"I am the writer I am because my life is what it is."

A conversation with Amitabha Bagchi

Although I know that language has power, when I write I never write with the sense that I am wielding a powerful instrument. Allan Sealy talks somewhere about the Chinese painter who seems to have dipped his brush in the lake. When I use language I think of it like that, like a brush that I keep moving around the palette till it acquires the correct hue. That palette is, of course, my own heart-mind.

I think in some sense the notion of power has begun to depress me. It feels like power corrodes all beauty and so I try to think of language as something that creates beauty, although everywhere around us nowadays language is being used like acid.

The initial mistake I made, when I was in my twenties, was that I tried to write short stories, although even then I had an inkling that short fiction was not my primary interest, and so I wasn’t particularly good at it. Note, I am not denigrating short fiction. In fact I think it is a very difficult form to succeed in, almost as difficult to write as poetry. It’s just that I didn’t realise for a few years that it was not my thing.

Mixed up with this first mistake was the second mistake: I tried to write like successful writers I read. It ended up sounding flat, very flat. Eventually one day I wrote a short piece about a guitar player who I had known in my neighbourhood when I was a teenager. I wrote it as if I--that is to say myself, Amitabha Bagchi--were telling a friend the story of this guy I used to know. For the first time I wrote in my own voice and actually that was all I had needed to do. A friend told me that it was the best thing I had written so far and that gave me confidence. From that one fragment came my first novel, Above Average.

It is not my way to regret what happened in the past so I have never really thought of an answer to this question although I have often seen that it is asked to writers and I am sure someone has asked it to me as well. Most people say “I would ask him to be patient” and that’s a good answer, but when I was younger I didn’t like it when people gave me advice and so I think I’ll leave my younger self to blunder his way through.

I don’t see life like that. I am the writer I am because my life is what it is. It’s not static (how can it be?) but it doesn’t change because I am not satisfied with my writing and want to be a better writer. Life changes for other reasons, the usual reasons that apply to everyone: you grow old, you have children, your parents grow old, the day job evolves, the world changes.

I don’t feel obligated to write about certain subjects. For example, I wrote a novel called This Place which was about the reimagining of urban America in the era just before 9/11. I lived there for some years and I felt moved to write that book so I wrote, knowing fully well that readers in India wouldn’t get it and publishers in the US may not pick it up.

My personal preference is for fiction that doesn’t cut overly close to fact. I find that boring, just an extension of the mess of headlines and op-ed pieces that bombard us all the time. Fiction that is a form of socio-political intervention is also not my thing, although I can see why people do it: in this era of non-fiction it becomes like non-fiction by other means. I feel there is a sweet spot, an optimal distance away from fact where fiction can be itself, can set its own lines of argument, without becoming irrelevant to the discussions that are roiling the world.

Very little. I don’t write like that. I spend a lot of time before writing any segment or chapter. Till I am fully convinced of its place in the book I find it difficult to actually sit down and write out the text. In fact with this book there were about two or three thousand words that I had left out of the first draft (the total extent of that draft was around 105,000). But then after discussions with my editor and publisher I sat down to add some new parts that they were keen on and I realised that half of what I needed to add was already there in those two thousand words I had omitted.

There is a scene in this book where a character called Dinanath spends a few nights in the hospital with his father who is hanging between life and death. I remember actually taking off my glasses while I wrote this scene so that the words on the screen would be blurred and I wouldn’t have to read them as I wrote them.

There are, of course, a few such things. But I write mainly for people I don’t know, not to address the people I know.