At last week’s Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai, Shobhaa De released Sethji, her seventh novel, about the travails of a corrupt old politician from Delhi’s highest echelons of government. At the launch, De put on a Gandhi cap bearing the legend ‘I Am Not Sethji’—a parody of the ‘I Am Anna’ caps of the anti-corruption movement. Her most famous novels have been pulpy, tongue-in-cheek chronicles of the dark side of Mumbai’s film industry and its socialite circles, but Sethji represents a departure for her in terms of its setting. Its title character is a corrupt Delhi politician struggling to hold on to power in the upper echelons of the Indian government. While De’s fiction has never tackled national politics, her journalism and commentary has frequently concerned itself with the vagaries of power. “Power equations, the way they are changing and how they affect our landscape intrigue me,” she says in an interview. “I use fiction as a way of exploring that.” Edited excerpts:
You’ve written a novel about a Delhi politician. How well do Mumbai writers understand Delhi?
Marginally. Our idea of politics is very different. The whole thing about interpreting power is that in Bombay, it has always been associated with money. The belief is that if you have scads of money you can buy your politician, which is largely true. I would say Bombay interprets power more cleverly. It sits on the fence. It’s more democratic, the understanding of power.
In Delhi, it’s cruder, upfront, more in your face. Nothing, but nothing in Delhi functions without political access.
Where do journalists fit into that?
Most of the better journalists from Mumbai have moved to Delhi because they’ve understood that they’re wasting their time here if (all) they’re looking for is politicians to take notice of them. They (politicians) don’t take notice even of the regional press, which is foolish of them, because the regional press is increasingly powerful in terms of opinion, driving change and eventually in controlling vote banks. But Delhi has marginalized, ignored and been foolishly elitist about this. They’ve been cultivating journalists who belong to the English press, which is very rapidly being diminished.
So to write your novel, how did you enter into this world?
That’s where your imagination kicks in, your—I hope— skills as a storyteller come to your help. Just like you don’t have to have travelled to the moon to write science. This world has always fascinated me. More than the life of a politician, what fascinates me is the use, misuse and the application of power in today’s India. And you can’t do a preachy little book about power; no one will read it. I prefer to use fiction as my way of exploring that.
Your title character is based on Sitaram Kesri. What drew your attention to him?
A lot of us felt very strongly about the person he was, and what he stood for. Depravity would be an understatement. There were many like him, but he was by far the worst example. Not enough people spoke up at the time. Kesri was old school. The new chaps wear sharper suits and speak with posher accents, but the moral compass hasn’t changed.
Were you conscious of this, a novel about politics, being of bigger scope than your other novels?
I never thought about it like that. You don’t put your books into a weighing scale. You write the book you want to at the time. And I write in torrents; it gushes, it’s cathartic, it’s exhilarating. This was definitely one of those books—When I was keying it in sometimes I was so impatient I’d make mistakes. I was just trying to keep up. And this is the first book during which I had tendonitis. I had to have it surgically addressed. I wrote the first third of it in longhand, as I do all my books, but I had to switch to a laptop because I couldn’t hold a pen.
You’re one of those rare writers who talks about how much you really love writing.
It’s what I look forward to the minute I wake up and it’s what I take to bed.
Do you still write a 1,000 words a day?
Oh yes. Just like your voice becomes more muscular if you do your riyaaz everyday, you get more confident about your range. Your voice acquires a certain quality over time. That doesn’t come if you’re lazy. And writing is my treat, by the way. When I feel really good, I write an extra 500 words just to reward myself.
Your novels have always been very responsive to their time and place. Would you write a novel like Starry Nights, for example, about today’s Bollywood?
I’m sure. I mean, I wasn’t an outsider looking in and saying, Oh jeez, is this really how it happens? As editor of Stardust for 12 years, I had a ringside view of the industry and its functioning. It mirrors Bollywood then, and showbiz across the world. What Asharani goes through in Starry Nights would be true of women in Bollywood today. Even the casting couch, no matter how strenuously they deny it. They may have better managers, better publicists, their deals done by people who know this business, not the old oily secretaries, but it essentially, especially for women, showbiz is not loaded in their favour at all: not in Hollywood, not in Bollywood.
If you had a chance to write about a political figure as a journalist, who would you pick to profile?
For the longest time, and even now, it remains the sphinx, Sonia Gandhi. We really know very little about Madam. Even those who claim to be insiders, are so reverential, deferential and sycophantic when it comes to the Gandhi family. I’m not a Kejriwal fan, but he’s been a catalyst, and we have to hand it to him for naming names. He has actually mentioned the sacred cows of Indian politics. It’s a very good run up to 2014. We seem to be leading up to something quite dramatic happening—a critical mass.
Your novel’s heroine is Sethji’s tough-as-nails, opportunist daughter-in-law Amrita. Is that your view of how a woman has to be to succeed in politics?
Has to be, no. Chooses to be most of the time, yes. Aung San Suu Kyi said it best when she said that women who acquire power cease to be women. That is largely true, not just in India but in the world. At some stage I think they get so self-conscious about being women in positions of power that they become parodies of men. Or monsters, as happened with Indira Gandhi. They completely desexualise themselves, as Sonia has done. That’s a strategy to ensure that she’s taken more seriously, perhaps. But it’s a real pity that we have to do that to ourselves to make our way through politics.
You once had readers who actively hated how frankly you wrote about sex. Has that changed?
Very much so. My idea was never to shock in the first place. There are two novels which have perhaps explicit sexual content. The rest are more suggestive about how a woman feels about her body. It’s not erotic in the classical sense of the world at all. But if you go looking for it, honey, it says something about you.
But I think more than even writing about sex, it’s women with attitude, who speak their minds, who know what they want, are far more threatening. Humour, satire, sending yourself up; it’s never understood.
You were also an early innovator in the way you wrote a hybrid Indian English. Amitav Ghosh said his language in Sea of Poppies owed something to the style you used in Stardust years ago.
That was generous of him. Most people were shocked out of their skull at the time. It was said, ‘She probably doesn’t know how to write grammatically correct English.’ But today that Hinglish language has gone mainstream. To write it, it has to be something your ears won’t protest against. But to do that also requires you to be interested in voices.
What are you reading these days?
When I write a book I avoid reading fiction altogether. It can get very demoralising. I’m essentially a magazine junkie: You can take the girl out of the magazine, not the magazine out of the girl. I read a lot of newspapers.