Celebrated Author of Chai Chai and Tamarind City Bishwanath Ghosh talks to AnuReviews on his relationship with the city he lives in, his love for history and of course his writing.
Author Bishwanath Ghosh Interview
How did you plan the book? Did you have a structure in mind or a list of places & people to be covered or you just went with the flow?
Bishwanath Ghosh: I did have a structure in mind when I started. But what eventually came out was completely different from what I had originally planned. That’s because during the writing of the book – which took about two years – I not only grew as a writer but also went deeper into the soul of the city. Now when I look back, the original idea was very superficial. But as I said, as a writer, you grow each day. The way you write, the way to look at things today is different from the way you did these things yesterday.
Do you think an outsider’s perspective is required to see the city that the obvious eye of an insider tends to miss?
To a large extent, yes. The insider takes the sights and sounds and smells for granted – he is used to them and may even want to run away from them. It is often the outsider who is fascinated by these very things. It is the outsider who asks questions – such as why things are the way they are.
Given a choice to live in Chennai or move to a new city – what would you choose?
Calcutta. It’s a city I’ve fallen in love with of late and am itching to move there. Though I have no idea when.
We are all immigrants of different ages. In the current age and time, how long do you think you need to live in a city to be able to call it your own, or for the city to call you its own?
Bishwanath Ghosh: Depends on your chemistry with the city. It could take just one day for to wonder: ‘Why do I feel as if I’ve always lived here?’ On the other hand, you could live in a city for ten years and still not find the sense of belonging. It’s pure chemistry.
Your love for the history, hidden stories, and legends shows in your writing. But do you miss the stories that are tomorrow’s legend in the making?
Between the two I am more concerned about the past. Because past is something that is never going to come back. The idea is to keep it alive as far as possible because we are all progenies of the past. Past is precious; to understand the present you need to understand the past.
Why do you think most people living in historic cities choose to ignore its history? Is this a problem with our education system or culturally we are not too inclined towards history?
Culturally, we are an indifferent lot. To give you an example, look at the way people spit on the roads and walls. They don’t care if the act of spitting is making them look ugly or brings a bad name to their society. They show the same indifference when it comes to heritage or history – ‘who cares!’
As a North Indian who has lived in South for more than a decade – how has the South impacted you or changed you?
It’s been a humbling experience. The North is about arrogance and aggression; but out here people are simple, respectful, courteous. They are far more civilized out here. You don’t hear of drunken brawls, you don’t hear of women being harassed on the roads. Life is peaceful.
A lot of journalists end up being authors. Is this a natural progression from writing features to writing full-length books? Or do you think the profession gives you the opportunities that lead to books?
I don’t think a lot of journalists end up being authors. To be a writer – and by that, I mean someone who keeps writing quality books, and not just one book – is serious ambition, and merely writing for a newspaper does not necessarily give you the courage that is required to write a full-length book. But at the same time, it is easier for a journalist to be a writer because of the training he or she receives in dealing with words.
What kind of books do you read? Are there any books that have influenced your writing?
Bishwanath Ghosh: I read a lot of V.S. Naipaul and Henry Miller; I keep coming back to their books almost every night and each time I find something new in them. I also read a lot of travel writing: Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Simon Winchester, William Dalrymple… But I would like to single out two books, as far as my education in travel writing goes: India File, by Trevor Fishlock, and An Indian Summer, by James Cameron. Ah, how can I forget Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now: it’s my Bible.
Please share your thoughts in contemporary Indian writing.
In the last few years, I’ve only been reading people I consider masters, with the sole purpose of learning the craft – you learn each day, you see. So I am not at all qualified to comment on contemporary Indian writing. Moreover, one doesn’t know who represents contemporary Indian writing – the likes of Amitav Ghosh, or the likes of Chetan Bhagat. But I must say that, overall, the writing industry is robust. It makes me wish I was born some thirty years ago, so that one didn’t have to work so hard to make oneself heard.
Tell us about the next book you are working on.
Bishwanath Ghosh: I am working on a portrait of Calcutta, my current heartthrob.