HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksInterview: Gyan Chaturvedi, author, Alipura - “An honest writer will annoy the...

Interview: Gyan Chaturvedi, author, Alipura – “An honest writer will annoy the powers that be”

328pp, ₹599; Juggernaut Books

Hindi’s eminent satirist, Gyan Chaturvedi’s novels are bursting with irrepressible wit. His biting satire Baramasi (1999) is a fascinating portrait of a family, buffeted by odds, as well as of Bundelkhand in the late 1960s. It has just been translated into English as Alipura by Salim Yusufji, who earlier edited Ambedkar: The Attendant Details and co-edited Battling for India: A Citizen’s Reader with Githa Hariharan.

Bhopal-based Chaturvedi (69), also a well-known cardiologist and an internal medicine specialist, has his finger on the pulse of the people of his native region and Alipura has well-etched characters that are credible and close-to-life. It is the first of a thematic trilogy that includes Hum Na Marab (2014) and Svaang, published in April this year. Dr Chaturvedi, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2015, is also a popular columnist and has written scripts for film and television.

He is currently working on his next novel, Ek Tanashah ki Aatmakatha (The Autobiography of a Tyrant). In this email interview, translated by Yusufji, he talks about satire and the world of his dazzling novels.

How did you arrive at this story and its setting? Did you draw on your own experiences of growing up in Jhansi?

As it happens, I didn’t grow up in Jhansi, but all over MP. My father was a doctor who worked for the state government. Thanks to the job and, it has to be said, his disposition, we never lasted very long in one place. Cliques and camps would start forming almost before we arrived, such was his reputation. He was a stiff-backed man, high-handed, irascible. There used to be few doctors in the countryside back then, sometimes just one doctor shared between 30 villages, so the doctor was a person of some note. My father had very decided ideas about his status and the respect he was owed by patwaris, tehsildars and local officials. Despite being an excellent doctor he would stir up awful rows, and at times even hit his patients. He had a polarising effect wherever he was sent and seemed to thrive on keeping things volatile, playing factions against one another. Within months of our arrival at a place, a tent would go up in front of our house with a bunch of villagers waving black flags at us. Growing up, I became accustomed to the sight. I thought this was normal, that it went with my father’s job.

Every few months, it was a new school, a new village, a new culture, as we travelled across Madhya Pradesh. There weren’t more than one or two instances where I started and finished my school year at the same place. Some of these villages bordered Bundelkhand. Also, we visited my grandparents at Mauranipur during the summer holidays, and travelled there for weddings in the family. At other times, our relatives would come and stay with us. As a boy, I began to soak in this Bundelkhandi ambience. Not by conscious effort, it came quite naturally to me. My two brothers didn’t share this interest. All three of us became doctors, but I was the one who always had an ear cocked to what people were saying and how they said it and what they meant. I wanted to make sense of it all. This turned me into an observer, whether of people chatting by the roadside, sitting on the railing of a bridge, at weddings, public gatherings.

The Bundelkhand you see in my work is not intended as a caricature. At Kolaras, which is between Shivpuri and Guna — not Bundelkhand exactly — where we stayed quite long, close by was Sabalgarh, from where came many tales of dacoits. I remember when the dacoit Amritlal was gunned down by the police. He had been a wanted man for 25 years or so, and the police finally got him via his brother. They brought back Amritlal’s body trussed to a charpoy and it was displayed to the public at Kolaras. He was a legend in those parts. Stories were told of his generosity to the poor. So, one way or another, everything does derive from my experience of living in these places, going for films at the local talkies, visiting the haats and bazaars, swimming in the stepwells, baavdis, where my brothers and I were eventually diving in from the very top. All this comes to hand when I write. While I don’t model my characters on specific people, two or three persons that I have known can sometimes fuse into a single character.

