Storytelling, conversation and more with author Kunal Basu

In conversation with author Kunal Basu, Nitika Bajpayee finds out what it takes to be a multi-faceted writer…

Author Kunal Basu

Author Kunal Basu

Stories are often born unexpectedly in unlikely places, believes Kunal Basu, the author of much-acclaimed books The Japanese Wife, Racists, The Miniaturist and The Opium Clerk. Basu looks back at the time when being an author was his cherished dream. Believing that he is a commoner, he set out to pen down extraordinary lives of ordinary people. Not many would know that Basu started writing and publishing in Bangla first during his college years, and later switched to English. Poetry is something that came to him in the beginning and stories and novels followed. We poked him to divulge details about the journey of being a writer, to which he said, “I had always known that writing was the only thing that mattered to me. In fact, I can’t remember a time when writing was far from my mind. Life’s challenges though, had held me back for some years before I could begin full-fledged work on my books. I never wanted to be a Sunday writer, someone for whom writing is just a hobby. I wanted it to be my lifeblood. There is no sensation comparable to holding the first copy of my new book in my hand – which inspires me to keep writing.”

Love for the written word

Raised by a publisher father and an author mother in a bookish household in Kolkata, Basu was a precocious child, who eavesdropped regularly into their conversations on art, poetry, politics and literature. Sharing the anecdotes on his family, Basu quips, “Writing, art and drama were my early passions, but like many middle- -class Indians of my vintage, I was waylaid into studying science in school and engineering at university, neither of which held any excitement for me.” Despite being raised in a family of literature lovers, Basu flew to the US to do masters in engineering. Talking about his education, Basu says, “Simply because I was a good student and had won a scholarship, I saw it as a free trip to see the world. More serious considerations finally took me to doctoral studies in management. Being a professor would be the least disruptive of my passion for writing, I reckoned, and it has been the working model for my life thus far.” Authors take stories from life and Basu is no different. His book The Japanese Wife is inspired from a story of an elderly Bengali man whom Basu met more than two decades ago, while he was traveling through a village. Sharing the tale, Basu said, “I knew nothing about the circumstances of their marriage, but this single unusual incident had stayed in my mind and came out as The Japanese Wife.” Many don’t know that Basu had actually started to research and write ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Cure’ much before ‘The Japanese Wife’ was actually published and the film was released. Explaining how he managed to switch from one book to the other, Basu says, “I had completed my passage from one book to the other, and hence wasn’t particularly distracted.”

Tracing ethnicities

The story of Basu’s book The Yellow Emperor’s Cure came up while he was strolling in a museum of traditional Chinese medicine in Beijing. Talking about his tryst in Beijing, Basu Kunal Basu is the author of The Japanese Wife, which is also made into a film by Bengali filmmaker Aparna Sen 5 books of all times: • The Mahabharata • Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky) • Scarlet and Black (Stendhal) • Love in the Times of Cholera (Marquez) • Waiting for the Barbarians (J M Coetzee) says, “As an inveterate traveller, my stories are often born through daydreaming. Penning down this book took me about a year to research the three dominant aspects of the novel – the history of syphilis, Chinese medicine, and the Boxer rebellion. But researching the details of specific scenes happened alongside the writing, and stretched over two years.” Visualising characters is an important part of writing a book. For Basu, it is important to catch a glimpse of prime characters, while the plot is still unfolding. When asked if Basu actually was able to see his characters live, he said, “Fortunately, I was able to ‘see’ a young Portuguese doctor in my mind’s eye as I strolled in the Beijing museum. I saw him inside a pavilion of the Summer Place taking lessons from a Chinese woman, his teacher, who would in time become his lover. Researching the period and the key themes lent substance to these characters later on, but their initial impressions served as significant starting points.” As a literature lover and film buff, Basu has too many favourites to name. He is an ardent fan of Dostoevsky (along with the other great Russian authors), Dickens, Zola and Stendhal, Bankimchandra and Rabindranath Tagore, as well as modern day masters such as Marquez and Coetzee. “I am fond of films by Bergman, Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel, and many more,” he said adding, “Photography, documenting and collecting traditional crafts such as masks, wood carvings, handloom weaving, terracotta and metal sculptures from many parts of the world count as serious pastimes that have survived many decades of my life.”

