After three novels, this is your first book of short stories. Did you enjoy this medium?
I wrote The Japanese Wife in 1996, along with a few other short stories, but decided to leave them unpublished. Most of the stories that will go into this collection were written before I wrote my first novel, The Opium Clerk. I don’t want to make too much of the differences between novels and short stories, except the obvious ones. Both require total involvement.
Your novels have dealt with themes such as racism, opium trade and miniature art, while The Japanese Wife is about a man-woman relationship. Why this inward shift?
I hope my novels, too, have delved into the emotional spaces of the characters and not simply been an exposition of themes. I’m not a historian or a social scientist. Certainly, I am no expert on the opium trade (The Opium Clerk, 2001), miniature paintings (The Miniaturist, 2003) or scientific racism (Racism, 2006). Just as I am no expert on tiger poaching, which is the backdrop of one of my short stories.
What is The Japanese Wife about?
It is an unlikely love story involving Snehamoy, a school teacher from the Sunderbans in Bengal, and his pen pal Miyage, a young Japanese woman. The two fall in love through letters and decide to get married. Even though they’ve never met, a deep relationship develops between the two as if they were a long-married couple. Their relationship is tested when a young widow comes to live in Snehamoy’s house. Now, Snehamoy’s dilemma begins: marriage without domesticity or domesticity without marriage? I honestly don’t know why I thought of this story, but I was intrigued by its dualism.
Did you approach Aparna Sen to turn it into a film?
I met Aparna Sen coincidentally in Oxford last year, and narrated The Japanese Wife to her. She was instantly hooked. She made me promise that I wouldn’t sell it to any other film-maker. Thereafter, things happened fast—the screenplay, the casting, and the locations. It is being filmed now. The books and the film will come out simultaneously in January 2008.
Give us a taste of some of the other stories in the collection.
The protagonists in all these stories are, in some way, outsiders. A young African woman in search of her great-grandfather who was a Tamilian legionnaire in Africa, a retired American professor visiting India, suspected of kidnapping a snake charmer’s daughter, and an Indian couple on their honeymoon in China, caught up in the Tiananmen uprising. But these stories are not as much about cultural conflict as about some aspects of the human condition.
Your life as a professor of marketing is far removed from your creative universe. Is one an escape from the other?
Writing is my passion, not an escape or a hobby. Most published authors have a day job, just as I have mine. Yes, the two worlds are different, and I have learnt to live with the difference by not thinking much about it. All lines in a person’s life need not converge.
Do you aspire for literary acclaim and awards, or are you happy being a best-selling author?
All authors want both. I don’t see myself as a particular type of author who appeals only to western readers and and not to others. I’m simply interested in telling good stories.
Are you writing books on your specialized areas of marketing?
I write academic articles on marketing. I don’t have a book in mind yet.
Your recent academic research focuses on the interface between strategic marketing and corporate social responsibility. Can you share some of your findings?
Corporate social responsibility is gaining ground as a key imperative of business. Based on my research, I have predicted that, in future, corporations must satisfy stakeholders that they do good (and no harm) to society in addition to performing well as businesses. We, customers and citizens, will view corporate conduct with a lot of scrutiny and reward only those that fit our life values, and not simply our consumption priorities.