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Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

An Interview with Anosh Irani

by Elizabeth Glixman


When I open the album I see pictures of coffins: finger coffins, arm coffins, toe coffins. It surprises me how much I do not know about this city. Tomorrow I might meet a midget who is ten feet tall, a butcher who sells newborn babies, a boxer who works as an anesthetist in a hospital by knocking patients senseless. In this city, birds are forced to crawl and rats can fly if they use their tails correctly. When I think about this city, it is almost as if it does not exist. It is a body floating on air, and landing whenever it gets tired. That is why it is so noisy. The din is the sound of it panting.
                  --The Cripple and His Talismans, pg. 123

Buy now from Amazon! Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, calls Anosh Irani's The Cripple and His Talismans "A highly imaginative novel, full of humour, poetry and insights, written in a beautiful, spare style." He goes on to say, "Throughout the narrative looms a great city, Bombay, crazily reflected in the life of one of its inhabitants who, by means baffling, heinous, desperate and often very funny, seeks to embrace the divine with both arms."

The Vancouver Sun said, "The Cripple and His Talismans makes demands on the reader, but our effort is triply rewarded--first, by the lush imagery of the writing; second, because of its surprises and, finally, because of its deep moral gravity... This debut novel marks a step in the evolution of Canadian literature."

 

EG     You do not flatter the city of Bombay in The Cripple and His Talismans. There are many descriptions that make the city sound like a nightmare of poverty, illness, and aberration. How do you feel about Bombay? I know you have a new book out that once again takes place in this city.

AI     Bombay can be a complete nightmare. It depends on who views it. A prostitute, a street child, and a businessman will not see the city in the same manner. A city changes according to the characters that experience it. So it depends on whose point of view I'm writing from. The Cripple and His Talismans is narrated by a cynical, self-deprecating man who is thrust into the underbelly of the city. So the writing has to reflect that.

As for how I feel about Bombay--I am unable to let it go. It haunts me; it inspires me. The best way for me to describe it is that Bombay is a cross between a nightingale and a vulture: beauty and death.

EG     I like the way you make objects and events breathe in this novel in the way writers of magic realism do. At the same time there is a surreal absurdity to this story, a grouping of events that would be impossible on the earth. Combining these two ways of viewing events (the surreal and magically real) creates a story that is disturbingly grotesque, poetic and uplifting. It sparkles and it horrifies. I found what saved me from getting lost by too many strange and bizarre surprises was the relationship of the narrator with Malaika, the prostitute, and the narrator's relationship with his childhood classmate Viren, whom he physically harmed. I felt grounded by these real moments. Do you write straight realism? If no, why not?

AI     When you write in the style of magic realism, balance is important. Reality is essential to ground the story. Only then can the magic feel relevant. In the same manner, humor provides lightness, a playfulness, so that the reader can digest the grotesque parts of the story. The narrator's relationship with Malaika, even though it has a negative outcome, makes him human.

I do write straight realism. My second novel, The Song of Kahunsha, is about a 10-year-old boy who gets caught up in the communal riots that took place in Bombay in '92-'93. The only magic in the story takes place in the boy's imagination--he dreams of a place called Kahunsha or "the city of no sadness." It is this dream that enables him to survive even when his circumstances get extremely dark. Story dictates style--the characters tell you what style you should use. When a man goes on a quest to find an arm, it is completely absurd, and magic realism is the only choice. Similarly, when I write about a boy's loss of innocence, it is essential to keep the writing as real, truthful, and simple as possible.

EG     Is Kahunsha your fictional creation?

AI     Yes. I don't know what the word means, but when it came to me, I loved it.

EG     I thought the pacing of theThe Cripple and His Talismans was one of its strengths. Is this something you consciously planned, or did this happen naturally? Did you outline this story? How long did it take to write?

