Bestselling Indian fiction queen tells it like it is
For everyone who thinks there is a world on the other side of the cupboard door, author Shobhaa Dé wants you to step out of the closet and embrace your inner Narnia. Or Oz. Or your inner Red Queen.
"With 16 published books, all of them bestsellers, I want to inspire closet writers and tell them to go forth and write," she tells Emirates Business in an interview ahead of her visit to Dubai this week, clearly ready to take on any aspirants for the bestseller list.
The model-turned-journalist-turned-novelist, 62, is one of India's best-known literary exports, leveraging her journalistic skills to document – in bonkbusting fiction and handy how-to primers alike – the story of a country as it comes of age and comes to grips with its newfound international celebrity.
Her works have been translated into 15 languages, her no-holds-barred approach winning favour with readers around the world.
And she will tell it like it is at the ongoing Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she will discuss her latest book, Superstar India, written as she turned 60 – a few months after the country itself marked its 60th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. She is also on a panel with Mughal historian William Dalrymple and Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup, discussing the future of India, which, by some accounts could become the world's third-largest economy (by purchasing power) by 2012.
Partly autobiographical in nature, Superstar India is nevertheless a fascinating account of one woman's journey alongside that of her country. Alongside some soul-searching of her own, she demolishes every cliché about the country while proving it to be true, neatly dissecting Indian society, its politics and its culture.
Dé is currently hard at work on her newest book, Sethji, which she hopes will be out next year. "2011, Inshallah," she replies with no hint of irony, when asked for a release date.
Reportedly a fictionalised exposé about one corrupt Indian political family (Seth translates from the Hindi to mean master, ji is an honorific denoting respect), Dé shies away from offering too much detail. "It's a bit too premature to talk about Sethji," she starts off. "But Sethji has certainly moved inside my head – which is the best and most important sign. I can 'see' Sethji. The book will write itself now."
She describes the writing process as "very visceral… organic".
"I do maintain notes… but rarely refer to them. Yes, I do lose lots of great lines and even plot developments, but I console myself that my imagination will come up with something even better at a later stage," she explains. "And so far that's how it has gone. A linear narrative rarely plays by the rules the writer sets out with. At some point the characters write their own stories. But it helps to have a basic structure to begin with."
Dé isn't letting on any more than that, refusing to divulge which of India's many political dynasties the book is based on. It's neither the Nehru-Gandhi family (which has ruled or directly controlled the country's government for more than 50 years since independence in 1947), she says, nor is it Mumbai's provincial Thackerays, among the most rightwing fundamentalists in the country.
Dé's most famous book, Starry Nights – published in the UK as Bollywood Nights – is likewise an intimate portrait of two of the Hindi film industry's most iconic stars, and the relationship they share. Some believe it's the real story of Amitabh Bachchan's reported love affair with the sultry South Indian actress Rekha in the seventies and eighties, but Dé herself, who chronicled the film industry's shenanigans at the time in Stardust, the magazine she founded, has never confirmed if this is indeed the case.
"All fiction is based on reality. Writers derive inspiration from characters they have encountered, and then build on them," she says when asked if Sethji takes a similar approach. "It is not just about taking on the political system. I feel politics provides rich material in any society. And in contemporary India, there is a whole host of fascinating political animals to choose from."
India's political machinery, she says, is fascinating to watch. Family dynasties aside, even the garden variety Indian politician knows any kind of public office offers the chance to improve things – for himself and his family above all else. Ergo, to get to that seat, it isn't unheard of politicians, even well-respected office holders, using brute force to win votes or merely cutting off essential supplies such as water and electricity, particularly in backward, often rural areas.
"The Indian political system is unique and complex," she agrees. "Corruption rules. But the characters who drive the system impact the lives of ordinary Indians in quite a sinister way sometimes."
It is this role that politicians play in the ordinary man's life that has spurred today's Indian youth, who are often better educated than their parents were, to demand more accountability from their leaders than previous generations did.
"That's absolutely true – but the young voter is still a bit too passive and chilled out," counters Dé, mother and stepmother to a total of six children, almost all of an age when they can exercise their franchise. "The young must demand change, better still, they must become the change."
The timing of Sethji, then, couldn't be better. But this is something this veteran society watcher and opinion leader knows all too well. She is extremely well connected to her market, embracing social media tools such as Facebook, and writing a blog that keeps her in tune with the topics agitating the digiterati.
She began blogging two years ago, to promote Superstar India, she says, and found the freewheeling spontaneity of the medium both fun and a tremendously liberating experience.
"It is soooo liberating! There are no word limits or space constraints. As a writer, I can receive instant feedback from some really sharp minds who are followers. I learn a lot from them. Blogs represent creative freedom – I love that," she told one interviewer recently.
From here Dé heads off to Paris, where she will launch the French version of Starry Nights, Les Nuits aux Etoiles, at an event hosted by Louis Vuitton Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Yves Carcelle, following which she heads to Italy, to Milan and the Turin International Book Fair, to promote the Italian language translations of her work.
I can't resist one political question on the hot-button issue of the moment: Mumbai and its place as capital of the Western Indian state of Maharashtra. Over the years, fundamental elements led by the Thackerays have claimed the city – which as the country's financial capital, draws settlers from all over India – must be reserved for natives of Maharashtra.
Dé, who is Maharashtrian herself (or a Marathi manoos as the common man is referred to), but is a vocal critic of the Thackerays' policies, is unequivocal in her answer. "There can be no debate here. Mumbai is a part of India," she declares. "Our constitution ensures the same rights and privileges to each and every citizen and the freedom of movement applies to every city in the Republic. Where's the question?"
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