Hi. Are you ready for our interview?
You again. Seems like every time I turn around, I run into you.
Guess I’m the omniscient narrative voice in your head.
Hey, I have the credentials to ask you questions—seeing as how I was a reporter for seventeen years and all that.
I liked you better when you turned your gaze outward.
Why do you find it so hard to talk about yourself? I’d think after all these years of being a published writer, it would get easier.
I agreed to being interviewed. Not psychoanalyzed.
Touchy, aren’t we? And you still haven’t answered the question.
You know, I’ve always wanted to do a Whoopi and walk off from my own interview.
Are you threatening me?
Okay, listen. We’ve obviously gotten off on the wrong foot. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
Actually, yes. My new novel. It’s called The World We Found. And it has been predicted that it will sell a million copies.
Really? Who predicted that?
Sir Paul McCartney.
Paul McCartney predicted your novel would sell a million copies? When did he read it?
Hoo boy. . .
What’s the matter? You don’t believe me?
(Loud sigh.) Anything else you’d like to share about the novel? Some more . . . credible facts, maybe.
Well, if you want to be persnickety about it. The World We Found tells the story of four charismatic, bohemian women—Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita and Nishta—who were best friends and political activists in the Bombay of the 1970s. After college, they go their separate ways. Armaiti has moved to America, and when the novel opens in the present day, she has just found out that she has a fatal illness. She longs to be reunited with the other three and invites Laleh and Kavita to visit her in the United States. They immediately agree and set about looking for Nishta, who they’ve lost touch with ever since she married her Muslim college sweetheart. When they do find her, they are shocked to discover that she is living in terrible circumstances and this discovery taps into the idealism and radicalism of their youth.
So you ARE capable of giving a straight answer. So, what made you write this novel? Where’d the idea come from?
From a song Paul McCartney wrote for me. . . Okay. I can tell we are not amused.
Seriously, it was a chance meeting with a friend I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. I was visiting Bombay and ran into her. We were catching up and she mentioned that she was no longer politically active. She said the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93 had so upset her, it made her turn away from the public arena and focus instead on her own private life. Her comments reminded me of what a seminal event those riots were. Although I was living in America by then, they totally changed the way I felt about the city of my birth.
That sounds like a heavy subject to tackle.
Well, as someone once said, “A novel that shies away from heavy subjects is not a novel worth reading.”
Really? Someone once said that? Who?
No, come on, who said that?
Damn you. God, in seventeen years as a reporter I’ve never sworn at an interviewee before.
As someone once said, “A reporter who doesn’t swear, is a reporter not worth reading.”
Okay. Okay. Okay. Let’s stick to the subject. . . Tell me something about yourself you haven’t told too many people.
I love corn. Not the edible type, though that’s okay, too. I mean corn, like in corny. What I mean is, although I try to hide it, deep down, I really believe in that peace, love and understanding stuff. A friend of mine refers to it as my ‘60s gene. Basically, I’m one of those “Why can’t we all get along?” types. You know, the type that world-weary hipsters love to mock.
I think that’s one of the reasons why my books always end on a note of hope, no matter how slender. I can’t stand books that are unremittingly grim, bleak and hopeless. I love that Tony Kushner saying, “Hope is not a choice; it is a moral obligation.” As a writer, I believe this.
Are you sure Paul McCartney didn’t say that?
No, that was Kushner alright.
What else do you believe?
I believe that a book has to be emotionally honest. It may or may not be pretty and the language may or may not be beautiful. It’s always nice when it is, but you can get away with that stuff. What you can’t get away with, is a dishonest book. Writing is a sacred thing. There’s so little integrity in the world around us—politics is crooked, business is crooked, religion can be manipulating, the media is superficial and simplistic. Only literature, only art, retains that kind of purity, that unfiltered access to another human being’s soul. A reader is investing more than his or her money in a book. He or she is investing several hours of their time. The least you can do is reward them with emotional honesty.
One last question. Many of your books deal with people on the margins. You’ve often talked about the kind of crazy childhood you had—growing up Parsi and attending Catholic school, in a city that’s mostly Hindu. Parsis are such a tiny minority in India. Do you think the fact that your ancestors came to India a millennium ago from what used to be Persia, and the fact that you were raised in a dying religion, has influenced you as a writer?
You mean the whole insider-outsider point of view? Yes, I think so. There’s a lovely story about how the Parsis came to India. After the Arab invasion of Persia, my ancestors faced religious persecution and were forced to renounce their Zoroastrian faith. A small group of them fled by sea and sought refuge on the western shores of India. Legend has it that the Hindu ruler of the place where they landed, met them at the shore and refused them entry. Of course, neither side could understand the other. So the Hindu king took a glass of milk and filled it to the brim, then pointed to it, to say, “Sorry, we’re full. There’s no room for you here.” The Zoroastrian head priest asked for some sugar and proceeded to dissolve it carefully into the milk. His response was clear: “If you let us in, not only will we not disrupt your way of life, but we will sweeten it with our presence.” The Hindu king was so impressed by this, that he allowed them to stay.
This story made such a deep impression on me when I was a kid. When I came to America, that was the blueprint that I carried in my head. That story informed my behavior as an immigrant—it was my responsibility to contribute something to the society I now lived in.
If you think about it, that’s the role of the writer—to ‘sweeten’ or illuminate the reader’s world. To help the reader see life in a richer, deeper way.
And since I belong to a community which will, in all likelihood, be extinct in a few generations, there’s a strong sense of writing as commemoration, as remembrance, as preservation. That’s a strong impulse in me as a writer.
Well. This has been an interesting experience to say the least. Thanks for chatting with me.
The pleasure was all mine. Say, will you do me a small favor?
Sure. What is it?
Would you mind humming a few bars of Paperback Writer on your way out?
(Sound of door slamming.