British author of Sri Lankan origin, Romesh Gunesekera who is on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature was at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. Yogesh Pawar caught up with him to discuss his latest book Noontide Toll and the implications of the recent poll results in the island nation among other things.
Romesh Gunesekera at the Zee Jaipur literature Festival
Q) What was it like travelling to the North of Sri Lanka for Noontide Toll?A) Since the Sri Lankan war ended in 2009, this was my first chance to travel to the north of the island. Though they have been both good and bad, the country has seen some really rapid changes. I wanted to engage with those changes through writing. Fiction, I felt, would be the best suited method and I began writing short stories based on my journeys. I wanted to produce a book of short stories, which also read like a novel. It helped of course, that my narrator proved to be the best vehicle. You see my last novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, set in 1820s Mauritius, took six years to complete. Comparatively, it was great to complete this in one in two years. Q) The narrator in Noontide Toll is a Tamil taxi driver.A) Looking at a world of competing interpretations, through the taxi driver Vasantha’s eyes opened up a completely new perspective on what is going on. I found that I enjoyed his company and thought readers might like him too. Q) Now that Mahinda Rajapaksa is out as president and Maithripala Sirisena is in, do you think you’d have written the book differently?A) I know some books can only be written in a particular window of history even though their meaning and significance go beyond that moment. But for me Vasantha’s story and his concerns are eternal. He would still be a Tamil taxi driver irrespective of these changes. Of course, I might have been tempted to introduce Mahinda Rajapaksa as one of the many taxi passengers since he’s been stripped of his presidential limousine. (LAUGHS). Q) Now that you bring it up, what do you make of this regime change in Sri Lanka?A) Its too early to say. I can only say that the election underlined once again that despite some very trying times, the democratic process in Lanka has triumphed. As for the change, we shouldn’t forget that president Sirisena was once in Rajapaksa’s cabinet of ministers. In fact many like myself, and perhaps Rajapaksa too couldn’t have expected the elections to surprise many. Q) Some have credited India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for scripting Rajapaksa’s defeat because of his pro-China tilt?A) It is fanciful to think that Indian intellgience agencies or any other country’s agency wields so much clout. This is not the first time some people have had such ideas on what they think is their “exceptional influence” in Sri Lanka. If it is making some people happy, let it. It’s strange that most Lankans, whether Tamil or Sinhalese don’t see it like that. Q) President Sirisena is already going all-out to change the pro-China tilt back to India-first?A) There is no denying that Sri Lanka badly needs heavy infrastructure. This was massively being brought in by the Chinese. It was certainly not charity. The geo-strategic angle, is hard to miss. Those who take a charitable view say Rajapaksa was willing to accept the huge Chinese hand in infrastructure creation as a concern for development. Others with not so charitable views think it was more to do with the substantially large kickbacks being ploughed back to him and his family. Q) Why did you choose to make a book of different stories into a novel?A) With Noontide Toll I wanted a book that you could take in small portions but still give the satisfaction of something bigger. Q) Who’re the writers who’ve influenced your style?A) My greatest influences are writers I read when I began writing: William Faulkner, Mark Twain, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, RK Narayan, Graham Greene, EM Forster and VS Naipaul. I’m also hugely fond of several playwrights and poets from Shakespeare to Neruda. Q) What is your next book?A) I just completed a last in the series — Writers’ & Artists’ Companions on novel-writing. Co-written with novelist AL Kennedy, it’ll be published later this year. I’m also working on an audio version of Noontide Toll.