Interview: Sudeep Chakravarti

Interview1Sudeep Chakravarti is an Indian author, journalist and speaker. He comments on matters of business and human rights, and socio-political and security issues in India and South Asia. Starting his career as a journalist in Asia’s Wall Street Journal, Sudeep has gone on to hold top tier positions in several major Indian media organisations such as India Today, HT Media and Sunday. He has also written two novels, two works of narrative fiction and several short stories. His writings have been critically acclaimed bestsellers in his native India and his latest book, Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India has recieved the Award for Excellence at the 2014 Asian Publishing Awards. He has also blueprinted two of India’s most reputed media thought platforms, the India Today Conclave and the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, and works as a consultant for media think tanks. In his spare time Sudeep is an avid scuba diver and co-founded the non-profit organisation Coastal Impact, aimed at marine research. The organisation interacts with students and has worked with institutions such as the National Institute of Oceanography for India. Sam Fallon talked to Sudeep about his work, present and past political troubles in India and what can be done to progress to a better future.


You were a journalist before you became an author, why did you decide to go into the journalism profession initially?

Right after university I got a job at a big global bank, and India’s biggest chamber of commerce. I declined the first offer and worked for only a week at the chamber before accepting a position as a trainee journalist. The urge to be associated with writing and, at the same time, learning about India and the world proved irresistible. It was also a time when India’s ambition as a country to be counted for things beyond numbingly negative data and realities became evident. I wanted to watch that transformation from the ringside. Journalism provided the opportunity. It was a leap of faith I have never regretted.


Similarly, why did you then decide to publish novels and narrative non-fiction?

By 2004 I had spent just short of 20 years with various aspects of mainstream media: newspapers, magazines, the fast-emerging space of digital media and even had a brief association with TV. But alongside this experience was also some disappointment. I felt media was steadily becoming compromised by publishers who worshipped servitude to power; and editors who worshipped power. Journalism to inform and provoke the reader-listener-viewer came a distant second. I witnessed a news meeting at which my co-editors discussed how to make persons implicated in riots look good. I witnessed news being manipulated to please billionaires, and politicians and bureaucrats — some of them billionaires. Good news was in, bad news was buried. For me it was time to leave.



What influences you as an author? Both literary influences and influences in the world around you?

I have no literary guru. I would only point to a few writers who turned my head when I was a teenager — the Indian writers Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Premchand, Bhisham Sahni, Badal Sircar, Mahashweta Devi; and Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.D. Salinger, Jorge Luis Borges, Dylan Thomas, Peter Schaffer, Angela Carter, Ryszard Kapuœciñski, and Günter Grass, among others.Beyond this, the need to tell a story inspires me to write. My readers inspire me.


tin fishYour first novel, Tin Fish, tells the story of a group of boys at a well known Indian boarding school, the same one you yourself went to. To what extent was the book informed by your own personal experiences, and how important was it to you if it did?

All writing is informed to some degree by personal experience. In that Tin Fish or anything else I have written — will write — is no different. Tin Fish was the first book I wrote; the genre is what self-important critics like to term bildungsroman. The story is not entirely my own. It’s a composite of what I experienced through people and events in my life, the lives of others, and India’s fears and dreams at a particular time —the fears and dreams of my generation. It was very important for me to tell the story. It was a combination of catharsis and socio-political commentary.


avenueYour second work of fiction, The Avenue of Kings, follows the protagonist of Tin Fish through later life. Both are set against the backdrop of political strife in late 20th century India. Why the particular interest in this period of Indian history?

I believe not enough has been told or discussed through literature, poetry, plays or the device of non-fiction narratives about late-20th century India – at least in what the publishing business describes as Indian Writing in English. Or writing about India, if you will. I felt a lack of writing, of commentary away from colonial romanticism, Indian nationalism of the late colonial period, violence that followed India’s independence, and film noir-style depictions of poverty and caste-systems by defensive Indians and patronising Westerners. There was also a great papering over of bad news by insistent good news of a Brave New India. And, near-overwhelming narratives of brown-boy-or-girl goes west and deals with Indo-whatever lives. Where’s the grittiness, grottiness and elegance of the emerging urban experience? I thought. What about the search for identity right here in India? Where is all the churn and change that reflects the past, and the present? Where’s the iconoclasm that exposes whitewashing of history and people? Surely we cannot claim a future without realism, some introspection? And so on. Coincidentally, my coming of age chimed conveniently with India’s coming of age, and Tin Fish and The Avenue of Kings then became the story of my generation as much as they remain my stories.


In general the Indian cultural identity is an important part of your work, why is it significant for you to keep your writing so connected to this sense of Indian-ness?

India is what I know best. It’s also vast in every possible way, and demands constant attention and understanding. There is great change taking place here round-the-clock, a place where several centuries of history and attitudes exist at once. Alongside, we aspire to journey to a bright, shining future. I find all this very compelling, consuming. Moreover, there are several aspects of India that Indians at home, those of Indian origin living overseas, and people with no blood ties to India but with interest in India all try to understand. I work in the space that attempts to understand such matters, and communicate that understanding.


You’re interested as well in progress, and the idea of India moving on with its controversial past, could you give some small background information on what you think those problems are and how they can be progressed from?

India isn’t the only country with a controversial past! And surely we’re entitled to progress?

There is much to celebrate. India has achieved much since the country gained independence in 1947. Universal suffrage was afforded to all citizens from the first general election to parliament, held between October 1951 and February 1952. Each subsequent general election to parliament has remained the largest such exercise in the world — even elections to some provincial assemblies are larger than national elections in major European countries.

