Author and journalist Anjali Joseph was recently featured by The Daily Telegraph (UK) as one of 2010’s Top 20 Novelists under 40. This put her alongside authors such as Zadie Smith and Rana Dasgupta. A former Cambridge student, she’s gone on to teach as Sorbonne, as well as write for the Time of India. In August 2010, Harper Collins published Joseph’s debut novel Saraswati Park. Continuing my recent exploration of literary themes, I had a chance to ask Joseph some questions about her writing, and her latest novel Saraswati Park.
The novel is set in Bombay, but concentrates on quieter aspects of the city, namely a banyan tree in Fort and the characters surrounding it. I’ve come across banyan trees in various works of Indian literature before, they often appear as focal points - so it’s interesting to observe how their significance unfolds in relation to the plot of the respective novel. In this case, the novel centres on the characters Mohan, his wife Lakshmi and their newly arrived nephew Ashish. Harper Collins writes that ‘As Saraswati Park unfolds, the lives of each of the three characters are thrown into sharp relief by the comical frustrations of family life: annoying relatives, unspoken yearnings and unheard grievances.’
How long did it take you to pull together your first novel? Was it a story that had been lingering in your mind for some time?
The novel took eighteen months to write. Mohan and Ashish, the two principal characters, had been in my mind for a few months before I began it, as possible characters in two related stories.
To what extent does the geographical setting of Saraswati Park influence the themes you approach in the novel?
A sense of place is very important to the novel: this fluctuates between the characters’ inner space, their intimate living spaces (the flat they live in, the train compartment for the journey to work or college), and the larger space of the city in which the different experienced lives of millions of inhabitants somehow seem to coexist with a memory of the natural world.
Your living and educational experiences have taken you to various places, has this global movement had an impact on what you write?
Perhaps it has made me more attentive to the texture of daily life at home in India and elsewhere, and to the interplay of inner and outer in different environments.
What have been your most inspirational literary influences to date? (Either Authors or particular works).
I love Samuel Beckett’s non-dramatic prose writings. Indian writers whose work I’ve read more in the last five years include Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhuri and the late R K Narayan. Right now I’m beginning a Muriel Spark binge.
What literary direction/area are you most keen to explore next?
Slim, controlled novels. Books under 240 pages make my heart surge with joy.
What would you really like to see on the Asian Literary scene?
I don’t know exactly what that term denotes, but I’d be happy to see the work of writers from this region considered as writing, albeit in its social and political context, rather than as some sort of utterance or piece of evidence in a sociological dossier. As a side note, there is a lot of extraordinary writing, even translated into English, that has been done in local languages, and it would be nice if that had wider currency so that readers had a broader sense of the literatures of these countries. One nice thing in India at the moment is the openness of readers to volumes of short stories. I’ve read fresh, exciting stories in the last two years by Palash Krishna Mehrotra, Nighat Gandhi, and Parvati Sharma.