In Conversation

TARUN TEJPAL with Nicolle Elizabeth

Tarun Tejpal is a writer and journalist, titled one of the “most powerful men in India” by Time in 2009. His 26-year-long career in journalism spans from India Today to Outlook, some of the most respected, and serious publications in India. His work “The Valley of Masks” was long-listed for the Man Asian Prize in 2011. His novel out now from Melville House, The Story of My Assassins, is a roller-coaster ride of incision, wit, and humor with a poetic, deeply moving sense of politics—both interpersonal and state. The questions Tejpal posit belong to us all: We read about a faulty man.

The brilliance in what happens in The Story of My Assassins is multi-fold. This is a novel about the ways in which strangers can take over others’ lives, can assign us lives we didn’t ask for. There is an assassination attempt on a man, and then the book’s focus shifts from the victim to the assassins. Told from their perspective, the narrator becomes less and less in his own story itself. The book becomes about the larger workings of the whole, which has tried to take this man’s life. It is a brilliantly conceived commentary on truth. Sometimes, we are not allowed to actually be responsible for our own lives any longer, sometimes, in the real world, our lives are assigned a story by others, and taken from our own control. This is a book for all readers looking for an entertaining, ethereally felt, logically considered work. Tejpal is a Bolaño minus the substance abuse and the violence, a Thompson minus the manic. It is one of the best books this season, if not this decade. This book is a siren call; it beckons attention. Tejpal was kind enough to answer my interview questions via his Blackberry in India.

Nicolle Elizabeth (Rail): This book’s pacing is relentlessly fast, which gives it a “no fluff” immediacy. Why did you choose to nearly disorient the reader from the start? There is essentially no intro—here it is, just go, go, go. As our man has been thrown into the crux of the plot immediately, so are we.

Tarun Tejpal: Books demand their own unique pacing, and I generally like a story that opens semi-ripe, full of the mysteries of the past and the present. Both the reader and the writer need to undertake a voyage of discovery—for in a curious way the past is often as unknown to us as is the future. (Witness Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “One morning I woke and found I had been transformed into a giant insect.”)

Rail: This book is hysterical. Though dark and pensive, your main character has a sense of saltiness about him, the wit of someone with high intelligence, the wit of someone who is still living his life. How important is humor in perspective? How does it give us insight into what our characters are really thinking: dare I even say, a bit of an ultimately human cloak in self-doubt? It would seem the lead character has a bit of an old school boyish charm to him.

Tejpal: Well I struggled for many years to find the tone for this book. The material I wanted to address was vast, but I couldn’t find my way into it. Then one day the voice came to me, of the dyspeptic, acidic-urbane, cynical narrator—and the moment I had that almost-unlikeable, narratorial voice I was up and running. That acidic-urbane voice allowed me to deal with the complex issues and characters in a breezy, biting way. It allowed me to reach for the heart of so much darkness in a comic, humorous way. This is not unusual. Very often writers have to approach their material in an angular way so they can turn up the soil and dig deep.

Rail: Considering the narrator’s success, combined with his understanding of the corruption into which he does not necessarily approve of but is immersed in via the nature of his position in India, do you think that really he wishes he were doing more for the country? For the universe?

Tejpal: I think the narrator is a bit of a whiner and a cynic. But his whining is valuable for it allows us to see all that’s wrong with India. The writer wishes he were doing more for the country—I am not sure if the narrator does.

Rail: Throughout the novel, it seems like everyone is giving him something. The assassins give him this situation, and his women give him love and a sense of wholeness. He is aware of his faults, hence the humor, no?

Tejpal: I feel part of the carping is that of a man who knows what he should be doing but can’t summon up the resolve to do so. So he trashes the universe in the hope that this absolves him of his essential non-doing. Hence the humor is often vitriolic—which is still much fun I have to say.

Rail: How much of India’s inner political workings did you want to share with the world? Take the Maibaap, for example. Take the excerpt “The minister had built an air-conditioned gym on the grounds of his sprawling government house and was sometimes seen on TV giving panting sound bytes from an angled treadmill.” Was this book a vehicle for a manifesto? I think many Americans have zero idea of the corruption India is currently plagued with.

Tejpal: As much of it as I could impart within the integrity of the novel. The book’s ambition was to try and cut as close to the Indian bone as possible—to tell of its complexity, multiplicity, polyphony, great beauty, and greater horrors as authentically as I possibly could. I felt the Indian novel in English was somehow failing to capture its incredible verve and miseries.

Rail: How much of this book is metaphor, and how much is explanatory narrative? This seems profoundly important given the undercurrent of so many hidden truths from our man. He is in the know, and he is not.

Tejpal: If you thought this book is a metaphor for the lunacies and lyricism of India, I would be satisfied. India, finally, is unknowable—as are the motives of the assassins for the narrator.

Rail: Yep, that is pretty much a huge part of what I think about this book. Also, I just love his vulnerability as a human. He is a man who is aware he is a man and surrounded in a plot he knew nothing of.

Tejpal: Ah but isn’t that true of all of us! All of us vulnerable, all of us in a plot, a life, we never fully understand!

Rail: Pop references abound. Hunter S. Thompson is mentioned implicitly, and it is clear he is an influence throughout the work. How important is it for writers to uphold those who have come before whom they hold dearly?

Tejpal: Well my influences are diverse, mostly literary, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Orwell, Whitman, the Mahabharata, comic cinema, street lingo. Hopefully my writing pays tribute to all of my influences.

Rail: Actually my favorite parts may be the almost endearing, painfully beautiful rant monologues throughout the work. The pacing quickens further, and we are elevated from the page into a speech mode. Page 263 may be one of my favorites in it; I see a nearly Miltonesque quality. Close to “The Fall” speech. How much does this shift in narrative affect your writing process?

Tejpal: Pacing of narrative is a skill all storytellers need to possess or work at. Crudely, it’s symphonic. You vary speed, sounds, volume, so the reader stays with you and remains in a state of rapture and anticipation.

Rail: Of course I loved The Gita simplification: “Do what you have to do.” Do you think that at the individual level, though all of the characters throughout the work are in some way or another a part of varying larger causes, that they are all, so to speak, on their own?

Tejpal: A bit of what you say is true. As humans are universally, partly they speak and play for themselves, and partly they are played by and play for larger forces around them.

Rail: The women in the novel are so faulty in humane ways yet also respected, too. They bring our man relief, on many occasions, even when he is judging them, it would seem.

Tejpal: Well the strongest character in the book is Sara, and the story in some sense turns on her, for all the lampooning she suffers at the narrator’s hands. Is that not the lot of women in the world: to be more honorable and worthy and resilient and compassionate, but forever to receive the rough end of it from men?

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