24 February 2010

Salim Must Die by Mukul Deva

Long live Mukul!
As I read, the thought that established itself most prominently in my mind was, “What superb propaganda!”
It reminded me of books I read as a teenager – books by writers like Leon Uris and James Michener, books so gripping that one could just not put them down; books that defined the world for one (until, years later, one often learned better).

Mukul Deva was commissioned in December 1981 into the Sikh Light Infantry of the Indian Army and retired after 15 years of service, including a decade of active combat duty in India and overseas, to become India’s first military action thriller writer. This book is the sequel to his first, Lashkar, and is the story of a global terror attack originating in a certain neighbouring country, and how Force 22, an Indian “strike action group”, combats it.
The story is full of action, a thrilling plot and very convincing detail. I wasn’t looking for believable characters, because in a book of this nature the characters are bound to be sketchily-defined (though appealing) stereotypes – but I must say that the events in it are certainly believable (or should I say “uncannily prescient” as a cover blurb says – though before I said it, I would need to first find out how the word “prescient” is pronounced).
It weaves in broad outlines of world politics, boldly defining vested interests without fear or any kind of pretension. I liked that – but did find it disturbing that the word “karma” and the concept it represents were used so frequently.
I don’t object to karma per se – and will admit that my own choices and approach to life are based on the assumption of karma as a natural law. However, it is an esoteric notion and to use the word as one may use “vitamin” or “gravity” is, I think, unfair.

I could complain that a lot of the language in this book is clichéd, but won’t, and will conjecture instead that perhaps the choice of words and phrases used in this book are used and respected by many highly-competent professionals in their daily life.
However, I will list some bits that amused me:
- “Manoj, can you check if the chink called either of these numbers?”

- They came. They saw. They freaked. and, later on the same page, cordon sanitaire
- “As soon as we cut out the heart and chop off the head, the arms will automatically atrophy.”

Many of the uniforms are made with something called Kevlar (a ring of Kevlar-clad bodies always stood between him and harm’s way) and it’s assumed everyone knows what that is (says Wiki: Kevlar is the registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber, related to other aramids such as Nomex and Technora. Developed at DuPont in 1965, this high strength material was first commercially used in the early 1970s as a replacement for steel in racing tires. Typically it is spun into ropes or fabric sheets that can be used as such or as an ingredient in composite material components.)
Salim Must Die is not just great fun but also a brave warrior of a book that addresses many controversial subjects, including the true heart of Islam, with calm impunity.

21 February 2010

Karl, aaj aur Kal by Cyrus Broacha

In which Cyrus tries something new
I've been a fan of Cyrus Broacha ever since I first heard about him. Bakra was brilliant, and the moments of genius of The Week That Wasn't are usually well worth wading through its PJs for.
Reading this book, the phrase The Indian Woody Allen sprang to mind repeatedly. However, I was sorry to find it rather mediocre both in terms of entertainment and literary merit. I wish Cyrus had tried harder, he could have come up with something much better than this. You can read my review of Karl, aaj aur Kal and my interview with Cyrus which appeared in The Hindu today by clicking on the links above, or just read on below:

This book traces the lives of Karl and Kunal from childhood to mid-adulthood.
In their early school days they pondered whether the one who invented exams had been heavily intoxicated or clinically insane at the time but their Maths teacher (Mrs. Batliwala) believed them necessary as they empowered the teacher.
Later, in the cast of more than twenty of Godspell (little did they know that this would be twice the number of members in the audience on any given night) Karl excused himself from dance practice (no other animal than the human suffers this indignity in public) taking recourse in his strongest talent – the ability to lie.
In New York as the boys take a course at an “acting studio” we are treated to hilarious stories that are politically irreverent to vegetarians, the hirsute, Rideley’s turtles, Italians and other minority groups.
Back in Bombay, they find themselves thrown into the theatrical film world (with prominent roles in Khalid Jani’s new blockbuster The Gaonwallah, The Britisher, and The Ugly). Eventually, Karl is taken to bosom by the eminent MP Nilesh Kane and by an inexplicable series of events may one day even land up as Prime Minister.
This book calls itself a novel. However, it’s more of a documentary with insights into the film industry, Indian politicians, the south Bombay approach to the universe and some features of life in New York, Paris and Delhi. The characters are not real people and do not change in the course of the book but more like cut-outs that are being pointed at and talked about. However, there’s a distinct Woody Allen feel to much of what Cyrus writes – funny, often surrealistic, and drawing richly from a background of privilege and cultural minority.
Then, this book drips with wisdom. We learn that in the Arthashastra, Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, said there are three phases in a male’s life. In the first he craves a canine companion, in the second he craves a female companion (not necessarily canine), and in the third phase he craves for the canine companion to return and bite the female companion.
It also has insights into world history: Medieval Europe was constantly going to war because of the strange French accent. The 100-years war apparently sparked off when the French ambassador said to his English counterpart, “Greetings to your King of Pascal” which due to the fatal accent was heard as “Greetings to your king the rascal.”
As a diehard fan of The Week That Wasn’t it had me cackling like an unladylike hyena in parts and, during the inevitable lame un-funny bits, waiting for genius to strike again, but frequently disappointed.

How did you select the title of your book?
It was a gift from my erstwhile friend and more importantly drinking companion Shree Kunal Vijayakar.

Which of the main characters in Karl, Aaj aur Kal is inspired by a real person (and who)?
Some have the base of a real person, but then they ignore my instructions and land up doing their own thing. A few are an amalgam of truth and fantasy and the rest are pure fantasy. Kunal would be roughly 50% and Nilesh Kane perhaps 60%. For better or worse it's a piece of fiction.

Did you attend acting school in New York like Karl and Kunal and have you drawn from what you experienced there?
I did, and I have, and I may add I had a ball. I came back with three truths about NY a) you must enjoy walking. b) you'll always be short of cash. c) after every girl there's an even more beautiful one in the future.

Did you really experience Pearl Padamsee as the way you’ve written about her?
Ironically, Pearl herself was really larger than life. Her brand of humour waxed between straight-faced disparaging remarks and over-dramatic statements. I absolutely will always love and cherish her.

What is the message you want your book to carry? Something you want the reader to come away thinking or feeling?
Absolutely nothing. I don't want to cleanse society and the world. Quite frankly I'm one who rarely cleans himself. This book is just a journey and all messages are incidental and at the reader’s own risk.

How did your publisher work with you on this book?
Mostly from far away. Publishers I believe are like wives. First everything is hunky dory and they appear quite submissive. Then before you know it they have the controls. All said and done they've been like a good bra - fairly supportive.

Did you always want to be someone who made a profession out of his wit?
If anybody out there wants to make a living of their wit alone, and aren't necessarily going into politics, then my message to them is please ignore people who tell you to shut up along the way. In the words of Jesus Christ, "They know not what they do".
I would also like to clarify that I see myself as a professional idiot, that is someone whose slated profession is idiocy, and bear in mind I was an idiot long before Chetan Bhagat, Raju Hirani and Aamir Khan came along.

What is your favourite medium to work in? Which do you find the easiest?
Writing for sure. I control all the variables, except of course my daughter's potty timings.

You sometimes have your family in your shows as props and though it’s usually quite hilarious, I always wonder how they feel about it.
They aren’t always chuffed. But they use an excellent instrument to 'cope'. For the past 25 years they simply ignore me.

Tell us something about your early friendship with Kunal Vijaykar and the professional relationship you now share.
I first met Kunal in 1990 for an audition. I think it was a children's play. He stammered, stuttered and coughed through the reading and seemed extremely stern. I found out later he just hadn't developed any muscles, whatever, and as you know smiling needs the co-operation of plenty of muscles. After a while we hit it off. I see us as Lennon and McCartney, without the talent. Although now that I'm nearing 40, I’d rather he was John.

How did you get the idea for the wonderful Kaneez in The Week That Wasn’t?
One day at a workshop we stumbled on a girl who was happily murdering the Hindi language. Her Hindi was so bad that she made me sound like Premchand. Such a gift should not be wasted. We stole her away, only to realise that she's a bundle of comic talent, who we heavily underpay.