AI     It took me about two years to write. I also wrote a play during that time, so I would work on the novel in spurts. The pacing is something that developed very naturally. The only thing I was conscious of was a sense of time, that the quest takes place in a few days. There was no outline. It was like a treasure hunt; each character told me where I should go next, so it was an adventure even for me. I try not to outline everything. I always leave room for God's Plan--the beautiful accidents that occur, that derail you and make your journey of a higher nature.

EG     Where did the idea for the novel come from?

AI     I was completing the end to one my short stories when I had an image of amputated limbs hanging from the ceiling in a dungeon. I had no idea where this image came from, but it refused to go away, and so I was compelled to explore it. The first character that came to me was Baba Rakhu, seller of arms and legs. I also imagined someone lurking in the shadows of that dungeon, an armless man who was hoping to buy an arm. The strangeness of these characters excited me.

EG     People get excited by all sorts of things. The "strangeness of characters" is not a source of excitement I am familiar with. Could you explain this?

AI     When I come across characters that I don't understand, there's a chance for me to learn something, and then my own writing process has meaning. Their "strangeness" simply means that I don't really know what motivates them. It's like seeing a dark looming shadow and then moving from shadow to form.

EG     Did you go to school in Bombay? Did you experience the kind of disdain the narrator did in The Cripple and his Talismans and the kind of inability to fit in? Could you tell us about your background?

AI     Yes, I was schooled in Bombay. The restaurant Lucky Moon, I think it's mentioned in the book, was where we'd hang out all the time, and I did have a group of friends who were the class "toughies." They had a wonderful sense of humor, and they had mastered sarcasm and had a great sense of timing. What I brought to it was a sense of the absurd. From a very young age, I learned how to laugh at the darkest of human experiences. I have no idea why, but it came very naturally to me.

It's not that I didn't fit in, but I carried a certain amount of cynicism with me all through my education. Even though I did really well in school, I didn't get the point. I had no desire to amount to anything--no doctor, no engineer, nothing. Instead, I made sure I did well in my exams just so that I could say it was meaningless. I'm not saying education is meaningless. I'm saying that from a very early age I was searching for something. When I look back now, I guess it was to find my purpose--to write. But my schooling did not teach me how to write. The streets of Bombay did.

EG     Why did the narrator remain nameless?

AI     I don't know. The moment I tried to name him, I couldn't write about him anymore.

EG     Why did you move to Canada?

AI     An aunt of mine, whom I was very close to, moved here six months before I did. She was the first person to tell me that I would one day become a writer (long before I had any interest in writing). So I took a risk and moved to Canada to become a writer. I needed to get out of Bombay to get a fresh start.

EG     How did your aunt know you would be a writer before you knew?

AI     I don't know. She is a great observer of people. She recently told me I'd make a good clown. In the same breath, she said, "God help us."

EG     On page 44 of the book there is a passage: "I am too tired to take a nap. So I have lined forty empty whisky bottles in a row on the floor. When I lost my arm, I stopped drinking. But I carried these whiskey bottles from my old flat to the new one. Even though they contain nothing, I cannot throw them away. They were drunk in the past, over nights, days, funerals, weddings, and card sessions. They are not empty--they hold my past."

Living in Canada, do the objects you see there hold your past from India? What is it like to live and become a well-known writer in a country so different than that of your birth?

AI     I don't know if objects have that effect on me, but the landscape of a place certainly does. When I see coconut trees, or railway tracks, or bougainvillea, or brothels (run-down ones), I think of Bombay. And I rarely see any of the above in Canada, except for the railway tracks. I'm sure there are brothels, but I haven't visited any.

When I first moved here, it was the absence of things that made it unbearable for me. The absence of heat, of crowds, of spicy food, of car horns, Hindi music, and so on. Absence can cut through you much harder than objects can.

I feel very lucky that my novels and plays have been so well received in Canada. I'm grateful that audiences have a hunger for my stories even though they are set in a landscape that is alien to most Canadians. Perhaps that's been an advantage.

EG     Have you considered writing stories that take place in Canada?

AI     I've considered it, but that's as far as I've gone.

EG     How did the The Cripple and His Talismans do in India?

