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Tarun Tejpal on finding India's "street voice"

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

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

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.