Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Last Jet Engine Laugh

Ahmede: Do you believe in epiphanic moments? How does your muse come to you?

Ruchir Joshi: I do believe in epiphanic moments, in the sense that something often strikes you under a certain light, at some twist of the day, and then you store it away to examine later. You bring it out and mull over it, and to that first idea or inspiration you add something else and then something else again, and this then starts a process that leads – hopefully – to some finished work.
As to muses, I have never found the European idea of a `muse’ useful for my own work. For instance, the idea that a beautiful woman or man can be the inspiration for anything other than something addressed to that particular human object of desire is one I find absurd. I can’t, for example, imagine being inspired to write about an act of violence or a brutal natural disaster by a `muse’. But perhaps I take the concept too literally.

Ahmede: How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?

Ruchir Joshi: I do need to have an imaginary reader or viewer in mind when I write or when I make a film. It can be a very diffuse group of people that stretches across different countries and cultures, or it can be a very specific bunch of friends in the city where I’m living, but I do need to have that sense of an `addresee’.

Simultaneously, though, there does need to be an avoidance of anything remotely resembling what advertising people call a `target audience’. If you aim too specifically at a group while doing something then it risks becoming an ad, a propaganda work or a political manifesto, and it usually diminishes its power as a work of art. Not always, but usually.

Ahmede: The English that we speak in South Asia, do you think we have transformed it enough to call it ours?

Ruchir Joshi: Oh god, yes. When I was a student in the United States, I used to get very irritated whenever someone expressed surprise or praise at the fluency of my English. `You speak really good English!’ they would say, to which my reply, invariably, and with a mirroring tone of surprise, was: `Thanks! So do you!’ And this was nearly thirty years ago.

The thing is, like many people of my class and background, English was not a first language – in childhood it came a limping third behind Gujarati and Hindi and it was neck to neck with a very circumscribed Kolkataiya Bangla. But like hundreds and thousands of others across the sub-continent, I grew into the language as it grew into me. This meant that it became the first instrument for communication, expression and even dreaming; certainly, I cannot imagine writing in any other language with the freedom I have while writing in English.

The `normal’, daily English that lives in us is not what is spoken elsewhere in the world. In fact, now one can even talk of plural, sub-continental, Englishes: the language undergoes a very varied daily sculpting in different parts of the sub-continent, some of it pretty inelegant, even ugly, and some of it beautiful beyond the scansion-cosnciousness of any British or Yankee `correct English’ pedant.

Of course we have transformed it, are still transforming it, and will continue to change it. We have to – it’s our main linguistic bridge, not only to the rest of the world but also between ourselves.

Ahmede: Many argue that novel itself is a western form of expression. We had epic. Is it not so that the history of novel is also the history of the so-called modern man, his crises?

Ruchir Joshi: It’s like saying the train is a western form of transport; yes, of course it is, but so what? It’s a brilliant form of transport, so thank you, great inventors of 19th century England! And thank you, Swift and Richardson and Austen etc for the novel! But now that we have said our thank you’s, can we get on with sitting on a train, vaccinated against polio and typhoid, reading and writing our own novels and dreaming our own dreams? The answer is obvious, no?

If I was to choose one thing that parallels and records modern human existence and its crises, it would be photography more than the novel, simply because so many more people can `read’ a photograph than the printed word. But yes, the mutation of the book-bound narrative across the last two hundred years is certainly fascinating, even more so because it seems to be holding its own against the newcomers of cinema, television and the Net.

And precisely because we have such varied and rich narrative traditions ourselves, we should not get trapped in some archaic notion of the novel as a form that founds its apogee in the late 19th century in Western Europe and Russia, a form to which we must faithfully adhere. There are many of us who are trying to work with breaking open the old forms of the novel, and in this we follow in the footsteps of the great Indian, especially Bangla, novelists of the mid-20th century.

Ahmede: VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like that for you?

Ruchir Joshi: I am not familiar with this particular argument of Naipaul’s, but I’ve learnt it’s generally a good idea to be suspicious of whatever the man says. His grasp of the changing world (and his own place in it) has been very tenuous since 1965 or so; his language has got more and more clumsy and ugly the further he has come from his very early triumphs; his insecurities and self-created isolation have brought out the poisonously reactionary dna of his intellect.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is what he’s talking about is the kind of quite banal truism you find in a statement like `so-and-so was very bad to his wife and family but he was a great painter.’ Of course, this is true up to a point: the fact that an artist was or is, say, a jingoist, or a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe, should not cloud our judgement when appraising their work; but it’s hard to find examples of people who’ve crossed extreme thresholds of inhumanity and depravity and still produced worthwhile art.

For example, in arguing this, V.S Naipaul may want us to separate Naipaul `The Writer’ from Naipaul the praise-hungry, sycophant-loving man who accepted felicitations from the Hindu Fascist VHP two days before the Gujarat killings began in `02, but I see no reason to oblige him. Sure, it would be unfair to compare Naipaul to a Yahya Khan or a Niazi or a Narendra Modi, because he hasn’t actually ordered the killing or raping of anyone; but it’s only accurate to say that the man’s early works do not balance out the rapid and complete evaporation of humility, humanity and sense of justice in this ex-artist.

As for myself, I try and be aware of my many limitations as a human being; I try and not let those limitations get in the way when I work, but invariably they do, from surprising angles, many of which I can only see afterwards, once the film or writing has been released to the world. So, I note those angles and begin again.
© Ahmede Hussain