In your shows you do a wonderful job of poking fun at important people. Have you ever got into trouble for this? Have you ever been stopped from doing it?
The network will from time to time censor something. But in general we try to use our common sense – short in supply though it is. Generally the team acts as a sounding board when we feel gags treading on dangerous grounds. Unfortunately there are a few holy cows to be adhered to.

Tell us something about how things have changed for you over the years in terms of response from your audiences.
One thing you realise, if people already know you, they've already judged you. It’s a prejudice of sorts. They either like you or they don’t, even when they’ve never interacted with you.
I treat the audience exactly like I treat my wife: I always begin with the two golden words, "I’m sorry”.

What has been your experience with the film industry and how do you relate with it?
It's a lot like everywhere else, sometimes efficient, sometimes corrupt and with many strange accents. Mostly it's been fun, except for the long drives.
I have appeared in about 5 films in total. They are: Jalwa, which was made roughly a hundred years ago, Sooni Taraporewalla's Little Zizou, 99 - People Pictures, Fruit and Nut and Mumbai Chaka Chak (not released yet).
However, I have worked as an interviewer with almost all the male and female stars of your generation and I've had to consume large quantities of alcohol to get over a few of them.

What about politics?
Well, I've been around politicians at public functions. Nilesh Kane's physicality and mannerisms left a great effect on me. Sadly due to security reasons his name can't be revealed at present. Perhaps after I get my green card.

If you really did make Prime Minister, what would be the first 3 things you’d do?
Well, I'd give myself absolute legislative powers and thus dissolve the two now defunct assemblies. Then I'd cancel the Judiciary, and hence without the Judicial review, I'd have absolute and complete power. My third noble act of statesmanship would be to bring back the dance bars, in fact I'd make them compulsory.
But even such a powerful Prime Minister would have his limits. I don't suppose I'd be able to get my daughter into my ex-school! After all there's only so much that even God can do!

15 February 2010

Are you looking for a really good ghostwriter?

I believe in ghostwriters
I wrote this article for Open magazine about an insubstantial but integral side of me and although everything I've written is completely true I have to be honest and admit that I discern running through it a kind of plaintive "hire me, won't you!" tone. So go ahead: hire me.
I have worked as a ghost writer ever since I was quite young and always felt happy that people thought I'd represented them remarkably well. Quite by chance, I began doing this professionally after my friend Ritu Malhotra asked me if I would help her write the biography of her father-in-law S.P. Malhotra as an 80th birthday tribute to his dramatic and courageous life.
S.P. Malhotra is the founder of the Weikfield company and very few of us who grew up in India in the 1960s, 70s and 80s have forgotten the taste of Weikfield custard - the only one of its kind in those days.
The book, Doing it My Way, was published for private circulation and was well enough considered for me to receive a string of commissions after. Most notable was the biography of Finolex founding Chairman P.P. Chhabria, There's No Such Thing As a Self-Made Man. You can read more about this striking and inspiring book here.
This photo shot by photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani for Open magazine shows me smugly reading S.P. Malhotra's book (in my wispy, insubstantial way) while waiting for the next roll-out.

12 February 2010

Just a few last things about the Jaipur Literature Festival

Just a few last things about the Jaipur Literature Festival ...
I had promised myself that I wouldn’t mention the word “Jaipur” again until next year. But unfortunately I found I have a few more things to say so here goes.

