Saturday, November 6, 2010

An Interview with Sasthi Brata

Amitendu Bhattacharya: A stunning sentence, perhaps a quotation, in your novel Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater reads: ‘“A Writer” is one who writes, not someone who has written or is going to write.’ Why is it that one does not get to read you anymore?

Sasthi Brata: I think the reason is, reading is a matter of fashion. When I wrote my first book My God Died Young, it was something which was completely new. Nobody had done that kind of thing before. I was 29 years old and I had presumed to write an autobiography. That, in fact, was its intention. What it didn’t do was to concentrate on a style in which I had written it. I found that rather disturbing. Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater was regarded as salacious. In fact, I have written somewhere else that people who were looking for porn wouldn’t find it and people who were looking for enlightenment wouldn’t find it. It was a straight-forward confessions, a young man trying to make sense of his life. Incidentally, you might include in whatever you want to write, Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater was a pun on Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Nobody got that joke. Nobody! Not in England, not in America, not in India.

AB: You have lived the life of a rebel rejecting many of the things that people take for granted or believe in unquestioningly because they are born into a certain pattern of thinking and reasoning which they find difficult to shake off... [he interrupts]

SB: Well, you can’t be a rebel at 70 or near about 70, can you? That’s what they call me. Who am I to object?

AB: In your autobiography My God Died Young you have clearly stated that you wanted to change your fate. The protagonists in your fictional works, which are thinly veiled autobiographies, express the same sort of desire – to make their presence felt in this world. Have you been able to change your fate? You are at an age now when this question can perhaps be fairly put to you.

SB: Yes, I think I have. Remember, I grew up in a fairly rich and well-established home. And since I left I haven’t been exactly rich. So, of course, I have changed my fate. And to the extent to which I have been able to speak and write and, I think, [I] have made an international name for myself. Yes, I have changed my fate.

AB: At the end of your Confessions you have already presented an answer to the question that I am going to ask you now. But I would still like to know from you: Who do you write for? I mean, how do you view the question of readership? Where is your constituency?

SB: Yes, yes... if I recall [it] right, I haven’t got the book in front of me, I said it was a question that Sartre asks. Is that right?

AB: Yes.

SB: Well, I am a very personal writer. I don’t think of a big audience. I mean, I would like a big audience but actually I am a personal writer. That book [Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater] was written almost as a love letter to various different women. And it is something which people did not wish to accept or understand. I write because I want to write and I couldn’t care a damn as to what other people think. I would like huge numbers of people to read my books and some of them have. But it’s a personal thing, my writing is personal.

AB: A well-known critic has said this about your writing: ‘If mere frankness were everything in literature, these stories would have deserved a high rating.’ How would you react to this comment?[1]

SB: I think that I am responding immediately. It’s a load of nonsense. Some idiot on the street can be ‘merely frank’ and he is an alcoholic and he is roaming about. ‘Mere frankness’ does not make him a writer. No. It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t function. In order to be a writer you have actually got to write. And if you have written, people will judge you for the elegance or the inelegance of your style or the way you put your thoughts together. Just ‘mere frankness’... it’s ridiculous. It’s like saying, you know I went to have a tea yesterday. How does that make him a writer? No, no, it doesn’t.

AB: You have touched upon various existential themes in both your fiction and non-fiction. Existentialism has, of course, been a strong aesthetic force in twentieth century literature. Were you aware that you were borrowing from a particular tradition which can perhaps be traced back to the nineteenth century or even further behind? An offhand example would be My Secret Life: An Erotic Diary of Victorian London.

SB: No, I wasn’t. But remember, I had read many Existentialist writers. I had certainly read Sartre and I had read Heidegger. And so these people did influence me. I am now not so certain that Existentialism is necessarily the answer. I shouldn’t presume to instruct you but there is a difference between Essentialism and Existentialism. Essentialism is an Indian philosophy, an idealistic [one] saying we have an essence which precedes [our] existence. Existential says, well, we are what we do. If I am talking nonsense [it’s because] I am a nonsensical person. [Laughs]

AB: Autobiography seems to be your preferred vehicle of literary expression. Why so?

SB: Well, because it involves very little research. [Laughs] I am a lazy man and I know myself to the extent to which anybody can. Freud, of course, said nobody can know himself. I use my material and I mine it. And I don’t have to go to libraries to find out.

AB: Your works largely deal with issues such as Man-Woman relationship, the East-West encounter – the colonial subject’s problem of belonging or not belonging, a search for home and identity, the dynamics of multiculturalism in the West, commentaries on Indian social and cultural life and many other matters which have now become sites of vigorous literary and critical investigation; especially with the emergence of concepts like the Diaspora, postcolonialism and with a paradigm shift in our understanding of sexuality. Can you tell us why an author who is so very relevant today has practically been written off and forgotten?

SB: I think the reason I have being written off is because I haven’t published anything recently. That’s one. And two, I am no longer fashionable because what I said and what I wrote about have now become [the] norm. You know, a rebellion becomes an establishment and what I said has now become the accepted norm. So nobody wants to hear of me because it’s all accepted.

