Critics call me a subversive and a transgressive writer. Neither am I happy about these adjectives, nor I approve of them. I do not have such intentions when I write. I don’t think other writers too have such intendments. With what purpose did William Burroughs write Naked Lunch? I can say that the same creative process that was inherent in his four years of drug addiction while writing his experiences, is present in me too when I write. I have been exploring my body through my writings. Also, apart from saying my body is my writing, I constantly write about the fidgets and fervency of the female body. That is the reason my world is made up of women. That is the reason I dedicated my novel Zero Degree to Kathy Acker. I consider the writers who experimented with their body, my compatriots; writers such as Georges Bataille (Story of The Eye; My Mother), Marquis de Sade (Philosophy in The Bedroom, 120 Days of Sodom) and Kathy Acker (Blood And Guts in High School; Pussy,King of The Pirates). Although I feel certain proximity with them, I experience boredom rather than enjoying the pleasure of the text in their works. Their writing is not as fascinating as Mario Vargas Llosa. Hence I could say my writing is a combination of Georges Bataille and Llosa. Currently, sans Zero Degree, when none of my works are available in English, this might sound like a tall claim.
Soon, my other works will be available in English.
2.) How many books have you written to date?
Could be 35 – 40. A number to be happy about in thirty five years of literary life. The adversity here is that only six of these books are novels and the rest are non-fiction. If you read my books, you will not find the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I was writing three serials in three prestigious magazines of Kerala, namely Madhyamam, Kala Koumudhi and Mathru Boomi. I do not know Malayalam. My Tamil articles were translated in Malayalam by my translator. One series was about Maghreb literature, the second was my novel Raasa Leela and the third, about various forms of music, ranging from Rai to Latin American. Even if they were swapped by mistake they wouldn’t have created confusion, my friends would taunt. My distress is that at-least five of those 30 non-fictions could have become novels. Hence, I have stopped writing non-fiction. My first book, ‘Latin American Cinema: An Introduction’ was published when I was twenty five. I was in Delhi then. The Indian movie buffs usually adored Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa and the European cinema, whereas I was attracted towards Latin American films. I have talked a lot about directors like Jorge Sanjines and Glauber Rocha in that book, who are little known in India. I have written six books on Tamil, Hindi and European cinema. I have translated the works of writers like Maria Luisa Bombal, Arturo Uslar Pietri, Augusto Roa Bastos, Alejandra Pizarnik, Ronald Sukenik (His novel “98.6” is a great work), Rojelio Sinan, Oscar Lewis, Charles Bukovsky, Radwa Ashour, Najwa Barakkat, Sahar Khalifeh, Nawal Al-Saadawi, Emile Nasrallah and Ghada Samman.
3.) When I met you in Kerala you had written a novel – the name? – you said you had written it in sixteen days. What was the reception to that novel and what have you been doing between now and then?
The name of the novel is Corpus. Yes. I wrote it in almost two weeks (2010), as I had a concrete plot in my mind. I worked on this plot when I was relaxing in an Ayurvedic Center in Kerala. I was able to finish the novel as I did not have any work for two weeks. The novel talks about the anguish and torment of the body.
Let me explain. I had quit my postal department job due to desperate reasons, divorced and was starving along with my six year old daughter. It was a living hell for a forty year old man to survive in a city like Madras with his kid. To survive, I picked pockets for a few years. After sometime I sold my semen in a semen bank, which was far worse than picking-pockets as I found difficult to ejaculate when I masturbated. My body needs a perfect copulation for ejaculation. This numbness that is prevalent in my body might have been the result of my pick-pocketing years. I used to drink Oxtail soup every day, to bear the brunt of police’s beatings when I get caught. The nurse or the girl (I do not know how to term the girl who worked at the semen bank) would knock at the door shouting “Sir, you have taken plenty of time”. During those days, I used to survive on rotten tomatoes.
Do you know how I quit being a pocket picker? It was an absurd situation. I bought a blade from a petty shop and got into a bus. When I tried taking the blade out, the packet was empty! Got down from the bus. It was T. Nagar Panagal Park. It was a hot summer afternoon. I was famished. No food for three consecutive days. I lied down. Felt dizzy. Took a bite of Durva grass nearby and vomited immediately. It had the stench of urine. Seeing a dog feasting on dried up human faeces, I made my life changing decision. I agreed to act as a catamite to a doctor who was approaching me for sex. I have written everything in Corpus, my novel, which is under translation now.