In Baramasi, now Alipura, the bare bones of the setting are taken from life. I had an aunt who was widowed young, upon her husband’s suicide. She raised her children with the same dogged optimism that the character of Amma displays in the novel. I used to wonder how my aunt could bring herself to view every crisis and failure (and she saw many) as a temporary setback — how and why she went on doing this — till I came to understand that it was actually heroic of her. She lived for her dreams, her faith in them was unshakeable. They helped her to weather adversity, disappointment, and allowed her to live for years in happy anticipation, resolutely upbeat. When something went wrong, she would shift her focus to the next hope on the horizon. In the novel, you see this outlook. Amma’s sons turn out serially and spectacularly disappointing, but she doesn’t lose heart. She deludes herself about her children, makes absurd excuses for them. Can you fault that? What would having a more realistic outlook have done for her? Would it have been wiser to succumb to hopelessness? The house the Dube family inhabits in the novel resembles my ancestral home which contained a well and enclosed a temple. That memory, again, made its way into the novel.

When Baramasi came out, it marked a shift in focus within the genre of satire from the political to the domestic. In a way, you gave a new dimension to the writing of satire in Hindi by dwelling on the emotional tensions and conflicts of middle-class lives of Bundelkhand. What triggered this shift in focus?

My first novel, Narak Yatra, attacked the medical system in this country. This was the prevailing norm among satirists: you wrote against the system, exposed it. Back in the day, satire meant Harishankar Parsai and Parsai was understood to mean political concerns. His stories and columns were about public themes, democratic politics, Nehru’s doings and misdoings. A whole generation grew up under his influence – at their most adventurous, these writers would take on some great social evil. Satirists were regarded, indeed saw themselves, as destroyers of hypocrisy, dismantlers of tradition. This was out of all proportion to the impact of their work. What was its impact? Did anything change?

It got to be a bit like play acting, where those in power would flatter satirists, say their work was shattering, and writers would bask in their praise. It reminds me of a game my granddaughter and I used to play when she was little. She’d punch me repeatedly and enjoyed watching her nana in great fright and agony before he collapsed. The toddler felt mighty for a moment, everyone would applaud, and we’d return to business as usual.

All that a book can do — even a book of religion, God’s revelations — is show you a way of looking at life. We make large claims for this writer or that prophet, but what they do is inform our outlook. The essentials of life, its terms, don’t shift very much. Our appreciation can be enriched, and that’s where books help. Discrepancies exist not just in great impersonal systems but within personal life and behaviour, in relationships — between siblings, mother and child, and in marriage. Why shouldn’t these clashes, these incompatible beliefs be taken up by a satirist? When satire fails to address personal and emotional life, the world of feelings, it betrays a limitation not in the form but the writer, the writer’s lack of sensitivity to life.

I realised that the scope of satire had to be enlarged. My work, writing, satire — whatever you wish to call it — can try to show people a way of understanding themselves a little better; it can’t do much more than that. I can hope the reader finds his or her understanding enlarged by examining life through the book’s lens.

The delusion that satirists are world-changing figures has had a long run. Social change is a drawn-out process, not beholden to words of lightning from satirists. I wouldn’t know about satire in general, but in Hindi I made the break from overtly political themes to personal life.

The novel is essentially a tragedy. It is about the shattered dreams of ordinary people and shows how things keep falling apart for the Dube family — comprising a widowed matriarch, her four sons, and daughter Binnoo — even though they keep hoping for a better life, a better future. Is the novel’s inherent tragedy a nod to how life unravels in reality; that, for the middle-class family battling against odds, things change only for the worse?

You’re asking if my view of life is pessimistic. A writer’s outlook shows in his writing and I won’t quarrel with any reader who thinks this of me. But I certainly don’t think of life as an unrelieved tragedy for the middle class or anyone else. Occasions for joy and sorrow arrive in every life. They can take different forms for the poor and the middle class, but the emotions are the same. Someone experiencing deep satisfaction after a filling meal is content for now. We may call this a fleeting sensation, but so are the more expensive kinds of fulfilment.

