Saturday, January 27, 2007

In Conversation With Anosh Irani

Ahmede: In The Cripple and His Talismans we see you explore the role of an individual in an increasingly hostile society. Do you think your background as a Parsi Indian makes you think about this issue?

Anosh Irani: I tried to explore what hostility does to human beings. In The Cripple and His Talismans the narrator experiences a hostile childhood. This hostility comes in the form of the silence and indifference of his parents. There is a part in the novel where he recollects how his parents would stay silent at the dinner table and only the clink of knives and forks could be heard. The main character in the novel absorbs this coldness into his very being. It prevents him from being compassionate. His quest to find an arm is actually a quest to make him feel, to make him human again. To remain compassionate in the midst of hostility and to understand that there is a spiritual component to his earthly journey, that is what the main character realizes. I don’t think my Parsi background has much do with this. It is about being human, and in order to be human, the first thing one needs to do is let go of religion and embrace spirituality.

Ahmede: We know you want to call it Bombay, not Mumbai, (as a matter of personal preference). Why is it so?

Anosh Irani: The Bombay I knew was a tolerant city. People of different religions co-existed peacefully. Of course there were bursts of violence, but they were not frequent. They were unexpected. Now people are no longer surprised when bombs go off, when trains are blown up, when children are thrown into fires. Ever since the Babri Masjid riots in 92-93, things have changed for the worse. I remember one night a curfew had been imposed in Byculla, the area in which I lived, and taxis had been smashed and there was shattered glass everywhere, and military tanks were patrolling the streets, crunching bits of glass under their weight, and all I could think of was that people had been murdered in my own neighborhood. That was the moment, for me, when Bombay changed to Mumbai. The city was renamed a few years later.

Ahmede: You were in Bombay during the riots. How was it like?

Anosh Irani: Being a Zoroastrian, I was unscathed by the violence; however, I understood the violence through other people – close friends – whose lives were in danger. A friend of mind who was Muslim had to lock his mum and younger brother indoors each night while his friends and he would go to the terrace and keep vigil for Hindu gangs. He told me that what surprised him most about the violence, apart from the senseless murders, was that people he knew were trying to kill him. The gangs that were gunning for him and the people in his building were friends he had played cricket with. That is what hurt him most. During the riots it was clear that politics and religion were too powerful; they overshadowed personal relationships, rendered them meaningless. The frustration of the masses was being used as fuel. All political leaders needed to do was a light a single match and then they sat back and watched the flames. Ever since the Babri Masjid riots, Muslims have started to feel very threatened in Bombay and other parts of India, and the retaliation that followed in the form of the serial bomb blasts in March 1993 came as no surprise. The government did nothing to protect Muslim citizens, and so the underworld made a strong statement.

Ahmede: Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival described The Cripple and His Talismans as a magic realist journey through Bombay's gritty underbelly. Do you think magic realism is relevant to South Asian reality?

Anosh Irani: The problem with magic realism is that writers forget the “realism” part. Reality grounds the story, provides it with strong roots, so that eventually the story can take flight. For instance, in The Cripple and His Talismans, the quest itself, a man going in search of his lost arm, is absurd, it’s magical. So for the quest to make sense there has to be a dark reality to balance it. I found this by exploring Bombay’s underbelly, a world of con men, underworld dons, beggars, lepers and prostitutes. When faced with these characters the story wants an escape route. But that magic has to be minimal for the balance to be maintained. Also, oral storytelling is very much a part of Indian literature. The stories of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are very magical, yet they possess moral gravity, which few works of literature can touch. That is another way one can balance the magic – through morality. Not by being didactic but by enabling the reader to have a greater understanding. So yes, magic realism is very relevant.

Ahmede: Do you think the English in which most South Asian writers write is actually a South Asian language (Like 'American' or 'Australian')?

Anosh Irani: I think you’re talking about voice. Rather than think of it as a “language” I would prefer to talk in terms of voice. In The Cripple and His Talismans the narrator is paranoid, he hallucinates quite a bit. So when the reader experiences Bombay, he or she does so through the narrator’s eyes. There is a dark, absurd lens that distorts things – it doesn’t make them unrealistic; it is simply the narrator’s interpretation of events and images. The language has to reflect this. The voice matters. Also, some of the characters think and speak in Hindi, but the writer writes in English. During this translation, the language acquires an Indian quality. I am not conscious of this. I don’t think about it too much. The important thing is to keep the writing as natural as possible. The moment you analyze language too much, you stop using it well, so I’ll end here.

Ahmede: Will you share your reading of South Asian fiction with our readers?

Anosh Irani: I think there is one book that all lovers of literature must read: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Right now I’m reading Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra and I’m enjoying it.