First: I’m too vain to resist showing off something else I wrote about the festival, which appeared in the current issue of Marie Claire. I’m pasting the page here, along with a flattering photo and mini-Q&A they did with me.
Besides vanity, another reason I wanted it up is to identify Mehran Qureshi as the student who asked the question I mentioned in the article. He’s a young Kashmiri studying architecture in Jaipur. After the session, I had a chat with him. A lot of times when I meet youngsters – including, occasionally, some of those who’ve lived in my home since their earliest days – I feel (quite characteristically for someone with an “in my days things were so much better” perspective) a little panicked about the future of the human race. I get the urge to say, “wtf go get a life guys” or something similar in inverted commas, with long-suffering sigh to reinforce the sentiments. But Mehran seemed thoughtful and discerning and I thought, “Duas, bachha, may your tribe increase”.
Second: when I meet journalist friends who scoff at the festival and shudder and call it a mela or say things like “Oh I’m glad I didn’t go, I heard it was really bad this year” I thank myself for being unsophisticated enough to have had a great time and know when I’m really enjoying myself as opposed to when I’m supposed to be enjoying myself so that others will think I’m cool. Last night I was at a dinner raising funds for the Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit foundation promoting sports and games in India with the motto It Takes Just 6 Grams of Gold to Raise A Nation’s Worth. We shook hands with Leander Paes, Geet Sethi, Prakash Padukone and even M.C. Marykom. Over dinner, Rahul Bajaj sat down next to me and we chatted. And I kept thinking, how WASTED this is on me. Give me writers any day.
Third: the dramatic appearance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the festival. For security reasons the session was announced barely an hour before it took place, and was held in a closed space despite the many who were curious to see and hear this controversial person. Click here to read my article in the 6 Feb issue of Open magazine with some of what she said and did.

09 February 2010

Chai Chai by Bishwanath Ghosh

Railway-junction tales
I read and enjoyed this book several weeks ago and the review I wrote for The Hindu appeared on Sunday 7 Feb 2010. Click here to read it on the epaper, or just read on below.
A book that offers to take you beyond the yellow-and-black railway-station boards of Mughal Sarai, Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Arkonnam, Jolarpettai and Shoranur is like one that promises to tell a child about the secret inner lives of Asterix, Bugs Bunny, Spiderman and the tooth fairy. These are towns that every rail passenger in India has passed through, but never stepped out to explore. Bishwanath Ghosh did, and in Chai, Chai tells us what he saw in these familiar but unknown places.
We learn here that Itarsi still has its brick kiln, but no longer produces ropes. The Gothi Dharamshala has a view of the railway station (much as a hotel in Kerala might have a view of the backwaters) and apparently “bore the invisible footprints of Gandhi”. In a detour to Benares, Ghosh loses count of the funeral processions and muses “it was like witnessing a carnival of the dead, with each procession showcasing its bier and the dead joyfully raising invisible thumbs from under their shrouds to exclaim, “We made it! We made it to Benares!” While waiting for a replacement autorickshaw on the deserted road outside Orchha he writes, “I could have spent the rest of my day there, if only someone had brought me a charpoy and a book and maybe the lunch that farmers eat when they are out on the fields.”
I felt disappointed to learn nothing about Arkonnam, a junction of numerous less-than-blissful blazing childhood days, whose (careless) 3-legged dog I still remember fondly. All he says is, “Strolling through the streets of Guntakal was like sipping vintage wine, walking through the streets of Arkonnam was like drinking rum on a hot afternoon.”

Everywhere is an endearing preoccupation with samosas. In the evenings, the bars have curtained cubicles that fill up quickly. “Drinking behind a curtain perhaps gave the occupants a sense of exclusivity and importance. And over here, the curtain also served another purpose: every now and then, one of the occupants would pull it in and wipe his oily fingers.”
As a travel book, this book gives us facts and a feel of the environment through the author’s poetic if un-idiomatic recounting. To judge Chai Chai’s literary merit, it might be appropriate to compare it with Pankaj Mishra’s celebrated 1995 Butter Chicken in Ludhiana.
From an anthropological perspective, both books provide similar descriptions of small-town India: brash, clamorous and kitschy. But in tone they differ severely. Mishra distanced himself from his subject and took a patronising view while Ghosh speaks with good-natured cultural tolerance.
One reason for the difference could be that Ghosh himself artlessly uses words like “backside” and phrases like “If she had no problem disrobing in public, what was mine?” He describes a dharamshala as “the Indian equivalent of an inn”. Mishra, however, is descended literarily from the snobbish dead white males of English Literature.
There is another, historical, reason. In the early 1990s, India was a wannabe on the world literary scene: wary and insecure, with writers like Mishra trying extra-hard to please and producing work which exoticised and contextualised the culture. With India’s nascent economic liberalization, the time was ripe for a curious (if sneering) investigation into the immense heartland which was going to provide backroom services for organizations across the globe.
Today, however, English is spoken placidly in the Indian accent and idiom in boardrooms across the world, and Bishwanath Ghosh is reflecting comfortably on the resource pool that powered it.

