Chaya Babu interviewed me for India Abroad magazine, appearing in February 13, 2015 issue. An excerpt:
How did you develop him [Arya]? Does your personal experience inform his character?
…I started to become more and more sensitive to secrets, or what I thought were the secrets that men have in their heads. By that I mean that, growing up as a male in Indian society, there are so many things you experience and do–like sometimes maybe you’re an abuser, maybe you’re a molester, maybe you’re the creator of all these things that another part of your brain is looking and saying, ‘Well, that’s not right.’
I think in general, when it comes to the idea of a man, especially an Indian man, I see him as riddled with all these conflicting personalities. So I thought I’d take that and go through these varieties of personalities or roles that a man such as Arya would go through or create in others, either by committing acts of violence or simply being a part of the kind of society I’ve mentioned.
Do you feel there was a very narrow Indian narrative that’s put forth in mainstream publishing?
Yes, there’s a lot of stereotyping that goes on, but I don’t see that as anyone’s fault. I think that everything that comes to the surface has to be very easily touchable and accessible; if you have a stereotype, it’s easy to grasp. If you have an oily-haired person coming from South Asia, that’s an easy image to visualize. But if you want to dig deeper into how the person feels, if you have an image of a brown-skinned person, a human being has a very difficult time getting past that and reaching into that person’s psyche or emotional state.
Not discriminating is an acquired skill; it doesn’t come naturally. But great societies make that a part of life, helping everybody acquire that skill. I think part of growing up in India is that no one acquires this; no one has a humanistic approach.”
The Caravan–October 2014. Three Telugu Poets: Siva Reddy, Varavara Rao and Ismail.
For most Indian readers in English, contemporary poetry in Telugu lies below the horizon, its existence sometimes reported but never directly encountered. But even from this very small sample of the work of three Telugu poets, translated by the novelist Raj Karamchedu, it’s clear that this is a field as exciting as any other in Indian literature. Whether it is Siva Reddy’s poem about two human subjects and a burrow, Varavara Rao’s remarkable poem about speaking corpses and deaths in police custody, or Ismail’s unforgettable image of a real turtle inside a well and a metaphorical one inside the human mind, here are voices, images, rhythms and metaphors that proclaim a burning faith in the power of poetry to both reveal and imagine the world afresh.
Sometime in the middle of 1978. Old city of Hyderabad burned with Hindus and Muslims killing each other, and the police killing everyone.
Early May 2003. “Characters should behave unaware of the future that lay ahead of them, and it is in this mystery that life wades forward.” I wrote down something along these lines in my notes after copying it from Gary Saul Morson’s “Narrative and Freedom” book. These were my early notes. I needed to write my book. I had no choice. I felt I will have no future if I didn’t write it.
October 2009. Browsing on the net, I discovered “Rahasya Vaana” poem by Kalpana Rentala on her blog. With a naive boldness that comes only from remembering amateurish skills of younger years, I decided my Telugu is good enough to translate her poem into English. A day or two later, found out one Afsar and his poem “Kondaru Snehitulu…Nanna…Oka Artharaatri.” Soon I learned they are of one family. A month or two later all three of us are talking about starting a Telugu publishing company.
November 2010. Saaranga Books. “Aneka.” Months of toil by Kalpana and Afsar. Still more months of near-anal persistence by me for a certain look and feel for the book.
September 2014. “All Things Unforgiven,” the final shape taken by those early May 2003 words. Yes, we all did behave unaware of what the future lay ahead of us. And so when Lev Grossman, the New York Times’ best-selling author of “The Magicians” trilogy, led us—I and four other debut novelists—onto the stage at Brooklyn Book Festival in Brooklyn, New York, this Sunday, Sept 21 2014, for a brief moment these past eleven odd years replayed in my head and I smiled inwardly.
I am not at all glorifying this moment. I believe publishers like Saaranga and writers who publish books are everywhere, and there’s nothing special about them. Still, I am writing this note now because in the book “All Things Unforgiven,” a school-boy named Arya walks back from school to his house in old city on the day of the 1978 Hindu-Muslim communal riots. And that boy came alive in the book extract I read onstage after Grossman introduced me to the audience. This was the extract I read to the audience.
As Arya approached the intersection, which was already crowded with people, he saw, coming out from the narrow lane on the left, a stream of bicycles, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws; evidently all the traffic had been diverted from Charminar.
Across the street, on his right and ahead of him, stood a small mosque and near its entrance stood a group of four or five men, all with their white prayer caps on them. It appeared as though they had just finished their prayer and were standing at the junction talking among themselves.
Arya then saw children, mostly girls, playing in front of the shops, jumping up and down a raised platform. A sudden feeling of nearness towards the children rose in his heart. “Don’t you know it is dangerous to let the children out here, into the open like this, at such times?” he was about to ask someone, but instead something else attracted his attention.
