How close is too close is a question we authors are sometimes faced with. There is a very blurry line between fiction and reality in a creative mind, because reality often feeds into fiction—and in some cases fiction may feed right back into reality.
I really started thinking about this problem after reading a recent interview with one of my current favourites, Surender Mohan Pathak, who talked about how some of his thrillers seem to have inspired real-life crime—Mavaali (not yet translated into English), for instance, in which a murderer disposes of a corpse by grilling it. An uncannily similar crime was committed in Delhi in the mid-1990s, in which a hotel tandoor was used in a strikingly analogous manner. Pathak’s stone-cool comment was, “These small things keep happening.”
Mimicking fiction: The tandoor at the Ashok Yatri Niwas where the body of Naina Sahni was burnt. Hindustan Times
This is, I should point out, not the norm for a crime novel’s impact. Yet a novelist like Mukul Deva, who writes thrillers on terrorism, ends Salim Must Die with the disclaimer that the factual or technical errors in the novel “have been deliberately left in there by me to prevent any misuse of a technology or an idea”.
At the other extreme is the king of modern noir, James Ellroy, who has at the centre of his imagination an unsolved real-life crime: the brutal slaying of his mother when he was a child. This horrifying experience imprinted itself so deeply on his mind that much of his writing draws on it, indirectly as in his great breakthrough best-seller The Black Dahlia, or more directly as in his acclaimed autobiography My Dark Places, as well as his forthcoming book, The Hilliker Curse, which is yet another return to the case (out in September).
While some writers are quite open about mining their own and other people’s lives for inspiration, others remain circumspect and exercise caution—this is, after all, a matter of exposing private lives, and even if names are changed there will always be readers who put one and one together to make three.
Within the tradition called roman à clef, French for “novel with a key”, it was something of a bourgeois sport to figure out who’s who and what’s what—such as in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins in which it’s possible to guess who Sartre is, who Camus, and so on. These narratives were supposed to be more or less caricatured off real life and readers who figured out the key unlocked the story and identified each celebrity in the sordid saga.
Thinly disguised reality has since then come to be a staple of writerly life—but isn’t fiction supposed to be “fake”, you may ask. Uh, well…curiously, many readers seem to feel cheated when a book is entirely made up, they want the details to be if not 100% true, then at least lifelike. This is possibly a result of the human love for gossip, for the gossip value naturally goes down radically if everything is invented.
It would be surprising if writers, being only human, never used interesting events as triggers a la the madeleine teacake in Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. Another case in point is the novel Home Products published a few years ago by Amitava Kumar, otherwise better known as a powerful non-fiction writer. In the novel, a journalist goes back to his native Bihar (Kumar’s native place too) to write a screenplay based on a murder scandal: fact into metafiction?
Murders, they wrote: (left) Crime author James Ellroy’s mother was murdered. Universal / The Kobal Collection; and Surender Mohan Pathak’s Mavaali has uncanny similarity with the Naina Sahni case. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
“I had read about this murder, in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, of a young poet,” Kumar tells me. “But the crime and the milieu were very familiar to me. I also liked the name of the place where she had lived, Paper Mill Colony, and, of course, the fact that the main accused was a politician. The image that arrested me was that a neighbour had said that a car with a red light—a white Ambassador with the revolving red light on the top—would stop outside the house at all hours. This was a language I recognized; it spoke to me. I also liked the fact that the victim was a bad poet. The sordidness, the corruption, the crime itself, was good enough. The element of bad art made it irresistible.”
In such a situation, a writer can choose to write a non-fiction narrative such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the book that pioneered the genre of “novels” based on real-life crime and involving actual people, or, closer in time and space, the forthcoming Indian addition to the genre—Death in Mumbai by Meenal Baghel, about a 2008 crime case in which an aspiring Bollywood actress was accused of hacking a TV executive into approximately 300 pieces and grilling them (although not in a tandoor, as far as I know). Or one could decide to just write a novel.
But why even bother writing a novel, one might ask, if the real facts are juicier than tandoori chicken? In Kumar’s youth, George Orwell (incidentally also born in Bihar) mattered and in Home Products, he lets his protagonist/journalist be heavily influenced by Orwell’s four great motives for writing prose: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Kumar hereby achieves a blurring between author, protagonist and subject, in order to create something that rises above both reality and fiction. He says: “There are various points in the novel when the main protagonists reflect on the challenge of turning non-fiction into fiction. That was really the artistic goal I had set for myself too. To tell a story from life, while making sure it was a story.”
Occasionally the novel tilts heavily towards non-fiction—because Kumar feels that, sometimes, there is nothing as startling as reality itself. Long segments are based on interviews with a Bollywood star, for instance. “His village is very close to mine, and I wanted to write about his journey,” says Kumar, who wanted to tell a larger story about ambition.
So how much time does he spend thinking about using real people, real crimes, versus making up stuff? “I like to write about real people, real crimes. But what has increasingly come to interest me, and also appear to me as a challenge, is the idea of doing strange things with what is real. Take what is real and make it more or less real.”
But how close can you go to the truth before getting uncomfortably close? In Home Products, Kumar gives a new name to the character based on the movie star, but retains the name of a real film journalist from Mumbai because it gave him a kick to have reports presented as factual inside a fictional landscape. Why? “I wanted my novel to remind readers that what is in the news has something in common with the novel form. In fact, I was trying to deliver to the reader a sense of what happens to a crime in the space between a space called the newspaper and the space called your home.”
Next he might use his journalistic experiences to get even deeper into fictionalizing fact. “I have a couple of thick files about things that have gone wrong between people: I ought to write about them in the manner of a thriller. It would finally convince me that I was a real writer.”
A real writer, I think to myself, is probably the best filter there is between fact and fiction, someone who helps a reader, through his/her imagination, to analyse what goes on out there. And for a reader it would, perhaps, be disappointing to know for sure what the real deal is and what isn’t—maybe that is what makes the blurred line so fascinating.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of Swedish fiction whose new book is Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.