Tell You What I Said (Apologies to Ray Charles): Richard Crasta Interview

RICHARD CRASTA'S INTERVIEW WITH THE HINDU, a major Indian newspaper published from multiple Indian cities, 2010: Full Text and Clarifications. To fill in the gaps in sense and context that may have been caused by the abbreviated version that was published, here are the questions that I received and my written answers (some of the questions read like shorthand, but we writers have to work within these parameters). This interview is fixated on the novel's subversive title and its apparent (superficial) subject; there have been other interviews with a different focus, for example at :

1)            ‘The Revised Kamasura’ and a subtitle saying ‘The Novel’, is it some clarification for people to not get confused?
A: The first edition came with the subtitle: “A Novel of Colonialism and Desire with Arbitrary Footnotes & a Whimsical Glossary”. To any intelligent and literary reader, that subtitle instantly telegraphs the spirit of the novel: playful, subversive, political, iconoclastic, and so on. And they would never mistake it for a literal revision of the Kama Sutra. But for some reason, my present publishers didn’t want this subtitle. So I persuaded them to at least insert the words: “A Novel”. Because, though the title is ironic, making fun of the cliché, many people simply don’t get it. In one Bangalore bookstore, a new store manager was appointed and suddenly moved the book—my Invisible Man Books edition, which only went to a few bookstores--to the back of the store on an obscure shelf “with the other Kama Sutras”, saying it was a “sex book.” Obviously he had no understanding of literature and the literary tradition at all. So it is important, in India, to clearly make the point that this is not a reinterpretation or revision of a sex manual, but a comic novel about an Indian growing up in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, and dealing with India’s sexual repression among other things.

2)            What inspired you to write a book on a topic which is still largely a taboo for most of India, barring the small urban class.
A: It was a book about my liberation—about liberating myself from taboos, about breaking taboos and rules that I believe were made by the British colonialists. And declaring my independence from and defiance of Western publishers’ discreet rules about what brown boys could and could not write. Besides, it is a ridiculous taboo for literature: how can you not write about the force that brought us into existence, that still largely determines our behaviour, whether we admit it or know it or not? Is that not hiding the truth, or a part of the truth? But my novel deals with the whole of life: birth, childhood, father and mother, love and loss, school, oppression and liberation, success and failure, the politics of India and of Indian administration, the dreams of the poor and the middle class, many of which are unrealistic and based on fantasy. And sex is also in there, because sex, for a young man, is almost the entire purpose of existence.

3)            It is your first novel and you chose a very controversial topic. Do you some where feel this book may be too frank for the Indian audience.
A: I think Indians loved it and appreciated it. They felt liberated that someone had spoken what they were secretly thinking but hitherto could not express. You can differentiate between reviews that are written to please someone and reviews that come from the heart: most of the reviews of my novel were written by middle class reviewers, and they seemed to proceed from the heart—you can’t fake enthusiasm of that sort. I felt loved, and it was a beautiful feeling. But I was living in the U.S. at the time, and after three weeks in India, had to return. Meanwhile, things happened . . . . But I feel it is important, in India, to face and tackle repression. Repression results in hypocrisy: we are interested in sex, but pretend not to be. Once you lie to yourself, you can lie to others, you can be corrupt. Consider that Finland, considered the world’s least corrupt country, has almost no sexual repression or hypocrisy about sex. I think the more honest we learn to be, in literature, in conversation, and in public life, the fewer corruption scandals we will have. I am convinced of it.

4)            Sex is not an unexplored field in literature, but the intro of your book you talk about 'Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha', this part of Kamasutra, the original scripture remains unexpressed by most who refer to it. 
A: I actually like that aspect of the Kama Sutra: that Vatsyayana has such a natural attitude to sex, and speaks of it as one of the four aspects or stages of life. Not to be overemphasized, but not to be ashamed of and concealed either. So, while it was partly a parody of the Kama Sutra, it was also, in some way, an homage to the wisdom and unabashed nature of the original. Dharma in my novel relates to Part I, where religion and education are the main subjects; Artha to Part II, when the boy suddenly decides to become a “success” in life. Kama to Part 3, when after innumerable bungling attempts, he loses his virginity. And Moksha to Part 4, when he arrives at some wisdom and maturity, liberating himself from some of his earlier fallacies and obsessions.

5)            How do you relate sex to spirituality and meditation?
A: Do I? You must note that I grew up Catholic, like the protagonist of the novel. And to me, spirituality was the Catholic religion and going to church, and praying one hell of a lot. The more you prayed, the better your chances of getting a balcony seat in heaven. Perhaps even a Gold Class seat from which to watch the angels playing their harps. So the problem with the Catholicism of Mangalore, which I describe as “improperly bottled under license from Rome”, was that it repressed sex and called it dirty. Therefore, the moment the protagonist discovers sex, religion becomes absurd. I quote, “When pubic fuzz entered my life, God and 50 tons of accumulated religious baggage flew out the window.”  As for meditation: I don’t think you can meditate very well if you have a hardon. First, you would have to take care of the hardon. At least that’s my take.

6)            Though the title takes away most of the attention, the biggest beauty of the book, along with the deep satire, is it picturesque description. Does the story somewhere relates to your own experiences, to your own journey?
A: I tried to get HarperCollins to change the title; in fact, the discussion went on for nearly 6 months and delayed the book. But I respected them, their sincerity and their knowledge, for they have been good to me; and I needed to get out of the hole I was in. So I finally accepted their opinion that the original title was the best. Are there points in the book that you could relate to experiences I have had? A few, yes. But there is also much invention, imagination, and playfulness, including playing with facts and possibility.

7)      You have written a lot of essays. How did the shift to writing a novel come?
A: Actually, I consider three kinds of prose writing to constitute a high form of creativity: fiction, memoir, and essays.  All of these, at their best, can be art forms. If you read some of the great novelists, you will find large essayistic passages within their novels, and some of the most profound writing comes within these passages. This is certainly not true of Dan Brown and his type, but then, I don’t read Dan Brown. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Henry Miller, their essayistic digressions are part of their search for the truth, for understanding. So I don’t see them as significantly different—they are all literature. Examining and reflecting on the human condition. But writing a novel is a more ambitious project, requiring more time and structure: I need some financial security and at least two years in which I have no other obligations to write a complete novel. I have four novels in progress, and I hope I get this security soon.

8)      What kind of responses do you get about the book, from the young, the middle aged, Indians and foreigners?
A: Hard to typecast. Varies from individual to individual. But one American linguist called it “an exuberant Catcher in the Rye.” I think the book could appeal to both sexes and people of all countries, but different sections would appeal to different people. A true novelist writes for himself or herself, and that’s what I did.

9)      What is your interpretation of the book and the response you expect.
A: I don’t think I should interpret my own book; it frustrates me when some songwriters refuse to interpret their most obscure songs, but I also respect them for that. What I expect is that if this book is displayed openly in bookstores, browsers will pick it up, enjoy the energy of the language, and perhaps decide to read it. The book has not reached a fraction of its audience, and I hope it does it this time.

Factual correction: The book was published first by Viking Penguin in India in December 1993/ January 1994, at which time it received rave reviews. It was then published in the UK in August 1994 by Fourth Estate in hardcover and then in paperback, and in the U.S. and other countries much later.


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