The Japanese Wife, based on a short story by Kunal Basu by the same name, releases on April 9, having passed the censor board with U/A certificate for an intimate scene of Rahul Bose, who plays the male lead, in a boat. The UK-based author, who teaches management science at the University of Oxford, was in New Delhi recently.
Here, the author of three novels — The Opium Clerk (2001), The Miniaturist (2003) and Racists (2006) — and a book of short stories, The Japanese Wife (2008), talks about his “promiscuous imagination”, the “failed historian” in him and his fourth novel, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure — set in China during the Boxer uprising (1898-1901), it is about a Portuguese doctor who goes there to find a cure for syphilis.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. The film based on your story, The Japanese Wife, finally releases after a long wait. It’s the story of an unlikely romance and marriage between two people separated by cultures. What was the genesis of the story?
A. The most difficult thing for me to answer is why did I think of a particular story. I can be very cogent and say how I wrote it. But I think what happened with The Japanese Wife was that a few decades ago I was travelling in Bengal with a friend of mine in a village. We were having a very animated conversation about something. It was nothing to do with books, films, but was actually about politics. He suddenly pointed out someone, saying, ‘That gentleman is married to a Japanese’. Now, in a city it’s not an unusual for an Indian man to have a foreign wife or an Indian woman to have a foreign husband. But you won’t expect that in a village in India. I said, ‘Oh! Really? That is a bit unusual.’ But after that we didn’t have any further discussion about that man.
But so strange is the human mind that a few decades later, when I was sitting in my study with a snowstorm outside, I thought of the story and I wrote it. So, that’s the genesis of the story if I can go back in my own memory and point at it. But I had no clue it would come out in such a strange way. I felt a bit sad killing Snehmoy though.
Q. Are you happy with the choice of characters? I saw bits of the film in Jaipur in 2008 when you had a session with Aparna Sen. It has come out really well. Rahul Bose comes across as quite convincing, playing Snehmoy.
A. This role called for a portrayal of a man who’s frighteningly shy, introverted. He is a village person, but, at the same time, has a strong inner core. For, a person who’s nervous and diffident wouldn’t take such a step of marrying somebody he’s never seen. And still be loyal to that marriage. Something which is strange about this man is that the other aspects of his characters are very ordinary. It is a difficult, complex and layered character to portray.
I saw Rahul for the first time in the context of The Japanese Wife when they were doing an acting workshop in Kolkata. I was passing through the city while on my way to the Australian Literary Festival. At the Actors’ Studio, as soon as I saw him rehearsing a scene in which he goes to a homeopathy doctor and tries to explain to the doctor that his wife is sick. The doctor asks, ‘But where is your wife?’ The doctor asks him detailed questions about the symptoms. But Snehmoy has never seen his wife. It’s hard for him to describe the symptoms. He’s trying to be as truthful as possible, trying to answer those questions.
I stood at the back as we had not been introduced yet. I exclaimed, ‘Yes, that’s my Snehomy.’ I instinctively knew that that was my character. So, the choice of the actor for the character was absolutely right. Though I didn’t go to Japan for shooting, but the Japanese actress Chigusa Takaku who plays Miyage has done a great job too.
Q. You were a child actor in two of Mrinal Sen’s films — Punascha (Over Again) and Abasheshe (And at Last). What memories do you have of those days?
A. What you do as a child — specially things you love doing —stay with you. I haven’t really talked about it at other places, but I’ll tell you what I remember of my child-actor days. I remember the dark, musky studio at Taliganj in Kolkata. In one of the films, Punascha, the hero was Soumitra Chatterjee, one of the big names in Bengali cinema then. I remember him wearing a dark suit and looking smashingly handsome. When Mrinal Sen came in, he introduced us, saying ‘This man is going to act in the same film with you.’
Those were the days when I was mad about cricket. So much so that I’d call Sen da Jayasri Roy and he’d call me Abbas Ali Baig, after the two cricketers. When my second novel was published, I went to see Sen and wrote in the book, ‘To Jayasri Roy, From Abbas Ali.’ It was the whole smell of cinema, the sense of being on the set with lights et al that attracted me a lot.
Q. Would you think about acting now?
A. (Laughs) I have gray hair. No one is going to cast me. If you could find a confident director, who is not afraid to do so, pass on my name.