AI     The novel hasn't been published there. I think they found it too weird. When I'm too weird for the Indians, I know I'm really weird.

EG     I never thought of India as being a weird, as in strange, country, but I have never been there.

AI     India is probably the strangest planet in the universe. That's why it's so addictive.

EG     The narrator in the Talismans was not too fond of Indian cinema. On page 115, he says "Hindi movies are nothing more than our mothers shouting at us for not being good. They can also be used to sleep well. A lecture can be extremely soothing if you ignore it."

Do you agree with him?

AI     I love watching Hindi movies in theatres, with a full house, where the songs are playing full blast, noisy fans are whirring, the soundtrack is a hit, and people are throwing coins at the screen. That's a great movie experience. There are some Hindi movies that are terrific, such as Sholay. But my favorite movies are the ones by Satyajit Ray. The simplicity and emotion of his films are unparalleled. Even Kurosawa was an admirer of Ray's. Sadly, Indian cinema produces few films of quality. Much attention is paid to escapism, and I understand that, but I do believe that there is a market for realistic films too, and there are talented filmmakers who will hopefully do inspiring work.

EG     When did you start writing?

AI     I wrote my first short story on the plane from Bombay to Hong Kong on my way to Vancouver. I was moving to Canada to become a writer and I had no idea if I could write. So I had a mini panic attack on the plane. I took out my writing pad, wrote a few lines. Then I went to sleep.

EG     A novel about searching for an arm is reminiscent of Kafka or other surrealist writers. Were you influenced by any of these writers?

AI     I'm influenced by the absurdist playwrights such as Ionesco and Beckett. Ionesco's Rhinoceros is one of my favorites. I like how the absurd can reflect life so accurately. Waiting for Godot is relevant even today. Grappling with meaningless is something we will continue to do until we find true clarity of our purpose on earth. The other writers that I like would include Nabokov, Rohinton Mistry, Amos Tutuola, and Junichiro Tanizaki.

EG     In all this horror, surrealism, and realism, you managed to make the language sing with such vehicles as metaphor, puns, lyrical phrasing. There were many lines and scenes that were plain funny and some grotesquely funny. The old men who needed to be by the train before they could defecate were hilarious. Some of the wordplay was funny also, as in the chapter title, "Flame and Fortune." Do people who know you say you have a sense of humor, or are you a brooding character wishing to reveal only the flaws in the world?

AI     The people who know me well think of me as someone with a very dark sense of humor. I try to see the humor in any situation. But there are times when I can be extremely moody. That's when I begin to brood, and that's when people leave me alone. At one point, I wanted to become a clown. Someday I will go to clown school.

EG     Your aunt had vision about you. What kind of a clown would you be--street clown, circus clown...?

AI     I'd only perform in theatre. I like being able to control an environment. It's important to be able to set a mood. You can't do that effectively on the streets or in the circus. For instance, if I want the audience to see a worm come out of my mouth, I'd require specific lighting. That's not a very good example, but I'm sure you understand what I mean. I love the clowns of the Commedia del arte. They were sent on stage during a play whenever the audience was bored. They performed physical comedy sketches called lazzi which had no connection to the actual story of the play. I wish I could do that when I'm watching someone else's play. "I'm bored. Bring on the clowns."

EG     The Cripple and His Talismans contains several seemingly cultural tales. The story about the river Baya and the peacock was one that stood out. Did you make this up, or is it a well-known story?

AI     The stories are inventions. In fact, this was a story I told when I was in the third or fourth grade. The teacher asked us if someone would like to tell a story. I immediately raised my hand and by the time I walked from my desk to the front of the class, I thought about this giant who lives underwater. That's all I remember from the story all those years ago. I have no idea why he was underwater. I used to make up stories all the time. It's absurd that I can do it for a living.

EG     From page 49 in the book: "There is an unwritten rule, or, if it is written, it lies sculpted on God's arm. Once your journey begins, you cannot end it. You can propel yourself off track, skid in different mud, but it will only make your journey that much longer." Is this something you have experienced?