I think it was Mahavir Swami who said that life is, at its root, a series of setbacks and suffering. The delights of life, its rewards, the achievements that come our way, all prove transient — to see them pass and fade away is certainly a kind of sorrow. The only enduring joy, says religion, is in God. This is in the Vedas — I couldn’t name the four if you asked me to, but they do say that life is the quest for joy (anand) in whatever we do. Eating a rasgulla or being in love is a momentary glimpse of the eternal joy that comes with God, we’re told. When I write, when you interview me, we seek a point of arrival, satisfaction from what we’re doing. This holds for everyone without exception — politicians, labourers, wicked people out to harm others. You couldn’t see a project through if it didn’t promise you happiness. The happiness won’t last, it’s true, but knowing this doesn’t stop us from feeling happy or sad again.

Coming to this novel, we see a woman who hopes against the odds, against reason, for happiness. The anticipation is a joy to her. It is the story of that chase, with its many stations of sorrow. The reader can see that her quest is doomed, but she doesn’t. In this sense, the sorrow is yours, not hers. She keeps her spirits up quite well. I consider it a tragicomic situation, and the rest of the story, too. Life gets worse and makes you laugh harder, sometimes at how it gets worse all the time and yet optimism survives. As a doctor, I often see old and infirm patients who can do very little for themselves, are more or less restricted to their beds and have been for years, who can’t take themselves to the toilet or clean themselves afterwards, but they’ll say to me, ‘Don’t let me die, will you?’ Whatever their religious books promised them — liberation, rebirth, blissful union with God — they would rather stay alive here, discomforts and all, thank you very much! Is this tragic, absurd, hopeless, delusive, inspiring, heroic? It’s human and complicated for sure — a truth concerning our lives. You may close in on the view and see it in terms of individuals, microcosms, tiny drops, but a droplet is not apart from the ocean, it shares the same composition. If you’d like to keep things simple, I agree with the view that every life ends on a tragic note.

Alipura is a testament to the power of wit, sarcasm and dark humour, as much as it is to the power of storytelling. Your writing is immersive and multi-sensory; there is a cinematic quality to the way you tell the story. There are also references to popular culture — cinema and songs. Did you consciously work to achieve a visual vocabulary, the specific tone and texture?

I’ve read widely and that has to have played a part. My reading is in Hindi, translations into Hindi, and books in English — not just what the critics call literary writing but popular stuff. These distinctions don’t matter when you are a writer. If you see something done well, you want to see how it was done. It becomes a creative kind of reading.

I’m a student of suspense and its techniques, a longstanding fan of detective fiction. Agatha Christie and Ibn-e-Safi, I’ve read all their books, and other writers, up (or down, if you will) to James Hadley Chase. I used to own a hoard of detective fiction, which eventually had to be cleared away because there wasn’t enough room. How to ration information in a way that seems unforced and keeps the reader engaged, eager to learn more, turning the pages, this strikes me as a great and worthwhile skill. Poetry is another inspiration, for getting the most out of words, planting indelible images in the reader’s mind, using the unsaid, getting the reader to feel a certain emotion as though spontaneously, make connections that are not stated.

Books on cinema and filmmaking have been another abiding interest. I’ve written film scripts — including for Narak Yatra — and that is a great discipline. It teaches you to reach for vividness, immediacy, where the dialogue must bear the weight of the story and you don’t get to comment from behind the action. I would like to make a film some day. I love the medium in all its forms: what was called parallel cinema, art house and experimental films, big commercial potboilers, and the short films that are proliferating today.

