That’s what The Peacock Throne was about – people in a society where the pie is very small, and people are doing what they can to get by, and to get a bigger piece of the pie. It was about the exercise of power in India where everyone is trying to exercise power over everyone else – to the extent possible. Of course, birth, wealth, luck and looks aid some people. But my villains are not people I dislike, and I have no heroes. My villains are victims too, and my victims are villains, when they get an opportunity. In The Peacock Throne, my people were small-time power-brokers, councillors in Chandni Chowk, MLAs, perhaps MPs: people who are concerned with the pursuit of petty power. That was the life they knew how to lead. Even the Bangladeshi boy abandoned by his parents – someone whom you would certainly consider a victim – does what he can to oppress, given the opportunity. He is a victim only because he hasn’t yet found a victim of his own. And the same goes for oppressors – they become vistims when someone more powerful comes along. It was, in my opinion, an amoral novel, not an immoral one. Of course, my characters do what would be considered immoral things. But when I first show a prostitute, she is beating the hell out of a customer. While the madam of the brothel isn’t exactly powerful – she is a victim too… so I was neither sympathizing with my victims not condemning my villains.

Unfortunately most reviewers seem to think that there are no good people in this novel, there is no place for romance, for tender relationships. They seemed to think, here’s this guy who lives in sunny California and this is his way of saying, ‘Look at this screwed up place. But in reality I thought what I was saying was, ‘Look at these people behaving how all human beings would, in similar circumstances’.

And with The Confession of Sultana Daku, did you set out to write a political book?

Now, anything written about three people is political. To that extent I suppose this is political, too. But one comment I do make in this novel – simply by not making it – is about nationalism. Sultana lived through the period from 1919 to 1924. Those are periods of political ferment: particularly the period of non-cooperation. So you would imagine that there would be a lot of talk of India versus the British. But there isn’t. There is a lot of talk of bhantu versus bania versus thakur, with the white man fully accepted as the natural master. Which in my opinion was the attitude of the vast majority of Indians. Sure, there were politically conscious Indians, and Gandhi had his educated followers, but the vast majority of people who followed him did so for the wrong reasons: they felt he could cure them by touching them, and so on.

Sultana’s enemies are not white people, they are banias and thakurs. Freddy is not, for Sultana, not a white colonial oppressor, he is simply a policeman trying to capture a daku – whose victims are thakurs and banias – other Indians. Also, he may have been sustaining an empire which is colonial, but this is not about a white man oppressing black or brown people. Of course towards the end of the novel, Sultana gives a speech to Freddy Young saying, ‘I am doing Gandhi’s work’. You are not meant to believe him entirely, of course.

But we have with the advantage of hindsight, projected nationalism onto that age. Inspite of the mass mobilization that Gandhi carried out, only a few million Indians truly understood the idea of an “India” in the 1920s. There is, in Sultana’s world, no such thing as India, there is no United Provinces – his country is Rohilkhand, which as far as he is concerned, should be ruled by bhantus – not banias and not thakurs and not even Gandhi. In the end, Sultana says to Freddy, after Gandhiji has kicked you out, we, bhantus, will kick Gandhiji out – because he is a bania. While white people are rulers, they are fully acceptable. Towards the end of the novel, Sultana even tells him, ‘I can talk to you like this, I cannot talk to a bania or thakur – they are enemies’.

How did you zero in on Sultana as a character?

While researching another novel, I came across two stray references to a daku named Sultana, who terrorised banias and thakurs, and was hanged. And when he was captured, Freddy Young was jeered by shopkeepers and by people, ki Sultana ko pakad liya. Within some ten years of his death, some three nautankis about him came into being. And in those he became a patriotic Robin Hood figure, while Freddy Young – who was an extremely competent police officer – became a colonialist oppressor. He appears as a fat white fool constantly saying, “Aur whiskey lao”. He was responsible for some 100 murders and rapes, and they recovered some 1.5 lakhs of property from his camp in 1924. So he was a ferocious daku. But in the nautankis, he is transformed into a golden-hearted guy who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. This fascinated me.

Why did you choose to write this novel as a first person narrative?

I didn’t want to have him be this fictitious Robin Hood, but nor did I want to paint an entirely unsympathetic character. So I had him tell his own story in the hope that he would come across as a sympathetic character.

Every human being, if you look deeply enough at his life, has extenuating circumstances. Or at least something that’ll soften the ferocity of his crime. In Sultana’s case, the extenuating circumstance is that he is a poor bhantu. Sultana was born in a jail and taught by everything in his background that he is a thief. Since 1871, the government passed a Criminal Tribes Act, who now number 25 million (2.5 crore) and designated them criminals. There is a passage in the novel where his grandfather tells him that all these gora sahibs come all the way from vilayat just to put you in jail? It was a cultural thing, but the British government institutionalised it.

