Interview with Indra Sinha by Lindsay Pereira for rediff.com, August 22, 2007
Consider, if you will, a peculiar experiment. Pick an advertising agency; any agency. Walk to where the copywriters congregate, and gently whisper the name ‘Indra Sinha’. Then stand back and watch as feelings of inadequacy suddenly rush into the room.
There is a perfectly logical explanation for the reaction. For decades now, Sinha has been making copywriters around the world feel inadequate and inspired in turns. Being voted one of the top ten British copywriters of all time tends to give one that kind of power. Back in the sixties, Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners was known as Britain’s most influential advertising agency, home to big names including Sinha, Frank Lowe, David Puttnam, Alan Parker and Charles Saatchi.
What has made Sinha more interesting to non-advertising folk is a battle he has helped wage for over a decade now — his battle for victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Thirteen years ago, when Sinha decided to give up advertising for things he considered more important, his peers were in shock. What they didn’t know was that Sinha had been visited a year earlier by a man called Satyu Sarangi. The latter wanted his help to raise funds for a free medical clinic that could make life less painful for the thousands who survived the early hours of December 3, 1984. It was the night a Union Carbide pesticide factory released 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, killing 3,000 people immediately and eventually claiming around 22,000.
With the help of a now-iconic photograph of a child’s burial by Raghu Rai, Sinha created an advertisement for Bhopal Medical Appeal, kick-starting a movement that continues to serve thousands every year. Between 1996 and now, a clinic set up through charitable funds has helped 20,000 people. Sinha’s fight for justice in a country far from home — he currently lives in southern France with his wife of 30 years and three children — continues.
Earlier this month, the world at large was given a third reason to pay attention to Indra Sinha. Animal’s People, his second novel, made it to that spotlight-grabbing pedestal coveted by writers worldwide — the Man Booker long list, 2007.
Sinha’s writing career has been intriguing. He began with a translation (Kama Sutra) and followed it with an explanation of the Tantric tradition (Tantra: The Cult of Ecstasy), before winning acclaim with his rather frightening memoir on hours spent online in the early years of the Internet, The Cybergypsies. His first novel, The Death of Mr Love, was based on a real-life murder in his hometown, Mumbai.
Animal’s People is set in a town called Khaufpur which, interestingly, now has its own Web site that documents its alleged history, has its own matrimonial (featuring a certain 19-year- old called Jaanvar), and even lists current events (Dominique Lapierre, author of City of Joy, will apparently read from his new book at an upcoming open-air event)! Leaving aside the Web site though, what makes the novel compelling is the Bhopal disaster that resonates through its pages, as the protagonist — called, simply, ‘Animal’ — shares his tale with an unnamed journalist, or ‘jarnaliss’.
Whether Sinha wins the Booker or not is irrelevant. What is, is that his fiction will finally get the recognition it has long deserved. When that happens, maybe a lot more people will weigh in on his side of the fight against a big, bad, real-life company.
While your adult life has been rather well documented, little is known of your childhood, except that a large part was spent in Mumbai.
A lot of my childhood, including several happy years running wild in the Western ghats near Lonavla, found its way into my first novel, The Death of Mr Love. Mumbai is my home town. I was born in Colaba, grew up with Guru Dutt movies, pani puri at Chowpatty, Cathedral School, the 132 bus, and Cuffe Parade. I love the city and always have a wonderful feeling of homecoming when I step off a plane into that unique Mumbai tang of fish, smoke and taxi exhaust.
Your giving up copywriting is a move that, as far as I can tell, still surprises the advertising fraternity in India. Considering those were extremely rewarding years for you, do you ever regret giving up on that industry?
No, but I miss the money.
You refer to your first two books, Kama Sutra and Tantra, as ‘ad hoc forays into translation and non-fiction’, respectively. What drew you to either subject?
My wife worked at a publisher that was looking for new ideas. I had read (Richard) Burton’s translation of the Kama Sutra and felt it did not properly represent the Indian original, so I suggested we do a fresh translation illustrated with mainly Rajasthani miniatures. Ours was the first new English translation in the West since Burton’s in 1883 and is still in print.
Indra Sinha’s Kama Sutra, available at the Rediff Bookshop
Some years later, I was invited by a publisher to write the text for Tantra. Having done some research, what fascinated me was the evidence that many ‘tantric’ ideas actually came to India from the Mediterranean. It is rather a dry read and debunks reports of orgies and sexual mischief — sorry to disappoint.
Cybergypsies remains a wise, yet frightening account of your obsession with the Internet. From 1984 to what it has evolved into today, are you pleased with what the medium has accomplished?
Today, life would be unimaginable without e-mail, online banking and sites like rediff.com In those early days, there was no Web, no e-mail. We rode electron beams through darkness into unknown and uncharted territory, encountering other wanderers who had their own obsessions and agendas. The Internet today offers ordinary people a chance to bypass corporate-owned communication channels and evolve a new popular culture. Whether we will collectively take that chance remains to be seen.
The Death of Mr Love was inspired by an event (the 1959 Nanavati murder in Mumbai, then Bombay) that had all the makings of a good story. How did readers, or critics, in Mumbai react to the book?
