By CP Surendran
The interview below was done by K A SHAJI on my latest novel One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B (Niyogi Books ), and raises sensitive issues which have a central bearing on our lives. Hours after posting the interview the news outlet dropped the interview and turned the link inactive. Free speech – or the lack of it – is one of the issues that shape the destiny of a character or two in the novel. I am choosing to post the interview through Medium. It is a long read.
Though you have written three novels earlier, One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B stands out as an exceptional work and wins large-scale critical acclaim. Is it marking the birth of a novelist and the death of a journalist?
Cp: One Love is a departure from my earlier works of fiction (An Iron Harvest, Lost And Found, Hadal, in that order, which, if given a chance to write again, I probably will think twice) in terms of the seriousness of purpose. A bit of the immortality stakes – mistaken, I am sure – has gone into it. I have gone through a few terrible things such as public pillorying and cancellation. This novel partly works for its material a forging of the soul – such as it is – in a special fire in hell.
But equally, it is about all of us, caught in a fluid confusion of identity, thanks primarily to social media and a technology that enables by-lined speech without thought. This has mutated our public conduct and sense of grievance and rights to such an extent that almost all of us think we are in the right and, therefore, victims of one kind or another. Our newfound intolerance to each other springs from this perception. One Love is an engagement with these complexities dramatized by 7 or 8 characters, the young protagonist, Osip Bala Krishnan being one of them.
Now, to go back to your question. One of the casualties of our times is journalism, which in the novel is represented by the tyrannical news baron, Alok Jain. Everyone is a journalist now.
We do not go to a hospital and expect a compounder or the ward-boy to wield a scalpel. We look for a good doctor. Indeed, despite our professed bleeding liberal hearts, we do not look for female or Dalit, or even male doctors. We look for a surgeon who knows his/her work. But we easily accept the idea that everybody can be a journalist if only because he or she has an opinion to vent, no matter how vicious or ill-thought-out it is. Alok Jain has great contempt for the new journalist. He knows his or her price.
Journalism never was a very healthy plant in India. When you had a weak, relatively less vindictive Congress dispensation, it was easier to play the liberal card and come across as a hero. Now that the dispensation is a truly hard one, the big and small media houses have just given up, because they do not believe in much else but the bottom line. Which is not a bad idea at all. I can only add that my personal demise as a journalist coincides, unsurprisingly, with the death of journalism in general in this country.
- Through the novel, you are introducing a dysfunctional young man who attempts to survive in a deranged world, which according to you, is our world. What are the factors that prompt you to conclude that the world around us is deranged? Is this conclusion personal or political?
Cp: The fundamental reason why I believe the world around us has changed for the worse is that the hierarchy of values has collapsed. In art , we are not able to judge beauty anymore. As I said, everybody is a journalist now. Everybody is a poet, too. Everybody is an editor. A theorist. A pundit.
To a great extent, access to Google has helped scale up our exposure. In some strange and terrible ways, we are all more knowledgeable than we were before. But look how it has deluded us into thinking we could bring down the greats. There is no more a Hero. That age is gone. They are vandalizing the statue of Abraham Lincoln now; Hemingway should not be read because of his ‘toxic masculinity; Gandhi is a pedophile. They equate Churchill with Hitler. There is just no context, no nuances. Despite access to knowledge, there is no sense of history. We are drowned in the moment. There is no more a Hero because everybody is a Hero.
That democratization does not come without a price. The price is the collapse of a sense of hierarchy in aesthetics, and even in our assessment of history, and who deserves what, the system of awards and rewards. As Baudelaire said in the 19th century, everything is permitted, nothing is true. A poem is not necessarily a poem because a transgender wrote it. Or a macho male wrote it. It needs to be judged against a certain scale. If you have no real framework, then, surely it is much like being at sea without a compass. Derangement must result at a massive scale, both at a political and personal level.
- It is not uncommon for teenage students to fall in love with their teachers. The search of such students for their disappeared teachers is also uncommon. Then what makes this novel a distinct one?
Cp: What I hope makes One Love distinct is its clutch of characters beginning with Osip Bala Krishnan himself. Why is he named after Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet whom Stalin exiled to Siberia and who died of starvation in 1938? Why does his adoptive grandfather, a Stalinist mass murderer (whom his wife Gloria ‘thinks’ is pretending memory-loss) from Kerala feel his christening Bala after Mandelstam is an act of expiation? Why do they both suffer the same delusional world of 20th century Russia? What are the parallels that contemporary Indian society draws in the individual lives of the novel’s characters?
- Your first novel, An Iron Harvest, revolved around the Naxal uprising in Kerala in the 1970s and the rebellious and disillusioned youth during the Emergency. It also stands as a fictional interpretation of the custodial death of engineering student Rajan and the long and lonely one-person fight his father Echara Warrier waged to get justice. The second novel, Lost and Found, was in the backdrop of the. Mumbai terror attack. The third novel Hadal is a fictionalized account of the incidents that conspired around the 1994 ISRO spy debacle in Kerala. You are now evolving to several plots revolving around transgressive relationships, gender politics, nationalism, individual freedom and group rights, fake news and power from such specific plots. How do you wish to comment on this evolution?