After Corpus, I began with a long novel titled Exile. Until Exile, sex was an affliction to me. For the first time, sex transformed into a celebration for me in Exile. It is a hedonist novel. The imprisoned body gets liberated through sex. Mind becomes ecstatic. Exile is my favorite among my six novels.
4.) Your mother tongue is Tamil but you are more popular in Kerala. Is that correct? How many languages have you been published in?
The mother tongue factor still puzzles me. I think and write in Tamil. But, culturally, I don’t think I am in Tamil Nadu. I consider myself as a French writer, writing in Tamil. Tamil Nadu has never accepted my writing. Kerala does. Although I do not know Malayalam, I have witnessed hundreds of people thronging to listen my speeches. There is not a place I have never visited in Kerala. Be it a book release function, or the protest of the tribals, or an international film festival, the people consider me as an inseparable element. The reason is that, Kerala celebrates writers, whereas, it is Cinema in Tamil Nadu. I am keen in translating my novels in other languages.
Zero Degree is getting translated in French and Hindi. The English translation of Corpus is almost complete. Exile in English and Spanish, and Raasa Leela in English, is going on. I might not write in Tamil anymore. If the Tamils want to read me, let them translate it.
5.) What in your mind is the role of literature and books?
The world is in chaos. Literature and books are the only factors that can save the world from disaster, I believe. Nothing can replace literature. Tamil Nadu has become philistine because they ignore literature. Just like eyes are the light of the soul, literature is the light of mankind. The Tzarist Russia is an example. A society can identify its wilderness only through the literature. The writer cures the disease of the society. Mankind would have been extinct without literature. Just like Dostoyevsky was the hope of Tzarist Russia and Pablo Neruda, to Latin America, writers are the torch bearers of the society. They are the hope. Without Literature, man becomes an animal.
6.) Do you think that literature still serves a role in today’s society given that it has to compete with the internet and TV?
Internet cannot be compared with TV. It is but an extension of books. Without Internet we could have never read so many writers. The TV is just a shadow. Neither can we feel the shadow nor have a relationship with it. Nevertheless, TV is not bad, just that people use it badly.
7.) Which are your favourite books? The books you go back to again and again?
Shakespeare, Nikos Kazantzakis, Milorad Pavic, Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Frederik Nietsche and many others. It is a long list.
And, Hymns of Azhwars (Nalayira Divya Prabandam), Bible and the Bhagavat Gita.
8.) What gives you the impetus to write a book – and when you begin – what is the process of writing – does it change?
Certainly. My writing does change. I create my writing while in a schizoid mode where I am in a possessed state. The average moments of routine life are very less in my life. I think, I disguise myself as a gentleman in those average moments. That’s why I’m reluctant for an interview and I prattle all along when somebody asks me about my works. (This is why I proposed the interview through writing). My friends, without knowing the difference, question me often,”Seriously did you write these books? Or do you have a ghost writer?” Yes. It is a ghost. But my own. I will have to enter my schizoid state to talk about my writing. A state which does not have a place for any audience, people with questions or friends. I am the king there; the God and the jester. Plenty of factors create my schizoid state, beginning from the howling of Euripides’ Medea to the news I read in the papers. A forty three year old teacher eloped with her fifteen year old student. Her body’s burning desire, agitates me to write another Kamarooba Kadhaigal!
My novel Kamarooba Kadhaigal is the most challenging work in my literary life. The novel is an account of the sexual life of teen aged girls, witnessed deep down in their own world. I was fifty five then, but transformed myself into a thirty year old and entered their world. They used to address me as ‘da’. I have seen a girl’s hands trembling like that of a drug addict, after sending five hundred text messages to her boy friend on a single day. I came across a girl who had sexual relationships with four boy friends during the same span of time. They resembled female characters from Catherine Breillat’s movies.
When I complete one of my novels, the next six months are spent in preparation for my next. In Tamil Nadu, one need not work hard for that as thousands of incidents happen right in front of your eyes and these incidents undergo an alchemical change in my private abode. It is impossible to explain what happens there.
