Altaf Tyrewala An interview by Sunil Deepak (29 April 2008)

It was January 2008. We were in the north Italian city of Turin for an event organised by an Italian literary foundation, Grinzane. I had asked Altaf Tyrewala for an interview and finally we got around doing it during a bus journey as we were going out for some lunch. Lavanya Shankaran, who was sitting behind us didn’t realise that it was an interview and I was recording it and she also joined Shashi Tharoor, Altaf Tyrewala - image by S. Deepakin the conversation. I was so happy since the discussion was very stimulating and I was imagining that my recorder is recording her voice as well. Unfortunately that was not the case I can only hear some of her words. I vaguely remember what she said but that is not enough to re-construct her part of dialogue and I regret that immensely. 

As we sat down in the bus and I was fumbling with my recorder, Altaf said that he hadn’t liked being presented as a “Muslim writer from India”. I agreed with him completely, I would hate to be called a “Hindu writer from India”. I had had some discussions with the organisers and I knew they did it to refute any charges of ignoring the writers from Indian minorities, but I guess that doesn’t make it any easier! 

Anyway, that is when the recording started and here is a transcript of that discussion. The symbols are AT for Altaf Tyrewala, LS for Lavanya Shankaran and SD for me, Sunil Deepak. 

AT: When outside they call me in this way it saddens me. It is not enough that in a nation a minority has to be made self-conscious, even outside the country they are ... they didn’t mention the religious background of any other writer. 

SD: OK, Altaf now I am recording. Tell me about the kind of things you like to read? 

AT: I like reading something that has been stripped to the bare essentials. I am almost incapable of enduring descriptions, etc. Anything that assumes that I don’t know ... I read the internet, I try to remain clued in to the world. What I like to read is something that I can not access as an information. 

SD: Have you read anything by Agota Kristof like her trilogy of city of K? When I read your book (No God in Sight), after the first chapter I had thought of Agota Kristof. She is Hungerian and lives in Switzerland. She is old now. She writes short books and her chapters are like your’s. Few lines, just bare essential. And yet, she can evoke strong feelings with her few words. 

AT: Considering that we are living in a wired world, half of my readings happen on internet so brevity is of extreme importance. Even in my day to day life, when I read books and magazines, I like things to be as concise and as essential as possible. Of course I understand that there is certain advantage in longivity as well, when some thing is dealt with in great depth, I am open to that also. 

SD: You don’t see that as a contradiction, wanting to be a writer and yet wishing to express yourself in as few words as possible? 

AT: (laughs) Yes, absolutely. I think that it is extremely damaging to my career. I won’t be able to churn out books every year. But this is something that I have to deal with as a writer, it is my challenge. This conflicting instinct in me, to speak and not to speak, these are two powerful impulses in me. To keep quiet because whatever has to be said, has already been said, and the other side, even while wishing to keep quiet, to find things to say. 

SD: Writing is a creative expression and there are different ways of expressing creativity. Did you have to choose from different things you wanted to do or was writing the only thing that you wanted to do? 

AT: I have always wondered what it would be like to be a painter or a musician, but writing is something that goes beyond creative expression. It has become a way of life. It is not like an outburst of creative energy. I think that it is almost like it moulds your way of living. I am not a writer just when I am writing, I am a writer 24 hours a day. That is how I have found myself becoming. 

SD: You have written one book that has been published but may be you have written lot of other books that have not been published or that are still in your head. How do you decide what you are going to write and how long that process takes to actually come to do it? 

AT: (laughs) The first novel came out organically. I had this impulse to write, a deep desire and need to write. I was trying to understand how the conventional form of a novel would do justice to the kind of society and I kind of reality I grew up in and I realised that it wouldn’t and I had to innovate a new form. Terrifying though it was to write in a way that I had never read anything before, create a kind of structure that I had never seen before. What was your question? How long does it take... there is no telling, it can take months. Like the second novel is taking me more than 2 years to actually kick off. With the first novel I found a groove and once you find a groove ... I used to get a story done every two weeks and that was immensely satisfying. But I think that this incubation period is important, you have to wait to not to get carried away by a wrong thing o a notion that turns out to be false later on. I am just being patient and waiting ... when it comes you know it from the tips of your fingers, it is absolutely ... 

SD: When we were getting in the bus, you said something about your wife. Did she know you as a writer or as a person before you became ...? 

AT: I was a poor graduate student in America when we met. We were studying together. She thinks that I completely misrepresented myself (laughs) because I turned out to be a writer. But because she has seen me before I was a writer, she is an immensely grounding presence in my life. It would have been so easy to float up in this writerly universe ..but she keeps on reminding me that don’t forget ... 

LS: That is very wise thing you are saying... sensible, to keep your feet on the ground is important that the spouse is not a writer otherwise ... writers are whackoos (laughs)... very difficult to have another writer in the house... 

AT: Or even an artist you know, it would be ... 

From left: Shashi Tharoor, Altaf Tyrewala, Prof. San Pietro, Lavanya Shankaran & Nirpal Singh Dhauliwal, Turin, January 2008

Shashi Tharoor, Altaf Tyrewala, Prof. San Pietro, Lavanya Shankaran & Nirpal Dhauliwal - image by S. DeepakSD: What does it mean “deciding to become a writer”? Perhaps it would be different for a woman, but for a young person to say “I have decided to be a writer”, how would the society react? I think that in Italy people let you live your life, perhaps your parents would say something but they can’t interfere with your decisions. But in India? 

AT: I guess I was sm.. I had enough foresight to know that if I wanted to be a writer I had better do it fast. I couldn’t do it when I was 30 or 35, when real life has completely taken over. I was twenty two when I decided that I wanted to be a writer and I left my job and started writing full time. At that age, I got certain degree of indulgence from my parents. It was like even if I screw up, let’s say by 25-26 I can go back to work. They were willing to allow me this kind of window of opportunity. If this book hadn’t done fairly well, I probably would have been still working, gotten back to a 9 to 5 job. Plus, I took a loan to write, I approached a bank for a loan. 

SD (laughs) And how was that? What was their reaction in the bank? 

AT: I didn’t tell them that it was for writing. I said that I was starting an e-learning business with internet and I need the money. I used that to write for 3-4 years, used it as my pocket money. I knew it was a matter of time. You have to know deep down what you want and you have to go after it. 

(Note: The discussions after this point had more interventions of Lavanya Shankaran but from here onwards quality of recording is not good, so I have excluded this part from the transcription. 

AT: What I meant was that I can never have single moment of obl.. of unconsciousness or not being analytical or not processing or not forcing myself to certain amount of insight on everything that I go through.. what comes first is the mad impulse to create and it is a mad energy that starts getting channeled and focused on the thin line of what it means to be a more mature writer. When I started writing, I realised that my initial stories were mainly about myself and my experience of the world. Only when I wrote story upon story, I realised that I was just a small aspect of this larger universe out there. And then it was up to me to place myself, to position myself in different circumstances in my head, fictionally, and to ask what if I was that or what if I was there and lend myself to different situations fictionally to understand what it would be like ... it was an exercise in some degree of compassion, to really feel what it is to be someone else. Not just think of what it would be to be someone else but to actually feel it.