Saikat Majumdar is a novelist, academic, and a popular commentator on arts, literature, and higher education. He is the author of three novels, including, most recently, The Scent of God (2019), the widely acclaimed The Firebird (2015), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism – Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education – College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays – The Critic as Amateur (2019). Saikat Majumdar has taught at Stanford University, was named a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College, and is currently Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University.
1. Saikat Majumdar how did your journey start as an author? And how do you see your journey so far?
I started writing quite young. In school, I used to write both in English and Bangla, but when I decided to be serious about writing, I felt I had to choose, though I would like to write in Bangla again sometime. I showed one of my early short stories to my professor, P. Lal. He returned it with a lovely handwritten note, asking for some more stories. After he read them, he proposed to bring out a collection of my short stories from his publishing house, Writers’ Workshop, which eventually published two novellas and two books of short stories, all during my college days. They now feel part of my juvenilia but I’m still fond of some of the stories.
So far, it’s been exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating, gratifying – I’d run out of adjectives If I tried to describe it. Initially, it’s a struggle filled with ambition and apprehension, then it’s a thirst for success, and right now, success feels like the wrong word, since the craving mellows into something that “looks” simpler: just to touch other people with one’s words, enter and become part of their lives in some small way. But a long way to go still, though the writing is not quite a linear journey, rather a constant inner churning. After having published a few books, one starts thinking how one is being read, continues to be read (or not), and the heaviest, hardest, the most impossible question: will my writing be remembered? In more pragmatic terms, I think I found my writerly voice with my second novel, The Firebird, the story of a young boy’s relation with his mother’s life as a theatre actress, in a society where women performers are seen with moral suspicion. Perhaps because it had a primal link to my own life – my mother was an actress – this was the first story that gripped me spectrally. Writing it became a powerful experience, and it became the novel that established me as a writer. The Scent of God also came from a very compelling place, the memory of an atmosphere seeped in the sensuality of religion and the growing, restless human body. In between, I worked on my scholarly writing, and also found a voice as a writer of general nonfiction, on literature and education, through a book, and then through regular columns.
2. Bengal is known for its rich cultural heritage, and we have read its mention in your books too! How has the city impacted your writings Saikat Majumdar?
The part of Bengal that has drawn me the most, Calcutta, is culturally rich but it’s a young city by Indian standards. Its history is essentially that of British India, and its importance is that it was at the vanguard of colonial modernity in the 19th century, for literature, social reform, education, etc. But all that was a long time ago, and the Calcutta in which I grew up in the late-20th century, that modernity was long dead and paralyzed, especially under the deadening spell of a corrupt and dysfunctional communist government. This was the Calcutta I inherited as a growing writer – a city of interminable power-cuts, endless strikes and protest rallies, paan-streaked government offices, impossible traffic-knots, madness over the theatre. My first novel Silverfish is about the landscape of this dead modernity, and my second, The Firebird, is about lives caught between these conflicting traditions of theatre and politics – between the theatre of the red-light zone and the sophisticated plays of the progressive, left-leaning, middle and upper-middle class, for some, the theatre of north and south Calcutta, respectively. My most recent novel, The Scent of God, is set mostly in a monastic boarding school in a suburb of Calcutta, but the novel eventually reaches a point where the streets of the city pose a challenge and a temptation to the protagonist.
3. Saikat Majumdar your last book The Scent of God had touched a lot of sensitive topics including homosexuality, religion, and class division. How careful do you have to be when writing on these subjects?
The world of a novel comes to me not so much through conscious deliberation as a wild, irresistible force; the book chooses you more than you choose it. So you don’t really think if the issues are sensitive are not, that awareness comes much later in the writing process, when you’re too deep in and cannot back out no matter how sensitive the issues are. Thought the story is invented, the world of this novel comes from a pit of memory, a real school that inspires the one in the novel, a magnetic mix of the sacred and the profane, boys attaining puberty in the midst of enforced celibacy, music and prayer in the midst of the intimacy of touch. As I wrote, I realized these are very sensitive subjects, particularly the red-hot subject religion has become today and the entrenched class and communal prejudices that encircle it. You can’t do anything about it, and once you’re confident in your honesty that this is not written with the goal to offend anyone or ruffle any feathers, you just go about it as you would do with any other book.
4. How much research, imagination, and conviction do you think is required before writing any book?
That depends on the book, and on the writer. I research my nonfiction and columns, but when it comes to fiction, I’m not a very research-driven writer. Sometimes I talk to people, research their emotions and memory, but nothing large-scale fits into the making of fiction which for me, remains driven by something deeply personal and idiosyncratic. But that’s just me. Many wonderful writers I know and like to read do a lot of research before writing fiction. Imagination and conviction? You need both 100%, no matter what kind of book you’re writing.
5. An Indian city, you would like to explore through the medium of your books?
Delhi plays a key role in my new novel. Old Delhi, which reminds me a bit of the crowded lanes of north Calcutta where I grew up. The life of immigrants in Delhi, such as I am myself, having returned to India after many years away from the country.
6. How do you deal with criticisms about your work?
Criticism is an essential conversation. Why write if there is no criticism? I don’t like to think of criticism as a simple binary of praise and fault-finding. If there is an opposition, it’s between sensitive and obtuse criticism. A good novel should have multiple layers of experience, just as life does, and intelligent criticism should be able to get to at least a few of them. Sometimes, however, a critic makes the mistake of wishing a book to the book they want, rather than the best book it could have become. With The Scent of God, this has happened a couple of times when activist critics wanted it to be more politically pointed and determined rather than the wandering mess art sometimes is, as is life. But no matter how politically sensitive the themes are, I wrote a novel, not a manifesto.
7. What does a day in Saikat Majumdar’s life look like?
Writing is a pretty staid and abstract process, nothing half as sensory or spectacular about it as, say, painting or film-making. I’m an early riser and like to get started with writing early in the day when I’m at my freshest. We have two small children, so there is a matter of getting them to school (in a pre-pandemic world), and then it’s a long stretch of writing on days I don’t have classes to teach. After lunch, some reading, perhaps class prep, student work. Time with the kids in between, especially playing/wrestling around with the six-year-old. We have dinner around 7/7:30. I read to the kids at bedtime, and then perhaps some Netflix or more reading. On days I teach the whole day is spent at the university, teaching, talking to students, organizing, and attending events. Weekends are often taken up by travel, for talks, readings, litfests – also in a pre-pandemic world. Now everything happens on zoom.
8. Saikat Majumdar, you have many feathers on your hat. What are your plans? Are you working on your next book?
That’s very kind of you! But everything I do is connected. As Toni Morrison said: "I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It's one job." I’ve finished the draft of a new book and am now deep into revision. It is a contemporary college campus novel that refashions a story about mentorship from a classical myth. At its heart is the question: what is the nature of the teacher-student relationship, and what are its limits in terms of ethics, power, and intimacy? I’m also working on several academic articles and book chapters. And different media articles, including my weekly Outlook column on academics and campus life, and a new column for Los Angeles Review of Books on books from India.
Read about Saikat Majumdar here.