When I was in India to do the research on ‘Foreign’ in the villages of Yavatmal in Vidarbha, a few friends and relatives in the cities asked me why I was doing this. “Why are you writing this?”
I would start to explain (“I feel restless about the numbers of farmers killing themselves” or “I think this is one of the biggest stories of our time”), but they’d repeat their question with some exasperation. “Why are you writing this? Why not write about something good? Something more cheerful? Something that doesn’t show India in such a poor light? There are so many positive things happening in India. It’s emerging as a global economic superpower. Why not write about that? All that anyone ever wants to talk about is India’s poverty. Why do you want to feed westerners more sad stories about India?”
There. That was it. Direct, sharp, scathing.
I understood their frustration even though I recognized it as the result of neoliberal propaganda. I replied with what I knew to be true: “Those stories of happiness are being told by others. This is the one I want to tell. Because it’s there. It’s true. And I don’t think it’s being told enough.”
But on the plane home, I stared out of my window into the grey, the kind of grey that you find when flying far above maps and countries and continents. I replayed those questions in my head and asked myself some others: Was I a tragedy vampire? Was I there to feed on the sorrows of my country or assuage my own guilt for leaving? Was this some angst-ridden atonement for leaving? Was this my equivalent to ‘sending money home’ as many expat Indians do, to ‘causes’ in the motherland?
Maybe it was. Maybe it is. Yes, I have sat and thought each of these miserable thoughts through. I have steeped myself in the embarrassment and discomfort of these critiques. And I have come to that two-worded question that can be so freeing, so abundantly liberating: ‘So what?’
I decided that my personal discomfort at these questions is not important. I took myself out of the equation. Writers across the world will tell you that, at some point, the story takes over. Thankfully, my characters kicked me out of the way of this story. Katya, Kabir, Bajirao, Gayatribai, Ammar, even that wretched Sachin Patekar…they told me to shut the heck up and let them do their thing on the page.
Pretentious? Oh, whatever! I am neither in the question nor in the answer. The characters are. The real people who inspired the characters are. You, who may read about them, are. What you do after you read that last page is what matters.
That is why I wrote that book. That is why I am writing this.