“I Have A Long Way To Go Before I Call Myself An Author”

Gopinath talks about the difficulties he faced while writing his first book of fiction, his next book and more.

What would you do if you anonymously received a book that had answers to all the world’s problems?

This is easy. I would put it up for sale on eBay.

Seriously, though, one of the running themes in The Book of Answers is whether there are any quick fixes to all the monstrous inequities we live with, in India and the world. From the coddling of the super-rich in America and damning of the poor, to our government’s war on those who want to end corruption — are any of these fixed quickly? If I really received a book like my hero Patros receives, I would do what he did. Sell it to an old newspaper mart.

How difficult was the transition from writing a travelogue, Travels With A Fish, to a work of fiction “The Book Of Answers”?

A bit like what childbirth must seem to a child. I felt unprepared, twisted and pummelled, forced forward by forces I could not negotiate with — and eventually emerged into a thoroughly unfamiliar landscape. I do not feel anywhere close to having achieved authorship with this first novel. It’s like this had to be gotten out of the way so that I can now begin to really learn the craft of story telling. When I read masters like Nabokov, John Gardener and John le Carré, then I feel like a yokel, too straightforward, too naive, unable to tell the story without being seen myself.

By the way, if you’ve read Travels with the Fish, you’d know that telling the truth has large elements of fiction woven through it, and that’s a great part of the fun. It is what happened as you saw it, and we all know that our own stories are constantly changing, being embellished, long after the event. In Travels, I created the Fish, a skeptical armchair traveler, to call my bluff every time my storytelling got too fanciful.

How did the idea for the book come about?

The idea has existed as a single sentence for about two decades. I am fascinated by the hidden potential of mediocrity, the extraordinariness of ordinary people. All my fancies include someone who lives a blinkered life being forced to confront unimaginable, inexplicable, extraordinary realities. In this case, the book emerged only because Nathan Bransford, a 23-year-old literary agent with America’s largest literary agency, Curtis Brown Ltd, read a chapter from Fish, and convinced me that I should try my hand at fiction. I resisted, but he kept up his gentle persuasion.

What difficulties did you face in writing fiction after years of reporting facts as journalist?

I once had an editor who would tell his reporters, When you have all the facts, come to me, and I’ll tell you the truth. You start off journalism believing in the independence of truth but as you age in the profession, you realize that not only does everyone have their own truths,. They also have their own facts. So in a sense, journalism is the skill of being honestly subjective — that’s how I used to encourage writers in my agency to see it.

In writing what you are calling ‘fiction’, I discovered the opposite. I found nearly impossible to make things up. Whatever I described — a person, a scene, a fragrance, a vignette — I had to pull it out of my head. I referred to the ‘facts’ of my life, and they became the fiction of The Book of Answers. What happened in addition was the facts got churned about and reconfigured into new truths in the book. Characters are melanges, scenes are collages of my own life’s scenes. So in a sense, fiction is journalism and journalism is fiction.

I should mention that there were moments — usually when I was out walking in the evening — when the story and its characters would begin to March in my head, almost deciding what they should do next. Sometimes, a scene, a conversation, an event would emerge that felt thoroughly unfamiliar. I knew with stunning certainty that I had never seen or experienced this before. Those were moments when I actually created pure fiction, related to nothing in my life. It’s nearly mystical when that happens.

Tell us about the transition from being a journalist to an author. What difficulties, if any, did you face?

There’s an assumption here that is probably not true, that you’re one or the other, that you cannot be both. I actually stopped thinking of myself as a journalist long ago, around the time when the Times of India began its systematic destruction of meaningful writing, and allowed marketing to run editorial. I felt ashamed to belong to that profession, and fortunately the direction my work was taking called for a higher order of communication.

In brief, I’d say I have not transitioned from one to the other. I was no longer a journalist when I began writing The Book of Answers. Now that I’ve written it, I realize that I have a long way to go before I can look at myself in the mirror and say, “Author!”

What will never leave me are my journalistic habits — the search for authentic detail, the observational powers, the digging for deeper realities, the sensing of hidden patterns. These are wonderful things I still have from my journalism.

What life experiences have you drawn upon to write this book?

The Book of Answers draws ha lot on my immersion in the business of changing lives for the better, a concept I thoroughly disagree with. I have worked with international and national NGOs and other organizations, for whom social change is a highly political and heavily funded business, and I have also worked closely with very poor communities, the ‘targets’ or ‘victims’ of donor-funded attempts to improve their lives. I’m not saying that there is no benefit, or many now live lives of less pain and greater fulfilment — but also, there is huge unaccountability for the unintended damage done when western precepts and agendas are thrust on very different cultures. I have seen patronization, experienced at first the illusions of nobility that come when you think you’re helping give people a better life. And many of these insights played into the character of Patros Patranobis.

To my surprise, I found parallel threads of unintended satire and parody also creeping in. I never expected that the book would turn out to such a sharp indictment of India as it is today — as an allegory of tyhe world as it is today. Patros, who doesn’t feel he has any right to change others, realizes that if he doesn’t do something for the better, someone else more powerful will certainly do something for the worse.

You are a journalist, an author, a traveller, a film director and a musician. Which persona do you relate to the most and why?

These are convenient categories when writing a CV because people like things that are neatly boxed. I find it impossible to separate myself in this way. All the things I do come from one core, and I suspect that that is a very inquisitive, kind-hearted, life-loving core. Still finding out what it is. The moments I most enjoy, to be truthful, are when I am cooking, and when I am writing.

Are you working on any idea for your next book? If yes, please tell us about it.

Yes, I am. The book is called Balman the Maltruist, and ‘maltruism’ is my neologism for ‘great unintended harm caused by someone trying to do good to others’. It is the logical next book for me. It tells the story of an Indian trying to redeem himself in Kenya by helping out donors who are spending money improving the lives of Luo tribals. Everyone has an agenda, including the Luos, and Balman is the man in the middle, with his own ghosts and angels. In literary terms, I have chosen a challenging structure, with two voices — there is Balman hismelf telling the story of his attempts at making things better; and there is a young Luo man, called King, through whose words we see both Luos and Balman in a dramatically different way. In the end, all the efforts at good lead to a tragedy that befalls a Luo child. It is the moment when Balman, watching helplessly, realizes who he is, and what he has done. And can either walk away or redeem himself.

Balman, by the way, is actually Jaikrit Barman, a Bengali. The Luos pronounce his name as Balman. They have trouble with the sound ‘r’.

Will you ever write an autobiography? If yes, when, if not, why not?

I’m smiling at this question. My pen looks at the world through my eyes. It is incapable at looking at itself. Besides, I don’t know my own punchline.

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