Cp: Naipaul once said there is no point in writing fiction because reality is more interesting. I find little distinction between the two. There is not much that we can imagine that does not really exist.
Even in the present novel, in One Love, the story is not really a question of incidents. What guides it is the pattern of thought and action that like a ripple in a lake reaches the far side, seemingly circular, but moving, moving all the time toward their event horizon.
- Like Osip Bala Krishnan, you are also hailing from Thrissur in central Kerala and a family with known Communist leaders as members. Are there any autobiographical elements in this novel?
Fiction is the history of a bunch of characters. And the stuff that happens to one’s life, directly and indirectly, has a great deal to do with it. We err mostly when we are ourselves. We err even more when we are not ourselves, of course. It is these aberrations that mark our time. In other words, our experiences enable us to define our peculiar individual passage through time. In fact, we pass through a time within time, each of us an exponent of the string theory, making a world of our own in our transit. That is possibly why even when we can reach out and touch each other, we don’t fully understand each other.
I come from a literary and political family. My late father was a communist and a selfless man. I am neither. A bit of him has gone into the character of the Stalinist grandfather, Mr. Menon, whose fears and voices Osip B shares. It is not just my father, almost all the characters in the novel are people whom I know rather well.
- The Stalinist grandfather in the novel is tragically affected by the disintegration of the USSR. Does that haunt you?
Cp: Stalin killed millions for a beautiful tomorrow. All political leaders will demand their people go through great suffering for the cause of beauty ( love, peace, order etc), that we shed blood and ruin lives. Maybe there is no other way. But almost always, too, those who are certain to benefit from the delayed gratification expected of a people are their leaders. Only a very few lead a beautiful today. I find that unacceptable. The fight against that has little to do with gender or caste or religion: group. It has to do with the individual. Till we get to recognize and honor the individual and his rights, all group formations ( whose leaders are always capable of inflicting violence, and generally have a good time) will have the potential for developing into fascist-like organizations. Simone Weil says somewhere that all organizations will perforce be against the idea of truth.
No, the USSR does not haunt me, though it haunted my father to his last day. The USSR, like China, or even India are to me promises that waylaid history.
- The book is not an easy read, though you have skillfully interlinked many issues of independent stature or which require further exploration. What do you think? Is it the strength or weakness of the book?
Cp: One Love is literary fiction, not pulp. It is meant to make the reader pause. I would think almost all the characters are capable of raising one’s curiosity enough to find out what happens to them next. And I believe it is a novel for our times. It demands a certain engagement. The year 1938 ( the year of Mandelstam’s death) for example has been mentioned just three or four times. But a gun that Osip finds under his grandfather’s pillow, for example, toward the end, has 1938 inscribed on the handle. Osip B will seize his day with it. 1938 is a conceit yoking together Mandelstam, Osip B, Stalin, and Osip B’s grandfather.
- Through the personal experiences and adventures of the characters, you are drawing a picture of contemporary India. Are you still optimistic in this age of rigid nationalist feelings propelled by aggressive Hindutva?
Cp: Given the unimaginative Opposition, and the general discontent, and the resultant yearning for order and development, in 2024, too, the BJP is likely to win. So we are traveling toward a Hindu State.
But, if a majority of the population wants to assert their faith in overt rituals and rites, it must have a certain historical lineage. Why should a Hindu believing in his god (s) be a problem? Only because it takes on exhibitionistic violence. But to fault the average Hindu of his evolving social and political history and demand he be like his stoic father or mother and be a bleeding heart liberal is neither reasonable nor practical. We need to address the Hindu question. Instead of making that attempt, we jeer and taunt the Hindu.
- Are the questions of identity, nationality, and beliefs relevant in the lives of cosmopolitan people, who get educated and live beyond borders and intermingle with people of different cultures?
Cp: As mentioned in the novel, the very rich have no nationality. Neither the very poor. They don’t have the time. It is the middle classes who have problems.
Like Osip in the novel, I am at home nowhere. I dislike India except for the hills. But when I am abroad, I dislike those places and their visibly finer living even more. I find the idea of identity, place, religion, culture, and politics pointless. Almost all of it, we are born into, without a choice. Now to make another choice across that spectrum to counter all those massive accidents is such a pain if you really are a thinking person.
- Are Osip’s desperate search for his lover Elizabeth Hill and his claim that he was obsessively in love with her quite odd?
Cp: All obsessions are odd. Boys fall in love with their teachers all the time. But taking it to the next level is when a boy or a young man becomes a character. Osip’s entire life is shaped by his travel, his journey after the holy grail, Elizabeth. But it is not just Elizabeth. Through that journey, he discovers his family secrets, ends up as a journalist in a fake media outlet, and confronts the great question of authenticity. So, it is love on the one hand. On the other, it is a journey toward himself. ( Link Medium )