Philip Hensher at Oxford Bookstore. Picture by Rashbehari Das
A pet chicken clucking in your backyard one day, a feast for the family the next. When Piklu the pet becomes dinner, it is the least of the tragedies that befall Saadi and his fellow Bangladeshi children. A “novel-cum-memoir”, Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate) by Philip Hensher paints the picture of a war less talked about, especially in the West. Through Saadi, Hensher explores growing up in Bangladesh in the 1960s and ’70s — from the social and political turmoil, the childhood innocence of watching the American TV series Roots, to a secret cellar with forbidden Bengali books and music. The book revolves around childhood memories of Zaved Mahmood, the author’s Bangladeshi husband.
t2 caught up with Hensher, who teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University in the UK, when he was in the city recently to discuss his new book at Oxford Bookstore, Park Street.
“My early life was very boring. However, I remember my grandmother cooking a chicken stew for hours, which made us poke around the food quite uninterestedly. She would then tell us to think of the ‘starving children of Bangladesh’. I did not understand the relation till the day I ended up marrying one of those starving children,” smiled the author, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for The Northern Clemency.
Welcome back to Calcutta...
This is my sixth time in the city. I just love everything about Calcutta, the adda, the sense of humour, the culture…
How did Scenes from Early Life come about?
It’s a novel about my partner’s family history. For years he had been telling me about these funny things that had happened in his family, with his cousins and aunts. He is a very good storyteller... but he is a very busy person, being a lawyer (of international human rights). So I said, fine I will write it.
It was going to be a story about a Bengali childhood but I realised all stories in Bangladesh sort of came back to the 1971 war. So it ended up as a story about the 1971 war, in a very indirect way. I also noticed that this was not a very popular episode in the West and I thought it was a part of my job to awaken western eyes to this tragic episode.
What was your husband Zaved Mahmood’s reaction?
He thought the whole thing was quite funny! We had conversations over dinner and then he would go to work in the morning and I would type for hours. After I had written a chapter I would give it to him and he would ask me to change a couple of things but nothing serious.
Your book is being referred to as a ‘fictionalised memoir’… how do you explain that?
I think it is a novel, and definitely fiction. And fiction happens to be based around truth. If it was completely non-fiction, people would have been quite cross to discover that there were one or two strands of the book that I had completely made up. However, most of the things that happened in the book are mostly true and the form of the novel is in the first person.
There was a time when writing was considered a waste of time and money. As someone who teaches creative writing, can you tell youngsters today to think of writing as a career option?
It’s still a waste of time and money and that is the most wonderful thing about it! In the world that we live in, everything has a value placed on it — what is this activity costing me in time? How much am I going to be rewarded in money for doing this?
Let’s just ask, what are you going to gain from reading The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse? You lose so many hours, you don’t earn any money, rather may have wasted money buying the book. But then you have just read The Code of the Woosters and it felt wonderful (smiles). What is the point of literature if not giving you a life to sit in an armchair and laugh at nothing?!
The jobs that were there 30 years ago are not going to be there in another 30 years. Blogging is most probably going to take over newspaper commentary. It can be hard to work out as to how to make money out of it, on the other hand it is going to be much, much easier to publish your work and find readers. E-book is going to change the world for readers, especially in India, where transport and distribution can sometimes be problematic.
With the electronic book hitting the readers, it is going to be a number of uploads to the market as writers can now publish what they have written easily. Also there is going to be an increased download stream as readers can opt for a number of languages easily. People are definitely going to make money out of writing.
You have a long association with the Booker — once shortlisted, once longlisted (for The Mulberry Empire) and a judge in 2001…
Being a Booker judge is really fascinating. You get to read over 120 novels that are published in just one year — that never happens normally to anyone. Then you sit down with some five highly read people to discuss the novels in detail. It’s something we generally don’t get to do after university.
Being longlisted and even more being shortlisted is not so much of a hard work. Rather it takes more out of you. I am quite glad, in fact, that I didn’t win the Booker, no matter how strange it sounds. When the chairman of the jury (in 2008) said the Booker winner is Arvind Adiga, I went like “Oh! Thank God”, as the public relations industry suddenly moved away from me. The next day, my partner and I slept in late and then went out for lunch, which went on for hours. Compared to my lunch every day for a month prior to that, which was just a sandwich brought in by the PR lady, it was heaven!
Where do you see India in terms of the LGBT movement and sensitivity?
It’s done, sorted and all over. Apart from a few argumentative people, it’s in a position to set a very good example to the rest of the world. I think in India it’s about the freedom of expression, freedom to choose how to live your own life and it changed so quickly.
I think the big issue, more than anything else, is the point of marriage. I am not particularly bothered about it, but then to be able to create some sort of a legal bond that is officially recognised is a very important thing. In a lot of cases, there are people who die and their families, who haven’t been in touch for years, take away the property from the partner as the partner has no legal right. Moreover, this is a human rights issue.
Lastly, your Calcutta connect...
The capacity to never stop talking. I think I must’ve been a Calcuttan in a previous life. I love the ability to go on talking endlessly.
An arranged marriage may give you more choices, but at the end of the day, you basically do ‘Inky Pinky Ponky’ and randomly select a donkey. How else do you decide whether to marry the person who loves to read fiction or non-fiction?”
This wise line delivered halfway through the book by protagonist Suhaani sums up the essence of Arranged Love, Parul A. Mittal’s
latest chick-lit (Penguin Metro Reads, Rs 150).
Suhaani has just moved to India, leaving her half-Indian boyfriend Jayant Guy or Jay back in the US. Her parents, apart from being the usual well-meaning sort, are tech savvy (her mom is forever harvesting crops on Farmville). Dad has found an IIT-ian in his guitar class and tries to fix up daughter dear with Deepak Goyal or Deep. But Suhaani seems to be allergic to the IIT species. To top it all, Deep’s email to Suhaani was signed off: “Please don’t send me a Facebook Friend Request yet. I only add people I know well, and like, to my friends’ list.”
As fate would have it, Deep also happens to be Suhaani’s new boss at iTrot! The verdict of her rather filmi colleagues — “Kismat Konnection”!
Jay and Deep start vying for attention in poor Suhaani’s head. Jay’s ex Denise doesn’t help either. Deep’s silky voice and Kishore’s songs make matters worse. Her lifelines are her BFF Neha and cousin Tanudi (Businessworld covergirl, hotshot entrepreneur) who take her through the trials and tribulations of love — both arranged and the other kind — all the while dealing with love stories of their own.
The author talks straight to the Facebook gen, through Suhaani’s status updates. The book is sassy and smart, though the characters might be a tad stereotypical. Suhaani paints Jay nude but she’s still supposed to be a virgin (she does indulge in a bit of Skype sex now and then, though)! But it’s not hard to guess why the reticence. Parul is a mom of two girls and in her acknowledgements page, she hopes that they don’t read this book till they turn 18. But then again, does Gen FB listen, ever?!