Consider this. He’s an acclaimed Indian English author and an illustrious journalist. He has been writing for 40 years and has penned 18 fiction and non-fiction books, including a period bestseller Taj. He has directed a play in England with Bend It Like Beckham actress Parminder Nagra. A documentary filmmaker, he also wrote and produced an internationally hailed film The Square Circle, made in Hindi by Amol Palekar as Daayra.
Yet Timeri Murari — the Chennai-based writer who lived for 30 years in England and the US — is seldom to be seen in India’s literary circles or festivals. In a fast developing publishing world where every pretty young thing or geeky graduate is writing a book, Murari — an R.K. Narayan award winner (given by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India) — is a name that only the cognoscenti seem to be acquainted with.
“It’s simple really why I am not spotted on the national literary scene. I am not invited,” says the spiffily-attired, 70-year-old scribe, clearly not unduly fussed about his isolation. “What can I say? It is all Delhi and Mumbai centric,” he says in his clipped, British accent.
It is the festivals’ loss, for the writer with his inimitable and flawless style has notched up a rich oeuvre. Starting off on a novel set amidst Punjabi immigrants in the UK, he whisked up a mystery novel and then went on to make his mark with his historical fiction, Taj.
From doffing a gentleman’s hat at Emperor Shah Jahan’s deep love for his wife, he portrayed the poignant, slow disintegration of a south Indian joint family in one of his best books, his semi-autobiographical Four Steps to Paradise. Or take his travelogue, Limping to the Centre of the Earth, on an “atheist’s” pilgrimage to Mount Kailash for the sake of an orphan. His latest fiction Taliban Cricket Club, which recently hit the bookstores, traces the daring escape of a spirited Afghan woman journalist from intolerant Talibans.
Murari is happy with the enthusiastic response that the book has evoked in the US. Seated in a visitors’ room surrounded by paintings, artefacts and a long, walled bookshelf in his one-storey ancestral home, he talks about the feedback.
“My editor in New York says this is the first time any of her books has been reviewed by National Geographic,” he says. The irrepressible author, who sticks to his discipline of writing every day from 7.30am to 1pm, has also moved on to his next novel — set in Afghanistan once again.
What is his fascination for Afghanistan? “Afghanistan is our neighbour. Whatever happens there is bound to reverberate on us. In the last few years, the Taliban’s importance is growing. If Afghanistan goes to the Taliban, the al Qaeda will be at our doors,” points out this former journalist who has written for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, London. “The Afghanis are extremely courteous and friendly people. How can one help them? The country is a powder keg,” he says, spreading his hands helplessly.
Murari, who covered the Indian elections during the Rajiv Gandhi era for a prominent political magazine, has always straddled journalism and fiction writing.
It was while writing a piece for the The Sunday Times on union problems among Indian immigrant textile mill workers in Coventry that his first novel was born. “The article got stuck because of legal problems and I had all this research material. So I decided to fictionalise it,” he recounts. This immigrant tale titled The Marriage revolved around an Indian girl falling in love with a British boy.
Murari has had no formal training in writing. He was studying engineering in London when he decided to move to McGill University in Canada to study political science and history. While studying there he wrote a piece for a Canadian newspaper on a summer logging experience. That was the beginning of his career in journalism, though he moved soon to England where he joined The Guardian.
“Writers are born,” says Murari, citing his example of not having gone to creative writing school. However, he emphasises the importance of reading. “You have to read many, many writers before you work out your own style.”
He laughs when I ask him about the “mini-explosion” of Indian English writers on the publishing landscape. “It is like my editor says, every person has a short story inside them, not a novel. What we are seeing today is short stories being stretched into novels.” The constant “churning” in the publishing world with new technological developments such as e-books and Kindle makes it difficult to predict the future of this field, he says.
“Everyone thinks they can write. But it is hard. What most people don’t do is read the great writers. You can only learn from reading the best writers out there,” he says, reeling off names from his list of the best — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and so on.
Murari, who was born in an illustrious Telugu Naidu family in Chennai (his grandfather’s friends included powerful politicians such as K. Kamaraj), was circled by books as a child. Parts of his childhood figure in Four Steps to Paradise — a novel that he is particularly fond of, as is his Australian wife Maureen.
It tells the story from the eyes of a young boy, Krishna, of how an outsider, a European woman, breaks up a family. “It is biographical in parts,” admits Murari, whose father — a civil servant in the Madras Presidency — married a foreigner after his mother’s death. “This novel is full of depth and strength probably since it is set in my own past,” he reflects.
“Did not Hemingway say that writers should stick to writing what they know? It might be good advice but writers also need to write about things they don’t know and should learn from,” he adds.
His more recent book, Limping to the Centre of the Earth, was one such adventure. The book emerged out of a story. Murari’s wife was caring for an abandoned sick baby who needed an operation which was very risky. “People told me that if I went to Mount Kailash and made a wish, it would come true and I wanted to do it for the child,” says Murari, who made the journey despite a weak knee.
Though not superstitious, he adds that the little baby survived. Now adopted, his photograph adorns a table in the room.
Murari loved his journey to Mount Kailash in Tibet. “It is special; it’s not just an unusual looking mountain. You feel awed standing before it because of its history and age. It dates back to mythology, to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I loved the solitude and getting up to 18,000 feet and coming back alive,” he says with a laugh.
If you probe his lack of belief in God, he says, “I prefer to think nature is God.” He scoffs at the Large Hadron Collider’s claim of being closer to locating God’s particle. “The closer they get to it the farther it will move away. The mystery of the universe is such that nobody can solve it.”
Cricket, which plays a huge role in Taliban Cricket club, is a big passion. Having learnt cricket in what was Chennai from his grandfather and father, Murari later played with the likes of British playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard and American writer James Baldwin when he lived in New York.
Baldwin, in fact, once advised him against taking up the onerous task of becoming a full-time writer. But Murari wrote, even while he focused on making documentaries. It was while shooting a documentary on detectives in South Bronx in New York (“cops are wonderful storytellers”) that he got the grist for a mystery novel, Shooters.
New York was also where he married Maureen. You can tell that Murari was a handsome man in his younger days. Even now, tall and distinguished looking with a receding hairline, dark bushy eyebrows and lively black eyes, he is quite a force to reckon with.
But Murari stressed that he got “tired” of the US. Along with Maureen, he returned to India in 1988 to become a part of “changing” India. “I wanted to write about India with authority by living here rather than as a tourist,” Murari says, adding that his father’s failing health also prompted him to return.
Murari admits that it has not been an easy transition to live in “exciting but exacerbating India” after living away for 30 years. “I don’t regret it. Sometimes, I feel restless, dislocated. Though I have come home, it is not quite home,” he says quoting Tom Wolfe: “You can never return, you can never go home.”