Tarun Tejpal on finding India's "street voice"

The author talks about his latest novel "The Story of My Assassins".

For someone who was almost assassinated, Tarun Tejpal comes across as remarkably calm. As the founder of Tehelka, the Indian magazine renowned for its ruthless pursuit of public-interest stories, Tejpal was at the centre of a murder bid when in 2001 Tehelka laid bare the immense levels of corruption in the country’s defence industry – including the number of its patrons working in the Indian government at the time. He opens his latest novel The Story of My Assassins with a parody of this incident: the narrator is informed via the evening news that there had been a botched attempt on his life due to his exposure of deep-seated corruption in the state department of agriculture and food.

The similarities end here however, as Tejpal insists his reporter protagonist is not autobiographical. The book, due to be released this week, was born from his desire to gauge the assassins’ mental states and to understand how they could turn from ordinary men into killers. Yet the scope of the book is far more ambitious than that of a fictionalised memoir; it aims to break from the old ways of thinking about India in the hope of portraying its society in all its vastness, complexities and contradictions.

We meet to talk in the ornate surroundings of his friend V S Naipaul’s Kensington flat, which seems a fitting space to hear the musings of one of India’s most influential commentators. He appears well-grounded for someone with such an intense schedule of talks and TV appearances awaiting him. Yet the relaxed exterior masks a raging intellect; his previous novels include The Alchemy of Desire and The Valley of Masks, both of which achieved global success and critical acclaim. Combined with his position as the founder of India Ink, the publishing house that discovered Arundhati Roy, he is ideally placed to muse on what is lacking in modern Indian writing.

“The problem is that Indian literature written in English is far too shallow and sanitised – it comes from and represents only the upper crust of Indian society. I wanted to create something more authentic, where the person reading it might see more than just a country of either mystical snake-charmers, millionaire software experts or people in immense poverty,” he says. “It’s a place of so many contrasting realities, and the true story of India’s underclass is rarely told.”

Although it may be markedly different from anything previously penned by English-speaking authors from the subcontinent, Tejpal is under no illusions about the difficulty of portraying the vast differences in Indian society. Finding a framework for tackling all the material was a challenge, and it came via the detached and acidic narrator, through whose unpitying gaze Tejpal was able to examine what he calls the “street voice” of India: the mixture of profanity, scatology and philosophy existing at every level of the country. “Journalists are able to do this with much greater ease. It’s far easier for me to access sources about what it’s like for people living below the breadline than if I was just a novelist,” he says.

Despite the crusading anti-corruption role that Tehelka is seen to have by many in India in the wake of the defence scandal, Tejpal insists that corruption is not the country's greatest challenge. It not only has greater levels of inequality than sub-Saharan Africa, with over 2m people existing below the poverty line, but ethnic clashes within its borders are rife.

“We have problems in the north-east as well as in Kashmir, and there still exists a class war between Maoists and the state in central India. All these things need to be reconciled, and corruption is only a symptom of it. Great literature often comes when society is in a state of flux, and it can often be a way of synthesising society’s idea of itself.”

When asked whether he thinks India’s writers have a duty to talk about the country’s internal struggles, he insists that the more urgent question is how much they should pander to white audiences. “If writers become too fixated on what the West wants to read about then the narratives can become insincere.” He insists that “as writers we need to tell the story of our people, not just please the publishers. Obviously journalists do this, but it needs to be addressed in the realm of the imagination too.”

Does he still fear for his safety?

He shrugs. “Working with Tehelka is relentless, as it has such a large voice and we put ourselves on the front line every day. You can’t become a journalist if you’re going to worry about the danger. Trouble is part of the territory you buy into.”

Just before our interview finishes, he stresses to me that the greatest danger is of over-simplifying India. “I want to capture the polyphony of it: the glories and the failings, the beauty and the great horrors. You have to be aware that what is true of India is also not true at the same time.”

The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal is released on 27 September by Melville House.

Tarun Tejpal at the Paris Book Fair in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Madeleine Fry is a freelance journalist who has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and Open Democracy. She blogs at notarevolution.tumblr.com.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.