Interviewed by Tishani Doshi for the New Indian Express, March 18, 2012
The first time I met Charu Nivedita was at the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram in 2010. We shared a taxi from the airport into town. “I’m looking forward to this,” he told me, “I’ve been holed up finishing a novel. It took me 16 days to write!” I didn’t believe anyone could finish a book in 16 days, but then, I’d never met anyone like Charu before.
By his estimation Charu has written about 40 books: six are novels, the rest non-fiction (books on international literature, world cinema, music and translations). To write, he says he must be in a schizoid mode — “a state which does not have place for any audience, friends, or people with questions. I am the king there; God and the jester.” Even to talk about his writing he has to enter this schizoid state, which is why he doesn’t want to meet in person for this interview, even though we live in the same city.
Charu suffers the strange predicament of being an author who thinks and writes in Tamil but culturally aligns himself more with Marquis de Sade. His work has a wider readership in neighbouring Kerala, where he claims, they celebrate writers, unlike Tamils, whose elixir is films. “Surviving in Tamil Nadu as a writer is similar to living as an artist in a country of blind people, or as a musician in a country of deaf citizens… Only the writers of film are considered writers, and they are given doctorates by famous universities for writing masala films… You will never encounter a more philistine society than Tamil Nadu,” he says. “If Kapil Sibal recites poetry in the north, he is ridiculed. But if Karunanidhi reads poetry, he is hailed as the heir of Elango.”
Needless to say, Charu gets a fair amount of flack for his outspoken views. His detractors claim that his work is overtly pornographic. “But what’s wrong in saying that I’m addicted to sex and writing?” he says. “If Georges Bataille had lived here, they would have hung him.”
While it’s true that most of Charu’s subject matter is drawn from his own experiences (his list of past professions range from pickpocket, sperm bank donor, catamite and postal employee), he also takes cues from the news. “In Tamil Nadu, one need not work hard for stories,” he says, “as thousands of incidents happen right in front of your eyes.” He envies writers like J G Ballard, who write without the hint of autobiography, but as his life encompasses more adventurous incidents than a detective novel, he cannot help but blur the lines of reality and fiction.
Charu accuses the Tamil intelligentsia of practising cultural fascism more than the common people. Why else, he asks, is it okay to show blue movies in cinemas, but impossible to stage a Forum Theatre Augusto Boal-styled play with sexual content? He merely wants to write about a cultural environment where these things happen. If a 40-year-old school teacher elopes with her 15-year-old student, why shouldn’t he write about it? His disgust with Tamil hypocrisy is so extreme that he has now decided to write only in English. “If the Tamils want to read my work,” he says, “Let them translate it.”