Pankaj Dubey is a bilingual novelist and film-maker. He has been a journalist with the BBC World Service in London. He was also selected for the prestigious Writers’ Residency in the Seoul Art Space, Yeonhui, South Korea, among three novelists from Asia in 2016; and was also awarded ‘Global Innoventure Award’ for ‘Literature and Storytelling’ in the House of Lords, British Parliament, UK in 2018. He accentuates the socio-political undercurrents with quirk and humour in his style of writing. He has recently come out with the book ‘Trending In Love’, which is a story of undying love in the face of our society’s most dangerous beliefs. Two of his novels, ‘Trending In Love’ and ‘Ishqiyapa: To Hell With Love’, are set to appear in upcoming web series.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his latest book, his process of writing his novels in both English and Hindi, and the challenges associated with adapting books for the screen.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a bilingual novelist based out of Mumbai in India. I love telling stories in various forms. When I write my stories in the form of novels, I’m seen as a novelist; and when I attempt a screenplay, I come across as a screenwriter. Sometimes I narrate my stories before live audiences and there are times when I make films to reach out to a more diverse set of people. So, to me the message is more significant than the medium.
In this novel, a girl from Delhi and a boy from Kashmir secure Rank 1 and 2 respectively in the IAS exam. They then fall in love at the IAS Training Academy, Mussoorie. For many Indians, the premise of this book sounds very familiar. From where did you draw inspiration for this novel? Is it inspired from real-life characters?
I strongly feel that mostly every fiction gathers from some or the other real life incidents, stories and characters. This realism makes the narrative more relatable but that’s just one aspect of it. A writer has to then build on that premise and make things suitable to the narrative he or she has promised to the readers. It’s more important to understand what all not to reveal from the life of a real life character, than to understand what all to reveal.
In the context of my novel “Trending In Love”, the narrative is quite relatable as many IAS trainees fall in love and draw strength from their bonding by complimenting each other during the course of their training in the Academy. I find that very exciting. There is no direct connection with anyone’s specific life and it’s about officer trainees in love in general. It offers a fair share of aspirations and inspiration to my adulting readers.
The book’s title “Trending in Love” caters well to the social media-savvy generation. How and why did you decide on this title?
I think when something is quite in vogue in the contemporary society, it starts trending. With reference to the context of the novel, ‘Trending In Love’, the protagonists start trending when they look beyond their faith, families and prejudices. The story deals with young adults and a big chunk of my readers not just are on social media but it’s their permanent address. Of late, I have noticed that out of some new words that social media has popularised, ‘Trending’ has really been trending every day. This observation made my conviction stronger and the title, ‘Trending In Love’ was born. It’s a matter of big accomplishment for me that it’s trending during the lockdown amongst my readers.
Your portrayal of Kashmir in the book feels very real. How did you go about researching for this part of the narrative? Did this include travels to Kashmir?
Realism adds a lot of authenticity in the universe of any story and I strongly believe in that. Besides, Kashmir is not just a geographical entity in my novel but an important character. So, yes it was a bit challenging as the idea was to transport all my readers into that world, which could not have been possible without descriptions with a lot of precision.
I am quite relieved that you loved the portrayal of Kashmir in my novel. Kashmir has always been an area of great curiosity for most of us owing to its beautiful geography, rich culture, troubled polity and mind blowing folklores. I have personally not yet travelled in the valleys beyond Jammu, but have been reading and watching a plethora of material around this heaven on earth. When you are in love with someone you need not personally meet your sweetheart at the outset but cherish the adventures of the journey. I have a similar tryst with Kashmir.
You are a bilingual novelist, writing in both English and Hindi. All your novels, ‘What a Loser!’, ‘Ishqiyapa: To Hell With Love’, ‘Love Curry’, and now ‘Trending In Love’ have been written by you in Hindi as well. What is your process like when segueing from English to Hindi? Do you translate your work; or write it again originally, just keeping the plotline in mind?
