In the weeks prior to the Galle Literary Festival, I had got it into my head that both Rana Dasgupta and Wendy Cope had some affiliation with the cathedral city of Canterbury, and had requested interviews along that line… but I was wrong – about Wendy Cope anyway. Such is the journalistic life.
When it came to the GLF itself, notwithstanding our long-standing arrangement, Dasgupta and I struggled to fix a time when one or both of us weren’t actually doing something, y’know, literary. (Trade secret: lit journalists don’t really want to ask their subjects/heroes/victims any specific questions; we just want to sit and have a beer with them.) In the end, so to speak, we had our hour late on Sunday, just as the festival was winding down.
Rana was indeed born and bred in Canterbury, but was not a chorister (I asked because music features large in Solo, his second novel) and left when he was five. In short, no noteworthy formative experiences. His father moved the family to Cambridge, for a job with Philips. And so Rana found himself at public school: “all very normal, very middle class – unpretentious, the sons of doctors and academics. Cambridge still had that slightly ramshackle air.” This is before the £5-sandwich shops and branches of Jack Wills, obviously.
But it was “extremely homogenous”. So homogenous, in fact, that no-one blinked when he, a boy of evidently Asian descent, turned up; the Cambridge of the 70s was so uniformly monochrome that being brown “didn’t have any meanings attached to it.” Not till Gandhi came out, anyway.
“I haven’t ever really been on the bad end of racism [which end is the good end?!], but on the couple of occasions it’s happened it’s been very weird.” After doing postgraduate study in the States, for instance (media studies, at Wisconsin-Madison), he returned to the UK, and, queuing outside a club, heard someone mimicking everything he said in a Peter Sellers’ Punjabi accent (for the record, Rana sounds exactly like he grew up in Cambridge). Rana describes the event with understandable pain and anger: “He was challenging me on the terrain on which I feel most comfortable, which is my language. That’s very disconcerting to who you are.”
And who does he think he is, now? He referred to his post-postgrad return as “my homecoming”. He carries a British passport and considers himself British – though nine years in Delhi are leaving their mark. “I refer to myself as ‘a British writer living in India’. No… ‘in Delhi.’ I think I am very much a product of this place.” He wrote (but did not set) both his books there, starting with 2005’s Tokyo Cancelled.
Somewhere between Chaucer and the Decameron, albeit with 13 tales (a baker’s Decameron?), Tokyo Cancelled is a “story cycle”, featuring, as conscious story-tellers, a group of unrelated people stuck in one place – an airport departures lounge. The stories they tell are contemporary folktales: people appear and give wisdom, there are magical elements (“but all realistically magical”), and the final story reflects on the preceding twelve.
In full awareness of the unlikelihood of 13 beleaguered 21st-century travellers sitting in an airport and starting a story-circle, Rana describes the book as “a utopian harking back to story-telling culture.” He’s very much asking if the conveying of wisdom and/or truth through story is viable in the modern age (and, if not, what we do about that). Is myth contrary to modernism? But: “I think the book doesn’t answer that question.” Myths both do and can’t capture modern life: “the stories become more distorted and mutilated as the book goes on.” Ultimately the question is aimed at us. What is it we don’t believe about modern middle-class society but are happy to accept in Chaucer?
I ask him to return to the subject of his father, whom he has been interviewing lately, with a mind to writing a “future unknown project” about him (“amazing stories need to be preserved”). He begins to speak of how his immigrant father charmed his way into the cricket team of a small village outside Sevenoaks, Kent, pretty much Ground Zero for middle-class studies. “They looked after him, and patronised him – ”
“Patronised or patronised?”
“Patronised. Gave him loans and helped him out.”
Many Indo-Anglians, Rana says, seem to define themselves according to experiences of racism. Dasgupta, Sr. simply decided that they were all English now, and got on with it. “Anyway, he refuses to speak about things like that. It offends his dignity.” When the Dasguptas left Sevenoaks the same cricket team threw them a leaving bash, at which someone confessed that they’d originally tried to prevent Mr Dasgupta from joining the club. Rana looks newly pensive: “I don’t know if it’s good that they felt comfortable admitting that.”
His parents (mother English) were both working-class, and “fixated” on securing middle-class opportunities for their children. When he won the Form Prize in his first year of (private) prep school, Rana says, this was a major vindication for his parents.
Which brings us, near enough, to Solo, a novel about the urge to succeed, especially in “places newly exposed to the energies of global capitalism.” The core novella tells the life-story of Ulrich, a blind Bulgarian chemist, who proceeds to live out his destroyed dreams through half a dozen alternative stories: “grand success in music, ferocious success in business. Unfettered, in 2003, his mind spreads into possibilities that he couldn’t have lived in his time and place. Dreams are his progeny. Things comes together and drift apart: his friend, himself, his imagined son.” [Here I forget to tackle him over the fascinating parrot anecdote that suckered me into the book but which barely carries beyond the front cover-flap.]
Rana likes to bring such peripheral characters to the centre. They have, he says, in this new century, the chance to right historical wrongs (or write them, indeed). “They are proudly different from the Welfare West. People who, for the first time in their family’s memories can have the best things in the world.”
Persons, in fact, who have been “historically excluded”. “I would say this structure of feeling and energy en masse in Indian cities, Brazilian cities… It’s a feeling that this is our moment. These guys are in decline. We can hack this system from the inside. We can sort out our parents [his own father’s abiding priority] and possibly even make ourselves very rich.
He talks of the burning determination of the new Delhi elite not merely to be rich, but to be rich in the face of their former colonial masters. Of Delhi’s Ministry of Sound franchise which plays bhangra, in violation of the MoS universal business model: “the new rich Indians are rich enough to make demands – ‘I will have all these things as an Indian.’” Of the religious background: “the more you earn, the more the gods are smiling on you, so crack on. There’s no Protestant guilt.” Of Punjabi paranoia, and Rana’s ascription of the current surge of Indian business to the after-burn of 1947: “I think in this century the Punjabi holocaust is going to erupt.”
Monica, his wife, arrives for dinner. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We haven’t really talked about the books.” I tell him not to worry. They’re both in the shops, if folks want to know more.
Tokyo Cancelled and Solo are published by HarperCollins.