The story creates the story. The text creates the text. It is a magic web, where I, the author and the text, create one another.
My novel Raasa Leela portrays the torments of the male body. In the mansions of Triplicane, Chennai, you could get to meet thousands of men who have not experienced sex in their entire lifetime. I had lived there. It’s a world burning with desire of lust. Between my age of thirty two and forty two, I had never touched a woman. It was a world devoid of women. It resembles the world of Erika Kohut, the character from Elfriede Gelineke’s Piano Teacher.
In short, I transmigrate for each of my novels. Adi Sankara, who transmigrated to discover the meaning of sex when he faced Sarasavani’s question, is my precedent in this regard.
9.) How do you tackle that famous “is it autobiographical” question when it comes to your fiction?
Nobody has questioned me thus. Even if I disagree that it is not autobiographical, no one would believe it. What they miss to see is that I am not a single being. I have innumerable souls in me. This makes it difficult for me tell up to what extent my works are autobiographical. Yet, I have never written without hints of autobiography. I envy writers like J.G Ballard for that. I have always wanted to write a novel without this autobiographical touch. But, since my life encompasses unexpected and adventurous incidents that are more interesting than a detective novel, my wish remains unfulfilled to this day.
10.) Could you describe to an English speaking audience what it means to work and write for a Tamil audience. What makes them different from other audiences? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
You have caught me spot on, even when I tried to escape from your question about the reception to Corpus. Exile speaks about a writer’s plight in Tamil Nadu, which is similar to living as an artist in a country of blind people, living as a musician in a country of deaf citizens and surviving as a goldsmith in a country of beggars.
The elixir of the Tamils is cinema. The writers in films are considered to be the only writers, which is why I request my friends not to introduce me as a writer, when in public. In case if that happens, the immediate question I face is, “Which film are you writing currently?” Else, they ask me in which station am I a writer, as there is a post of a writer in every police station. You can never encounter a philistine society worser than Tamil Nadu in the entire world. You can witness the writers who write for masala films, getting awarded the doctorate by famous universities here. In the bygone DMK regime, a vice chancellor announced that he was planning to translate former Chief Minister Karunanidhi’s works in English, to be sent to the Nobel committee. Can you witness such a drollery anywhere else? If Kapil Sibal recites poetry in the north, he is ridiculed. But, if Karunanidhi reads out his poetry, he is hailed as the heir of Elango (author of the Tamil classic, Silappadhikaram). Recently, a Tamil cinema lyricist has lamented in magazines that he has been insulted by his translators. Just because I can hit the golf ball, could I compare myself to Tiger Woods? These are my words from Exile.
Recently a Tamil ‘Masala’ cinema (‘Masala’ refers to Indian spice – you can imagine Rambo,Commando, Double Impact type cinemas with few songs and dances by ‘Saree’ clad semi nude women with a guy wearing leather jackets- climatic and weather conditions do not determine this attire) director was awarded with a Honorary Doctorate. In the west, Che Guevara is considered a revolutionary, not the mighty Sylvester Stallone for his super-human stunts in the cinema. In Tamil Nadu, the cinema hero is a “Revolutionary leader”, since he performs (of course with body doubles-not in romantic scenes) gravity defying stunts on the screen. It is Noam Chomsky there for a social scientist, here it is Mani Ratnam for Tamilians, since he offers good, easy solutions to deep rooted social, ethnic, economic, religious and divisive nationalistic problems in his cinemas. Dr.Kamal Haasan is the unofficial philosopher here for his indefatigable pronouncement of philosophical quotes in the cinema and in real life; the west is condemned with Michel Foucault for a Philosopher. (“I don’t say god doesn’t exist; I only say it would be good if he does.”)
Under such a circumstance, how can I hail myself as a writer? Pulp writers are present in all societies, but, only in Tamil Nadu, they are equals with the literary people. Mills & Boon and García Márquez are same here.