AI     Yes. So much of our troubles are self-inflicted. We choose a path, but when the path becomes difficult, our resolve weakens. We know that staying on the path is the right thing to do, but we have no guts to do what's right; it's too hard. So we stay there and generate slime, and then analyze it instead of having the courage to burst ahead, towards light.

EG     The Cripple and His Talismans is a book that holds an awesome belief about embracing the divine. As I understand it, the narrator's search for his arm is a spiritual quest for himself and perhaps the whole world. What I found inspiring is that many mystics talk about how the material world is an illusion. In the LOSS of an arm and the search for it, the mutilation of the narrator's body becomes a blessed event for this character. His wholeness, his embrace of the world, is not in body but in soul. Was that the intent of the story?

AI     Yes. For me, spirituality is extremely important. Zarathushtra, the Zoroastrian prophet, speaks of "Good thoughts, Good words, and Good deeds." These are teachings you can use your whole life. As human beings, we cannot detach ourselves from our actions. We are our actions. And this is what the narrator needed to realize. But he was someone who was so far removed from God that he needed a physical blow, a loss, to take him on a spiritual quest. He is no doubt an intelligent man, but intelligence does not necessarily make you a good person. In fact, intelligence makes us arrogant; it causes us to challenge God. The narrator's intelligence holds no meaning when he loses his arm. He realizes how powerless he is, and it makes him question his actions.

EG     Please tell us about your playwriting.

AI     I've written two plays, The Matka King and Bombay Black. The first is set in a brothel, and it's the story of a vicious eunuch named Top Rani who runs an illicit lottery called "Matka" from his brothel. To date, he's been my favorite character. If I could act, I'd play him.

Bombay Black is a love story between a blind man and a dancer. (Actually it's more of a revenge story than a love story, but sometimes I wonder if there's a difference between love and revenge.

EG     Have these plays been performed?

AI     Yes, in Vancouver and Toronto.

EG     What do you see for yourself, writing-wise, in the future? Will you go back to India?

AI     I go back every couple of years to see the city. Then Bombay tells me what to write about. I don't think I'll ever move back though. Moving once was enough. I don't have the strength to do it again.

EG     Do you have family in India?

AI     My parents are in Bombay. I've been trying to get them here for a while now without much success. My mother finds the weather depressing, and my father has no one to play cards with.

EG     Is there something you really love about Canada that cannot be found in India?

AI     Yes, the peace that I have found here. Simple things--less corruption, clean air, drinking water, things we take for granted unless we've lived in a city like Bombay. I also find Canadians open and accepting of different cultures. What I also love about Canada is that we're not a nuclear power. I hope that doesn't change.

EG     Do you think we all have unseen talismans in our lives that help us to become less crippled spiritually and emotionally?

AI     The unseen is more real than the seen. It just exists in another dimension, and our test as humans is to move beyond what the physical world offers us. We get so caught up with the car, the house, the money, the sex, that we forget why we are on earth. We are on a spiritual quest, and for that we have to rely on the unseen. On God, on wisdom that is given to us if we are open and humble. But our unseen talismans manifest themselves through human beings on earth. We won't be seeing angels, but we will be helped by other people--they become our angels on earth, if we allow them to be.

EG     How long will you be on tour for your new novel, and what cities will you be in?

AI     I did readings in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Victoria. We've sold translation rights to Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Israel, so I hope I get to visit those places as well. And The Cripple will be translated into Chinese.

EG     Here comes perhaps the most important question. Anosh, what does your name mean? What is the origin?

AI     It's a Persian name, and it has two meanings: "Immortal," and "Nectar of the gods." Quite fancy. At least my parents did something right.

 

Anosh Irani.
The Song of Kahunsha.

Doubleday Canada. 2006.
ISBN: 0385662289

Anosh Irani.
The Cripple and His Talismans.

Algonquin Books. 2005.
ISBN: 1565124561

 

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