I enjoyed the author’s portrayal and perspective. However, the book suffers clumsy editing. There are better ways to translate non-English words than spell them out alongside in brackets. Worst of all, the proofreading is disgraceful.

07 February 2010

Louis de Bernieres at Jaipur Literature Festival 2010

It must have been a dream
It’s definitely one for the memoirs that I spent a very enjoyable time chatting with Louis de Bernieres at Jaipur last month – and also that I managed to ruin it all by carelessly sending in copy that spelt his name wrong.
Here’s the slightly-longer version of what I wrote for Sunday Mid-day today, and of course posterity can read it with the wrong spelling on this link. Ironically, it begins with an explanation of his rather exotic (for a completely unpretentious Englishman) name.
You have an interesting name.
Bernieres is a small town on the Normandy coast. My ancestors came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066 but went back to France after an argument with the king.
In the early 18th century, one of them, Jean Antoine de Bernieres, became a Protestant, a Huguenot, exactly the time when Louis XIV started persecuting the Protestants. He was a soldier and he went off to Northern Ireland where he married into another Huguenot family. In my family we still have a lot of French habits such as drinking wine and arguing about politics and religion at mealtimes. And I’m the only Englishman I know, apart from Prince Andrew, who kisses his father!
You mentioned your regret at the loss of the folk tradition among the English.
Yes. We don’t know folk stories or folk dances and the children don’t learn the folk songs. The English have been made to feel guilty about being English! Even though the empire was largely built by the Scottish – that’s why Sikh regiments play the bagpipes! We once had an imperial confidence, and felt we had the right to be everywhere and tell everybody how to do things but that’s gone now.
Have you heard the joke about Indian restaurants in Britain? There’s this place called A Taste of the Raj. You go in and they hit you on the head with a stick and get you to build a complicated railway system!

But of course Britain today wouldn’t be what it is without the Indians – it’s Indian energy plus British order that makes it so successful!

You grew up in Britain?
My father was in the British army in my early infancy so we were all over the place at various army bases. When I was born we were in Jordan and then I was sent to Cyprus, where it was cooler. But I could say that I grew up in the south of England, in a village in southern Surrey, surrounded by farm land, lakes and forests and meadows. I was sent to boarding school and the first one was really brutal. One of the headmasters was a sadist and the other one was a paedophile and I’d rather have had the paedophile any day. Then I was sent to a public school in Berkshire which was also in the countryside.
When I was 18 or 19 I spent a year in South America, in Colombia, and I consider that’s where my life began.
You were a teacher there?
Yes. I worked with a rancher who was Anglo-Colombian in the middle of guerrilla country. People would get kidnapped and there would be ransom demands. The first thing I had to learn when I got there was how to use a revolver! My first three books were set in an imaginary Latin American country. It’s Columbia but I’ve borrowed politics and history from the other countries. The book is annoying to Latin Americans because they want to know which country it is!
Is that the only reason they find them annoying?

Yes. I had one of my nicest fan letters from Venezuela. I wrote a book called Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord about the ravages of the cocaine trade and I received a letter from a woman in Venezuela saying, “Dear Mr. Bernieres, thank you for getting it right.”

I’ve had comments from Greeks and Turks asking, “How do you know us so well!”
I don’t really know. I just go there and listen. But I haven’t always got it right! In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin I borrowed names from Kazantzakis – and of course they’re all Cretan names. I didn’t realise at the time the names on Cephallonia were quite different!
Would your consider writing something based in India?
I certainly would if I got to know it well enough, but not after being here for 5 days! Except – if I had a brilliant idea for a short story, I would write it and then I’d show it to Indian people that I trust. If you show your work to enough people, they can always put you right.

