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PLANET INDIA

Avtar Singh: My Writing? A Map for Tomorrow’s Children

(Andrea Pagnes) – Avtar Singh studied English and Philosophy at Whittier College, California. His first job in publishing was as assistant editor of Man’s World magazine, in India. “The Beauty of These Present Things” (Penguin Books 2000) was his first novel, and in 2006 he founded Time Out Delhi (which was still running at the time of this interview). Currently a managing editor at Indian Quarterly, his new novel “Necropolis” (2014, just been released by HarperCollins) “delves into the lives of Delhi’s most vulnerable”.

Avtar, let’s go back for a moment to the days of “The Beauty of These Present Things”, your literary debut. It depicts a young man’s life in, at that time, contemporary Mumbai. It has been said that the book is pure sarcasm, somehow typical of Indian youngsters 

avtar singhaspiring to literary lives. A vivid description of urban India between past and present through the eyes of the protagonist (Arjun), which is neither idealistic nor cynical, but simply cunning, free flowing, hilarious and thought-provoking for its use of witty and thoughtful language. Personally, it seemed to me, while reading the book, that “The Beauty…” was also a first experiment to investigate new expressive possibilities of a modern Indian storyteller.
“I must point out that this book was released a decade ago. I was in my mid-twenties when I wrote it: I’ve changed quite a bit since. When I wrote it, I wasn’t conscious of any great project of redefinition as such, especially not in terms of Indian storytelling. What I wanted to do was write and tell stories. I think the point you’re raising though is a good one. With the benefit of hindsight, I think the major strength of my book is its accessibility. I didn’t set out to write a ‘literary’ novel, or one that ticked all the boxes of what we think of as intellectually rewarding. In a sense, I was channelling the way people around me spoke, the things they wanted and dreamt of. If anything, that might have been new. Writing about upper middle-class India wasn’t fashionable then. And to do it in the language those people used, perhaps that was new.

I haven’t actually read my book since it came out. Partly, it’s out of embarrassment. It has redeeming aspects, of course, and there are entire passages I remember with great affection and even pride. But it isn’t something I’d consider publishing now”.

The novel tells the story of just one day: 19 May 1999. Why this particular date? And although you still consider it a juvenile attempt, I was impressed that you have been able to fill 239 pages exploring just one day. Did Joyce’s “Ulysses” influence you somehow, or who else?
“I don’t think Joyce was an influence. Certainly not then. The idea was influential, the conceit of concealing the imaginative world of a novel within the chronological confines of a single day. But ‘Ulysses’ wasn’t directly an influence.

As regards the date, it was simple, really. The book grew out of some stories I was writing at the time. They loosely fit together into a cycle. When the decision was made to fuse them into one novel, I just took the date I wrote the first one. Also, the weather was important. The hot sultriness of pre-monsoon Mumbai was intrinsic to the book, so the date had to be situated around then.

As regards filling the day: once I began to write, there was so much to say. To explore people’s back-stories, to think about their connections and similarities and differences, to consider them as individuals and to place them in their social contexts: if I were to do it now, I’d probably have a 1000-pager on my hands”.

After ten years, how do you feel your way of writing has evolved? Which are the topics which concern you the most today?
“I think the way I write is very rooted in who I am. When I wrote ‘The Beauty…’ I was a young man, and that book is a young person’s book. It’s about a young man’s aspirations, his hopes and dreams. I used to be very careful about pointing out that it’s not autobiographical in any way. But now I know that it is, or rather was, in the sense that it mirrors very closely the things I was interested in at the time. It is, in many respects, an interior book, and it is interior in the way young people are, almost to the point of self-absorption.

Since then I’ve lived in different places. I met the woman who is now my wife, we have a lovely child together. My parents are ageing, my country is at a critical point in its history, various parts of the world are in flux. Anything I write now would perforce be influenced by those things. Fatherhood, marriage, the decline of one’s parents: these find their way into my current writings. I’m also very interested in the way cities are microcosms of the larger nation, especially in developing countries. Issues of urbanism, rights, citizenship: these are all important. I’m also a Sikh, and I wear the marks of a practising Sikh. So obviously I’m aware of issues of identity, whether historic, ethnic, political or whatever.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen to me as a writer is that I’m now no longer particularly concerned with how I feel about something. I’m far more interested in what other people think, and the way they rationalise those decisions to themselves. I think 10 years of journalism has something to do with that. Perhaps it’s just adulthood”.

In the main, the Western public knows Indian literature mostly for Vikram Seth and a few other big names. But there is a whole universe of new and fresh writers in your country. What is your vision of Indian contemporary literature? I mean authors, trends…
“I’m very excited to report that more and more writers are now writing less self-conscious books. Partly, it’s because they’re not trying to write the ‘great Indian novel’ anymore. They just want to get published, get read, stimulate some sort of debate, some conversation. There is also a great deal more genre fiction being published: chick-lit, young adult books, crime stories. This is exciting because the term ‘literary fiction’ is overused and bloated and frankly misleading, in many cases. If young people feel they can write and make a living from it, that can only be a good thing.