In the adjacent meat shop, through the gap between two large pieces of meat that were hanging by metal hooks, he saw a swinging movement of the shop owner’s arm. With a large black meat cleaver in one hand he cut the meat in rhythmic movements as he deftly moved the pieces sideways and around with his other hand, at the same time saying something to the man by the side of the shop. Next to the man there were three or four older men, also with white prayer caps on them, sitting in plastic chairs, talking something.
Arya was transfixed by these views. “Look how they go in and out of the streets, sit on the chairs and stare at the people, as though out here on the street is their living room, while I am afraid,” he thought. He kept looking at one side and the other, mesmerized by the boldness, by the indifference, and by the fearlessness in all that he saw around him. Once again, the same intense feeling of kinship with everything in these streets rose in the boy’s heart.
He crossed the junction, and going through the traffic that kept on coming from the narrow lane on his left, he turned his head over his shoulder, to see who else was going in his direction.
From the group that was standing in front of the mosque, one of the men stared fixedly at Arya for a few moments, and without taking his eyes off him, spat to his side.
Suddenly Arya became conscious of several eyes staring at him, and an awkward feeling of embarrassment rose in him. He wished to run away, to go near someone or something that was familiar. Still fixing his eyes on Arya, the man removed his cap and, now appearing more menacing, pushed his shirtsleeves up, and spoke to the others, without turning to them.
“He is looking at me thinking if I am a Muslim or a Hindu,” thought Arya, now feeling apprehensive at his circumstance, forgetting his earlier pleasant feeling. “They are talking among themselves, planning to come after me from both sides.”
At once all the faces on the street appeared the same to him, with the same menacing, calculating, fixated look on him, with the full knowledge of how to cordon him off, and how to frighten him. He looked away from them, and shifting his school bag from one shoulder to another, increased his pace. But the heavy bag kept swaying and kept hitting his thigh with a thud, and when the sound of the tiffin box lid breaking open came from within, he slowed down, perspiring and excited with a feeling of terror and shame. The consciousness that his fear had a terrible hold on him disappeared, and in that place now he felt the whole fear itself. The boy could not be sure if the ground was giving away beneath him or whether something unpleasant had begun to churn in his stomach. He slowed down further, and with a defiant expression on his face, through the spectacles that were becoming all misty and kept slipping down his nose, he looked back.
Contrary to his expectations and fears, he saw nothing that moved toward him. There were no crowds that were violent to be seen. He felt flushed. Becoming aware of the pulsations of blood flowing rapidly into his ears, making them swollen, itchy and tingling, he continued along that road, and was seen turning the corner onto the street that brought him nearer home.
And these are the pictures. And yes, I still believe one should write as though the characters should be unaware of the future ahead of them. That’s the only way to be truthful to the moment we are in.Aleksandra Pickering This article was originally published in Saaranga Magazine.
Going through my notes, it is clear that I am inspired significantly by literary criticism. George Steiner, Richard Blackmur (R.P. Blackmur), John Bayley, Edward Wasiolek, R.F. Christian, Richard Gustafson, Gary Saul Morson, Bakhtin, Lev Shestov, James Wood, and a few others (Robert Alter, Lionel Trilling, Jan Fokkelman on Old Testament, to name only a few of the others). In fact I do not believe there are any better studies on Tolstoy than the two books, one by John Bayley and the other by Richard Gustafson.
I didn’t exactly read everything these critics wrote, but there’s something of a glorious celebration of human condition in these writers. Reading their critiques taught me immensely about writing. Not the craft and technique of it, although that too, but the instinct in me to love the character in literature was definitely created by these critics.
I think it was Steiner who said somewhere, perhaps in his “On Difficulty,” that in great literature the writer accords a certain sense of privacy for the characters, and that the greatness of the work has something to do with this.
July 8th, 2003
It is not a story of characters where it is clear immediately who is in the wrong, with dark evil intentions and good intentions. No. It is the story of helplessness in the face of one’s own inaction, one’s own inability or (something else) to be so clearly and boldly good or evil. (And later on realizing that one cannot be so boldly good or evil forever. One relapses.)
July 9th, 2003
The two most important acquaintances a human being will identify, overall, is first God–or an idea close to that–and second, the fellow human being. Of God, one has scriptures and tidings of the institutions to fall back on. Of the second, most humans are limited in their understanding to their [own] experience. To understand from a point of view of a [another] human being, the point of view which is wholly outside of one’s [own] real experience is not an easy quality to achieve. It is not a skill. It has something to do with Tolstoy’s view of humanity.
It is striking to me how the basic ideas were already in my head so early on. And they never really changed in the published version of the novel, even after a decade.
I wrote down that phrase, “gradual process of enrichment,” in my notes on June 27, 2003 in quotation marks, forgetting to write down where I copied it from. Dad had passed away a few months earlier. That was just about the time I had decided to write a book, which eventually ended up as All Things Unforgiven, and now, after eleven years, the monkey is off my back.
