Indra Sinha interviewed by Anil Thakraney

Anil Thakraney on Sunday, 22 September 2007
Bhopal’s Angel
(The full-on Indra Sinha interview. The Mumbai Mirror carries the abridged version. Enjoy!)
I have known Indra for many years, and feel proud to be called his friend. Not just because he’s an immensely gifted writer, but also because Indra cares. For us. Even as we locals look away from all the screw-ups that go on in our own backyard, here’s an Indian born Brit who’s spent his life fighting for the cause of Bhopal’s gas attack victims. He’s written award winning ads to raise funds, he’s set up a free clinic for those affected by the tragedy, he writes provocative columns and blogs to mobilise opinion, and now he’s written a book on the subject. And quite deservedly, finds himself in the Booker shortlist for Animal’s People. I speak to the writer over e-mail, as he punches away his power thoughts from his villa in the South of France. A standing ovation for Indra Sinha, dear ladies and gentlemen. Because this Colaba boy stills worries about us, forty years after leaving the country.
It was courageous to give up the lucrative job in the ad biz, did you always know you’ll make it as a book writer? The response to your first attempt, The Cybergypsies, wasn’t very encouraging…
It was more courageous of Vickie (Indra’s wife). I was fed up with advertising, itching to quit. On my 45th birthday I took a piece of paper and a pencil and drafted my resignation. Then rang Vickie, read it to her and said, ‘I’ve nothing else to go to. I want to write. There’ll be no money. Shall I tear this up, or hand it in?’ This can’t have been easy for her. As you know, Anil, at that time we had a big house in the country – daughter Tara had a horse – in fact you were with us when we bought it. But Vickie said, ‘You’re not happy. Hand it in. We’ll manage somehow.’ For that I will always be grateful. She is a pearl, I can’t speak too highly of her. We’ve had some tough times since, but a few years of austerity do wonders for one’s values, and next year we’ll have been married thirty years.
The Cybergypsies was a fragmented, somewhat hallucinatory memoir of the pre-web net that flattened the perspective between fact and fantasy and treated both as equally real. My old chum Neil French said it was unreadable, but at a literary festival in Perth I heard it described as “Confessions of an English Opium Eater meets The Beach”. So there.
As a copywriter, how much of your IQ – your Indian Quotient, crept into your ads?
Very little. I was working in London. Nothing I was doing had any connection with India. For years I had only two close Indian friends, Shreeram Vidyarthi from Books From India who appeared in The Cybergypsies as Pustaq Keet, and Sital Singh Maan who runs The Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden, where I’ve had the privilege of helping cook curried Christmas turkey for 30 people. I did feature Gandhiji in a couple of ads, one for Amnesty and the other, bizarrely, for the British Army. Neither ran. I wrote a series of ads for Books from India. One was about Salman Rushdie’s use of gaali in Shame. It concluded, “The saalaa deserves all the Booker prizes he can get.”
These were isolated exercises in nostalgia. I was out of touch with India for years. It was not really until I became involved with the Bhopalis that it re-entered my life.
You’ve said that awards are the advertising industry’s way of numbing itself against the knowledge that most of what it does is inherently worthless. What do you feel about the Booker?
Being nominated for the Booker assures a novel of being widely read and talked about. The focus is on the book more than the writer, and novels are a powerful force for good in the world – they entertain, delight, comfort, inspire and transform. What do ad awards achieve? After I left advertising, I burned my portfolio and threw away all the award trophies and framed certificates.
Do copywriters make better book writers? Do you feel that your years in advertising have made you a better book writer?
Quite a few ex-copywriters became successful novelists – Fay Weldon, Joseph Heller, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie – but so have ex-sailors, teachers and priests. To write books, one has to think in long curves and at the same time imagine very deeply and in great detail. Having said this, my approach to advertising was that of a storyteller, I used to turn everything into stories. For Guinness I created a series of Sherlock Holmes tales in which the dark stout was always the clue. For example, a murderer left the imprint of his moustache in the creamy head. I later adapted one of these ads as a short story and entered it into a national Arthur Conan Doyle story competition. It won second prize.
Your long copy ads have often been called journalism, not advertising.
Another advertising question? Anil, you are obsessed. A page in a newspaper or a magazine is a paid-for blank white space into which you have the freedom to put whatever works best. Does it really matter what you call it? Neil French has proved over and over again that none of the supposedly essential elements of a press ad are actually needed. The gurus of advertising who say that people don’t read any more and that pictures work better than words are out of touch and simply wrong. I try to write as well as I can, and try not to manipulate the readers or insult their intelligence. Our Bhopal fundraising appeals run to 1,000 words each and not only pay for themselves, but for a dozen years have generated enough response to run a clinic. People think there is a formula, but there isn’t. It’s instinct and writing from the heart.
Khaufpur (the fictitious town in Animal’s People) has its own website. Is that a result of your years in advertising – a total communication package?