I think people are also taking more risks. This mirrors, in some ways, our own development as a culture. Sex is now much more in the mainstream, so clearly it finds more mention in writing of all sorts. The internet has a role to play in this as well. Criticism is now no longer the preserve of the same few people, though the flipside to that is that there is an awful lot of uninformed criticism available everywhere. Sometimes you wonder if the reviewer has actually read the book. But more writers, more books, more stores and reading groups and discussion: these are all good things. Unreservedly”.

After years in Mumbai and a few years in Goa, you moved to India’s capital, New Delhi. In 2006 you founded Time Out Delhi magazine, which you edited till late-2009. How did it all begin and how did the experience affect you? The magazine itself is very well-regarded: what were some of the decisions you made to achieve this?
“I must point out that I was, in the truest sense, a hired gun. Time Out Mumbai already existed. The team there—the editor, the owner and publisher—wanted a Time Out in Delhi as well, and they very kindly approached me. It was a marvellous opportunity for me. To set up a magazine is a wonderful, if stressful experience. Hiring the staff, finding writers, designers and photographers: it’s all great fun. Then, you see the edifice of the magazine literally rise from the ground, from initial chats over coffee and brainstorming sessions and then issue meetings. Then it reaches the stage where it begins to move and breathe by itself, when people call you to be in the magazine, when you start meeting people who love it or hate it.

It still has a profound effect on me, a year-and-a-half after I moved on. Managing an editorial team taught me a lot about people, and also about myself. Finding your way within a larger group—Time Out Delhi belongs to a larger media group which is itself a part of a larger diversified Indian industrial conglomerate—was also an interesting learning experience. The trials of bringing out a magazine of its kind were always matched by the good moments, of being recognised for doing something worthwhile for the arts in Delhi. Of course, the best part was the friendships I formed with my colleagues and the people I met in the course of being involved with the magazine. I still treasure those relationships. Naturally, I hope it’s mutual.

I’d hesitate to take any credit at all for Time Out Delhi’s success. I was always part of a larger team, and every decision I ostensibly took was backed up by the efforts of the people who worked with me. The fact that it read well, looked good and stood for strong values isn’t history: it still has those things, even after I’ve left. It continues to be committed to the arts, visual and performing. It still has a strong commitment to the LGBTI community, and is deeply wedded to reporting on issues that affect the lives, now and in the future, of the citizens of this city. I’m just proud to have been associated with it”.

Some of the things I read by you, in the magazine, tell of a troubled history, yet are cautiously optimistic about the future. They talk of a constant evolution and transformation. You specifically ponder the rural origins of the capital city (“It Takes A Village”, Time Out Delhi, vol.3 Issue 12, September 4-17, pp. 20-23). To me, as a foreigner and a watcher, to see clustered areas that wait for the arrival of the tentacles of a gigantic metropolis means also that many people there stand on the verge of some sort of unwanted transformation. I believe that the urban villages can provide a clue for the future. Am I wrong?
“No, you’re not wrong. But I think it’s easy to dismiss the problem as a simple rural-vs-urban issue. Delhi has always been a city surrounded by villages. The growth of the new city, New Delhi, in the 20th century placed those villages under pressure. Inward migration from the hinterland in the last few decades, economic growth and industrial- and service- sector expansion, the Indian government’s machinery, urban sprawl: all these factors have contributed to an explosive outward growth of the city. The villages are now encircled by the city, instead of the other way around. But I’m not convinced this is necessarily a bad thing.

mapUrbanism is something all of us have to come to terms with, whether we like it or not. It’s also true that many residents of these villages have enjoyed the benefits of being part of Delhi: rising property prices, improved civic amenities, things like that. Also, you must remember that villages in our country are easy to romanticise, but life in them isn’t always simple. A North Indian village is great provided you’re a male of the dominant caste within that area: everyone else isn’t quite so happy. Cities remove those barriers, for better or worse.

A city like Delhi is a test-case in contested space, whether politically, in terms of identity, over benefits: everything. The way Delhi’s villages have been assimilated, how lives within them have changed, how they in turn have impacted this city’s growth; it’s not easy to make simple value judgements about these things. Of course there are conflicts. The process of their resolution is full of possibilities. I think that is where the clues to the future lie”.

