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In Conversation With Kanishk Tharoor

It wasn’t long ago when Shashi Tharoor, wrote in the ‘Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century’, Indian diplomacy is like the love-making of an elephant: It is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for two years!

Just like his father, Kanishk Tharoor, who releases his debut collection of short stories on 27 January, deals in magical storytelling who brings in aspects of surrealism in his plots and characters through unusual narratives. Young Tharoor has already received some rave reviews. A gifted storyteller who has managed to hone the skills at possession from his family after a rewarding career as a Journalist. Although, the some critics have found the debut collection comes across as uneven, it is nevertheless an extremely well crafted anthology of short stories.

An assortment of non- fictional and fictional narratives, the book contains twelve stories, namely Elephant at Sea, The fall of an eyelash, Tale of the Tea House, A united Nations in Space, Swimmer among the stars, Letters Home, the loss of Muzaffar, The Astrolabe, Portrait with coal Fire, Ice breaks, A lesson in objects, The Mirrors of Iskander, to surrealist narratives…

From the lonely voyage of an elephant with his mahout from Kerala to a princess trapped in a palace in Morocco, and an alliance of international diplomats trapped in near-earth orbit , Kanishk Tharoor recounts one riveting story after another and he does not hesitate to experiment with his craft either. For instance the story with the United Nations in space has no characters but only names of countries serving as characters. He refuses to individualize or characterize in the usual sense, and instead allows a specific peculiar kind of subjectivity which makes the subject matter easily accessible . These refusals recur throughout the collection, like a series of fractures marking breaks in time. The effect is haunting and mysteriously powerful. Although it is his first publication action, Tharoor displays consummate ability to twists and reshape the language and develop arresting imagery.

The following excerpt from the story ‘The Mirrors of Iskander’, where he resurrects Aristotle and Alexander the Great from the grave, in his esoteric collection.

“Iskandar received news of attacks against his merchants in the Levant. Soon after they went out to sea, pirates from Cyprus would seize them. The raids were costly. Iskandar was furious when he learned that pirates had intercepted a finely-dappled mare intended for his mother in Macedonia. He mourned for the poor horse, now alone in some piratical hold, surrounded by the treasures and sundries of the sea.

Why can’t they be stopped? he asked his advisers. They’re so elusive, Aristotle said, nobody can find pirates who hide in the foam and spray. Can’t we just conquer Cyprus and get it over with? My lord, we’ve done the calculations and it seems clear that Cyprus is just not worth the capital investment of its conquest. But I’m a world conqueror, what will people say if after all this time I haven’t taken Cyprus? You are a world conqueror, my lord, and the world is entirely yours… a world without Cyprus is still very much the world”

The average reader will easily be able to flow through the language only to discover that there is more to the plot than what just meets the eye. He adeptly tackles matters of complexity with ease, going beyond a particular episteme. Some of his stories flow over the time and period distinctions making a particular experience, universal. So, here is a brief interview I managed from the up and coming author.

How did you begin ‘Swimmer among the Stars’? What led to it?

If you are referring to the collection, there was no specific beginning… the stories accumulated haphazardly over a decade. If referring to the specific story itself, that sprung out of my abiding interest in endangered languages. We live in a time unlike any other previous in which the number of languages spoken around the world is rapidly shrinking. I’m interested in the implications of language extinction. It so happens that New York City, where I live, is a repository of dying languages that are still spoken in diaspora even though they have long since disappeared in their countries of origin. Also, as a writer and reader in English, I think it’s incumbent upon English-speakers to be aware of the consequences of the hegemony of big, bulldozing languages.

Would you tell us about the way you work? How many revisions did it take to get to the final version?

I write fairly slowly, revising as I go along, so that I don’t necessarily work in completed “drafts.” My first draft has been lingered over and wrestled with enough that I often think it’s pretty close to being done.

Do you go about your daily life recording the experiences so that you can use them someday?

Yes, I unfortunately always have my eyes and ears open for material. But this is probably as true when I’m reading, watching films and documentaries, having conversations, and so on.
Do you have a particular type of reader in mind when you write ? Whom do you write for the perpetual old question that still holds one by the noose?
I have to confess that as I write I’m thinking more about the world of the story I’m developing than about the real-world reader who might encounter it one day. But I imagine my readers as being particularly open-minded, curious about the world, and willing to be spun a yarn.

What are you currently working on? Does the possibility of failure or incompletion bother you?

I’m currently working on a radio series for the BBC that I’m presenting and helping script. It’s called the “Museum of Lost Objects,” and it’s about cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria. I’m also working on a novel that’s been through several iterations over the previous years before I finally latched onto a structure and approach that seemed right. When grappling with such a monumental task as a novel – and my first one at that – it is invariably a little bit scary and daunting. It’s like being in a dark tunnel with barely a speck of light in the distance. But it’s a challenge I have to rise to.

Your book has received a lot of laurels and appreciation from the likes of Amitav Ghosh, but I’d like to know has there been any criticism so far from your agents, editors or your close ones? If yes, how have you taken it?