Hypocrisy is the other issue of the Tamil people. I heard a very famous orator speak, ”Remember, if cupid doesn’t strike you in your twenties, something’s very wrong with your body. If it strikes in forties, then something’s wrong with your mind”. Thousand people applaud hearing this speech. What sort of country is this? Do we have to cut our dicks as soon as we turn forty? I have been writing in this cultural environment for the past forty years. It is the same society in which a forty year old school teacher elopes with a fifteen year old student. Recently, a school principal has been arrested for sexually assaulting plenty of his students, for many years. The details which the girl students gave exactly resemble a Marquis de Sade novel. If I write about these issues, I’m stamped as a porno writer. Now, I had stopped writing in Tamil and have started writing in English.
The other important issue is that there is no audience here. I have roamed endlessly in the streets of Triplicane , carrying the manuscript of Zero Degree , twenty years ago. No publisher came forward to publish Zero Degree. I pledged my wife’s mangal sutra (I don’t believe in mangal sutras but my wife Avanthika considers it sacred) to try and print it. But alas, I could never find a printer because they suspected my manuscript was something subversive and did not want to take a risk. And they were right. The English critics say Zero Degree is a subversive text like Kathy Acker or William Burroughs, but the Triplicane printers guessed rightly long before that Zero Degree was subversive without knowing a thing about Kathy Acker or William Burroughs.
I have been my publisher for all my books till I found a publisher some eight years back. When I published Zero Degree, it was not well received in Tamil Nadu. Here, even the writers are more conservative than the public. The sexual content in the novel was not acceptable to my fellow writers and it was totally rejected. (I liked their hatred because they are Kafka gang and I don’t like Kafka!) I have heard that Kathy Acker faced the same situation when she wrote and published in 70’s and 80’s.
11.) How do you tackle criticism of your work?
There is no criticism in Tamil Nadu. They just attack brutally. What is wrong in telling that I am addicted to sex and writing? Immediately they declare me as a sex psycho. If Georges Bataille lived here, they would have hung him. College students complain to me that they face a heavy fine if they read me. I cannot name the colleges, as it is not an official fine. Female students write to me that my novels are read clandestinely.
In Tamil Nadu, the intelligentia practices cultural fascism, more than the common people. Twenty years ago, I directed and acted in a stage play, named ‘The Night show’ (Rendaam Aattam), in a theatre festival at Madurai. Those days, the blue films (“bit” films, they call) were shown only in the night shows, and hence the title. The drama was based on the Forum Theatre concept of Augusto Boal and Antonin Artaud’s concept of Theatre of Cruelty. The play had a few homosexual scenes. But the scenes were so stylish, and I had structured them as beautiful dance movements. (I am a huge fan of Udhaya Shankar). We were attacked even when the drama was half way through. The properties of the play were broken. The female member of the drama too, was attacked. The attackers were none other than drama scholars, who had doctorates. The cry of a professor, ‘You are insulting the theatre’, still lingers in my ears. Surprisingly, an old spectator praised me, saying that he is a Gandhian, who has been imprisoned in the freedom struggle. When I asked about a Gandhian supporting a homosexual play, he said he does not support my view, but then he supports the freedom of expression. He remembered the olden days, when they were stoned while staging plays against untouchability. That Gandhian was supported by a movement. Since I am a lonely man, I withdrew myself from the play, fearing my life.
Two decades back, the Latin American writers were exiled. Julio Cortazar lived in exile, in France. Here, no exile, but they insult by naming me a sex psycho in the magazines. Also, writing in Tamil is similar to writing in a diary. Even though I am a famous writer, my books never sell beyond a thousand copies. I have written a lot about Jean Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. I have translated Sartre’s short story The wall and his Novella Intimacy, and I doubt if at least a hundred readers would have read it. I have written about Ulrike Ottinger and Catherine Breillat in detail. But now, I think it is a waste of time.
I have decided henceforth that I will write only in English. I am an introvert. I don’t go out much or socialize. I have two huge dogs, a Labrador and a Great Dane, who take up most of my time. I work like a machine. Once a week, I go to pub with some friends. Though writing does not pay, I have friends who take care of me. I have a kind of fanatic reader following. (They have formed a Readers Forum too in Facebook). They say that my writing mesmerizes. Well, I don’t know!
(Interview appeared in ‘Morgue Keeper‘, Charu Nivedita’s selected short stories translated into English.)