Teaser: INTRODUCTION – Kunal Basu Interview, “The Byword” #3.
Would you like to be transported to other places and times? Romance the strange? Embark on perilous journeys of the self? Explore big questions and ideas? Be moved by poignant human stories of compassion and courage and unusual loves? Enter the fictional world of Kunal Basu, the foremost writer of historical fiction in post-millennial Indian-English literature.
When The Opium Clerk came out in 2001 and was followed soon after by the critically acclaimed The Miniaturist in 2003 – they announced the arrival of a new and rare talent in Indian-English fiction, who, unlike many others of his generation, was not taken up with contemporary India or parables of the nation. Instead, he explored unchartered territories – British opium trade and Mughal miniature painting in his first two novels; and then continued his adventure with Victorian racial science in Racists (2006, which was nominated for the Crossword Book Award); and the scourge of syphilis in The Yellow Emperor’s Cure (2011).
Though the historical novel is his forte, Basu has also written in other genres. His first collection of shorts The Japanese Wife (2008) was widely popular, its title story being adapted for the screen by celebrated filmmaker Aparna Sen. He also wrote the narrative for a book of photographs by Kushal Ray, Intimacies (2001). His latest novel, Kalkatta, is his first contemporary one – an unsparing look at the underbelly of the city, seen through the eyes of a Bihari Muslim gigolo. And soon to be published is a Bangla novel, once again set in the present, but also harking back to the Naxal movement of the 1970s in Calcutta.
It is a lovely winter morning in Kolkata, and I go to interview him in his South Calcutta residence at Lake Road. It is a beautiful apartment bursting with books and art objects, and I am ushered in by his gracious wife, Susmita, before Kunal joins me for the interview. Later, I am introduced to their daughter, Aparajita, a doctoral student at Berkeley who is at home on a short visit. I have a feeling of deja vu – as I had experienced an almost identical scenario in 2008, though in his natal home at Purna Das Road, when I had taken another extensive interview of him for The IIAS Newsletter, ahead of his attendance at the Amsterdam-India Festival later that year.
The man who sits in front of me has been many things – artist, actor, author, and academic. The four ‘A’-s, however, never sat easily with each other. Basu is a Professor at Said Business School at the University of Oxford, where he has been teaching since 1999, after an illustrious 13 years at McGill University in Canada – but he had never wanted to be an academic. Brought up on socialist ideals by his publisher father and writer/stage actor mother, both Left intellectuals of their time, Basu developed an early inclination for the arts that was to last a lifetime: as a child artist, he seemed promising to his parents; however, he left painting and became a professional theatre actor in his student days in the 70s in Calcutta, and later in Montreal; but it is the author who ultimately won over all the other identities, the ‘A’ that finally sealed his fate.
I first met him in BCL-Kolkata in 2004, at the release of the first critical book on his work edited by Prof. Subir Dhar et al, to which I had contributed (Romancing the Strange: The Fiction of Kunal Basu). I have had an abiding interest in his work ever since. A decade later, I myself co-edited a volume of essays with Prof. Krishna Sen (Writing India Anew: Indian English Fiction 2000-2010, 2013), where I placed his work and contribution in the context of recent trends in post-millennial Indian-English fiction. As a scholar specializing in this field, what I find very interesting is the way Basu has steered clear of the general preoccupations of postcolonial fiction; and as an academic and an aspiring creative writer, I am amazed at how he has managed to balance the demands of his double career as academic-writer for nearly two decades, a rare feat that few can pull off with such élan.
This interview was prompted by the publication of Kalkatta, but it is not only about the novel. That constitutes only the first section of the interview: three more sections follow. The second takes a broader look at Basu’s work, the genres he has written in, and his writing life; in the third, we get his take on the literary ecosystem – on translations, literary festivals, the internet, social media, book-trailers, and publishing in India; and the final section is about his own engagement with the sibling arts – with painting, theatre, and the cinema.