If my style keeps the reader interested it may be because I’m interested in many things. My love of storytelling goes back to childhood. If I had to credit just one person that would be my mother, who told me the first stories, told them well, and was always interested in listening too. Another person with qissagoi in his system was Chheetarmal. I’ve written about Chheetarmal sahib in several articles. He was a chapraasi (peon) in my father’s office, one of those people who get strung along for years by the government, kept in an ad hoc position without ever being made permanent. He was a marvellous storyteller and would gather us on the veranda in the evenings — the audience included my mother — and launch into his tales. This was at Kolaras, which I mentioned earlier. Chheetarmal sahib and my mother were my first gurus in storytelling. Then came the detective writers. In Class 11, by which time we had lost my father and our finances were tight, I would visit the bookshops of Bhopal, where I’d buy one Ibn-e-Safi novel and pinch another three. I remember that the covers gave equal prominence to Ibn-e-Safi’s translator into Hindi: ‘Ibn-e-Safi, BA’ was directly followed by ‘Anuvadak: Prem Prakash’. These novels appeared at the rate of one a month, and readers could hardly bear the wait for the next title. In Hindi, there was also Om Prakash Sharma who wrote detective fiction, and Ved Prakash Kamboj. Later, I read Surender Mohan Pathak.

My good friend, Swadesh Deepak, who wrote in Hindi and taught English literature, used to say that storytelling is the art of revealing something hidden in your fist, doing it in the most tantalising way you can. Show people tiny glimpses and let their minds work on what they have seen. You’ll have them eating out of your hand. You need to make sure that what emerges is worth the wait. He wrote a wonderful memoir, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. Then he left home one day for a walk and never returned.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a cornerstone of my reading, and all of Chekhov. Gogol and Tolstoy are a huge influence, as much as Premchand’s stories. Phanishwar Nath Renu’s novels, especially Maila Aanchal and Parti Parikatha, and Amrita Nagar’s extraordinary novels — all this is part of my makeup. Not a deliberate accumulation, and there’s no neat way of accounting for it, but I have no doubt of the creative influence. Inspiration is miraculous. It grips you, enters your work without your being aware of it. In classes 9 and 10, I made a good friend, Lakhan Pandey, who was full of beans all the time, the sort of character who, in Bundelkhand, would be called a real haraami — and my goodness, could he talk! He remains a good friend even today, and still has the ability to absorb you wholly in what he’s saying. The most ordinary happening gathers flavour in his words and becomes mesmerising. He is as important an influence as my reading.

Along with Harishankar Parsai, Sharad Joshi and Shrilal Shukl, you are among the top satirists Hindi literature has produced. You initially wrote poetry and even mystery novels under a pseudonym, as you mentioned in an interview, when you were in Class 11. What drew you to satire and how has it changed you as a writer? Urdu literature has a great tradition of satire — from Patras Bokhari and Krishan Chander to Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi and Mujtaba Husain. Did you turn to them, too, before you found satire as your bailiwick?

Only the singularly fortunate can start out in life knowing what they are meant to do; people like me go for one thing, then another, imagining we can do anything that draws our interest. It took me quite long to discover a form and style that suited me. My grandfather and uncle were both fine poets. Going through their manuscripts as a boy I thought here was my field. I started writing in the manner of my grandfather, in a pastiche of his voice from the 1930s and ’40s. He had composed an extended work in 10-line stanzas, on Raja Hardaul. He was a ruler of Orchha, remembered for his uprightness. He drank poison and killed himself when he was wrongly suspected of nursing a passion for his brother’s wife. I lifted the content of my nana’s Hardaul Charitra and transposed it into the khadi boli I had picked up at school, from the poems of Maithili Sharan Gupt. My Hardaul Charitra is somewhere among my possessions even today, written out in an exercise copy from school.

The detective writing was another trial fitting. I produced two of these novels as a teenager, substantial works – one ran to 400 pages – both now lost to me. Not only did I write them under pseudonyms I wasn’t paid either, a ghostwriter in more than one sense.

