Romancing the tome

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am

Stories of new writers and the publishing world are often romanticised. It could be the tale of the author living in poverty or obscurity before being discovered to critical acclaim, or the first-time novelist who is so obsessed with his story he writes a best-seller within months, or the eager green agent who stumbles upon a young writer whose gift only he sees and who he helps to take the world by storm.

So it is that Indian writer Pankaj Mishra sighs down the telephone line from New Delhi when asked about the success of his first novel, which he is said to have written in nine weeks, and his discovery of Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things when he was a 27-year-old editor for an international publisher

Reading Roy's manuscript on a long train journey, Mishra was said to be so overwhelmed that when the train made an unscheduled stop in the middle of the night he dashed into the station to call Roy to tell her she was a genius.

'Like a lot of romantic stories it departs from the facts,' says Mishra. 'I did call her inconveniently late at night from a train station, but I'd finished my journey. Actually, I did have the urge to break my journey and call her, but most train stations in India at that time weren't equipped with long distance phones,' he says.

Despite the success of The God of Small Things, which won the 1997 Booker Prize, Mishra knew publishing wasn't for him. 'It's not just having long lunches and things like that. A lot of it is sitting in an office,' he says.

He quit the full-time job, became a consultant for Picador until last year, and devoted himself fully to his first love, writing. It's his reputation as an author; journalist and critic that led to his invitation to take part in this year's literary festival.

Mishra rarely attends literary festivals, but he's looking forward to his first visit to Hong Kong.

'I find festivals, especially the ones in Europe and America, too schematic. Because they have a very well-established literary culture in these countries you almost don't need these festivals,' he says. 'In Hong Kong and India that's not the case, so these festivals are needed.'

Mishra is a prodigious writer whose pieces on Indian politics, editorials and literary criticisms appear in publications such as the Guardian, New Statesman , Times Literary Supplement, New York Times and New York Review of Books. As well as writing literary criticism and political commentaries, Mishra is also a novelist, travel writer and non-fiction writer - his most recent work about the life and teachings of Buddha is due to be published in October. This range makes it hard to categorise his writing - and he likes it that way.

'I suppose it's good to have a professional designation, but to a writer it doesn't make much sense because you are covering the same territory, but writing in different ways. I don't see the literary criticism as separate to the political, fiction or non-fiction writing I have done.'

Mishra's first novel, The Romantics (2001), was widely praised for the ethereal subtlety he brought to its depiction of the conflicting worlds of India past and present.

He had written several other novels which he describes as 'unpublishable' and, contrary to the suggestion that The Romantics took weeks to write, Mishra says the novel was several years in the making.

'It certainly wasn't my first attempt. I can't even count the number of times I tried to write a novel,' he says. 'I revised it in nine weeks, but I'd been writing it in many forms for many years, so it was a case of bringing together all the drafts.'

Though his first language is Hindi, Mishra has always written in English, right from the first novel he penned at 17. In recent years, some in the literary world have raised the question of authors' responsibilities to write in and promote their indigenous languages, but at 35, Mishra feels it is too late for him to be a professional writer in anything other than English.

'When it comes to the business of how does one write a novel and who are the people one learns from, they have all written in English,' he says. 'The idea that I would start all over again is exhausting. And why? What is it trying to prove? Is it a patriotic act? The important thing is to communicate, no matter what language that's being done in.'

Mishra describes his latest book as a combination of memoir, biography, history and politics which looks at the life and teachings of Buddha, the political and social state of India in the fifth and sixth centuries and how Buddhist teachings relate to the world today.

He spent more than three years researching and writing Life of the Buddha. He was so immersed in it last year he was unable to accept the invitation to the Hong Kong Literary Festival - and, while it sounds weighty, he promises the different themes and lack of a single written genre keeps it readable.

'Buddha had simple yet extremely sophisticated ideas that are still relevant,' he says.

'They aren't tied to any dogma or rituals. They are simple ethical ideas about life that anyone can understand without entering into a complicated theological discussion.'

Awesome Authors, March 11, 11am, Central Library, $50 (school booking only); Literati Soiree: Mishra & Mitchell, March 11, 5pm - 6.30pm, FCC, $150; Asia and English Literature, March 12, 6.30pm - 8pm, Mandarin Oriental, $280; Culture Clash: Perspectives on Culture and Identity, March 13, 4pm - 5.15pm, Fringe Club, $100; Politics of the Word, March 14, 9.45am - 11am, Fringe Club, $100