AB: You are right. If I may remind you, Khushwant Singh’s The Company of Women appeared almost 3 decades after your Confessions was published. There was not a word of protest regarding the book’s content. There certainly was a mild controversy surrounding the book release function but that’s another story.

SB: I haven’t read it. I am sorry.

AB: There is a strong opinion that you have objectified women in your books. Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater, She and He and Encounter are a few examples to name. It is important to remember that you were writing around the time when the Feminist movement in the West had attained maturity. How do you respond to this criticism?

SB: Objectified? Like a doctor with a slab of meat or a dead body in his lab. Is that what you are saying? [I utter an ambiguous grunt] Yes, I think you are saying that and I think you are wrong. Objectified? I think it’s absolutely wrong that I objectify [women]. If you read Confessions, for example, the women are, if my memory serves, very much alive. They are not slabs of meat on a couch. I don’t think. I can understand why this is being said. Because people want to label you, they want to put you in pigeonholes. They are incapable of thinking, they are incapable of analyzing, they are incapable of saying: ‘Why is he saying this? Why is he writing this?’ No. ‘Ah, he is talking of women as if they were slabs of meat’. Well, that’s a nice little pigeonhole. Let’s put it there.

AB: Aubrey Menen, Ved Mehta and you constituted one of the first groups of Non-Resident Indian English writers. Yet, so far as the style and content of your books go you can more easily be compared with the late Nirad C. Chaudhuri... [cuts me short again]

SB: Aubrey Menen? I have heard of his name. He is somebody who had mixed parentage, isn’t it? No, I don’t know him. I certainly have met Ved Mehta. I won’t call him a friend but I know of him. I know him. I have met him 3 or 4 times. I really don’t like to be put in a tribal category. I write. I am a writer. Yeah? If somebody else writes like me or agrees with me that’s their problem or difficulty. I really don’t see why I should be included in some kind of club. I don’t belong to a club.

AB: Do you think your self-imposed exile has enabled you to look at India impartially?

SB: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s possible to look impartially at a place in which you were born, and I was there till I was twenty – getting on to twenty-one. In fact, if you have read my books you will find, the reason I live abroad is not in order to look impartially or partially at India but because I find it more comfortable to live here. That’s all. There is no mechanical reason for it. I am more comfortable here, and uncomfortable in India. I was there last year. In order to get from A to B it’s a huge burden. I don’t like those kinds of things. I have grown accustomed to the comforts, not the comforts, sorry, the convenience of Western life. I wouldn’t like to disown it. I do occasionally go back and stay in India but that’s occasionally. It’s not something which I would like to do continuously.

AB: Oh, that’s a disheartening statement! Because in my next question I wanted to ask if you have made your peace with India and whether we could hope that some day you will return to India, I mean, permanently.

SB: No, I don’t think so. I will certainly return to India, for example, at the end of this year. No, not permanently. It’s too uncomfortable for everything. And I am not talking about comfort in physical terms. It’s difficult. I have spent a whole life thinking about things in great, great depth. Even the most intelligent and the most civilized of people in India don’t seem to grapple with the fact that things have moved on. They are not static. They have moved on. That’s about all I can say.

AB: Now this question is from my father. As a college-going man he had bought all your books and read them with great delight. It is also important to point out that he is not a literary sort of person. He was particularly moved by an incident in your life in which you had decided to abandon your religion but before you actually did so you were persuaded to read the Upanishads and after your reading you announced that you were not ashamed of being born a Hindu and a Brahmin at that. So his question is: Do you still believe in the assertion you had made in your book My God Died Young? And how does it relate to your own definition of yourself as a ‘radical traditionalist’?

SB: Well, yes, I get his question. I understand it. The thing is, remember, I wrote in my book that I went to a Methodist school and I was going to convert to Christianity and all that. And then my uncle said, ‘Well, read your own stuff.’ And I did. Contrary to what people think, I have actually done a great deal of reading within my own... [religious tradition]. I read the Rig Veda, I read the Upanishads and so on. I don’t believe in any of that. I think they are a load of consolum. But if I were to choose between the so-called simplistic Christian-Judaism of the Western world and the Eastern world, I would certainly choose the Eastern world. No doubt about it.

AB: Your language is very poetic. In fact, in the early years of your writing career you had published a collection of poems. Why did you move away from poetry to prose?

SB: I think I was inadequate. That’s all. I was an inadequate poet. I recognized that very early on. In order to be a poet, a genuine poet of any distinction, one has to have a poetic sensibility which I don’t possess.

AB: A lot of people are surprised to know that you actually studied Physics at college.

SB: Ah! Norman Mailer studied Mechanical Engineering. Are they surprised about the fact that he wrote The Naked and the Dead? So what’s wrong with studying Physics? I read Physics and I got a first class in it, although I didn’t finish it. [Laughs] So what? I was enamoured with Physics. I was absolutely in love with Physics. It’s a beautiful, beautiful subject.

AB: Who are your literary inspirations? I mean to say, who are the authors you admire?

SB: [Laughs] Who are the authors I admire? Okay, I admire Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, William Golding. That’s about it.

AB: And who are the Indian writers you like to read?