Of course he is a chor – he may say he is a patriot – but I don’t want you to think too badly of him. And when I tell you a full story, you are more likely to sympathise with me. But his story is full of lies, exaggerations, and contradictions. He is full of the idea of bhantu blood, for example – but in the end he says, ‘Perhaps I am not so different from a bania’.

Although I am very conscious that my readers are much more likely to believe Samuel Pearce than Sultana: because you [the reader] are much more like Samuel Pearce culturally, than Sultana. You speak English, for one thing. But I didn’t want to make Pearce into a modern liberal. So of course, you don’t share Pearce’s prejudices, the prejudices of his age: like when he says there is no way a bhantu can be reformed, because there is crime in his blood. But when Sultana talks of how bullets went through him, miracles like that, you will dismiss him. The emotion that you are meant to sympathise with is Sultana’s – but the facts, mostly, are Pearce’s.

A biographical question: how do you reconcile your two careers? When did you start writing fiction?

Well, I have been thinking of myself as a novelist for many years. The world didn’t agree. I wrote a novel called Limbo in 1990, when I was still a student at IIT. I graduated in 1991. The novel was eventually published in 1994. It was your standard autobiographical book – it has a little boy growing up, that’s me. I wrote a very large number of books, some complete, some not. My computer is full of manuscripts in various stages of progress!

Basically, my official life pays the bills. If they paid me to be a novelist, I would be a novelist full-time…

You write novels in English, but plays in Hindi. Why?

Yes, that is true. So here’s the deal. I have always had deep misgivings about Indian writing in English, especially with the idea of an Indian novel with characters who would in real life be speaking in some other language having to speak in English (though I grew up reading the Rushdies and Amitav Ghoshes and so on, and admired them) So in Sultana’s case, for example, I devised this character, Pearce, who is transcribing Sultana’s words. It was a contrivance to avoid having Sultana speaking directly to us in English. At other times, one just writes dialogue in English and asks the reader to assume that this is spoken in Hindi. Hopefully if I use simple enough language and throw in a few Indian idioms, then you can convince yourself that actually, he is speaking in Hindi and the conversation is being reported to you in English. But in a play, when you have the characters actually having to mouth dialogues in English – the suspension of disbelief required is too much. Though my last two plays have been set where I live, so they have been in English.

So it’s not about your different relationships with these two languages?

I am reasonably fluent in Hindi, though perhaps a little more fluent in English. But it is not a matter of not knowing the Hindi word for something. The question is, does such a word even exist? A word that may be in common use in English may have a Hindi equivalent so arcane that even Hindi speakers don’t really use it. A dictionary word, if you know what I mean. So then I end up using a phrase, rather than the word – even if I know it.

I have actually written more in Hindi than in English. I’ve written novels in Hindi, too. I am not primarily an English writer or anything. It’s just that there is no Hindi literary market that I know of. There is a market for Manoj Pocket Books, cheesy romances, soft porn kind of stuff – an extension of Grihashobha, recipes for tarah tarah ke pakvaan, Bunai Visheshank and so on… But I can’t imagine a market for serious literature – like Sultana Daku, it’s a book I intend seriously. It’s not a frivolous thing.

Have you ever actually approached a Hindi publisher?

I have contacted Rajkamal once, about publishing a collection of my Hindi plays. They showed some mild interest, and then they didn’t. The conversation petered out.

Does your theatre company (in California) perform your plays?
Well, yes. Mostly we perform plays written by me. Though I once commissioned someone to stage one of the Sultana nautankis for my group: an expert on nautanki.

It is not a sophisticated genre. The presentation is atrocious. And it’s not theatrical, even. They just stand and sing. But the music is beautiful. When a nautanki person reads the script, he or she can tell how – in what meter (and associated tune) – certain sections need to be sung. It has non-musical portions, too: vahan likha hoga 'vartalap'.

And I believe in the 1920s and 1930s, the nautanki was extremely popular in the region where Sultana lived – though it was called saangeet, or swaang. And the most popular saangeet was called Nautanki Shehzadi, which I have Sultana watch in my novel. That particular saangeet became so popular that the entire genre became called Nautanki. But it is a genre full of comic relief. It is not meant to be taken seriously in terms of plot. It is innocent of nuance. (laughs)

But there must have been something that appealed to you about the nautankis, enough to make you want to stage one?

Well, like Sultana says at one point in the book, ‘What I have told you about my life that is what people will remember’. And whatever people remember becomes the truth. What is history? There may be police records that show otherwise, but if those who remembered Sultana saw him as a sweet Robin Hood, then that’s it. So I liked those nautankis because they represent that kind of truth about Sultana.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 48 Dated December 05, 2009

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