the-south-asian.com June/July 2004
- TRANSMISSION OF ANOTHER IMPRESSION
Though best known for receiving a record advance for his debut book The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru is making literary waves once again with his second book, Transmission and proving once again that he is a writer of substance….
For most people, Hari Kunzru is best known as the man who bagged the world record-breaking advance of 1.25 million pounds ($ 2.25 million) for his first book The Impressionist. However, the 35-year-old writer who was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, does nothing to dispel this notion.
The Impressionist set in 1920 in the days of the British Raj revolves around Pran Nath who adroitly bridges the divide between the British and the Indian life. Besides raking in the record advance, Kunzru also won the 25,000 pound Betty Trask Award in 2003, was short-listed for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Whitbread First Novel Award and has been translated into 16 languages. Now Mira Nair is all set to make a film on the book.
Staying at the presidential suite in a luxury hotel in Delhi, Kunzru is neither self-conscious nor defensive about his rich-author status. The entire concentration is directed at his second book Transmission, which is winning him critical acclaim around the world. Writing a second book under the shadow of such a successful debut was daunting but Kunzru says he did meticulous research.
Transmission is about an Indian computer geek Arjun Mehta working as a 'cyber coolie' in the Silicon Valley who is also a great admirer of an Indian film star Leela Zahir. When the IT bubble bursts he is threatened with redundancy. To save his job he creates a virus that goes into the in-boxes as an innocuous two-line E-mail asking people to open the attachment leela.exe and check out the radiant smile of the film star. That smile, says the book, is the start of all your problems.
In India primarily to promote
his book, Kunzru had one of the most unusual launches at Delhi’s British
Council. The book was released to the accompaniment of Hindi film songs and
clips from popular films like Main Hoon Na and Kal Ho Na Ho.
" I wouldn’t call it unusual. Bollywood is a predominant theme in my book, so I thought of creating that kind of atmosphere in India," says the author.
Kunzru visits India often. " I come usually during the winters to attend some weddings that keep happening every year among my relatives. In summers it is unbearable," he says as he looks out and frowns at the blazing June sun.
It is just as well that both his books have some Indian characters and partly Indian settings but he is not one of the expatriate Indian writers who scour the Indian landscape looking for their roots. Kunzru is happy living in London with his British identity. If there is anything that fascinates him about his mixed origins (Kunjru’s father is Indian and mother English) is how do so many Indians end up getting married to English girls? This is something he has already explored at length in his first book, The Impressionist.
For him India is a country where many of his relatives live, a country that needs to be explored. But he is quick to remind you that there is nothing mushy about his liking for India. " And I also abhor the nostalgic writing that many writers of Indian diaspora usually indulge in. My next book will not have anything to do with India at all," he says about his third book likely to be out by next year.
Books are just one part of Kunzru and his writings are not restricted to fiction alone. He is a versatile journalist writing on as varied subjects as culture, technology, music and travel. He started out as a travel writer and still does a lot of it for many British newspapers including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist and the London Review of Books. He is a travel correspondent for Time Out magazine.
In 1999 Kunzru was named by The Observer as the young travel writer of the year. He is also the music editor of The Wallpaper magazine and contributing editor to Mute - a culture and technology magazine. Kunzru travels to India often but does not think he is capable yet of writing a travel book on the country. " India is vast and I have not been able to work out from where to start," he says.
The writer trashes most of the travel books written on India by other writers accusing them of peddling stereotypes. However he makes an exception of historian and travel writer William Dalrymple on India but rubbishes Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul’s right-wing views on India. "Naipaul is a silly old man. He has won the Nobel Prize and has written good books. But for him to say and write such things about India at the fag end of his career is a shame. I don’t agree with his assessment of India. I don’t like his books on India," he says categorically.
The author Kunzru holds in high esteem is Salman Rushdie who he says did a yeoman’s job in ushering Indian writing in English on the global scene. " Indian English is very vibrant now and like American English, has evolved itself brilliantly over the years. One just has to look at the Indian newspapers. The British language has got nicely gelled with Hindi words and the result is a new Hinglish."
With the exception of Amitava Ghosh whom Kunzru admires among the Indians writing in English, he would rather read Indian writers writing in many Indian languages. But he regrets there are hardly any good translations available.
" Writers are fine. But what we need are god translators who can bring out the essence of writings in other Indian languages. That’s the true literature of India and we should bring it to the world stage," says the writer who rejected the prestigious John Llewellyn-Rhys Prize in 2002 sponsored by The Daily Mail because of the British tabloid’s "hostility towards black and Asian British people".
Kunzru has no regrets at the demonstration of his writer’s conscience and says, " I wanted to deny the publications the chance to use me to look good. This is a publication that pursues an editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum seekers," says Kunzru and adds, " I was very happy when the prize money went to people the paper least liked---the refugees."
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