Urdu writing first introduced me to satire. The newspapers and magazines those days carried a lot of work by writers in Urdu. There was Surjit who transliterated Urdu into Devanagari: from Patras Bukhari, Shaukat Thanvi, and if I remember right, even Ibn-e-Insha. Not just articles, he did whole novels by Shaukat Thanvi. They were published by Hind Pocket Books and I’d buy all I could. In fact, I didn’t discover Parsai till class 11. He, Sharad Joshi and the other Hindi writers were not easy to come by; a column in Dharmyug, called Baithe Dhaale, introduced me to their work. Otherwise, the bus stands of the little qasbas where I grew up used to stock Urdu writers in the Hindi script. Prakash Pandit was a prolific transcriber from Urdu to Devanagari, and he covered all the major poets. The Hind Pocket Book editions were my introduction to Ghalib, Shamsi Minai, Mir. I may not have taken in much but I read quite a lot from these poets.

My early training as a reader of satire was with writers of Urdu, and it’s never left me. You mentioned Mushtaqji, I wrote the introduction to two of his books when they were published in Hindi. He’s a stunning writer, unbeatable for his wordplay, which he could sustain across a novel. Khakam-ba-dahan was published in Hindi as Mere Moonh mein Khaak, Aab-e-gum as Khoya Paani; then there was Dhan Yatra, based on his experiences as a banker. And there was Mujtaba Hussain. You didn’t mention Fikr Taunsvi. Apart from his books he wrote a column, a daily column that ran for years in an Urdu newspaper. Urdu satire has a lot to teach us about finesse, measured phrasing, gentle fun, the loaded understatement and the well-judged kick. It is foundational to my writing, perhaps the strongest part of my base, and there’s also Marathi and Gujarati satire.

A scene from Bundelkhand, where much of Gyan Chaturvedi’s work is set. (Shutterstock)
A scene from Bundelkhand, where much of Gyan Chaturvedi’s work is set. (Shutterstock)

Where I failed to get very far is with American humour. I get the English writers better, and theirs is a vast tradition covering every walk of life. I started at the usual place, with Jerome K. Jerome, and remain a Wodehouse man. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything by him; all his books are here with me. He was a real creator, that whole world and its preoccupations emerged solely from his mind. There are also the novels of Richard Gordon, with their medical setting: Doctor in the House, Doctor at Large, and so on. I may have missed some of his later titles, but I followed them for years and they are tremendous fun.

Humour and satire have become goonge ka gur to me, a source of private, indescribable pleasure. Writing that doesn’t tire but fills you with joy is your vidha, your true form, your own art and style. When I get up from a four-hour session of working on a novel or a shorter satirical composition, I don’t feel tired but full of energy. If it leaves me feeling recharged, it must mean this form is right for me.

Sometimes actors refuse to exchange the stage for the film world. They do it because they know where they belong. We can laugh at them, but as they see it, the fame and money they’d get from working in films is beside the point.

Satirists and humorists lament that these are difficult times for them since today every form of dissent earns one the label of an ‘anti-national’. Do you agree? In your writings these days, do you ever have to censor yourself, mindful of the political consequences/right-wing backlash?

This is an important question, about the right wing and its repression. I’d like to go further back in time because I’ve witnessed this kind of power play over a long period. We forget how long this has been going on, how Rahi Masoom Raza was attacked for his Aadha Gaon. I remember when people went to Parsai’s house to beat him with sticks, after he had written something expressing disagreement with the RSS. He was saved and it didn’t get too serious, but people had gone with the intention of beating him up. I’ve seen friends suspended from work and given a hard time because of something they wrote.

My own belief is that a writer must stand against hegemony of any kind, political, religious, patriarchal, brahminical — and an honest writer will annoy the powers that be, from the very top down to local toughs and hoods who know how to use the system to establish their private fiefdoms. If you are writing honestly, whether with a social, political or personal concern, you will not flinch from expressing dissent and will expect a reaction. People drunk on power are a grave threat to those who disagree with them, and this isn’t a recent development. All that’s new is that social media and trolling have made the reaction more prompt, widespread and overwhelming.

