STRADDLING THE ART WORLD AND WRITING
For someone who began fiction writing seriously at 50, V. Sanjay Kumar has been remarkably prolific, churning out four novels in a decade, with the fifth underway. The Bangalore-based author, “art world insider” and former entrepreneur also walked away with the prestigious 2018 Bridport Prize for best short story (out of 4300 entries), one of the U.K’s oldest literary awards.
His first book Artist, Undone (Hachette India), published in 2012, revolves around the protagonist, an advertising executive in Mumbai, battling mid-life crisis as well as his wife’s romance with a painter in Chennai and then turning to the world of art.
With his first novel out and clearly enjoying writing, Sanjay went on to publish his second book Virgin Gingelly (2012, Hachette India), a collection of short stories set in a middle-class housing cooperative in Chennai that tackles the simple conundrum of being and belonging.
The Third Squad (2017, Akashic Books, U.S) his next, a noir crime novel is about Mumbai of the 80s and 90s — the police encounter squads, the underworld and about autistic cops in the hit squad.
The latest, A Tamil Month, (2020, Bloomsbury), a contemporary novel set in Tamil Nadu is at one level political but also deals with caste.
Sanjay, a full-time writer now, runs an art gallery.
How did Artist, Undone come about?
As an insider, and an MBA, I was fascinated by what went on in the intimate world of art that people knew little about, that they called elitist, the market they termed irrational, and art itself made them nervous especially when it was abstract or lacked a convenient narrative. So much happened in the world that challenged my received wisdom. This was the experience I wished to share. The narrator in Artist, Undone is someone like me, from the business world, who stumbles into art and his life takes a turn.
How easy or difficult was it to publish a debut novel for a late starter?
It wasn’t a straightforward manuscript. There were images as part of the narrative, works of art from India and abroad. The first publisher rejected it. The second publisher found it interesting. Small audience, the editor said, but a voice that needs to be heard. The critics liked the book, the art world embraced it.
So, emboldened by your first book, you ventured into the second, Virgin Gingelly?
By the time my first book was published in 2012 all I wanted to do was write. I was brought up in Chennai in the 60s and 70s and moved homes many times there. After a long stint in Mumbai, I returned to Chennai. At the time of writing, we lived near a Cooperative Colony that had old homes with old people, one scooter, one kolam, an open well and they triggered this idea of short narratives. I began with independent stories and then characters linked up to those in other stories.
How was this unique novel, a combination of prose and poetry, received?
Virgin Gingelly is what it is. It has received love from a select band of readers. One reviewer felt its tone didn’t match the city’s tone. Another deconstructed it and questioned my intentions. It seems the book could have been so much more. I got that feeling too. There is a sense of incompleteness that I left it with and I did feel that other narratives would spring from it in the future.
*Was The Third Squad inspired by real life events? How much is fiction, how much is real?
I was in Bombay in the 80s and 90s and it was a strange time for the city — the bomb blasts, the riots, the extortion, the encounters. Writing a narrative set in that period felt very real. I have travelled the city extensively, mostly by train. The sense of place in the book is heartfelt and first hand. I was also at the time exposed to the soft underbelly of the city, the one that gangsters were threatening. I was there when the riots took place and all around us houses were burning. The violence was very real.
The rest of the novel is fiction. There were two encounter squads the city had. The third came from my imagination.
*After it was published, you said that Mumbai has lost its collective conscience, morphed into a lesser metropolis, that people seem to pull on; and to endure is to die. Some may disagree?
If you look at what has been happening in Mumbai, what they have been through since the 80s, you begin to question just about everything. The locals have no time to question, they are hurtling along. The city is a civic nightmare, a visible one to this day. It is visited annually by a deluge. Prosperity and apathy go hand-in-hand. The spirit of Mumbai, it’s much-vaunted quality, is a glutton for punishment.
There is money to be made. There are smart, intelligent people, the best in their professions; they meet in their islands, and they bemoan. Poets get together and read, after that all is forgotten. That said, there is a certain magic, things happen in Mumbai and nowhere else.
*Noir crime novels are typically readymade stuff for movies. Any plans?
There was considerable interest for The Third Squad to be made into a web series and we did sign with someone. It was the time when Sacred Games came out, two seasons that too, and that perhaps queered the pitch for funding, as my book is set in the same space. There is residual interest but nothing firm.
*Are you a crime fiction buff? Your staple literature and any influences?
My reading was eclectic and the crime fiction that I read, besides Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner, was the Maigret series. I also read some John Le Carre and Graham Greene and liked their studied pacing. From the art world, I like the writing of Robert Hughes, books like The Shock of the New. Among recent fiction writers, I like Junot Diaz, Shehan Karunatilaka, and George Saunders.
As a writer, I am not conscious of specific influences. But reading good writing acts as a trigger in many ways. It also tells you to write the best you can.
*What about your involvement with the Arts?
I stay in touch with the art world in many ways. I’ve been engaged with the art world since 1988 and wear that label called insider. I am not surprised art keeps featuring in my writing. It is there in the wings at all times. There is so much I owe to art and artists. The transformation from businessman to writer would not have happened if artists had not taken me under their wing and introduced me to different forms of art, music and poetry. Writing demands absorption. There is no other role that I play when I write.
*How did the Bridport short story prize happen and what did it mean to you?
This was an amazing experience. I had been meaning to write a golf story and I had one with me, based on a caddie in a course in Chennai. I worked on the story, sent it across and forgot about it. Out of the blue, I received a call saying I had won the competition. It is a great prize, one that I would recommend wholeheartedly. The award meant a lot. An external endorsement of this kind is a boost, to win from 4000 plus entries worldwide.
*What about your next book?
There should have been a book out by now but for the pandemic. It should be any time after July. It is my fourth novel titled A Tamil Month, being published by Bloomsbury. Contemporary in setting, it is steeped in the local, in Tamil Nadu. At one level it is a political novel; it also deals with caste.
*Your views on contemporary Indian writing in English?
Writing in English has a new companion — translated works. There is a lot happening in translation from Indian languages. Established writers that one had not read are now accessible. The best part is that the translations are very good. The other interesting trend is the number of debut works that have come out recently. This augurs well.
- What according to you should be the role of art/books in society?
My personal view is that there is no role that art has to play or a novel has to fulfill. Both forms exist. To question their purpose is like asking what are we doing on Earth. I think readers have a role to play in society, not writers.