My review of Altaf Tyrewala's excellent new novel No God In Sight appears today in the Indian Express.
Your book is a collection of first-person narratives told by characters mostly based in Mumbai. Some of the speakers are related to each other, and give way to one another's stories - such as a man and his prospective wife, or the four members of a family - but no one character is aware of all the others. Yet the form of your novel suggests they are all linked to each other in some way, does it not?
Absolutely. In fact, the interconnectedness between my characters’ lives is merely a shallow, one-dimensional simulation of the multi-layered and impenetrable interconnectedness that actually exists in the real world between things and people and events.
One of the stories is that of an abortionist traumatised by 'unborn-baby voices' in his head. I particularly liked the bit in which he takes home a Nirvana tape sold to him by a foreign tourist, puts it on, and finds in the discordant music that starts up an analogue to the sounds that are tormenting him. How did you hit upon that unusual parallel?
When I wrote the abortionist’s voice in late 2000, I had just discovered Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. I grieved for Cobain like he was kin. The ‘unborn-baby voices’ is itself a reference to ‘the unborn chicken voices in my head’ from Radiohead’s song "Paranoid Android". The abortionist’s is the first voice I wrote. I had no idea that this one-off experiment in literary ventriloquism would become a full-time activity for the next four years. Which is probably why the abortionist’s voice is so self-referential. I think I managed to remain more uninvolved while writing subsequent voices.
How hard or easy is first-person narration compared to third-person narration? Was there ever a stage when you considered telling these stories in any other way? Narration is excruciating, be it in first or third person. (This is where you would indicate ‘Laughs’ had this been a face-to-face.) I think we live in both first and third person. Most of the time we are being tossed around by external and internal circumstances and have to remain alert to the moment. Occasionally, though, things ease up a bit, the mud settles, allowing for a little perspective on life. I instinctively began writing monologues. But as you will have noticed in No God In Sight, long stretches of first-person are suddenly interrupted by third-person narration. There was no other way to do it without contradicting the rhythm of life.
I'm interested in the gestation period of No God In Sight, the time you spent walking around with the shape of it in your mind before you finally got down to work. How long was this period?
One day, while sending fake letters to a friend’s agony-aunt column, I began writing a query in the voice of an abortionist. The abortionist’s voice developed into a short story. His occupation had affected the lives around him, and it was crucial to account for those points of view as well. I wrote the abortionist’s father’s voice. And then came the father’s boss’s voice…. At times, at the end of a character’s voice, another character was already looming large, waiting to have his or her say. Unfortunately, I didn’t have it so easy throughout. Sometimes I just couldn’t take the plot forward. I would launch into a completely disconnected monologue, which would then bring forth its own set of characters, and this would lead to an independent mini story. It wasn’t a ‘book’ until almost two years into writing it. It was quite late in the day when I realized that I could link these mini-stories to create a larger whole. So no such gestation period. It was more of an organic occurrence.
Did you keep a kind of routine while writing it?
My routine was a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week kind of thing. Once I began writing full-time, everything I did was for my book. I was never really off. If I had just finished a voice, I would be away from the computer, but I would be going insane thinking about the next voice. I hope I can manage such single-minded devotion for my next book.
Do you find the time spent in composition pleasurable, or is it more like a hard slog?
I am an instinctual person. 99 per cent of my writing happened when I wasn’t writing. When I returned to the computer after days of planning a voice, it would be to chisel out, to sharpen an amorphous intuition that I had already arrived at. Of course one derives pleasure when one has succeeded in putting one’s vague perceptions into words. But I found greater pleasure when I was able to perceive a character’s essence - this was a wordless perception, beyond verbalization. How does one put it?
I'd like to ask you how hard it is for a writer to judge the quality of his or her own work. Here are my own thoughts on it: not only is it hard to read one's own work impersonally, one's objective judgement of it is also blocked off because, having worked on a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter several times, it is hard to respond to it in the manner of a reader coming to it for the first time…
I would’ve agreed with you four years ago. Now I’m not so sure. When something is good, you just know it. It doesn’t matter who has written it. But you have to first form a habit of honesty. (I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious at all.) I wasted too many months in the beginning defending something I’d written against my own self. Now the second I find myself rationalizing something I’ve written, either with myself or with someone else, I immediately know something is wrong. I am not recommending mindlessness. But I’ve come to realize that the ‘desire’ to express can lead to a lot of trouble. If one wants to be a writer, like most of us do in the beginning, one is almost certainly asking for a lot of heartache. But something happens through repeated failure. A sort of purification. Finally, one starts writing in spite of oneself; then everything falls into place. Also, I think the form of my book had let to a state of self-imposed multiple-personality-disorder. Writing the voices required me to continuously replace myself and my opinions. As a result, I was able to approach my work with a fresh perspective by default.
Your bio in the book says that you live 'in Bombay and Mumbai'. Would you care to elaborate on that? Are there any characters in the book who live 'in Bombay and Mumbai' too?
For me, any aspect of this city that is illusory (or artificial, or out-of-place) represents Bombay, i.e., air-conditioned restaurants, glass-sheathed office-complexes, mega-malls, SUVs, the escapist travesties from Bollywood, men and women who behave like they are in London or Tokyo… I am, of course, as guilty as anyone else of enjoying the spoils of Bombay. But no matter how hard we try to live out our fantasies, good old Mumbai catches up. Hopefully someday we will forge a more reasonable city. We could call it Mumbay or Bumbai.
Which are your favourite writers or books?
Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy in fiction (if one can call it that). And Robert Pirsig’s Laila in non-fiction.
Is the reading of poetry of any help to a prose writer? Do you read poetry at all?
I don’t read poetry. But I do listen to music a lot, and for me that’s a more dyamic form of poetry.
And finally, let's finish on a non-literary note. What's a really good but relatively little-known restaurant in Mumbai?
Tea Centre's take-out counter has got to be the most pleasant surprise awaiting people in Churchgate. It's a small air-conditioned room adjoining the main restaurant. It has a single, semi-circular table jutting out from the wall surrounded by three high chairs, which means that you and whoever you're with are the only ones in there. And you get everything – the teas, the snacks (veg & non), and the deserts – for less than half the price you'd be paying inside TC. Sometimes I wish I could live there.