The good, the bad and the ugly - from both sides of the fence
Your latest novel, The Watch, uses the plot of Sophocles' Antigone to bring home the human costs of the conflict in Afghanistan. How did it come about?
It goes back to the second year that President Barack Obama was in office and he had just announced the amping up of troop levels in Afghanistan. I had a couple of very good friends over to dinner, both of whom teach at a local university, and I was having a difficult time trying to make them understand what that meant in Afghanistan, that it was a recipe for disaster. And I realised that if people of that level of education and sensibility still do not understand that war is not the way you import democracy to a country, I had a moral responsibility coming from that part of the world to try to communicate it in a language that would reach them. We had all taught Antigone, and after they left, I experienced one of these magical 'aha' moments when I realised that it was the perfect myth to communicate the contemporary implications. These ancient myths and tragedies live because the human condition hasn't changed.
How long did it take you to write?
I wrote the first chapter - which is unchanged - very quickly, in 10 days, and gave it to my friends and it was a 'eureka' moment for them in that it immediately gave human agency to the otherwise abstract statistics of 'collateral damage'. Then I gave it to my agent Nicole Aragi, who showed it to the major American magazines that publish fiction and they said, 'this story is brilliant but we think it's a little too disturbing for our readership'. That got me really angry, and I wrote the rest of the book in 10 weeks. My US publisher then turned it down for the same reason. So my agent took it to Britain and it's now going to be to Random House's first four-country launch since The God of Small Things.
How do you anticipate The Watch will be received by the US military?
I sought out US service members who'd served in Afghanistan to check my facts once I had a draft manuscript, and, to my astonishment, they greeted my endeavour with profound support and thanked me. So what has come out of writing this book has been an unprecedented series of deep and moving friendships with my readers in the US military, and a new desire to tell their side of the story.
You studied politics and international relations at University in India and in the US. How did you come to writing?
I grew up in a steel town, Jamshedpur, and I lost my father when I was seven and I was an only child, so I sort of retreated into the world of books. My father was one of 13 brothers and sisters all of whom were in the sciences so it wasn't on the radar that I would stoop to the arts. In the India I grew up in, writers in English were few and far between. So I thought of it as a compromise going into politics and international relations. Eventually, I abandoned that and did my graduate studies in German philosophy-idealism and romanticism. My non-linear path to becoming a writer at the age of 30 wouldn't have been possible without having burnt every other bridge and realising this is the one that I love.
Tell us a bit more about that non-linear path to writing?
Two things happened when I first came to the US and started my graduate work in politics and international relations. The first was in 1989, which was the revolutions of Eastern Europe, and I was really fortunate to witness those at first-hand by accompanying a Romanian friend and professor to Eastern Europe. I wrote a journal of my four-year wanderings through Eastern Europe and that eventually turned into my first novel, The Gabriel Club. That was my first wake-up call.
And your second?
My second wake-up call was the first Gulf war where what we saw in America was just this digital version of reality where people pushed buttons and whole cities were devastated. Then when this whole post 9/11 business of Islamophobia started in America and the West I was horrified, and felt compelled to write about these things.
What do you plan on writing next?
I have the funny feeling that I'm going to interrupt this rather prolonged stay in the Muslim world with a short novel set in St Petersburg because I feel the need for a change and St Petersburg is just one of those magic cities than feeds my fascination with Russia.