Tell us something about your journey as a writer.

My first big influence was my father. He’s written poetry all his life and he’s he’s very good, in an old-fashioned way. He writes as Piers Alexander.
I was also very lucky at school. I had a series of teachers who got me fired up. We had one who used to make us memorise metaphors and similies and proverbs. We had to remember a poem ever week and had to write a story every week. Another was a heavy-duty intellectual, into TS Eliot and that. Another had been an actor at Stratford and he understood Shakespeare from the inside and he used to act out all the parts to the class. One minute he’d be Othello murdering Desdemona and the next minute he’d be a murdered Julius Caesar collapsing on the floor. He was wonderful. Yes, there was another boy called William Revier and one year we had to share the English prize. He’s also a novelist – he lives near me in Norfolk … and he’s also of Huguenot origin! We weren’t friends at school but we are now – so we got at least 2 novelists out of that!
And how did you start as a musician?

Rather late, actually – when I was 17. It was the early hippy days and the only way you could get a girlfriend was if you could play the guitar. So I got a guitar mostly because of the girls but I fell in love with it. I’m still in love with the classical guitar. It’s my instrument really. If I don’t play every day, I start to go mad. As time has gone by I’ve got more and more dependent on music psychologically and emotionally.

I’ve been professional for about 6 years now so I have 2 careers. It doesn’t pay nearly as well as writing so I have to stop for a while and write for a bit.
I can play almost anything with strings and frets though I must say I’ve never tried playing the sitar – I refuse to sit on the floor with my legs crossed! (giggling) If I was allowed to sit in a chair I might try!
And what are you working on now?

I’ve started a new novel which is also based in India to some extent. It involves the lives of one of my grandfathers. He was in Sri Lanka for a while during imperial days and then he was in the North Western Frontier, trying to control the Afghans which was as impossible then as it is now! In fact the technique then was the same – you just bribed them to behave themselves. He was never able to settle down because he had a very bad marriage and his wife refused to divorce him, so he spent his life wandering about the world. I don’t really know very much about him which is actually a very good thing because I just know he had an interesting life. I want to build a fairly epic novel about his life and just recently I had this idea that at least a third of it I could turn into a ghost story! My little boy gave me the idea – he’s only 5. I said, brilliant! Yes, I have a 2-year old daughter too. They’re my best creations!

05 February 2010

Rosha by Vishal Bhandari

Beauty, romance, cruelty - and an awful idiom
Vishal Bhandari lives in my city, but we don’t know each other – as yet, I mean.
His book was sent to me by his friend Faheem, who is ace photographer with the Pune Mirror and who, for reasons best known to himself, addresses me as “Auntie”.
Since I have a particular fondness for being called Auntie, I read the book and though it has major flaws, enjoyed it quite a bit.
One of the things I liked is that, well before it says so, I could sense that it was based in Pune. Then, Vishal Bhandari hints at his narrator’s profession without quite specifying it – and that makes you guess a bit before you find out.

In all, he is a wonderful story teller – he knows how to build up a story and hold interest, create strong characters, weave in subplots, interesting information and a strong sense of the difference between right and wrong too.
Together with the beautiful but unfortunate Rosha, we travel from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia to England and then to India, and along the way learn a little of regional politics and society. I even learnt something really special about a prominent but completely-neglected monument in my own city.
But there is one thing that’s all wrong about this book, and that is the language. It’s a strange idiom, strewn with inaccurately-used prepositions and adjectives and far too many clichés. Here are a few examples, which also give an idea of the colourful and lively story.

“Cocooned as a sex slave in Saudi Arabia, Rosha had transformed into a colourful butterfly that fluttered in an out of classrooms and libraries of an ancient college in the United Kingdom.”

“What would have been more embarrassing I thought – Edward marrying an orphaned barren bastard from Afghanistan and leading a happy life or exchanging vows with the daughter of a flourishing business tycoon, who just could not model herself in accordance to aristocracy?”

