Monday, February 05, 2007

The Books Interview: Christopher Kremmer

Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling the Mahatma, published last month, is a very rich, luminous account of India in the tumultous nineties. The title refers to the immersion of some of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes in the Ganga in 1997, nearly half a century after his death. Much of the book is about the reverberations of 6 December, 1992 in India, but Kremmer's is not a narrowly political account: returning on more than one occasion to Ayodhya in the decade after the desecration of the Babri Masjid, he also searches for the heterodox, liberal Hinduism obscured by the politics of Hindutva. Reportage is not often noteworthy stylistically, but I found Kremmer's book, on a purely sentence-by-sentence level, to be a thing of "beauty and pleasure". Kremmer kindly agreed to answer some questions on his book and on the craft of nonfiction.

Your book draws upon your experiences of Indian life as a foreign correspondent based here for most of the nineties. Many of the events described in your book - the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the controversy after the implementation of the Mandal Commission's recommendations - are reported in great detail, but you also manage to take a long view of them, as it were, to look at their effects as they slowly worked themselves out over time. When did you realise that you wanted to write a book about these matters?
The result of the national election of 2004 was significant because, once again, Indian voters proved smarter than politicians and pundits. Nobody was predicting that the BJP would lose, but they did, and it marked the end of a dramatic period of change in the country. It seemed the right time to pause and reflect on a decisive decade when not just the economy, but Indian democracy became more competitive. I realised that India should be judged not by its problems alone, but by its achievements, and by the incredible challenges it has survived.

Traditionally, print journalism was thought to be "the first draft of history". But some of the traditional functions of a daily newspaper have now been usurped by television and the Internet. Do you think then that the role of newspapers is going to change gradually, and that we will turn to them less for the what than for the why?
I would like to think so, because explaining our complex world, rather than merely following television and the web in reporting it, really is the only way forward for newspapers. Books too are filling this important niche—explaining our complex world in a way that deepens readers’ understanding. The Indian media market is showing a dynamism that is very encouraging. When I first came to India there was a single broadcaster—Doordarshan—and the I&B minister was able to influence what news went to air. Here too, the '90s changed everything.

Would you like to say something about your two previous works of narrative nonfiction, The Carpet Wars and Bamboo Palace, and the circumstances in which you wrote them? Also what they may have taught you that you could bring to Inhaling The Mahatma.
Well, in the beginning I was really just experimenting with a different style. I had read the work of Tom Wolfe and others, and some really inspiring work by Indian writers—Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, for example—and loved the way travel, and history, and contemporary politics could be woven into a pleasurable but educative experience for readers. So my quest to discover the fate of the missing royal family of Laos became Bamboo Palace. Then, in Afghanistan, I wanted to paint a picture of the tragic plight of so many people, but do it in a way that showed what a magical place it was. So I made a list of things I loved about Afghanistan, and things I’d experienced there that changed me - carpets(which I collected), refugees (most of my Afghan friends have fled the wars) Islam (which I believe has been a civilising force in Muslim society overall) and war (which terrified me, and forced me to come to terms with life’s less pleasant realities). That became The Carpet Wars, which did very well because I finished the manuscript just before 9/11. Inhaling the Mahatma is the third book in a kind of trilogy of Asian non-fiction books. The style of blending reportage and personal stories is consistent throughout, but the mood of each book is quite different. The India book is the deepest, the most personal, and most reflective of the three.

Which nonfiction writers do you like reading best?
Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, which is about Venice, are examples of how good non-fiction writing should be—as gripping and enjoyable as any novel. I was talking to Suketu Mehta recently and he put it very well. He said ‘The reader is entitled to pleasure, to derive pleasure from each individual sentence in a book”. I couldn’t agree more. My aim is to hook the reader from the first page, and then hang onto them for a solid 400 pages, telling stories that make them laugh and make them cry, but importantly, telling true stories and giving them the context and background to understand a person or place in greater depth. So, you know, if I’m talking to Amar Singh, and he is sitting on a sofa in a five-star hotel massaging his feet, I’m going to include that detail. Or, in Inhaling..., in the scene where Rahul Gandhi washes his hands in disinfectant after shaking hands with people at a rally, that’s definitely going in, because you see the real person in such episodes, not just the political hype.

Many of your descriptions of locale and landscape in Inhaling the Mahatma are so rich and beautiful they seem almost out of a novelist's cupboard. Does the nonfiction writer have anything to learn from the reading of fiction?
I started my writing career in short stories, which won prizes, and that encouraged me to keep writing. But I couldn’t make a living from short stories, so I turned to journalism, not just to survive, but to gain the sorts of life experiences that I felt would help me mature and have something interesting to say. Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, we’re all writers with stories to tell, and we can learn from each other. Non-fiction writers are definitely leading the way at the moment, but the novel is not dead. I hope not anyway, because I would certainly like to write one.

I've always been curious about how the best nonfiction writers convey not just what they saw and heard - things which can be attributed to careful on-site note-taking - but also the moment-by-moment sense of an experience - which, it seems to me, one can miss if one is too fixed on taking notes. Can you cast any light on this?
I use notes, memory, tape recordings, and articles that I and others have written to piece together these books. But the most valuable thing I find is, where possible, to revisit people and places I am writing about. Inhaling the Mahatma would have been nothing more than a memoir, but the yatra I undertake [Kremmer returned to India in 2004 to revisit some of the sites he'd described] turns the book into a living, breathing experience. When I started that journey in the summer of 2004 I had no idea where it would take me, physically, intellectually or spiritually. I wanted to open myself to the possibility of being changed by the experience, and the book has changed my life in so many ways that are positive. It became an excuse to break down the walls that separate people on the basis of nationality, language and religion. It became a very moving and beneficial journey through hard times to hope.

