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'Damn' hard to write on sexual pleasure: Taseer

Apr 28, 2010 04:08 PM IST Books Books

CNN-IBN's Amrita Tripathi interviews Aatish Taseer on everything from the IPL saga to the new India, to his debut novel, The Temple-Goers, and writing about sex.

Amrita Tripathi: I feel this is a brave book. At any point were you worried about a backlash? Because of course, people are going to read it wondering who it is you’re talking about?

Aatish Taseer: Yes, but what you speak of, if it occurs at all, is necessarily restricted to a very small sphere, and can last only for a limited period of time. I’ve just come back from a nation-wide book tour and no one in Calcutta, for instance, thought they recognized anyone. What people forget, when they make these Delhi assumptions and talk of a roman à clef, is that many well-known works of the 19th and 20th century were read that way when they first came out. Take Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; that, despite all the big themes in the background, was, when it first appeared in Paris, in the early part of the last century, read as a roman à clef. And it’s impossible to believe that now. So if there is a ‘backlash’, it can only really be a backlash in a teacup.

Amrita Tripathi: What disturbs you the most about the “new India” -- or even more specifically, what you see of the “new” Delhi?

Aatish Taseer: That it is not, as yet, very ‘new’ at all. I don’t think a profound enough vision of what a new India might mean has been articulated. And for those of us who have seen the places where this apparent newness was once truly new, and from where it has been grafted thinly over the old India, it can also feel pretty tacky, like quite a small awakening, full of new greed and old cruelty. This is what disturbs me most. Because it is not just an aesthetic thing; it is a deep thing, with historical implications.

What is sad is that the people who form the resistance are no better. There are the self-loathing lunatics of the extreme Left. Do not be fooled for a minute that this ragged lot are motivated by any real wish to better the lot of India’s poorest people; they are not; those people are hardly visible to them, and they would like nothing more than to see them banished to perpetual and picturesque poverty. No, what animates this class of person--besides, in some cases, the inability to find the material for a second book--is their hatred of the new middle classes, who they now see more and more, and despise. They think nothing of how difficult it has been for this person to pull himself out of poverty, the tremendous pressures upon him, the insecurities, the fragility of the world that he has entered; to them, he is simply a vulgarity. They mock his clothes, his trouble with English, his manners and they would be willing to lend their support, which, by the way, has deep backing in the West, to any group that imperils his rise.

And, on the other hand, badly representing this person, are the thugs in saffron, who from their inability to express a new vision for India, resort to one so ugly and prejudiced that even their base can hardly bring themselves to support it.

But, you know, it was once like this in other places too. Russia, at the beginning of the 18th century, shared many similarities with India today. And in Pushkin’s lifetime alone, which was less than forty years, the picture had changed dramatically. That higher, guiding vision, which speaks of real ‘newness,’ had come.

Amrita Tripathi: Does the IPL saga surprise you?

Aatish Taseer: It stinks. It’s a witch-hunt. And at the heart of it, on every level, is the greed and mediocrity of our political class. Modi is not being treated like a man who has committed a crime under well-established parameters, the violation of which, should result in a passionless and straightforward prosecution. No. Look at the hysteria of the press and the politicians. This is not the kind of feeling that ‘financial irregularities’ inspire. Only envy arouses this kind of feeling. And that smiling Indian schadenfreude. He is being devoured by people too third-rate to make, let alone an IPL, but even a mechanism in which people of talent and initiative can operate cleanly. And this is not, by any means, a problem limited to the IPL. Everywhere in India, one still sees the remnants of that diabolical system that quashed all human initiative and routinely let down its men of talent, causing them, if they were to realise their possibilities, to flee abroad, while breeding the worst kind of Kafka-esque pen-pushers at home.

Amrita Tripathi: Through his gym instructor, your narrator Aatish is sucked into a world he’s not entirely at home in, but yearns to get a grip on… Is their friendship plausible to you, given how class-conscious Delhi is?

Aatish Taseer: No, but it isn’t presented as plausible either. The narrator is deeply embarrassed by it, at first. He tries to hide not just the friendship, but even the meeting with the trainer, from his girlfriend. What I think, however, is that the impulse behind the friendship is something we will know more and more in India. And that impulse is a kind of embarrassment, even shame, at the little tyranny--truly as Oscar Wilde says, ‘a tyranny of the weak over the strong’--that a culturally denuded class of Indians has maintained, and continues to maintain, over the rest of the country. The narrator--and this is where the contact with the West comes in--wants very much to overcome his remove. He wants his place to feel like a real place, not one, in which everyday, when he gets into his car, he is reminded of the appalling gulf, expressed in everything from dress to language to economic possibilities, that exists between him and his countrymen.

Amrita Tripathi: Pardon the stereotype, but do you feel you’ve taken a closer, clearer and less forgiving view of Delhi than others, maybe because of the fact that you (like your narrator) have spent time outside India… so you have that insider-outsider perspective?

Aatish Taseer: I don’t think so, by which I mean, I don’t think it is unforgiving in the end. I think it is informed, my perspective, that is, by a deep, almost painful, love of Delhi. And that love is present, I feel, in the concern with which the material is treated, in the care for detail. But this love should not prevent one from looking cold and hard at one’s place. Consider a book like Gogol’s Dead Souls or some of Balzac; they can be brutal about Russia and France; but you feel, from their absorption in their material and from how powerfully their worlds are rendered, that they must truly love the places they’re writing about.
In fact, often, the foreign perspectives are the most forgiving. Because when you don’t really care, then it’s easy to turn a city into a place of sweetmeats and bazaars, of weddings and festivities, a kind of carnival for indifferent readers. That, to my mind, is a far a more invidious form of contempt.

Amrita Tripathi: Are there any points of similarity between you and Aatish the narrator that you’d like to talk about-- for example, the sensitivity and affinity towards Urdu and his Urdu teacher?

Aatish Taseer: Not really. The resemblance is mostly superficial. And if there was once a deeper closeness between us, I feel now that we have grown apart. My narrator is an innocent, naïve, compromised, often un-likeable; I don’t think of myself in those ways. Many people, I feel, barring a few notable exceptions, have missed the meta-fictional side of the book. A lot of the narrator’s likes and dislikes have been transposed onto his poor creator, from Naipaul to Urdu. But I don’t think of myself as present in the book at all, except as an emanation of its design.

Amrita Tripathi: On another front, a lot has been said about the difficulties Indian writers have with sex scenes, for some reason or the other -- in your book, the scenes with Sanyogita seem brutally honest... and even the sexual drama Aakash puts on for the narrator. How comfortable or uncomfortable were you writing those?

Aatish Taseer: I feel--and this a personal inclination--that sex should only be written about explicitly when the sexual act becomes a vehicle for other human tensions, far removed from the world of sexual attraction and gratification. So, in that first scene between Sanyogita and the narrator, the sex speaks of the malaise that has crept into their relationship. Later, with Aakash and the begum, the sex becomes an instrument of intimidation, of making the narrator feel, for his privilege and his cultural rootlessness, emasculated, less of a man than Aakash. Coming back to your question then, it is not sex that is difficult to write about, but sexual pleasure that is damn nearly impossible to write about.