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Author-bureaucrat Upamanyu Chatterjee Is Just Out With His Fifth Novel, Way To Go, Says Samita Bhatia Photographs By Rupinder Sharma   |   Published 21.03.10, 12:00 AM

He settles down for a chat amidst a medley of sounds: snatches of conversations in French, the sharp yapping of a dog and the tinkling notes of a piano played by his daughter, Pia. “It’s been said that my books are like the Olympic games. They come every five years,’’ Upamanyu Chatterjee, author-bureaucrat, says with a wry smile.

It’s been about five years since his previous and fourth novel, Weight Loss, was published, and with near clockwork precision, he’s just out with his latest book, Way to Go (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton).

Writer at crack of dawn and joint secretary in the Ministry of Defence by day, Chatterjee says flatly: “I’m quite comfortable with this kind of schizophrenic life.’’

The author, best identified with his first book, English, August: An Indian Story (1988), is seated in his cheerful, book-heavy living room that offers a ringside view of Arab ki Sarai, a smaller monument within the compound of Humayun’s Tomb.

Home is not functional government accommodation when he is on a Delhi posting, but this house in a leafy part of Nizamuddin East. It’s here that his French journalist wife, Anne, and teenage daughters, Sara and Pia, live when he’s posted in Maharastra, his cadre. Both the girls are in the “Board exam” phase and it’s nice being back in Delhi (he was previously posted in Mumbai) during this time.

Chatterjee, 51, admits that he likes continuity, which is why Way to Go picks up where he left off in his second novel, The Last Burden (1993). Quite like his third book, The Mammaries of the Welfare State, that continued the world of Agastya Sen, the trainee civil servant protagonist of English, August.

“I felt that The Last Burden was in a sense incomplete. It was a very difficult and hard book and there was a lot of rancour in it that needed to be reconciled and the characters had to be redeemed,’’ he says softly. If some critics have called the storyline dark and bleak, it’s not bothering Chatterjee as he’s very happy about the tone of Way to Go. “To me, it appears very autumnal, very serene,” he says.

So, if in The Last Burden the brothers, Burfi and Jamun struggle with the death of their mother, Way to Go revolves around the death of their 85-year-old father, Shyamanand. While the earlier book was bleak, in the sequel, the emptiness created by the father leaving pushes the brothers to find solace in each other. “The book is a kind of rounding off for someone who has managed to wade through both the volumes,’’ he says.

Chatterjee has usually come in for criticism for the dark humour and preoccupation with death that run through his novels. He shrugs dismissively, and says: “It’s just a way of looking at things. It’s an attempt to get to the heart of the matter and so perhaps the struggle gets reflected in the prose.’’

Chatterjee with his wife Anne and daughter Pia

He began writing Way to Go in 2005, a year-and-a-half before Weight Loss was published. He was in Mumbai then and since his family was in Delhi he had very little to do — apart from write. And then in 2008 he picked up the Order of Officier des Arts et des Lettres awarded by the French government for his contribution to Literature.

He’s comfortable with his four-to-five-years-per-book pace. “It’s like restructuring and ordering a private, different universe. It’s something quite apart from dull, daily routine,’’ he adds. A daily routine that he insists excludes a social life and playing couch potato. He hardly ever visits Calcutta where his extended family lives as his two brothers are settled in Delhi and Hyderabad.

Ask him about his current assignment at the Ministry of Defence and he says: “It’s just a job’’.

But the thought of turning full-time writer hasn’t crossed his mind. He manages his time well between his two lives. He’s an early riser and ensures that he writes ‘something’ — even if it’s a sentence — before he leaves for work. He’s up at 5 am to put pen to paper, literally, as he hand-writes his novels — with a fountain pen.

Since he writes by hand, by time the novel is complete, it’s taken a lot of time. But it’s usually pretty close to the final version, he says.

Born in Patna, Chatterjee spent most of his growing years in Delhi, graduating from St Stephen’s College. He joined the Indian Administrative Services in 1983.

A few years into the job and he wrote English, August. Today, it’s gratifying to know that some consider it a cult novel. But he likes to point out that English, August got just as many bad reviews as good ones — like all his novels. “It had been called a terrible book, plotless and even filthy,’’ he says with an edge in his voice.

Being a writer, Chatterjee says, is like being a marathon runner: “You just practise everyday.” So, yes, of course, he’s working on another book — and what’s more, he might surprise you with “a happy book”. But, of course, you’ll have to wait another five years before you can get yourself a copy. 

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