Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar interacted with journalist-author Sudeep Chakravarti at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 on his transition from journalism to writing books, the significance of a book cover design, inspiration, depiction of history in school textbooks, and more. Here are some edited excerpts from the interview:
Indian Printer and Publisher (IPP) – You have been an author for over 15 years now. What led you to choose this profession? https://indianprinterpublisher.com/blog/2022/11/jbm-19-23-january-2023/
Sudeep Chakravarti – Well, maybe for me it wasn’t that difficult a leap of faith because I was first a journalist and I think I still am in some ways, even though I write creative nonfiction and fiction and short stories. I have always written – I have always written from the time when I started working as a trainee journalist. I have been trained to write. I have always tried to inject mood and color and personality and tone and taps to the best of my abilities into whatever I wrote, even if it was a small piece and not always a cover story or a launch feature. So, I think I transitioned in 2004-2005 from the life of a pure played journalist to also adopting the life of a writer who loves books or stories and move away from exclusively being a journalist to being hyphenated now. So the journalist-author – it wasn’t too difficult for me.
Of course, writing fiction was very, very different to writing non-fiction. So, maybe in some ways, writing non-fiction comes to me more easily, because it’s a craft I have known from my first year as a writer, as a journalist. But fiction is something I have learned to love, I have learned to apply. I am writing a collection of poetry, which is new for me. I have just started writing thanks to Covid for the past two years. I am trying to write a play and my fourth novel, which is long overdue. I want to write screenplays, I want to collaborate graphic novels, I am having a blast with the writer’s life.
IPP – Please tell us about your latest work.
Sudeep Chakravarti – My latest book is a work of non-fiction, which is very strongly reportage oriented, very strongly narrative-driven as well. It’s actually a mix of genres. The name of the book is The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East. It’s located in Northeast India and its focus is on the region but at its core it also becomes a discussion about the peace process in the region. As we speak, there is a Naga peace process, there is a peace process in Manipur. It’s located in that zone and I have tried a sort of a reporter’s notebook-kind-of-approach to this narrative nonfiction by injecting this new element, which I personally have not done before in quite the manner that I understand. I am quite excited about it – the reception has been good, people seem to like this hybrid kind of book where I am using very careful reportage techniques with narrative nonfiction and history and culture. I actually believe in hybrid books – I don’t like to isolate a book into just one particular approach, I like multiple styles, approaches because real life is like that. It’s not black and white, it’s not binary, it’s all grey and as it is mixed. I would like to approach my writing and the subjects of my books in that way as well.
IPP – You have written about the Naxalite movement and about history and culture. Which genre do you prefer?
Sudeep Chakravarti – I am a greedy person, I am a greedy writer – I love all genres. Even when I am writing Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, which is on the mouse rebellion in India. I have been in history. I have been in culture. I wrote Red Sun in 2008-2009 and I am very, very proud of it. This is my first book of nonfiction that set me on my path of writing more nonfiction books. But even here, even though I am writing about conflict and conflict resolution, I try and talk about history, I try and talk about socio-economic matters. Even in my new book, I talk about ethnography, culture. In my book that I wrote about my people The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community – there is an immense amount of history and culture, ethnography, politics, climate change enabling inclinations in South Asia. I love doing these big subjects because for me each subject is a multiverse, is not one world or one universe, it’s a multiverse.
IPP – What is your take on the depiction of history in school textbooks?
Sudeep Chakravarti – I think they can do a lot better. I do not think that school children in India are being taught history the way they should be taught history. They need to be taught history with a lot more depth, with a lot more honesty, a lot more application and in a lot more fun manner to make history more accessible to the students. They don’t need to have history thrown at them. History is, after all, a retelling of our past, whatever the interpretation maybe. Now, if you rewrite the history, if you tell the history dishonestly you are corrupting entire generations of children who deserve better, who deserve history in its most empathetic and honest interpretation possible – that is honest history and that is not being taught!
IPP – There are allegations that the current government is changing the course of history. Would you like to comment?
Sudeep Chakravarti – Yes, I think they should stop doing it because I think we’re going to be trapping down some very dark alibis already on account of this approach. I think it should stop immediately. If the government doesn’t see good sense in doing so, then I think it’s a blind end weapon and they are going to pay a very heavy price for their good risk. I am afraid the children of India are already paying a very heavy price for their heedless and arrogance and blind belief in what history ought to be.
IPP – In your opinion, to what extent does a book cover design contribute to the eventual success of the book?
Sudeep Chakravarti – It contributes to it. I don’t know to what degree or to what extent because if there is a book that is sold by the cover, there is also a cliche that says don’t judge a book by its cover. Both are true, covers are often extremely wonderful. My first book that I ever wrote – a book of fiction called Tin Fish has this startlingly striking cover. I am very proud of the covers of all the nine books I have written. I think each is better than the other but I think the content is equally important. So, the cover contributes to the book but it is not the only factor that drives acceptance of the book.
IPP – Where do you derive the inspiration for your books?
Sudeep Chakravarti – From the world around us – my inspiration is our past, our present and our future as well. I derive my inspiration from the world I see.
IPP – Would you like to give a message to our readers?
Sudeep Chakravarti – Read – that is my primary message to your readers. Remain readers. Do not stop reading. Writers need readers. Readers need writers. We need each other and reading is this wonderful, glorious thing. Please keep reading.