I’m really grateful for all the generous and kind things being written and said about the book. I’ve also had a lot of support and encouragement all along. I’m fortunate for that. I’m sure there will be criticism, and merited criticism – I don’t pretend to have written some flawless masterpiece. Like most young fiction writers, I’ve had to deal with a few rejections, from publishers, magazines and competitions and so forth. I had a fellowship in a “creative writing program,” where one is regularly subjected to criticism – sometimes fair, often unfair – that forced me to be open to those who weren’t likely to have positive responses to my work, or were even predisposed to dislike my style of writing. So I’d like to think that I already have a thick skin, but more importantly, that I have the capacity to learn from the criticism of others.

What comes easier to you – developing character or creating plots?

Probably creating plots. I think I more instinctively conjure narrative than individual psychology. But I do love inventing people and dwelling in them.

Which one of the stories is the closest to you besides the title story itself?

Probably “The Mirrors of Iskandar” – my retelling of the ancient cycle of fantastical legends about Alexander the Great (known as the “Alexander romance”) that spread from Greek and Syria into Armenian, Persian, and a whole range of European and Asian languages in the medieval period. I’ve been thinking about the “Alexander romance” at least since I was teenager and had long wanted to do something about it. The cover image of the book – an Akbar-era illumination from the khamsa of Amir Khusrau – was a picture I saw in the Metropolitan Museum years ago and it so captivated me that I plunged into reading about Alexander romance.

You are also a journalist. What led to that choice of your profession, you never thought of being a politician, a diplomat perhaps? Are there some career choices that are more conducive to adapt in a literary space?

I was always drawn to writing and literature. I flirted for some time with becoming an academic historian. But I’ve never really considered other paths. And since I don’t search for sources of fiction in myself or within my own life, I’ve not really considered the relationship between my own professional work and the fiction I might produce.

Why did you choose the short story format? Do you consider yourself a product of the digital age?

I’m writing a novel at the same time, so I don’t think that I’ve chosen the short story over the novel — it just so happens that my collection of short stories is the book of mine that has been published first. I do love short stories and I do think they offer me a kind of playful freedom that is more difficult to manage and sustain over the course of a long novel. My favourite “genre” so to speak at the moment is actually the short novel – between 100 and 200 pages — which has the delicious advantage of being at once substantial and readable in a single sitting.

I definitely DO NOT consider myself a product of the digital age. I’m probably of the last generation that grew up entirely without mobile phones, reliable internet connections, and social media. I am curmudgeonly enough to think that there is an inimical relationship between the life of the mind and the demands of constant connection.
Kindle or a book in a brown paper bag? What would you go with and why?

I do not own an e-reader and I do not plan to. I think that books are wonderful objects, and that the intimacy of reading is best found in paper and binding. It saddens me that soon people will be living in antiseptic, dust-free homes wholly devoid of books.

Your work is represented by the finest agent company in the world. How was the process for you, did you go looking out for them? What was it like? How long did it take? Did you indulge in self-criticism at that point in time?

The search for an agent can be long and hard, so I know that I’ve been lucky so far in getting picked up DGA in London, and in finding my US agent in NYC, where I live. It helped that I had a track record of publication and awards and nominations before I went looking for representation.

What is your opinion on the changing nature of the publishing industry today?

I don’t really know much about the ins and outs of the publishing world, it’s all quite new to me. I’m just grateful that whatever the changes, there is still is space for adventurous and slightly experimental fiction like mine. Reading literary fiction has always been a fairly niche activity, and it will continue to be that.

Who are the writers you’ve grown up and reading, and if you could tell us a few of favourite paragraphs of your work?

Too many to list. Perhaps predictably, the likes of Toni Morrison, Saramago, Italo Calvino, Borges, Amitav Ghosh and so on. But also the 19th century collectors of folklore, medieval Persian poets, and ancient tellers of epic around the world.

Apart from writing how do you spend your spare time?

I have other professional commitments to column writing and freelance work that also keep me busy. In my spare time, I spend time with my wife, family and friends, I love watching movies and some of the excellent new TV series floating around, I cook, I walk a lot in NYC, and I obsess about football and the fortunes in particular of my club, Arsenal.

Name some of your favourite contemporary novels and what about them in particular enchants you ?
Most recently, I was really struck by Paul Kinsgnorth’s “The Wake,” written in a “shadow tongue” of old and modern English. It’s startling how he finds such lyrical power in such a limited vocabulary. I was also bowled over by the Icelandic author Sjon’s “From the Mouth of the Whale,” which epitomizes his frenetic and fabulist genius. And I’ll also mention Jenny Erpenbeck’s “A Visitation,” small, dense, and mesmerizing, like a black hole!

Kanishk Tharoor’s collection of short stories, Swimmer Among the Stars, will soon be released in January 2016 by Aleph publishers. His short fiction was nominated for a National Magazine Award in the United States.

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