On the whole, it had excellent reviews. Nonita Kalra of Elle has invited me to ride the 132 bus through Mumbai with her when next in the city, and I will hold her to this when my wife and I visit later this year. My favourite comment came from a reader, who wrote: ‘As someone who grew up in Mumbai, I have to say this is the only novel I have ever read that brings back to me the city I knew, its sounds, smells and above all, the feel of being there. From bus rides on the 132, smells of Sassoon Dock, reminders of the great days of Hindi movies (Guru Dutt, Johnny Walker) to parts of the city like Dongri which are never written about elsewhere because only a person who knows can write: This plus a great story and characters and what must be the definitive description of the Western ghats through the eyes of a small child make this a novel that haunts one long after one has finished the last page and regretfully put it down.’ Thank you, Fred Gomes.
I assume you continue to watch the advertising industry in India, considering recent comments you have made regarding plagiarism there. You were surprisingly tolerant of it, pointing out that ideas in advertising have ‘many parents’. How do you feel about plagiarism in literature, now a riskier affair thanks to the Internet?
I was specifically invited to comment on an article about plagiarism in the Gulf, and obliged out of politeness. It isn’t a discussion that interests me much, either in relation to advertising or literature. It goes without saying that no one with any pride in their work would copy someone else’s, but the ad industry has been utterly corrupted by a lust for awards and senior creative people live in constant fear of losing their jobs. Given that the question was hardly worth debating, I was trying to say something more interesting than ‘plagiarism smells.’
The Bhopal tragedy claimed more victims than September 11. You have been an extremely vocal spokesperson in the fight for justice that continues. Are you still hopeful?
I feel the strongest contempt for Indian politicians, who as far as I can see, do not give a damn for the poor and sick. Congress or BJP, they are as bad as one another. How is it possible simply to ignore a Supreme Court order to provide clean drinking water to people whose wells have been poisoned? Now it seems the politicians and bureaucrats are colluding to get Dow Chemical off the hook of its inherited legal liabilities? Strangely enough, this is the very situation described in Animal’s People.
I hope that in real life the politicians will realise their primary responsibility is not to foreign corporations but to their own suffering and very brave people. The media in India could do a lot more than they do to hold politicians accountable.
One could say — rather harshly, I admit — that a subject like Bhopal would be poignant when discussed in any form. As a writer, do you manage to dissociate yourself from a subject so personal to you when you set out to write fiction based on it?
I have given nearly 15 years to working with the Bhopalis, many of my close friends live in the bastis of Bhopal and my involvement with them goes a little deeper than poignant discussion. However, Animal’s People is not a polemic. If it were, it would have no power as a novel. It is a story about people. The characters are everything and the plot evolves out of their desires, idiosyncrasies and failings. Despite the dark subject matter, it is quite a light-hearted book.
New York Magazine called it ‘scabrously funny’, which delighted me. If this book gets a wide readership, it could do a lot to alert people to the horrific cruelty perpetrated on the Bhopal victims: the neglect and betrayal, and the nobility of those who have turned their own suffering into struggle and art.
Is the Man Booker award one of importance to you? How satisfied have you been with its choices of the past few years?
It is very important, but in the end it isn’t hype but word-of-mouth that creates lasting success. Getting long-listed for the Booker is excellent news because perhaps now the book will have the chance to be more widely read. I have enjoyed and greatly admired most of the books that have won the prize over the last few years. I am a huge fan of Ian McEwan and have the highest respect for Arundhati Roy, both as writer and activist.
I am surprised — and a little saddened — that your books aren’t easily found on bookshelves in India. Is this a marketing and distribution oversight, or have you simply chosen to stay away from the publicity tours that seem to mark each book launch these days?
I would naturally love my books to be stacked high in every bookshop. As for publicity, I would gladly do a book tour of India but no one has ever asked me. Are there literary festivals in Indian cities the way every Australian city has one? With such a huge and well-educated reading public, and with Indian writers doing so well in the world, maybe it would be a good idea to start one. Or two. Maybe Rediff could do it. Then you could invite me.
When you name a village Khaufpur, do you assume a global audience will be able to appreciate the connotations?
Khaufpur has its own Web site, but Lucy Beresford in her New Statesman review of Animal’s People discovered that ‘khauf’ is a Urdu word meaning ‘terror’ and wrote, ‘my sense is that Khaufpur is fictional, a place of terror and dread. Its real-life counterpart is Bhopal.’ It isn’t necessary for every nuance in the book to be picked up. Will anyone notice the alchemical motifs that run through it? It doesn’t matter if you don’t, but is enriching if you do. I used to adore Nabokov who could pun in three languages, to read him was like watching a dolphin playing in the sea of language. You followed him if you could, and if you couldn’t, it was still enthralling.
One of your blog posts has an extremely interesting thing to say about advertising and its potential to falsify history. Isn’t it also accurate to say it distorts the way society perceives itself? Do you condone advertising for products like Fair & Lovely, or for sites promising visitors ‘5,000 fair brides to choose from’?
Corporations and governments use advertising to create fantasy worlds which bear little relation to reality, but advertising can also be used to counter lies. Please see the series of artworks made as a reply to Dow Chemical’s ‘human element’ campaign in the United States. I think people who write ads on behalf of Dow and other such corporations can’t morally dissociate themselves from what they are promoting.
I am no saint. Before my own road-to-Damascus moment, I had worked on cigarette ads and for corporations like Shell. When I quit advertising, I burned my portfolio. I have since used advertising to raise money to found and fund a free clinic in Bhopal for the benefit of the survivors. As for the examples you give, skin lightening creams and wheat-complexioned brides, I find the Indian obsession with skin colour rather sad.