“Finally, that day arrived when I had to bid adieu to London. As I drove to Heathrow, I remembered that sunny morning when I had stepped in and four years of eventful life was nearing its end with each mile the taxi headed further. I had thanked everybody wholeheartedly for having helped me generously to build myself.”

On one hand I’m tempted to comment that the ferocious use of red pen could have earned this a book a wider market.
On the other, I can’t help wondering (with a little frisson of fear) whether, if enough books written in such language are published and sold, the quality of idiom will cease to be a consideration in the publication of a book.
Finally, I must say that I hope this book will fall into the hands of a really good Bollywood director. There's a super-hit film in the making here.

01 February 2010

Hanif Kureishi at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2010

Getting Intimate ... with the author of Intimacy!
Well ... not really "intimate" ... but here's one installment from Groupie Saaz ... first appeared in Sunday Mid-day yesterday ...
One evening at the Jaipur Literature Festival, a woman journalist was startled when the cab she’d just got into stopped and two straight-backed, black-suited gentlemen climbed in.

The one next to her began to chat, saying he’d just arrived from London and was looking forward to a good night’s rest. She asked his name – and he replied, “Han-iff Ko-reshhy”.
“And what are you doing at the festival?” he asked.

“Hoping to meet Han-iff Ko-reshhy!” I simpered back, pretty much swooning at being seated next to the father – and in fact son – of The Buddha of Suburbia.

Writers are different from film stars. You can be a great fan but never recognize him even when he’s sitting next to you. “Yes, I suppose we all look alike,” he said, and we laughed.
Over the next few days, I trailed the man, eavesdropped on his conversations, and listened with proprietary satisfaction when the audience greeted him with the whoops and applause you’d give a rock star.
Hanif Kureishi sits with fretted brow, eyes closed or peering from tiny slits. “Waiting for an idea,” he said to a journalist. “Of course there’s nothing you can do to GET an idea! You just have to wait! That’s why I’m frowning most of the time!” There’s a perpetual impatience about him, and he’s constantly listening with critical ear, characteristic of the way he writes. When someone in the audience asked, “Do you remember the pain of circumcision”, he replied, eyes still closed but eyeball visibly rolling upwards in longsuffering disbelief, “I’ve not had so much interest in my genitals for a long time.”
How central is London as a backdrop to your stories?
I’m fascinated by the city. I’m a local writer, not like Kafka or Beckett. I write about the clothes, the politics, the language and I don’t go out of my way to research things. I just look out of a window and see something going on and write about it.
How has the immigrant experience changed?
In the old days it was a really big deal to be an immigrant. People looked at you as if you were from the moon. Now things are different. I haven’t seen a white English person in West London for years.
My kids consider themselves entirely British. The thing that really affects people’s lives is the crash of the economy. People are concerned about housing, unemployment and what their future is going to be like.
Do your children write?

No, and they’ve never read a book in their lives! None of them! They consider reading books a very old-fashioned thing to do, something people did before they had PlayStations. They think it’s completely idiotic that anybody would be interested in one of my books.

Why did you agree to write the screenplay for White Tiger?

The money, I needed it to pay the school fees.
But I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t enjoyed the book. Films about India are popular these days. A lot of Indians are writing books. Along with IT, Indian novel writing seems to me to be the primary brewing industry in the third world. And that seems to me a wonderful thing too. A culture, a literature survives, because there are new voices speaking into it. You can’t just read Dickens and Henry James forever.
Besides White Tiger I’m writing some short fiction. But it’s no good asking me what I’m doing, I don’t know. I‘m writing to find out.
What is your relationship with India and with Pakistan?

If I have any relationship with them it’s through the stories I heard from my dad and my cousins about these places I don’t know much about. I travel to India sometimes, I like it here. I haven’t been to Pakistan for a long time. I can’t face it; it’s a depressing place, rather dangerous.
What is it about you that makes you write with so much sensitivity and accuracy?
It’s talent! I think if you’re a writer or a painter or a poet, its talent that lets you convert something about the world into words. But it’s something you develop, by practicing. You have to learn to be a writer, to learn that this works and that doesn’t, which you can do by doing it a lot and working with other people.