with Vikram Chandra
As we embark on our second decade of publishing Narrative, we have a few burning questions for Vikram Chandra.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair and Karna from the Māhabhārata would tie at the top of the fictional list. Both grow up poor, both strive; one survives through charm and ruthless cunning, the other lives honorably, is dogged by tragic misfortune, betrayed by the powerful, and killed through unfair means. Both stories ring true to me.
In life: my friend David Sullivan, private detective, cult expert, raconteur, and gentleman. Sully led an astonishing, adventurous life, and shared it through his stories—like the one about installing radar systems in Gaddafi’s Libya, and that other one about facing down an extortionist in Brazil. In November last year, Harper’s magazine published a story about him entitled “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself: Going Undercover with a Cult Investigator.” Shortly after the story was published, Sully passed away from a recurrence of cancer. I miss his warmth and generosity.
2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote)?
“But in love / our hearts have mingled / like red earth and pouring rain,” which comes at the end of A. K. Ramanujan’s translation of a poem by the classical Tamil poet Cempulappeyanirar.
3. The story, novel, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time.
The Great Gatsby. There is, of course, that formal perfection of the materials of the novel, of language, imagery, plot, characters; but also—its resonant incarnation of the American mythos. I read it before I first visited the US, and it informed how I understood the landscape. I wonder how it would read now, if I could read it again for the first time, after I’ve been here for a goodly while.
4. Best part of the day?
Evening, after a day of good writing.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Read, read, read. Make my four- and six-year-old daughter laugh. Watch a movie with my wife, Melanie. Make an attempt at meditation, although I’m not very good at stilling my mind. And then some more reading.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
On the page: Paradox, complex, murmur, glittering, gleaming, burgeoning, flat, sharp, hollow. I wish I could use rococo more often.
In life: Indeed.
7. What’s your current obsession?
I’ve always got more than one going, and currently they include: premodern Indian literature and literary theory (to understand which you have to learn something about the concomitant intellectual traditions in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, and so on); functional programming; trading, trade routes, seafarers; the practice of slavery in ancient and modern times; games and gaming through history. Writing fiction gives you a legitimate excuse for being a dilettante. But one of the troubling aspects of getting older is that you really begin to understand, in your bones, that there’s so much to learn, and so little time.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
A well-meaning friend of my father’s once told me, “You’ll never be a writer.” I’m stubborn.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten, and/or what do you know now you wish you knew then?
To my twelve-year-old self: Take risks. To my present self: Relax, relish, rejoice.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
In my last novel, Sacred Games, a character says in the first chapter, “Love is a murdering gaandu.” In the last chapter, the same character thinks, “Love was duty, and duty was love.” Somewhere on the journey between those two thoughts is what I believe about love, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out.