Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Talking heads in print

In this age of the sound bite, the 24x7 news cycle, multitasking and the new media, books are a threatened entity and, therefore, need to be patronised more than ever before. That’s a good enough reason to fete journalist and columnist (including for this paper) Sunil Sethi, who has been hosting the weekly literary show Just Books on NDTV Profit since early 2005. The Big Bookshelf is a compilation of his interviews with 30 famous writers on the show.

The book’s masterstroke is that apart from interviews with writers from the rarefied world of literary fiction (Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Gunter Grass, etc.), there are conversations with unabashed shtick peddlers (Chetan Bhagat, Shobhaa De, Khushwant Singh, Ken Follett, Jeffrey Archer, etc.). So, you have 230-odd pages of rare insight into the minds of authors, who continue to hold the world in thrall with their words and imaginary worlds.

You have Nadeem Aslam speaking about his writing regimen in his struggling days. “For about three months every year I would do two jobs at the same time. Then for the next three months I would not work and live on that money.” Umberto Eco draws parallels between the social tensions of medieval and modern world: “Our whole story was once a struggle between cities and states but, now, we don’t need external enemies because we have so many internal enemies.” Patrick French laments at the seduction of technology as a sign of doom for future biographers: “Once we start the use of cellphones, all the intimate exchange of letters… disappears. When we are texting, again there is a whole area of communication that disappears. It is almost as if communication, though getting technically better, does not let the result survive.”

Paul Theroux can be seen washing V S Naipaul’s dirty linen: “Naipaul is a very odd man. If you have interviewed him, I don’t have to tell you how he will rebuff you, or jump down your throat, or bite your nose off, if you ask him the wrong question”. The Alexander McCall Smith interview is a real cracker where the man talks about Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of the immensely popular The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Whoever has read the books that are talked about will be pleased as punch. That said, the interviews shine not because of Sethi but despite him thanks to the impressive roster of writers to whom he spoke. I never expected his interviews to rock me from my prefrontal cortex to my toes, something I experience when I read the interviews in Paris Review. Maybe, it’s the tyranny of television that allows Sethi a quarter of an hour at the most (the show’s duration is half-an-hour) to conduct the interview, which is never enough to etch out a writer’s beliefs.

I have been following his show for a few years now and Sethi has always come across as genial and gregarious. I am definitely not holding that against him but Sethi would have been more on the money if the charming facade had a literary dash to it.

One look at the Chetan Bhagat interview and you will know what I mean, “When you see Hrithik Roshan or Shahrukh Khan on screen, you feel, ‘Oh, they’re so great but in no way I can be them.’ But when they see me they think, ‘Oh, well, he kind of looks like me. Maybe one day I could get there if I work as hard’.” A more careful interviewer would have cut short this narcissistic rambling but Sethi allows Bhagat to indulge in his delusions. Bhagat could do with some humility; in comparison to his work, even Khushwant Singh looks like Camus.

Speaking at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, writer Kiran Desai said the world assumes that writers are some sort of diplomats, who are supposed to take a grand stand on every major burning issue across the globe. This is exactly the sort of booby trap Sethi walks into more than once during the interviews. Every foreign writer offers token appreciation to the ever surging Indian economy but in the same breath reminds the reader that the rich-poor disparity is vast and is of the on-your-face kind.

The Big Bookshelf might never be more than the sum of its parts but, hey, the “parts” are often terrific. “Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age. You only become a writer by being a compulsive reader,” says Nadine Gordimer on the rite of passage to be a man of letters. Here’s a Paul Theroux tip to aspiring travel writers: “Go away. Yes. Leave home, leave your parents and leave all the comforting things that hold you back… because if you stay… people will always ask you what you are doing, what you are writing, what you are publishing? They ask you questions that you can’t answer.” Sample this William Dalrymple quote: “Books are like children, they lead their own lives after you publish them.” Something like that alone is worth the admission price.

It’s easy to dismiss this book as a boondoggle that hardly adds colour to a writer’s persona. But then, it might be a harbinger for similar anthologies, hopefully more readable ones at that.

Sunil Sethi
Penguin Books
240 pages; Rs 350


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