You sometimes conduct workshops on nonfiction writing. Could you distill what you say in them for readers of this site?
Well, the first thing I tell people is that it’s not rocket science. I get them to read examples of fine narrative non-fiction and then we deconstruct it, and see how it is put together. It’s a very post-modern form, and the writer needs to be open to the multi-faceted nature of truth. A building might look beautiful from outside, but at the back it could be a garbage heap. Look at people and things from different angles. Another thing is that you have to be prepared to reveal who you are. These are not objective books, in the traditional sense, so we need to know who is this person who is taking us through northern Afghanistan, or northern India. What’s their background? Why should be trust them? Because the books sometimes don’t have a strictly defined plot, the voice of the narrator is very important in holding it all together and making the reader turn the page. And characters. Don’t forget the absolute necessity for bringing people alive on the page. There has never been a good book that lacked humanity.

Were you at all interested in, and do you have any strong opinions about, the work of the legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died recently?
I haven’t read his work, but people speak highly of him. We both met and wrote about the late Afghan mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in the last years of his life.

Every reader has some favourite passage from literature, something that seems to him or her inexpressibly sharp or subtle? Is there such a passage like you'd like to cite, explaining what you like about it?
As a youth I was besotten with the Russian classics. The black humour of Gogol, the intensity of Dostoyevsky, the romance and historical drama of a book like Doctor Zhivago, and the gritty realism of Gorky. I could go on and on about those Russians. I remember reading War and Peace, which is a very fat book, 1500 pages from memory. And in the midst of this great epic, Tolstoy takes the trouble to describe in great detail a boy climbing down from a fence. And it’s just such a close piece of observation, you can almost feel the boy’s toes searching for a grip on the wall, that I was blown away by that. It taught me that seemingly minor details can be very important in drawing a reader into the world the author wants them to experience.

You've got closer to Mahatma Gandhi than most Indians now alive, by inhaling his ashes. Let's say you were hosting a dinner, and you could invite to it five personages from the entire sweep of history. Who do you think you'd like to encounter in the flesh?
What a great dinner that would be! Gandhiji would be at the head of the table. He was a great talker and doer, and had a wonderful way with words and a sense of humour. Above all, he was wise. Wisdom is divine. Next to him I’d put Jesus Christ. No questions for him. I’d just listen and watch his body language. Also it would be very nice to know what he actually looked like. Beside him I’d put Hitler, because it would be good to see how they got on. Would sparks fly? Then, of course, a writer. Maybe someone no-nonsense like Ernest Hemingway, or an intellectual like George Orwell to keep the conversation interesting. Then, there would have to be an Australian, of course, so maybe Steve Waugh, who was the most Zen sportsman I ever saw play.

Do you have any ideas for what your next book is going to be?
I always have about ten books rattling around in my brain. What gets done is really a matter of priority and ranking. I talk a lot to my agents and publishers about my next move. So yes, I have been doing preliminary research and having discussions about it, and have pretty much settled on a subject. But there’s a superstition among writers that if you talk too much about what you are doing next, it will never happen, so I can’t go into the detail. Let’s just say that I’m a person who needs to keep changing in order not to get bored, so the next book could be something totally unexpected and different.

These interviews always end with a question about the good life outside of books. I notice, both from your sentences as well as from passages in Inhaling The Mahatma like the one about Neemrana, that you like things of "beauty and pleasure". You have a choice: either to describe your favourite meal, or to talk about the most beautiful living space you've seen in all your years of travel.
I have two homes—one in India and one in Australia. The Indian home is in pulsating, crowded Delhi, but the Australian home is in a quiet village of 400 people, situated in the Southern Highlands between Sydney and Canberra. We get bushfires in summer, and winters are cold enough for the occasional snowfall. The air is scented by pine trees. The village dates back to the early days of the convict colony of New South Wales, and still has many buildings from the Georgian period. It’s ten kilometres to the nearest town, and the drive you takes across rolling green hills through farmland and sheep and cattle stations. There are kangaroos and wombats and platypuses and black cockatoos and all kinds of other wildlife around, and many beautiful valleys, rivers and hills to explore. This is where I go to escape the world, to think and write, and I love it very much. All that and a broadband internet connection! In India, lots of people are moving to the cities, but in Australia it’s the other way around. My dream is that by the end of the 21st century cities will be fewer and smaller, and most people will live with the best of both worlds - the web-wired semi-rural community.

Previous books interviews: with Altaf Tyrewala and Samrat Upadhyay.


Sonia Faleiro said...

Excellent interview, Hash. I'm going to buy the books he recommends, and borrow his book from you.

Aditya Adhikari said...

Thanks for the review and the interview. Of all the reviews that I've read of Kremmer's book, yours was the only one that paid attention to the personal/literary aspect of it. All the others seemed to treat it as yet another popularization of India's recent history. I'll get my hands on the book and read it when I get the chance.

Chandrahas said...

Sonja - I'd have happily lent you the book, but Christopher Kremmer has just written to protest such startling cheapness on your part. His point is: if writers won't buy each other's books, who will? After all, didn't he buy a copy of *The Girl*? He suggests you buy his book, and borrow the Peter Robb from me instead.

I await your response. Oops, Peter Robb's just written in...

Aditya - Thanks very much for your kind words. I took a look at your blog and it has plenty of interesting work on it too. Loved the photograph of Nehru and the Mountbattens, and your commentary.