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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Did an interview with Indra Sinha last month. Wound up editing it into two pieces, one of which appeared in the Times of India last month, the other in this month's Outlook Traveller. This is the unedited transcript.

PG: You left India as a young man, and made a life for yourself in the UK. Do you have any fond memories of travel around India as a child and as a youth?
IS: Lots. The beauty of the western ghats in the monsoon, visiting the lake palace in Udaipur before it was a hotel, rowing across the lake to the other palace, where Shah Jehan had stayed, to find its empty dome full of pigeons, I miss my grandfather's village in UP near the Nepal border, smells of straw, woodsmoke, an old travelling cinema kept in a hay barn . . .

PG: How often have you visited India after you moved?
IS: Regularly since my association with the Bhopal survivors began in the mid nineties, but before that there was a 15 year gap when I didn't visit. The children were young and money was short. I love being in India. The pace of change is amazing, but I love to see things I remember still from the old days, like an old fashioned bullock cart trundling along, and it was good to see that the forest is still thick on the ghats in places along the Goa road. If there is anything I can do, any organisation I can join or support to help protect the Western ghats, I would like to do it.

PG: How often have your travelled around India? Could you tell us about your most memorable experiences?
IS: Arriving by air from Kathmandu, with Vickie, daughter Tara then aged 2 and a lot of suitcases, to a tiny airstrip on the Nepalese side of the border. We had gone to Kathmandu airport to find that our flight didn't appear. On enquiring about its status we were told it had been cancelled. "When was it cancelled?" I asked, "there's been no announcement." The man scrutinised our Royal Nepalese Airline tickets, bought in London. "Two years ago!" Two days later we boarded a tiny plane that whirred into the air like a metal grasshopper. As it rose higher, the high Himalayas rose up behind the foothills, white and shining, hundreds of miles on view at once. We flew to Nepalganj in a series of large hops and at each stop, a few passengers departed. When we got to Nepalganj we were the only passengers left. Nepalganj airport was a grass field — the terminal was a hut that had two doors, one saying IN and the other OUT. Being conventional people we went through the IN door to find that both doors actually opened into the same space, which was completely empty. Nor was there a fence at either side of the hut, so you could actually have just walked past it. There was no one in sight. A small road ran past the place and vanished into fields of sugar cane, but there were no vehicles in sight, much less the taxi I had promised Vickie. After a while I noticed a boy with a bicycle. He leant it against a tree, came forward shyly and said, "Are you Indra? I am Shobha. Grandfather sent me to fetch you home?" "With a bicycle??!!!" But Shobha flagged down a bullock cart that had hove into view and negotiated passage to the border. The luggage was piled onto the cart, Vickie sat on it and Tara on Vickie. Shobha sat on his bike and held onto the tail of the cart and I walked alongside. In this way we passed through the thick sugar cane fields (into which Nana Saheb and his defeated army had vanished 125 years earlier) and came to the border, marked by two square brick buildings. The Nepalese side was empty and shut up, but on the Indian side stood an amazed customs officer. "Who are you and where are you going?" he asked, adding that ours were the first overseas passports he had seen in six months. "We are going to my grandfather's in Nanpara." On hearing my grandfather's name he said, "But I know him!" He went inside and telephoned Nanpara PO telling them to send a boy to run and tell Iqbal Bahadur sahib that his family had come and were safe. Then chairs were set in the shade outside the customs building, tea appeared, as did a photo album of the offier's family. We passed a pleasant hour before the bus came and took us all away to grandfather and new adventures. I want to tell this story properly one day in a book of travel writings.

PG: Two of your books are set in India—well, four, to count Tantra and your Kama Sutra translation. Written, as they were, in Europe, did the distance aid perspective, or did it get in the way? How did you do your research?
IS: I write, I am in my imagination. It neither helps nor hinders to be in the place I am writing about, however I like to know the places about which I will write, even though the imagination transforms them. One tries to catch a reality, a feeling, that lies just beneath the skin. Lawrence Durrell was a genius at doing this. He was a favourite and formative influence when I was young.

Indra Sinha near his home in France. Picture by Dan Sinha.PG: Did a busy advertising career, and the strong online addiction you describe in The Cybergypsies, leave you much time—or inclination—for travel? Or, to put this another way, where does a British advertising star take his time off?
IS: We never had much money for travel when the children were young, but I guess over the years we've seen quite a bit of Europe and of course the dear old UK. I loved living in England and love living in France. Our best family holiday was a six week tour of France, Switzerland and Italy ending with two weeks in the Lot, where we now live. In fact it is directly because of that holiday that we are now there.

PG: As someone born in India but living elsewhere, and a writer to boot, do you find yourself expected to be the font of all information on the country? And while on the topic, how much of what friends and associates in Europe think and know about India is true? How much is elephants on the street?
IS: I used to be expected to be Encylopaedia Indica, but that is less true nowadays. People's knowledge of India varies enormously. Many people have been here and many more have some family connection. I think people's ideas are formed largely by the television. Don't forget there is also a huge Indian population in the UK, so Indian culture, Bollywood, "Indian" restaurants, are all pretty much part of everyday life.

PG: You've just been wandering around the typical western tourist's favourite destinations in India: Rajasthan and Goa. You were born here, though, and your books show knowledge of many of the other facets of the country despite your many years abroad. What's your take on those two states, arguably the most 'touristy' destinations one could find in India?
Could you tell us a bit about the places you saw on the trip?
IS: A lot of people I know in Rajasthan are turning their houses into heritage hotels and there is a sort of build-your-own-haveli emporium where you can buy ancient carved doors, jharokas, silver furniture, rugs and hangings, basically everything you need for instant Rajasthan. The Jaipur festival was Rajputana Disneyworld style complete with elephants, fire-eaters. The old Rajputana would have been dancing girls and opium. Goa is wonderful, when you get used to it, but walk along the strip from Candolim to Calangute and you are offered the same tourist tack as in Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur etc. All that's missing is Goa. However the old Goa is still there, but an outsider has to work a little to discover and get into it. Having loved John Berendt's books about Savannah and Venice (and loved being with John too and learning how he came to write them) I keep thinking there is something to be done either on Rajasthan or Goa. Or both. But I have a number of novels to write, so I don't know when I might get time for travel writing.

PG: When you visit India now, after long absences, how much change do you see? Do these changes surprise you? Are they good or bad changes?
IS: pace of change is huge and the wealth in the country is enormous. What is sad and in fact sickening is that the well off seem to have closed their eyes to the vast majority of the population, who do not benefit from globalisation the booming stock market, etc. The long term result of this can only be fascism and repression, it will be the only way to preserve the continuing luxury of the wealthy at the continuing expense of those who have nothing. Writers have a duty to speak out about this and Arundhati has recently written an excellent article on this very point.

PG: Have you seen any great writing from India? And travel writing in particular.
IS: I haven't seen any travel writing. I loved Siddharth Dhanwant Shangvi's The Last Song of Dusk, it was arch, amusng, knowing, entertaining - and underneath ran a tale of deep sorrow. The writing about sex is some of the finest I have read.

PG: And what about great writing—travel included—about India?
IS: I am rather sick of books about India. I would rather read books about Brazil, or Cuba, or the Congo, or somewhere I'd like to visit.

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