I think everyone in the world is at least a bilingual. We all have a mother tongue and then another language that has been the medium of education. In many cases people are even trilingual or multilingual. So, I opted to do all my original creative writings in English and Hindi as I think translations have their own limitations.
When I was growing up and wanted to read commercial fiction in the Hindi heartland of India, I could get hold of mostly translated material. I used to think that why can’t there be such better content in the language of the readers. The real feel and flavour of the language is lost in translation. So, this was something in mind since the very beginning that someday I would like to attempt writing the content of my choice in my mother tongue as well as my father tongue (English). On a lighter note, we all siblings used to call English as our father tongue during our formative years as my father was a Professor who taught English Literature in a college.
I dream in Hindi but prefer to date in English and that made me decide to go bi-lingual.
Normally, I keep switching and write simultaneously in both the languages. Of course, the plot line remains the same but there is a vast contrast as far as finer sensibilities, emotional touch points, the sense of humour and also the sense of rumour of the readers in both the languages are concerned.
In an interview with Hindustan Times, you said “Basically I’m a storyteller whose stories are woven with the flavour of politics and social elements of the contemporary times.” That’s so true and is reflected in this book too, for “Trending in Love” is a love story with its share of socio-political flavouring. Why is it so important for you to incorporate contemporary socio-political themes in the narrative of your books?
I feel it should be the responsibility of every writer to understand the urgency of remaining contemporary. Socio-political undercurrents of the times add substantial layering to the narrative. This helps connect with the readers in myriad ways. It also reflects the pulse of the times which keeps the content quite trendy. I don’t like to limit my writings just to candyfloss stories of broken hearts and patching ups. The writings should have its share of responsibilities and reflections of the times. It keeps the story and the telling quite gripping and intrigues everyone. All of these are intended towards connecting my readers to the soul of the story.
All your books are being adapted for the screen, either into a feature film or a web series. Can you tell us more about the challenges associated with adaptation?
Adaptation is a challenging craft. A reader imagines the world of the story with the references of his or her own aesthetics, tone and tonality. Reader’s imagination can be completely different from the filmmaker who is adapting the same story. So, every reader creates a new palate after reading a story, and when that is adapted into a different medium like cinema or a web series for instance, it has to face many challenges. Many readers look for familiarity and if they miss that they don’t feel great about it.
Having said that I must share my view that it’s actually very important for the stories to get adapted for different mediums. Adaptations help the stories reach out to more and more people.
You were selected for the prestigious Writers’ Residency in the Seoul Art Space, Yeonhui, South Korea, amongst three novelists from Asia in 2016. How, according to you, do residencies contribute to a writer?
Oh yes, that was quite an experience. It was organised by Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture in association with the literary magazine, Asia. Other two authors were Purevkhuu Bathuyag from Mongolia and Sinta Yudisia from Indonesia. It was around the theme, ‘City and Literature in 21st Century’.
My residency in South Korea also coincided with the first ever Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 to the South Korean author Han Kang for The Vegetarian, a novel which deals with a woman’s decision to stop eating meat and its devastating consequences.
Residencies generally offer an opportunity to be social or isolated, which varies widely based on their circumstances and yours. It’s like an incubator that helps you get a rhythm, to bring back the mojo of a writer and provide a very conducive environment for self-reflection. Writers, while in Writer’s Residencies, get a chance to delve deep into the world of the literature they want to create. You get a lot of material and there are no distractions.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
What are you working on next?
Besides working on a podcast, I’m penning down my next novel being published by Penguin Random House, to be launched in early 2021.
Finally, on to quick literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind for the following.
Trending— The Story Of My Assassins by Tarun J Tejpal
Romance— Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Indian English Literature— The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Web Series— Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
‘Trending in Love’ by Pankaj Dubey has been published by Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
Also Read: An excerpt from the book “Trending in Love”.
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