You are very insistent on the advertising connection. But the answer is no, it’s a result of years spent editing Bhopal campaign websites and knowing the impact the internet can have if you get it right, witness the Yes Men. I was very keen that Animal’s People – phew, at last I can mention my book – should be read as a novel in its own right, and not as a vehicle for Bhopal campaigning. This is one reason why the city in the novel is called Khaufpur, not Bhopal. A city like Khaufpur should naturally have its own website, which would be a place where people could find out more about the novel. It also gives the opportunity for Animal to create a little bit of humour and mischief.
Do you think we Indians don’t care enough for what happens in our own backyard? You have shown more commitment to Bhopal than the whole lot of us out here.
There are plenty of Indians who never get any praise or acknowledgement, working hard on behalf of poor and oppressed people. I can think of dozens of people in Bhopal, in other badly polluted places like Cuddalore and northern Kerala, those who are working with tribal people whose lands are being forcibly snatched by big business and its political friends. There are thousands of quiet heroes, working for little or no money and without the slightest recognition. No one gives them awards or prizes, yet still they carry on.
Would it be correct to say that your life has turned out rather like Rushdie’s, you have followed his career in almost every single way, except for the fatwa and Padma Lakshmi?
Why do you say that? Is it because we both grew up in Bombay, both went to Cathedral school, both were at public schools in England, both read English Literature at Cambridge, both went into advertising as copywriters, both worked at Ogilvy & Mather, both worked with the same art director, Garry Horner, on the same Fresh Cream Cakes account? We differ in that Mr Rushdie claims to have written the slogan ‘Naughty but Nice’ and I do not. Also, I have not won a Booker Prize, did not suffer a fatwa, have no friends among the jet-set and society hostesses don’t seem to have my number. I admire Salman Rushdie’s work immensely. Midnight’s Children is an utterly brilliant book, but I don’t want to write like him. People must find their own voices.
Do you think the language in Animal’s People is too raw for the Booker judges? That it could come in the way in the final judging?
No one knows what is in the mind of the Booker judges, but the fact that they have twice chosen Animal’s People, and that it’s in their top six out of 128 novels – must mean that so far at least they’ve coped with Animal’s foul tongue. Animal’s People is up against five novels of great strength and beauty. Personally I can’t wait to read Darkman’s. Having admired Camus’s use of the second person in La Chute, I am interested to see how The Reluctant Fundamentalist handles its subtleties. I am a huge fan of Ian McEwan’s and read everything he writes. The Gathering is surely an elegant piece of writing and Mr Pip sounds irresistible. Given such formidable competition, it won’t be something as trivial as bad language that stops Animal’s People from winning.
Animal’s People. Would I be right in calling it your most effective long copy ad for Bhopal?
You are straight back to advertising. Dammit Anil, I would really hate to think of a novel in that way. The novel isn’t some carefully planned and meticulously worked out campaign. It’s a story. To write it at all, I had to let go of Bhopal, forget its history and its twenty years of intertangled issues. This is why Khaufpur came into being. I imagined it in almost obsessive detail, so much so that when I went to Bhopal after the writing was finished, I was surprised to find things not where I expected – I’d been living in Khaufpur too long. The characters are everything – them and their Khaufpuri sense of humour. Animal leapt to life in my mind and immediately began abusing me. How can you, who’ve never been hungry or homeless, or had to shit on railway tracks, write about our lives? The solution was Animal, you talk, I’ll record.
Do you honestly believe victims of the gas tragedy will ever get justice?
What is justice? What justice for the dead? What justice for someone who has already spent twenty three years barely able to breathe, living on compensation that works out at seven rupees a day? What justice for kids born brain damaged or deformed, whose lives are blighted before they take their first breath? ‘Rights. Law. Justice. These words sound the same in my mouth as in yours but they don’t mean the same. Zafar says such words are like shadows the moon makes in the Kampani’s factory, always changing shape. On that night it was poison, now it’s words that are choking us.’ (Animal, speaking in the novel.)
You said the Indian politicians have betrayed their own people…
How much of a list do you want? Making a deal with Union Carbide that caused its share price to jump for joy? Keeping back half the money for over a decade? Ending all studies into the medical impact of the gas leak? Not making Union Carbide clean up its factory before it left Bhopal? Not pursuing the extradition of Carbide boss Warren Anderson? Giving no support in the ongoing US case about the poisoning of 26,000 people by chemicals leaking from the abandoned factory? Ignoring a Supreme Court of India order to provide clean water to the poisoned communities? Beating up women and children who dared to ask why nothing had been done? Allowing Dow Chemical to trade in India even though Dow refuses to produce its 100% subsidiary Union Carbide in the Bhopal court? Doing a deal with Dow to buy Union Carbide’s METEOR technology – a deal that had to be called off when Bhopal supporters exposed it? Permitting Dow to market as safe in India, a pesticide, Dursban, that is banned for domestic use in the USA? Failing to take action against Dow after it was revealed that Dow had systematically bribed Indian officials for years? As we speak, the politicians are conspiring with Dow to make an out-of-court deal that frees it of its legal liabilities, all for tainted US dollars. Meanwhile people are still forced to drink poisoned water, children are still being born damaged. What part of this cannot be called betrayal?
One thing that pisses you off about Bombay every time you visit?
The only thing that pisses me off about Bombay is that I’m never able to stay long enough.
Posted by anil thakraney

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