Q. All your novels are historical fiction. What is it about the genre that fascinates you?
A. India has a tremendous tradition of historical fiction. When I was growing up, I read the works of Bankim Chandra Chattayopadhyay, which were historical fiction on a grand scale. I was a romantic child and historical fiction appealed to me because it took me to another time and another place. In many ways, it became my favourite genre, even in fiction. I also read novels in other languages. I was very taken by their otherness — the other time, the other place. It is no surprise to me that when I started writing I would gravitate towards historical fiction. Also, history was my favourite subject in school. I never studied the subject in university, which I so regret. I tell friends that I am a failed historian which is why I write historical fiction.
Q. All your novels are so removed from each other in terms of the period you set them in.
A. It is because in my imagination, I’m promiscuous. I get bored if I stay with a particular period. After The Miniaturists was published, there was a strong view among people who follow my work in the publishing world — agents, publishers etc — that I should write another Mughal novel. I felt very sad when I finished The Miniaturists because I knew I’ll never allow myself to go back into that world again. I don’t want to write yet another Mughal novel as much as I love the Mughal period.
I had to move over to the Victorian period in The Racists. Part of my writing is this journey of self-exploration. And I don’t want to be stuck in one period.
Q. In your last novel, Racists, while you wanted to explore the origins of racism in the 19th century Europe, did you also have its contemporary contours on your mind?
A. Racists is about the racial distinctions that science made between the Black and the White. You could equally apply the story to the distinction between the Chinese and the Malay in Southeast Asia or between several castes or tribes or religions. In many ways, this is a story about prejudice. Prejudice, unfortunately, is timeless. Prejudice, unfortunately, cuts across geographies. So, although the story of Racists is set in a very specific context of racial discrimination, it could equally be seen as other sorts of discriminations in other societies in other times. What really intrigued me when I was writing this novel was why are people drawn to other people who are similar — similar ethnically, religiously and by caste — and why do they move away from those who they see as dissimilar. Racists, in that context, is a very significant novel for me because I am troubled, as most contemporary citizens of the world should be, about prejudice. While writing that novel I understood more about the roots of prejudice.
Q. Tell me something about your next novel, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure.
A. I’m not going to tell you a lot about it. What I’ll tell you is that it’s a novel about syphilis, a very dangerous disease which up to the ’30s of the 20th century was like HIV\AIDS. There was a lot of taboo and stigma around it as is the case with AIDS today. The novel is about exploring how different cultures — European and the Chinese —looked at the notions of health and sickness. It’s a story about a Portuguese doctor who goes to China to find a cure for syphilis in the 19th century.
Q. As a reader, what struck me about almost all your characters was that while they are ordinary, there is something incredibly extraordinary about them.
A. You have touched a very important point in my writing. I am excited by miracles that happen in the lives of ordinary people, people who never expect those miracles. A significant point, which cuts through from The Opium Clerk to my latest novel, is a series of accidents, miracles and completely strange happenings that take place in the life of the ordinary people and how these happenings transform their lives or make them see themselves or the world around them in a different light. Inside all ordinary people are extraordinary worlds, worlds of our memories, dreams and nightmares. Hopefully, in my writing, I bring out those memories, dreams and nightmares in strange settings.
Q. As someone who was born and bred in Calcutta (now Kolkata), what intimacies do you share with the city? Living abroad, are you nostalgic about it?
A. I have lived abroad for close to 30 years now. But unlike a fair number of NRIs, I don’t miss the tea shop that I used to frequent while growing up. I don’t miss Calcutta in that sense. I miss myself in Calcutta. I miss the times when we used to plaster the walls of the university with political posters during the Emergency, the time when we used to go and stand for hours in queue to collect tickets to the international film festival, the times when we would go to watch Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 and keep arguing with friends till 2 o’clock in the morning. But obviously I have changed and Calcutta has changed. When I go there, it takes some effort to recreate that memory. It’s not small things that I miss. It is a city which is familiar because I was born and raised there. If I ever turn blind, and I pray to god that I don’t, I think I can find my way in Calcutta.
I don’t have superficial nostalgia about Calcutta. I miss lots of places. I miss Delhi. I love Delhi. Of the 12 stories in The Japanese Wife, five have strong settings in Delhi. I never lived for a substantial period of time in the city, but I feel I miss it in many ways. I miss going to Hazrat Nizamuddin to listen to qawwalis.
Currently, I am writing a text for an album of extraordinary photographs of an old Calcutta house, shot by Kushal Ray, and its inhabitants. I am going to be writing the text. Hopefully, the text to accompany those pictures will not be boring. Hopefully, there will be some fictional qualities embedded in my text.