When parents die, they do so as a final act of teaching their children what love is. If you are a man, by which I mean if you are not a woman, then you are that unfortunate species left out of the possibility of physically giving birth to another human being, which, I am convinced, is the only way to know what love is. And so it seems particularly true that this final act of the departing parents is especially targeted towards their sons, to teach them the ultimate lesson of what it means to love.
That was how I felt then. That feeling only intensified over the years.
Anyone who lost their parents can do this mental exercise. Pause whatever you are doing. Imagine your departed folks. Doesn’t it feel as though you are walking around like a million dollars have been stolen from you, feeling cheated, not angry, but merely having been cheated, by those who passed away?
And then there are these scribbles, from the same notebook.
When you walk on the streets, the life that you encounter is utterly self-conscious-less. The force of life with people, the buzz and their stolen glances of your presence is a full force that thrusts upon you without any, I mean any, none, of the self-consciousness that one individual may feel when he/she is alone. A book should lift this individual from such self-consciousness and place him in the midst of life.” –June 27th, 2003
Youth: “a certain straightforwardness” (Dostoevsky)–July 8th, 2003
Dostoevsky seeks; Tolstoy presents.–August 8th, 2003
I think I like this exercise of opening up my notes to others. What’s the point of keeping them away?
Some essays appeal to the literary critics and some other essays appeal to the artist. Saying it is not taking anything away from the critic, but it’s a different kind of pulsation. For example, when you read War and Peace you will feel that you’ve just listened to music. That music is not in the sentences or in the words or in any memorable phrase that sticks out like a favorite tune. It is in the way the world in that book breathes, you can almost hear it come alive, expanding and contracting, collapsing, sometimes like a beast, sometimes like a concert, sometimes like loneliness and some other times, well, some other times, like standing under a sky with stars in it. In that sense I think a musician, an artist who creates music, is somehow privy to some things that a novelist struggles to achieve. Here are Rosanne Cash’s words from her brilliant essay Don’t Fact-check the Soul in The New York Times:
But with or without prescience, considering only the hard-earned craftsmanship of songwriting, as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. I’ve found that the melody is already inherent in the language, and if I pay close enough attention to the roundness of the vowels and the cadence of the words, I can tease the melody out of the words it is already woven into. I have found that continual referral back to the original “feeling tone” of the inspiration, the constant re-touching of that hum and cry, more important than the fireworks of its origin. I have learned to be steady in my course of love, or fear, or loneliness, rather than impulsive in its wasting, either lyrically or emotionally.
This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Twenty-five years ago, I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the transcendent quality that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid, and sometimes more potent.
My article for Ray Film and Study Center, University of California, Santa Cruz.
“There is an inescapable sensation in the viewer’s awareness that the love between the brother and sister is of a kind that can only reach its perfection through tragedy.”
“Perhaps being in one’s own homeland shapes everything. By this I mean that being an immigrant also shapes everything.”
Descriptions of violence have a tactile quality and stay with the reader into following scenes; the hectic love in Arya’s family is as lastingly conveyed.
The debut novel from Raj Karamchedu, All Things Unforgiven, is a searing portrait of family life behind genteel facades. Set in modern India, the work explores the long-lasting implications of unhappily arranged marriages, both on couples and on their children.
Anasuya and Rushi are not each other’s dream partner. Rushi, a talented young engineer, longs for an adoring reception at home each night, but Anasuya cannot forget that her own academic ambitions were cut off when she and Rushi met. The distance between the spouses grows in proportion to Anasuya’s not unfounded suspicions and resentments, and to Rushi’s absences and neglect.
The couple’s children, particularly their young son Arya, are privy to the chill that grows between their parents. Arya feels deeply and communicates little, and the violence around him comes to infect his childhood. He witnesses religious clashes around his school, a murder in his neighborhood, and his father’s drunken assault on his mother. Karamchedu relates these events in palpable, chilling prose.
No one explains such darkness to Arya, so he is forced to live with juxtaposed images of bloodied bodies and everyday conversations over breakfast: “dull, oppressive weariness … dampened … spirits … gradually dissipated … as the day progressed.” This cycle proves corrosive, and Arya’s subsequent inward distress leads to outward manifestations. He lashes out with cruelty toward others, progressing from small animals to his mother. He’s neither admonished nor punished. He escapes to America; his mother remains behind.
It is surprising and a testament to the author’s skill that the boy who is cruel toward animals grows into the novel’s most compelling protagonist. As Arya matures and engages with other cultural models, he must come to terms with his own participation in his family’s cycle of violence. He grows to recognize that his self-worth relies upon repairing the relationship with wronged Anasuya. Eventual resolutions are contextually honest and compelling.
Karamchedu’s pages are as unflinching as they are sympathetic. Readers are made to dream with precocious young Anasuya while she is still single; they feel her later frustration, as well as her fierce ambivalence toward her family. Her mistakes are highlighted as both horrible and logically inevitable. Even brutal Rushi has his humanized moments.
The sights, smells, and political tensions of India are given dimension. A frantic, stimulating, and involving novel, All Things Unforgiven offers up grand moral challenges that brave readers should be glad to confront.