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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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times