Finely written, carefully reported, and imaginatively conceived, Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Faber and Faber, Inc.) is one of the outstanding nonfiction books of 2011. Deb was born in Shillong, India in 1970, and now lives in Brooklyn. He teaches creative writing at the New School. He responded to questions from Scott Sherman via e-mail.
I’d just come out with a novel that was rather poorly published. I didn’t have a job and depended entirely on freelance income and my book advance, and I was about to be a father. Any novel I wrote would take some years, and although I very much wanted to write a novel, I had this wild idea that it would be easier to sell a nonfiction book on proposal. I thought I’d get an advance, do the book quickly, and get back to the novel, and here I am, some six years later.
I didn’t sell the book on proposal in the U.S., although the proposal was shopped around. I remember one American publisher listening to my pitch and saying, “Yeah, I remember when I went to Delhi for the first time.” And I thought, ‘You know what, this ain’t Alabama.’ After some conversations of this nature, there was an offer too low so I refused to take it. But it did sell on proposal in Britain and in Canada. That helped buy some diapers. The Society of Authors in the U.K. gave me a generous grant to research the book, which went to buying more diapers. Most of the research was done on credit card debt, which funded the tickets between India and New York. I also depended on the hospitality of friends and strangers in India, and my thankfully unprivileged upbringing in India which allowed me to report on the cheap, skimping on things like cars and drivers and resorting to buses and auto rickshaws for the most part.
That’s how it started. But people were also interested in the nonfiction pieces I’d been writing on India, especially this cover story I did on Indian call centers for the Guardian weekend magazine. Most of the nonfiction stuff on India that I was reading was of the boosterish, “India Shining” variety, and I wondered if I could write something that was both critical and “alive,” something like a novel but based on reporting and research.
What languages do you speak, and what languages did you use in the reporting?
My mother tongue is Bengali. I used mostly Hindi and English, and a bit of Assamese when I ran into some security guards from Assam in a factory in Andhra Pradesh.
Full interview here Brooklyn Rail