Described by Amit Chaudhuri as the best debut novel I’ve read for a long time, Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park is released today. It tells the tale of Mohan, a letter writer who sits outside the main post-office in Bombay, his wife Lakshmi, and their nephew Ashish, a sexually uncertain 19 year old who comes to live with them while repeating his final year in college. As the novel unfolds, the lives of each of the three characters are thrown into relief by the comical frustrations of family life: annoying relatives, unspoken yearnings and unheard grievances. Saraswati Park is a book about love and loss and the noise in our heads – and how, in spite of everything, life, both lived and imagined, continues.
Piers Moore Ede spoke with Anjali Joseph this morning about life, writing, and India.
The influence of Amit Chaudhuri seems like a fairly big one in your writing.
A: Yes, it wasn’t a conscious decision but there are certainly things that Amit’s writing has sensitized me to. The quieter moments in Indian life. The sound of a fan turning slowly; the way that the light falls in a particular place. But there are also other Indian writers I like. R.K. Narayan writes very beautiful about family life. Beautifully and comically and with, I think, a really lovely emotional directness. The other one is Upamanyu Chatterjee, whose books I really admire. Weight Lossis a very funny, quite dark book.
I think a lot of recent Indian writing that’s captured the British imagination has involved linguistic fireworks, whimsicality and exoticism. But on the other side of the coin lies work like Amit’s and yours which dwells more on the subtlety and complications of domestic life. Without wishing to get too metaphysical I feel that your writing symbolizes something quite crucial in Indian spirituality which is the notion that this moment is all there is.
A: Right, that’s a Hindu thought but it’s also clearly a very modernist sensibility, this idea of a moment or of spaces or these things which in C19th literature would have been labelled slightly aleatory. Even though the other book which I actually read quite obsessively when writing this book was Madame Bovary. I read and read it because I had a sort of anxiety about whether my book has enough plot, and that’s something that Flaubert handles incredibly well with Madame Bovary. But then while I was reading and re-reading this, I realised that all my favourite parts were these semi extended passages abut these extremely aleatory moments like grass waving in a field, or the way that a particular bird is flapping out its wings. Cinematic moments really but before cinema. I became interested in this idea of an impersonal voice observing the characters and observing their travails and upsets even as they go through them.
I also felt that you were capturing the profundity and transcendence of these very simple domestic moments, like the way Mohan brews his chai in the morning. And you can just feel the stillness of the room and this almost sacred moment of his day.
A: Thank you very much. Well one of the things I wanted to write about – which is really also to examine my own subjectivity actually – is the way in which every day or every moment isn’t really something that you experience directly, because there are so many other elements happening. Every event, in fact – however small – is a kind of starting point, so that there’s almost a circular journey away from that through all the possibilities in your head, about – you know – what would I like to happen in this situation, and then slowly you come back to the actual thing that’s happened. Daydreaming basically, which is a very intimate and familiar experience for most of us but one that, I felt, normal narratives don’t seem to examine.
Did you grow up in India?
A: I lived in India until I was seven and then moved to Leamington Spa in Wiltshire. Then I moved back to Bombay when I was 25.
Do you feel that you’re Indian or English?
A: I would define myself as an Indian but, you know, I’ve spent half my life in England and half my life here. So there’s no incredibly neat answer to that.
Was studying creative writing at East Anglia a valuable experience?
A: I think it really was for me. The best thing about it was to shame myself into thinking that writing was actually my job and that’s probably an experience that all of us on the MA had. It’s quite an important thing to realise that you don’t need to be published or successful to see yourself as a writer. That enables you to see it as a craft which is quite important.
I’ve been struck by the way in your book eulogizes the city in a very different way from some of the other big books about Bombay, like Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, or Shantaram or Sacred Games. They glorify the modern, cutting edge, violent mega-city whereas yours has a sort of domestic, family orientated side of the city. Was that a conscious decision?
A: No. There are two reasons one of which was that I was away from Bombay when I wrote it so was feeling homesick. The things I wrote about were therefore the things that I missed, not just of the life I’d been leading but also the things I remembered as a child. My parent’s house for example and my grandparents house. The exciting part of Bombay is something I can recognise from, you know, news reports and so on but it’s not something that I personally lived and it’s not something I wanted to translate.
Is Saraswati Park a real place?
A: No, it’s sparked off by my recollections of a particular suburban housing colony where I lived in Bombay, mixed with the place my grandparents lived in Bangla. It’s also inspired by the way Narayan created this locus of Malgudi which becomes a very real place. Readers would sometimes write to him and ask for a map of Malgudi and he would say, I’m afraid not it’s all in my head. I liked the idea that Saraswati Park could be a locus for the character’s experiences without it having to be a real place. If you can believe it I was at a party in Pune and I heard these three people arguing about whether Saraswati Park is actually a real place. This one girl from Bombay was saying ‘it’s definitely not a famous park in Bombay because I would have heard of it and i haven’t. Then somebody else said no no, it’s a fictional place. So I went over and said yes it’s like Malgudi to which they all just looked at me with bafflement. And then one of them said, like Hogwarts!
Well I think that’s a testament to your achievement. The characters feel incredibly real too. Mohan I felt particular affection for. One feels that he sees the city he knows sliding away from him a bit. He loves, perhaps, some of the old India that’s disappearing with globalisation. His job, for example, as a letter writer comes very much under threat. Is that something that you feel, a sort of nostalgia for the way things were?
A. Well I think I’m an intensely nostalgic person and he’s an intensely nostalgic character. In the book that’s kind of leavened by Ashish who perhaps also has those feelings but has a kind of youthful impatience and just an unwillingness to dribble his life away in regret. I don’t know really about India as an abstraction or an idea. I don’t think that most Indians in their day to day life spend their time thinking about what it means to live in India, for example. Whereas, in the West, India is used as a kind of code for a shifting range of things like colour, exoticism, or irrationality: you know the kind of exciting irrationality that one can’t permit oneself in Europe. ‘Everyone’s so crazy there’, you know, and ‘they’re on Indian time’. It’s a C19th paradigm of the crazy exotic East. But that’s not something that the average Indian engages with, any more than, you know, the average Londoner engages with Dickens’ London because they’re trying to make a cup of tea and get on the tube on time.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about a group of characters in their twenties, set in Paris and London and Bombay. I’m interested in the idea of the emergence of a sense of self. The person you think you’re going to become when you’re maybe twenty and leave home is not really the person that you are when you 30 and have gone through all kinds of incredible things that you’d never have assumed you would do.
Read Anjali’s article in The View from Here
Anjali on Writing as a Work in Progress in Style Sage