Right-wing politics is on an upsurge today, but was it very different under a left-wing hegemony? Those of us who read the Russians know about the regime of censorship, gulags, show-trials — in a state grown so cynical that no one, from citizen to government, would trust an official statement. How did a great experiment like the USSR fail? How did it turn against its ideals of equality, dignity for all? There’s a universal lesson about power in this.

When power becomes the sole arbiter of public affairs, of order and civic life, dissent is in for rough treatment, no matter which camp is in power. I don’t mean to downplay the right wing’s violence or to attack the left. I wrote a short piece some months back, Maar diye jaoge, bhaisaab — you’ll get yourself killed, yaar. Watch out. Have a care. Why write this now? Must you? Be ready to face the music. It is a string of refrains. It’s as if they have taken over the atmosphere, as if the breeze and the trees were whispering these words, joined by the pages of newspapers, and an anxious voice within each one of us.

There are many ways you can get yourself killed, not just by physical violence. You can be shut out, made irrelevant. You can also do it to yourself by caving in. How can you be a humorist or satirist if you let these fears dictate your work? You become ridiculous, a sheep dressed up as a tiger. You’re no satirist if you won’t stand up for the dignity of your occupation. How can satire arise if you’re in agreement with the powerful? You mustn’t be cowed by anyone or compromise yourself by being a camp follower.

I’ve been able to publish some sharp pieces in my columns. Sometimes they go through without any fuss. Other times, they are accepted with visible trepidation. A few were returned to me, or whoever had commissioned them got cold feet and directed me to another publication. Or simply never got back to me. Kabir has a line, ‘Reduce your house to ashes if you want to join me.’ And there’s another, to the effect that you need to cut off your head and carry it on your palm, if you want to be Kabir. Appreciate that you stand condemned, long before the fact. Know that you’ve become a corpse to all intents and purposes.

You have to be willing to suffer if you mean to write honestly. This is not a new state of affairs. It was so in the days of the kings. You could be a court poet, get rewards and recognition, or you didn’t set store by worldly success and spoke your mind as an artist of the streets and lanes. You took the risk of persecution and of being soon forgotten, because your art called for it. Freedom of expression demands risk-taking. Poetry demands it, or the form wouldn’t survive. It would be empty, like a glossy newspaper with nothing to tell. Just an advertorial of the raja’s doings, with some trivial entertainment thrown in.

I cannot be fearful as a writer, not because I am brave but because being a writer is that important to me. I know that lies will run out of stamina before long. They can never turn into the truth, and what is wrong will not become right. It wasn’t right when DK Barooah said Indira is India, India is Indira; how can it become right for anyone else?. You weren’t anti-national in disagreeing with Barooah and you can’t be anti-national today for taking the same position with Modi. Modi and India are not interchangeable, the distinction is obvious and important to uphold. Another cunning move is to equate any criticism of the government with sedition. That’s the nature of power, always heartless and manipulative.

Whatever I write expresses dissent against the monopoly of power — in the life of the family, society, religion and state. It is always at the back of my mind that this or that choice could land me in trouble. These risks are unavoidable. Writing my early novels I was aware that I would be blamed for sullying the purity of Hindi literature with my choice of language. But my stories demanded it. No establishment tolerates dissent easily, and never has done. Equally, dissent doesn’t vanish, and never will.

If Kabir risked violence in the streets every day — and I can easily imagine it — why should I not take heart from that? We know that the priests and their mobs were frightened of Kabir. We see that fright in the state’s violence today. Should we be frightened of those who are so frightened? When people in power grow fearful it shows as noise, the noise of propaganda, self-importance, religious noise, or slogans. But this bubble of noise is meant to ward off fear. Don’t mistake it for self-confidence.

I’m at work on my next novel, Ek Tanashah ki Aatmakatha — the autobiography of a tyrant — which is about the tyranny of love, whether love of country, of power, or indeed a tyrannical manner of loving others. Forgive me for going on so long, but your question is a complex one and I wanted to address it comprehensively.

Nawaid Anjum is an independent writer, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.

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