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“The only truth in my life is the indestructibility of the urge to write”

October 2003
“The only truth in my life is the indestructibility of the urge to write”

From his student days in Engineering and Business Management through his Marketing professorship at Oxford University, KUNAL BASU agonized that he was drifting inexorably along the currents of his wrong choices...



Kunal Basu, acclaimed author of The Opium Clerk and The Miniaturist, and the University of Georgia's International Visiting Artist for 2003-04, could have chosen to pursue and perfect any one of the several serious passions of his youth ? art, theater, film, photography, journalism, sports, or the mother of all passions, politics. Or music. He was no Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, he recalled impishly, but had he allowed classical training to discipline his exuberant bathroom singing, he could have been really quite irresistible. Resisting irresistibility, however, he chose the writer's profession, long days of solitary writing without the assurance of an audience.

Even as a lonely writer, Basu could not have kept an audience away if he had tried. His work is too good?The Opium Clerk, a 19th century tale of an Indian clerk passively observing the excesses of Britain's opium-fed, obese "empire of desire," and The Miniaturist, a 16th century unfolding of an artist's disastrous love for a vainglorious Akbar, hell-bent on ordering every minutiae of imperial life painted ..."Akbar at war. Akbar in his court listening to edicts read out in his name. Akbar measuring the size of a giant cannon ball. Akbar at the imperial stable. Akbar visiting a holy man. The colourists complained of sore thumbs, new artists stood in files before the kitabkhana like prisoners of war...."

What makes Basu's work so good are stunning historical settings, economical words unfurling expansive worlds, lush language capturing tempting tales. Style fits story perfectly.

In The Opium Clerk, style reeks with mud, opium-sodden adventure. "?Men from Japan brought the ?mud' from Calcutta, then did God-knows-what to make it like water. Water to make your blood boil! They prick your arm and in moments your skin changes colour. A Coffree looks like a sahib, a sahib like a Cheeny.' With a leap, Vinny cleared the wooden chests and tugged on Hiran's arm. ?Let's go see the needle-wallahs.'"


In The Miniaturist, style dips into color to write a miniature painting. "The courtiers arrived on royal elephants, and stood behind the cordon of soldiers observing the proceedings. The carrier elephants were specially chosen to stay calm if a wild herd rushed out through the opening. Hawks and falcons sat on the arms of noblemen. Hunting leopards, the cheetahs, trained to stalk and kill, and return with prey to their master, sat blindfolded on majestic carpets, their coats studded with jewels. High up in the trees, in giant nests built over many months, perched the royal artists. Brush in hand, they waited for the hunt to begin."

Approximately 80 reviews of the novels in Asia, Europe, and Canada are rich in praise ? a remarkable record and proof aplenty of Basu's talent and appeal. Basu is poised now to take on the American audience. Awarded the University of Georgia's prestigious International Visiting Artist Award for 2003-2004, he will visit Athens, Georgia from November 10 to November 20 to present a series of readings and lectures.

A Professor of Marketing at the University of Oxford, England, Basu became a novelist late, after a tempestuous journey of self-exploration. As a child, he was left by his liberal, literary parents to make his own choices. He read voraciously (at age 11, Jean Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness!), talked enormously, gestured magnificently, wrote grandiosely, debated furiously. Only painting could shut him up.

But his parents' laissez-faire attitude left him alone to decide the worth of his creative talents, a task for which he did not feel equipped. He blundered into the Science "stream" in high-school, and then in college, into Engineering, just because he had high grades in the Sciences. He had no mentor to remind him that his calling lay in the Arts. No one in Calcutta in the seventies was pursuing the Arts full-time. People were bank managers in the day and Bengali theater stars at night. "The mistaken notion was instilled in me that your passion cannot be your profession," he remembered.

After a Bachelor in Engineering from Jadavpur University, Basu rushed through a Masters at the Florida Institute of Technology, then traversed the U.S. leisurely on a Greyhound bus. Thereafter, like the enlightened 19th century Bengali babu, he returned to Calcutta and launched into leftist politics, Bengali theater, writing poetry, short stories and book reviews, even directing a film on football violence. He also contemplated career options, deciding ultimately on Business Management. "I wanted to leave the regime of numbers and enter the republic of words," he reasoned. He completed a PhD at the University of Florida, then accepted a position as management professor at McGill University, Montreal.

In Montreal, Basu made some crucial discoveries. He was happiest at his desk, writing. He hated the bureaucracy of party politics. For him neither theater nor politics were creativity's romping fields; writing was.

The year was 1997. During a trip to Thailand his curiosity had been piqued by a line in a pot-boiler, that in the 19th century Calcutta was the center of the world drug trade. "I consider myself to be a thoroughbred Calcuttan and I did not know that," he said. He did some reading and The Opium Clerk wove itself on imagination's loom. Then, a book on Mughal miniatures and the Millennium eve celebrations in London inspired The Miniaturist. "The city was going crazy and the countdown was beginning, but I was seeing deserts, minarets, pleasure places...!"

Clearly, writing had come home to Kunal Basu. "The only truth in my life is the indestructibility of the urge to write," he said. "I want to write more, write everyday, write better, write faster, write in a trance. I pine for the Goddess of Literature. I do not have enough of her. I want more. I want everything. I want to possess her completely. I want to become blind so all I can see is her. Then die writing."

Writing's arrival made management Basu's "minor wife!" "I woo my two wives differently," said Basu mischievously, "novel with pencil, management on computer." In the atmosphere of peaceable co-existence, Basu makes up for lost time. As he completes his third novel, about 19th century scientists, he has plotted the fourth, a tale set in contemporary time.

Basu's life and work instruct and inspire. With singularity they proclaim that prosaic careers need not stifle creativity, and that creativity and "home" need not be confined to familiar diasporic experiences but can lie in "romancing the strange" in dangerous, uncharted territories ? such as the kingdom where opium, "God's Own Medicine," holds sway: "Pretty and fragile ... what can be brighter than a field of poppy? Dancing in the breeze like ballerinas in chiffon, swirling like the divine breath itself." o

[Sujata Gupta Winfield is an immigration attorney. She can be contacted at sujatawinfield@yahoo.com for a schedule of Kunal Basu's lectures and readings at the University of Georgia.]

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