Utpal Borpujari

May 11, 2009

Rajorshi Chakraborti: Telling it like he loves it

By Utpal Borpujari

“Raj Chakraborti, internationally renowned novelist and commentator, beloved and controversial in equal measure, reviled and resurrected periodically for his ever-shifting opinions, has disappeared from public view. What’s worse, the police want to question him about a murder…” The blurb on the back cover of his novel cleverly seeks to create the first impression that the writer himself is the protagonist. But Rajorshi Chakraborti, whose second novel Derangements (Harper Collings) employs the complex structure of two stories moving ahead together, makes it clear that his is a complete work of fiction.

Edinburgh-based academic Chakraborti has sort of developed an identity as a writer who uses the non-linear story-telling format in both his published novels – the first one was Or The Day Seizes You (Penguin) – but no, he is not going to persist with this style. “In fact, the three novels I have written since Derangements – which hopefully will be released in due course – are all simple, linear narratives. This multi-layered, non-linear form simply seemed like the best way to tell this particular story. Being complicated holds no value for me as such,” he promises you.

Great grandson of Bengali writer Hemendrakumar Roy, Chakraborti has been appreciated by critics for his interesting writing style. Ask him about it, he does not give a complicated reply, though. “More than studying psychology in any formal or general way, it’s the specific characters who inhabit my head over a long period of time, and in doing so create their own stories. They tell me what they will do next, what feels right for them, and I, as a writer, listen to those voices, and if I feel convinced, I take the story in those directions,” is how he explains the development of ideas inside him.

Chakraborti, whose first novel was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword prize in 2006, this time decided to use his own name for the protagonist, creating an illusion that there could be autobiographical elements in the story, but that was actually a temporary arrangement that became final latter on. “I was fishing around for a good name for the character for a while, and then just decided to use Raj until I came up with something better. But weirdly enough, this little switch really allowed me to get into his skin, and see the world through his eyes, so that by the end I just decided to go along with calling him Raj Chakraborti,” he says.

In fact, little nuggets spliced from the real life around him quite often helps him develop his characters, he says. “Sometimes I borrow certain memorable details that I’ve seen in other people or episodes they’ve told me about, and weave them into the novels. But even then, I often take them in a different direction in the story from what I actually saw or heard. The characters become experimental selves, as it were, choosing numerous roads not necessarily taken by anyone in real life. You can also spread out various autobiographical details among different characters,” he says, even while pointing out that “Although I did have a lot of fun drawing out little streaks within my personality and exaggerating them as far as I could, it is very much a fictional character”.

A teacher of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, the 1977-born Chakraborti takes forward Derangements in two separate, simultaneous tracks, with a third and final track appearing as an epilogue to stitch together the story. Despite the complexity of the structure, he, however, is not much worried about how readers would perceive his writing. “Of course, there is an element of nervousness, but beyond a point, once the book is out in the world, you cannot really predict or control anyone’s reaction. The only rule of thumb that I use in planning a book is to ask myself if this is the story I most want to tell. The other guideline I set for myself is to ask with every sentence, paragraph and chapter, ‘Am I being fully entertained and engaged in writing this’? Beyond that you cannot really tailor your book for any ‘ideal’ reader. I write the stories that I would most love to read, and hopefully they would be enjoyable to some other people as well,” is how he puts it.

Educated at the United World College in Victoria, Canada, the University of Hull where he was awarded the Philip Larkin Prize, and the University of Edinburgh where he completed his doctoral studies in African and Indian Literature, Chakraborti’s use of surrealism has its reasons. “I do love to write stories full of events and situations that I find enchanting, mysterious and evocative, and it would be wonderful if readers occasionally felt they were being transported as if they were in a dream. Another great quality of telling stories through situations and images is that if these are powerful and evocative enough, they can suggest many possible interpretations to different readers.,” says the author whose reading list includes work by those like Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Ishiguro, Orson Welles and Buster Keaton. 

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 10-05-2009)



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