Spreading wings

When asked who is the real Kunal, a writer, a philosopher, just a common man with common ideas, Basu said, “I am is still searching for the real Kunal, but he’s most likely to be an author given that I spend a great many of my waking hours at my desk, writing.” It is interesting to know that Basu lives in the world of his stories, and immerse himself completely once he starts working on a novel: eat what his characters would’ve eaten, listen to their music, travel to places they’d have lived in – enter their skin and become one of them. “Once a novel is finished, I make my getaway quickly to enter yet another world, for the story that I’d be writing next. While no grand philosophy drives my writing, the common ingredient that’s hard to miss is compassion for the lives of common people,” he says. For Basu, it isn’t important to name or define this quest as ‘spiritualism’, except that it stands outside his known world, and gives him deep joy in its contemplation.

Talking about spirituality, he said, “I have a deep excitement for the unknowable. It informs my sensibilities towards daily events. And I still draw my inspiration from the great ancients – Eastern and Occidental.”Lhasa, Bali and Yogyakarta in Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia, Samarkand, Morocco, Fatehpur Sikri, Cappadocia in Turkey, and South Africa are some of Basu’s favourite destinations. There are many more yet unvisited such as, San Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, Iran, Myanmar, the Hindukush, and Lahore. Now that Basu is out with his latest book, he is not in a mood to pause. He is writing a novel set in contemporary Kolkata. “This will be a departure for me, after four historical novels. It also means turning my pen towards the city I had grown up in and discovering the strange among the familiar,” he concludes with a message for our readers. “Your indulgence alone makes it possible for authors to create their imaginary worlds, having us travel to destinations far and beyond,” Basu signs off.


Kochi-Muziris Biennale: An Against All Odds Story

Kochi-Muziris Biennale: An Against All Odds Story

From outside, the room has the look of a quaint old attic and not that of a new-age art gallery. Enter its small interiors, and a pleasantly heady smell of the spices gives a welcome pierce to your nose.

For a couple of seconds, the visitor may forget that the venue is that of a contemporary art show — leave alone its historical slant and momentous significance. Well, this is only just one of the several novelties at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale — India’s first in the 118-year-long world history of such an exhibition defined by big-size works of art in vast and open spaces. Basically, the artist at the olfactory-centric work in the ongoing show has installed a “spice speaker sound system”. Dylan Martorell’s intelligent and interesting installation uses the frequencies of sub-bass to generate specific clouds of mixed spice. The Scottish artist who lives in Australia has built his work seasoned with a local masala that includes fenugreek, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon.
“Ah, never knew pungency (in any smell) can be this fascinating,” shrugs Briton Michelangelo Bendandi of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), after coming out of the young Martorell’s section at Fort Kochi’s Aspinwall House, the main venue of the pioneering three-month festival that is slated to conclude on this March 13 — weathering many a hurdle. Such is the sylvan nature of the sprawling heritage building that is Aspinwall by the seaside that the visit might naturally think of Kerala’s spices — something that has given the country’s slender southern strip a global flavour for long. Even so, the biennale is definitely much beyond being a refreshing celebration of its commercial glory of the yore. In fact, it is more about the state’s contemporary artistic contributions, even while taking a peek at its rich heritage and striving for a grand link between the two points in time.

