An Evening of Indian Literature with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao

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On Thursday 9th October 2014, Waterstones Piccadiily played host to an evening with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao in conversation with Claire Alfree, Literary Editor of the Metro. Neel’s book,The Lives Of Others is shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize as well as the Green Carnation prize for LGBT writing; Mahesh’s novel, The Smoke Is Rising, is shortlisted for the 2014 Not The Booker prize, hosted by The Guardian.

The evening began with a short extract from each book read by the author. Neel explained his novel spans 3 generations of one family narrated in the third person but interwoven with the first person narrative of the grandson, a Naxalite guerrilla and who is keeping a diary.

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Mahesh explained his book is set in the now buzzing city of Mysore which has become something of a yoga mecca. At the beginning of his novel turmoil is caused by the announcement that India’s largest theme park, Heritage Land ,is to be built there. The novel is the story of three women. He then read a very witty extract in which Sushila, a very middle aged , upper class widow contemplates internet dating.

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Claire asked both writers why they had wanted to make the female experience so central in their novels.

Mahesh explained that when he is writing characters just arrive and you can’t really say why that is. Once they had arrived it was crucial for him that they were from different backgrounds. In The Smoke Is Rising one woman is an upper middle class widow, one more ordinary lower middle class and the third is a maid. What binds them together is that as women they all face very circumscribed situations and live in a deeply conservative society.

Neel found writing about women was much more fun. In his novel he is trying to deconstruct notions of family. The family is central to Indian life, in the West this concept is more eroded. A family can’t exist with out women . He didn’t have trouble writing his female characters at all, two of his characters did present problems for him but they were males.

Claire then asked about the issue of male violence which has a major role in Mahesh’s novel.

Mahesh explained that he had moved to India 5 years ago. Of course he had read reports of domestic violence but until you are there and here direct accounts of male violence it is hard to appreciate the size of the problem. Once he was exposed to this he just couldn’t let it go.

He wrote the novel in 2010. Of course in 2012 there was the tragic and highly publicised abduction and rape case. That was very much in the media but until then it was out of public consciousness.

Neel confirmed that when he was growing up in India in the 70s and 80s the term domestic violence was never heard. No-one talked about violence against women as that.

Claire wondered whether India has now woken up to that issue.

Unfortunately both writers agreed that they felt it had not. Mahesh explained that the Delhi rape case was stranger rape, domestic violence happens at home. There is still a notion that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. The language used is complicit in this, men refer to giving a woman a ‘ couple of slaps’. Neel agreed and protested that each time he says something about this issue he is accused of being anti-Indian.

The two books are almost companion pieces as both concern popular uprisings. Neel explained that India has a very polarised class system. The criss crossing of lives, such as occurs in Mahesh’s novel, can happen in India.He couldn’t remember what had come first when he was planning his novel, the family or the Naxalite uprising. He wanted to look at the moral imperatives of the modernist novel form so he wanted the political movement as a contrast to the family.

There is still upheaval within modern India. Mahesh felt he writes from a position of being almost complicit in this. Even a small project like a road widening involves a displacement of people because of India’s demographic. A large number of people have no political voice at all.

Both writes get accused of being anti-National for expressing such views. Mahesh felt that there was a suspicion within India that the world wanted to continue seeing it as a slightly mystical and plagued by poverty.Neel pointed out that Indian vernacular literature has a long tradition of criticism, fired by anger and empathy and is very powerful.

Claire pointed out that both books are rich in the detail of everyday life, its texture and smells. Was this something each writer had enjoyed writing?

Mahesh said that his book had both been praised and criticised for this. He had moved to India from the UK so he noticed all this much more… the sounds, the smells, the way people speak and the shop signs. For Neel, this made the world Mahesh had created so real. He had laughed at the  name of the beauty shop, Myysstiiique. This is typical of todays India.

The detail in The Lives Of Others was necessary ,Neel felt ,as so much of his book was a restating of bits of the modernist novel and seeing if it could still communicate 100 years after the advent of modernism. A novel can be a mirror to your world and there is joy in recording the detail.

There then followed a fascinating debate about language . The Life Of Others contains a Glossary and Mahesh wondered whether there had been any heated discussions about the inclusion of this.

Neel explained there had been no difficult discussions sabot the inclusion. He was adamant that he would not do Bengali words in italics , that was political on his part. He felt the inclusion of a glossary was necessary not just for Western readers but for Indian ones too as he uses some very specific Bengali word and terminology.

The thinking now is that people will look things up or that context should explain meaning and a glossary is not necessary. Junot Diaz , for example, feels very strongly about this and refuses to have the spanish he uses italicised or to include a glossary.

Both writers agreed that English  is now undoubtedly an Indian language but with its own vocabulary. This led to some very interesting discussions during editing for Mahesh. For example , in The Smoke Is Rising he uses the term Kitty Party. This is now an institution for upper middle class women in India whereby each invitee puts some money into a kitty and one person will win the pot at the end. It required some explanation for a Western reader however.

Neel felt that the title of his novel, The Lives Of Others, tells you what a realist novel does . In order to imagine the life of others you require an amount of detail and some explanation.

The evening concluded with a quick discussion on the rules for the Man Booker prize which changed in 2014. Both writers felt that inclusion of American entrants was a good idea but there appeared to be a lack of reciprocity and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award remain closed to non US entrants.

This was a hugely enjoyable and informative evening. I haven’t read The Lives Of Others as yet but fully intend to soon. I can highly recommend The Smoke Is Rising, which I reviewed on Goodreads. It is a very moving and powerful account of life in modern India which is also incredibly witty in places.

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And just a little insider information. The 5th floor os Waterstones Piccadilly has a bar. Yes, that’s right A BAR!!!!!! Fantastic!