For the little that I’ve witnessed, I have the sensation that the majority of people here are trapped between their past histories and present identities. For a foreigner the cityscape is not anymore something to be consider “exotic”, but sometimes also “intimidating”: too complex to be articulated and described in all its contrasts, too fluid to be pinned down, too controversial to be flaunted, but also still too fragile to resist the onslaught of mocking, unsympathetic and cruel interrogation by a foreign order that is only able to criticise a reality that is not its own.
“I’m not sure I know how to answer that, really. ‘Exotic’ and ‘intimidating’ are qualities in the eyes and minds of other people. I’m not other, I’m just Indian. So I don’t think I’m qualified to even have an opinion about it. I can sympathise, of course: the city intimidates even those who live here, at various times.

But I think it’s interesting that you point out that Delhi is too complex to be so easily categorised. I think we like it that way, we’re quite proud of the way our city defeats being boxed. But you’re very perceptive about our touchiness. Delhi’s an old, old city, but New Delhi only arrived yesterday, comparatively speaking. I read somewhere that we in India are still a “pre-ironic” society; I’m not sure I agree completely, but there’s enough there that I can’t disagree either.

There are perceptive, sensitive critics of our condition who we view with the same lens as more myopic commentators who choose to focus on things like poverty, filth etc to further their own agendas, whether political, socio-economic or cultural. We don’t take criticism easily. It’s a failing, frankly. And it’s something that Delhi is developed enough to deal with. She’s a big girl. She can handle herself. Her protectors, which is to say us, need to grow up and see her for what she is, warts and all. Just because an idiot is telling me something about my city doesn’t mean that it can’t be true”.

Still, in your articles, even the more poetic ones (like the one about your son Jagat’s birth) you have been able to capture a certain physical reality of a modern city . . .
Well, I think that’s very important. I live here, Delhi informs everything I do and write. The bang-crash of the Metro construction crews, the honking of traffic, the sounds of our city’s birds in the mornings and evenings: this is the soundtrack of my life. The physicality of an Indian city is overwhelming, but it’s also full of possibility. I’m just a writer: as an artist, didn’t you find this city just full of potential? Its colours, its smells, the way people press about you on the sidewalks and in the trains . . . Everything there is a story, in itself. This city’s bursting with material, it’s a seam that’s in no danger of getting tapped out any time soon. I’m just surprised more people aren’t mining it.

Also, what I do is capture moments in time. Jagat’s arrival was important to me, perhaps the most important thing that will ever happen to me. In twenty-odd years, when Jagat’s own child arrives, what city will that young boy or girl awake to? I’m convinced it will be very different from this one. My writing is a diary, a testament, a map for those children that I may or may not see, who will live and breathe in those cities to come”.

As an objective man of culture do you see any solutions to the chronic poverty we foreigners see almost everywhere, the lack of hygiene infrastructures, the possibility of clean water, electricity, fast Internet connection for the whole population? I still see a sort of “territorial division” (although now Delhi has one of the greatest Metro systems in the world), that clearly differentiates between “privileged” areas and everywhere else.
“I’m very positive about the future, frankly. It’s not a fashionable stance, I know, but I’ve seen changes in the past few years that were unimaginable a decade or so ago. I think it’s important to remember that New Delhi is only a hundred years-old this year, and India only became independent in 1947. Our problems with poverty and population are well-documented, and the ones you list are pressing issues before all of us. But my view is that, in terms of history, we’re not radically behind the curve. New York in the late nineteenth century was divided between the world Edith Wharton wrote about and everyone else, who weren’t particularly well off. London, Paris, I imagine Milan: these are all cities that have faced huge challenges of sharing out the benefits of urban life between the privileged and the less-so. To a greater or lesser degree, they have succeeded. I believe we will too. It takes time.

As regards preferential development, well, it’s a fact of life, isn’t it? Central London looks better than outer London. People forget that it’s only gentrification that makes places like the East End of London ‘nice’ places to live. And gentrification isn’t unqualifiedly a good thing.

We have huge problems with getting civic amenities to everyone. Naturally, poor people have less access. The danger in India is that, because richer people can afford to provide their own amenities, whether clean water or electricity around the clock or whatever, that the state then can make a case for abdicating responsibility to provide those things at all. That’s a nightmare.

Also, it’s a fact that there are vast swathes of people who are under-represented in Delhi’s power structures, or simply not represented at all. The fact that they don’t have clean water stems from that. In that sense, the absence of clean water for everyone is a symptom.

Naturally, people in privileged areas have access to public sanitation, broadband etc. And, for that reason, they’re uneducated too, because they don’t know the extent of the bubble they inhabit. That too needs to change. But I’d imagine that you’d be hard-pressed to find a single city in the world where you don’t have people living in bubbles”.

Finally, what are you going to write and publish next?
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I’m working on a few short stories. I’m freelancing. I might have a novel in there, somewhere. Perhaps two or three. If I’m going to continue to call myself a writer, clearly, I must write”.

(“Planet India” was collected and edited by Andrea Pagnes in 2011)

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