India’s constitution remains among the finest in the world. Developments such as the Right to Information Act, made into law in 2005, are welcome examples of vox pop: a bulwark against corruption impelled by popular sentiment to increase accountability of government, from the capital New Delhi to nearly thirty provincial capitals and more than six hundred district headquarters.

Even with great socio-economic poverty, India’s economy remains, by any account, among the largest and most dynamic in the world.

And, perhaps surprisingly, India is still here; resilient often beyond belief, not yet disintegrated against all manner of odds. These odds include the very building blocks: the merging of several hundred princely states with vestiges, largely, of British colonial enterprise; and disparate ethnicities, regions. The odds also include India’s trying wars with Pakistan and China, to India’s crushing wars with itself — matters of poverty, livelihood, caste, tribalism, identity.

India’s wars with itself are to my mind perhaps the most dangerous, and appear to be fostered by a delusion that constitutional adoption of democracy and its everyday, institutional drum-beating as a broad-spectrum antibiotic is a guard against all manner of ills. We need to leave this behind in order to progress.

There are ongoing concerns related to left-wing extremism — by Maoist rebels, sometimes interchangeably referred to as Naxals, rooted in a violent, anti-landlord, anti-state pro-peasant surge in 1967. There are several other forms of extremism from the religious to issues of caste, to callously handled issues of identity in North-east India and the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, which shares a contentious border with Pakistan. As importantly, concerns accrue from deep economic inequity; institutionalised corruption; issues of non-governance and misgoverning.

The state’s response to public outcry on such matters has often proved callous, domineering and nationalistic to the level of being obtusely blind. And so, even to this day several people still take to arms, or are killed, tortured or implicated in crimes against the state for asking for simple rights to identity, livelihood and dignity mandated by the country’s constitution. Such conflict needs to be resolved. The alternative is frightening.


Considering the work of other prominent Indian authors such as Amitav Ghosh (The Shadow Lines, Sea of Poppies) Chetan Bhagat (Revolution 2020, What Young India Wants) and Vikram Seth (A Suitable Girl) there seems to be an immense sense of nationalistic commentary by Indian authors. What do you think it is about India that contributes to this level of cultural and political criticism?

I believe it all stems from the churn and change, the search for identity, self-worth and self-belief that I discussed earlier. Mr Bhagat’s work in particular claims to speak for those who live in what I term mall-stupor. This is evidently the new, urbanised Indian dream to the near-total exclusion of all else. As with some others, my work focuses on the urgent need to address this blind spot, to break through the mall-stupor of Middle India and Upscale India, and tell this decision-making bulge how poverty, corruption, displacement and denial are creating vast pools of negative energy across the country.

India’s health remains vulnerable. This is a wounded country even as it remains an increasingly wealthy and fulfilled one. This dichotomy must continually be addressed. And a central thought must be reinforced: while India is the world’s biggest democracy, it also needs to be a good democracy, an effective democracy built on governance. To me this is nationalism. To others it could mean bleeding-heart liberalism that India cannot afford. But to us all it reflects obsession with where we are, where we wish to go, and the various avenues of getting there.


As well as fiction you’re a prominent writer of narrative non-fiction (non-fiction written much like a story would be) is there any particular motivation behind making your non-fiction works narrative?

I prefer to meld complicated aspects of society, politics and economics into accessible, humanised travelogue. I don’t write to tell a rebel why he or she is rebelling—they know the reason rather well. Or, to lecture to persons from North-east India about their concerns of identity and dignity; they have been fighting the idea of India for five decades on those counts. My purpose is to bring their stories out. To me such people live in what I call ‘Outland’, a region of both map and mind that is out of sight of the majority of Indians in urbanised, globalising, supremely ambitious ‘Inland’ and, therefore, outside any easily digestible construct this economically and politically advantaged people in the living rooms and boardrooms of India may care to imbibe. But I want them to care. I wish to tell them that, if they don’t care the very idea of India remains vulnerable — their very dreams remain vulnerable. I have found narrative non-fiction a useful way to convey such messages.


You write books from a seemingly very Indian perspective, though perhaps without specifically targeting your work at an exclusively Indian readership, what would you want a non-Indian reader to gain from reading your work?

A non-Indian reader is in some ways in a similar situation as an Indian reader is with regard to India: confused, exasperated, and in search of clarity. As with an Indian reader, my aim is for a non-Indian reader to gain more understanding about urgent issues in India and South Asia.


Can you give us any idea of any upcoming projects? The issues you hope to talk about or even something slightly more concrete than that?

I am writing the third book in the Brandy Ray series that includes Tin Fish and The Avenue of Kings. Alongside, I’m working on two works of narrative non-fiction. One is related to various conflicts in India and South Asia and resolution of such conflict. The other looks at geopolitical and geoeconomic aspects of India’s Far East. There is another specific area of engagement. I have since 2009 written and commented extensively on aspects of corporate social responsibility, and business and human rights in India, specifically about how complicity between business and government was leading to forced displacement of vast communities of project-affected people, those at the bottom of the Indian socio-economic pyramid. This resulted in a book, Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, published in 2014. I will remain engaged with this area, specifically legislation and application of such legislation to human rights and rehabilitation of project-affected people.



Finally, in your opinion, what is the role of the author, or indeed     any artist in a modern, progressive society?

We must not be afraid to look into a mirror. We must also not be afraid to be a mirror.