That is clear from the very name of the latest edition to the biennale editions on the planet. For the first time, two places are hosting the same extravaganza that is meant to be held every second year. As a fast-developing coastal metropolis in the developing world, Kochi should be a familiar word for globe-trotters, but what exactly is Muziris? Actually, Muziris — an Arabic-laced pronunciation of ‘Muchiri’ in local Malayalam language — used to be even more cosmopolitan than present-day Kochi. That, for almost one-and-a-half millennia, until a suspected tsunami washed away much of that port-city in 1341, leading to the formation of Kochi as a natural harbour some 30 km south of it.
The KBF brilliantly sought to connect Kerala’s update on art with its heritage backing to an epoch even Before Christ. Result was a splendid set of installations stemming from this historical perspective. A couple of such works of art sharing the same hall at the British-era Aspinwall House can best epitomise this pattern. The 162-year-old warehouse has septuagenarian celebrity Vivan Sundaram’s installation made of discarded pottery shards arranged adjacent to Subodh Gupta’s huge country-boat that is a metaphor for refugees’ travails following natural disasters. For, both are essentially portrayals against the backdrop of the loss of Muziris — traced to Kodungallur area in today’s Thrissur district.
Not surprisingly, even without alluding to Pepper House (another of the 14 venues hosting the biennale that began on 12/12/12), veteran artist Gulammohammed Sheikh of western India’s art city of Baroda in Gujarat state notes with a smirk: “Kochi has opened its ‘godowns’ to showcase many images of the region’s less-popular history.” That apart, contemporary art has an omnipresent quality at the biennale. As if to promote its ‘impulsive’ quality, the organisers are entertaining ‘unscheduled’ arts at the various venues. Martorell, 41, for instance, assembled discarded articles from the open in early 2013 and gave the scrap not only scrap shapes and colours, but even sounds that were unmistakably musical, much to the curiosity of a beach crowd that gathered impromptu after the New Year carnival in West Kochi.
Such free-spiritedness on the part of visiting artists and the organisers has led to the coming up on certain “unscheduled” frescoes and installations at the biennale. For instance, quite a few painters and students from within India and abroad came to the city as curious visitors at the biennale, but ended up doing a wall painting (even on the street fences) or installations in the open. An end-2012 brutal rape of a Delhi student, which evoked country-wide condemnation and invited international media attention, prompted the biennale artists to chip in their bit of protest. A huge painting of a screaming naked infant girl came up in two days. In fact, that is how the artist, P S Jalaja, happened to usher in the New Year in a sombre way even amid the festivity. Indeed, the biennale even staged certain classical theatre as part of its parallel performance-arts segment, but each show tuning well into the theme of Muziris heritage.
What’s more, the biennale has coincided with Kerala’s annual tourist season spanning from October to April, much to the boost of the state’s economy, the people’s happiness and the government’s benefit. Indeed, past experiences show that biennale cities of the world have shown making a giant leap forward in terms of monetary influx besides finding a new stamp on the international tourist map.
“The eventual result of our endeavour won’t be any different,” says KBF president Bose Krishnamachari, a co-curator of the biennale. “Only that we had to weather several hurdles from envious art coteries in the run-up to the show. We kept silent against them, and showed our final reply in the form of the wonderful public response that the bieinnale has invited.”

Adds co-curator Riyas Komu, also a Malayali artist like Mumbai-residing Krishnamachari: “The veterans in the field of visual art in Kerala couldn’t perhaps digest a young generation initiating a paradigm-altering event like the biennale. But then, we went on with what we had planned.” While cartoonist Bonny Thomas did a lot of research as a KBF trustee to ensure that some of the exhibits looked tailor-made against the Muziris background, editorial director Sabin Iqbal managed to even bring out a book titled Against All Odds narrating how the foundation sensed victory in its mission.

Sure, success tastes sweeter after bouts of challenges.

Points of Curiosity
1. Kochi-Muziris in India’s first biennale in 118 years of its world history.
2. Unlike the global norm, it is being held in two localities. One is Kochi, which a coastal central-Kerala city, and the ancient port-city of Muziris (near modern-day Kodungallur) which was lost in a flood (suspected tsunami) in 1341 AD (after which Kochi rose to prominence as a commercial centre).
3. India maybe having yet another uneasy time with its neighbour across the western front, but Kochi-Muiris Biennale has 3 artists from Pakistan — Bani Abidi (Karachi), Nalini Malini ( born in Pakistan but she is now settled in Mumbai), and Rashid Rana (Lahore)
4. There is a rhyme to the number of artists and their break-up: the biennale has a total of 88 artists, 44 of whom are Indians, of whom 22 are artistes with moorings in the local state of Kerala.
5. There is a ring, also to the dates of start and conclusion: Began on 12/12/12 and is ending on 13/03/13.
6. One of the artists, whose work figures in the festival, is dead. K P Krishnakumar, a firebrand Malayali, committed suicide on the day after Christmas in 1989.
7. Some of the participant artists are very young: in their early 20s.
8. The art works NOT for sale unlike at other biennales.
9. The Kochi-Muziris edition has a parallel performance-arts festival (featuring ethnic and indigenous classical forms of historical value).
10. Most of the galleries, unlike in the case of other biennales, are not state-of-the-art; instead renovated heritage buildings that retain a degree of roughness and old-world charm.