SB: I don’t have read any Indian writers except Ved Mehta. I have only read one of his books called Walking the Indian Streets and I have read Dom Moraes’ Gone Away. And I have also read his autobiography My Son’s Father. That’s about it. And I am not so sure that I would like to be drawn into answering that question because it would sound as if I am very pompous. I am not. I am just a humble person. I write myself and if there are Indian authors doing very well, let them go about and do it. I am neither envious, nor jealous, but nor do I want to read them.

AB: My previous question compels me to ask: What is your take on Indian Writing in English? How do you view the adulation it has received globally in the last two or three decades?

SB: Well, I think that’s a very good thing. Remember, the person who actually wrote the best English, the Indian who wrote the best English... who do you think that is?

AB: I think it was Nirad Chaudhuri. [I answered hesitantly.]

SB: [Laughs] Well, I don’t agree with you. I think it was Jawaharlal Nehru. If you read his Discovery of India you will find, it’s a beautiful, beautiful prose. And that was long, long before Nirad Chaudhuri ever was even born.[2] Anyway, Nirad Chaudhuri writes a kind of pedantic... [prose]. I am not downing it. I also have the audacity to say that in terms of English prose my prose is not too bad. It’s rather pompous to say that. I would say that the Indian who wrote the best English prose was Jawaharlal Nehru. It’s beautiful, it’s absolutely lucid prose. I admire English style, I really admire English style and he’s got it. This man should have been a writer. He bungled everything that he did in politics and [was] an absolute nuisance elsewhere. But as a writer he was brilliant. Not [just] brilliant, he was great.

AB: Do you think that after the Rushdie phenomenon happened in the West the forbearers of the genre of Indian Writing in English have practically been sidelined?

SB: I don’t think. You see, you’re still trying to pigeonhole people. There are individual writers writing and some of them are good, some of them are atrocious. But some of them have been elevated beyond their worth because they are Indians. I think that will go away. That noxious view that ‘Oh, he is an Indian and therefore we must worship him’, that will go away. It will take time but it will go away. And what will be left is a kind of sieved mechanism where the best writers will remain, Indian or otherwise – it doesn’t matter.

AB: Are you right now involved in any project of writing?

SB: Yes, I am. I am trying to finish a book. I am a very lazy writer. I started it about 20-25 years ago and I am trying to finish it.

AB: So when can we hope to see it in the bookstores?

SB: Well, I don’t know. If I finish it. I am 70 years old and I may not even be able to finish it. But I am half way, well, quarter of a way through. [Laughs] Incidentally, if you want to write it down, it’s called Damned by the Rainbow. D-A-M-N-E-D. Damned! Damned by the Rainbow. [Laughs]

AB: What is your daily schedule like?

SB: I read, I watch TV and go to the pub in the evening and get drunk. I tend, tend in fact, to write at night after I have had a few drinks. [Laughs]

AB: Finally, what is your advice for budding authors in India?

SB: No, advice is the most noxious thing to give. Get on with it and that’s it.



[1] The quoted sentence appears in M.K. Naik’s seminal work A History of Indian English Literature (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1982.).

[2] This statement is factually incorrect and, perhaps, need not be taken literally. Chaudhuri was born in 1897, roughly 8 years after Nehru was born. When Nehru’s works started getting published Chaudhuri was well into his thirties.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for the long interview. I enjoyed every bit of it: your intelligent questions, and Sasthi Brata's trademark outspokenness. Sasthi Brata was my hero during my college days, and I adored him more than any other writer. Sadly, he's a forgotten writer today, and very few people remember him. But truth to tell, he is one of those writers who built up the base of today's glorified Indian writing in English.

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  2. Hi AB
    I am an ardent fan of his. Can I have his contact details??

    C

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  3. I am sorry to tell you that Mr. Sasthi Brata has recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. The doctors have given him 2 to 6 months time. He is in a precarious condition of health and it would not be advisable to contact him. Is there anything you wish me to convey to him?

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  4. I have only read one of his books - the (in)famous "Confessions". I stumbled onto the book in an obscure bookstore in Shillong, Meghalaya. Interestingly, what attracted me to it was the title and its reference to Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which had a fleeting reference in a School text and the name stuck with me.
    Just that one book made me a fanboy. The opening line will always stay with me: "I now realise that leaving home was a gesture, like goodbye notes from failed suicides."
    Surprisingly, for all that noise about Google having the answer to everything, I did not find much about him anywhere on the web - no reviews, not even references to his work, apart from a few lines on Wikipedia. Came across you site and just loved the interview. Sad to know about his health - a conformist surely would have lived longer.

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  5. I have heard a lot about this man but unfortunately, I have not read much of him... I still wonder someone can be so expressively outspoken...

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  7. Loved the interview and brazenness of Brata. His words feel like scarred, strong sea shore rocks, as humble about their existence as strong in their touch. Very intelligent questions. Perhaps when Brata said that when Nehru started writing, Niradh wasn't even born, he wanted it to be a euphemism for Nehru's seminal experience writing while Niradh was searching for journalistic jobs(the modern review). But I agree with the word he uses for Chaudhari;'Pedantic'.

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  8. I wonder how he is doing right now! I enjoyed his books too

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