Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist, who is presently working as an Assistant Professor in Jindal School of Journalism & Communication, Sonipat. He writes columns on films and literature, and has published a book of poems, Visceral Metropolis (2017). He was at the Sangam House residency for writers in January 2016, and was awarded the Robert Bosch India-Germany Media Ambassadors fellowship in 2018 and the Chevening South Asia Journalism fellowship in 2019.
He has recently come out with his debut novel, “Ritual”, a crime thriller set in Calcutta of the 1980s. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his latest book, his writing process for this book, and the splendid literary landscape of crime fiction and thrillers which has inspired his writing.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I am journalist and poet, and now also a novelist. I have worked for 10 years as a journalist at The Telegraph, Kolkata, and Business Standard, New Delhi. Now, I teach journalism at O P Jindal Global University in Sonipat. My book of poems, Visceral Metropolis, was published in 2017. Ritual is my first novel. I also write on cinema and politics.
Please introduce your book “Ritual” in brief for our readers.
Ritual is a murder mystery set in Calcutta, in 1989. As you will know, West Bengal was then ruled by a coalition of Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Like many countries of East Europe under communism, Calcutta too was full of leftist thoughts and iconography. It was a geography of a different nature that seems to have been eroded completely or exoticised by the march of globalisation. In such a setting, I imagine the rise of a Hindu-majoritarian religious group that is performing a bizare ritual (hence the title). Two police officers are assigned the task of solving a series of murders and they stumble upon a bigger conspiracy. If I tell anything more than this, I shall be giving away spoilers.
This is your debut novel, and you have chosen Crime thriller as the genre. What drew you to writing crime fiction?
I was commissioned to write this novel by an editor at a leading publishing house after I was shortlisted in a short story competition they were conducting. But, the idea was very attractive to me, and I have always wanted to write a crime thriller. I think writers can learn so much about plotting, characterisation, dramatisation and use of language. Readers are likely to be very unforgiving to a writer of a crime thriller if they fail to get the math of the plot right.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The commissioning editor in her brief had said: “Don’t make it literary”. So, I took that as a challenge — though a few have creeped in, such as references to Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru.
Also, the large number of religious organisations all over India — some of them quite militant — were an inspiration. Some of these religious organisations and their leaders have been accused of duping gullible people, or even interfering in the politics of the country. This was my inspiration.
In a technical sense, what was your process of developing the plot? Did you develop the plot beforehand? Or did you go with the flow and modified the manuscript as it progressed?
The plotting has to be very tight in a crime thriller — there cannot be loose ends. So, I knew who the killer was and what their motivation was even before I wrote the first sentence. However, the process of writing always surprises you, and that is one of its chief pleasures, isn’t it?
Several episodes of the plot changed along the way. Many of my friends read the book as it was being written and they made some very good suggestions.
One of them did not really like the ending. My editors, too, were not happy with it. So, I changed it considerably. I hope readers find it interesting now.
Why did you choose to set your book in Calcutta?
The editor who had initially commissioned me to write the novel had specifically asked me to set it in Calcutta.
As you might know, Calcutta is the city in which I grew up, in the final decade of the Left Front government. While I was writing this novel, I also travelled in Berlin and other post-Soviet cities in East Europe. The similarities between Calcutta and its post-communist cousins—in statues of communist leaders, iconography or architecture—was remarkable. It convinced me to write about Calcutta’s communist past, which does play a major role in this novel.
What kind of research went into writing the book?
I did considerable research on Kolkata’s past. I read several books, which I acknowledge in my novel. These are Calcutta – The Living City, Vol. II: The Present and the Future (2000) edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Show Your Tongue (1989) by Günter Grass, Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization (2016) by Sumanta Banerjee, Margins of Citizenship: Muslim Experiences in Urban India (2017) by Anasua Chatterjee, and Goyendapeeth Lalbazaar: Ek Dozen Khuner Ruddhaswas Nepathakotha (2018) by Supratim Sarkar.
I also read Karma Cola by Geeta Mehta to get some idea of how religious organisations which attracted hippies worked in the 1970s and 1980s.
You were also selected for a residency at Sangam House, a writer’s Residency Program. Can you talk to us a little about your time at Sangam House, and what it meant for the novel? How, according to you, do residencies contribute to a writer?
I was not working on Ritual when I went to Sangam House. I worked on another novel, Inclement Clime, there — it is still a work in progress.
I was at Sangam House in January 2016. It is difficult for me to imagine a better month in my life.
The residency was then housed at Nrityagram, a dance school in Hesaraghatta, a village about an hour’s drive from Bengaluru. The semi-rustic setting and the absence of distractions can do wonders for a writer. It helped me plot out my novel better and write with more confidence.
Of course, going to Sangam House has become a rite of passage for writers of my generation. I can hardly think of anyone who has not gone there. I can hardly thank Arshia Sattar, DW Gibson and Rahul Soni enough for providing me with the opportunity to be at Sangam House and for supporting my writing always since then.
Which books feature on your current reading list?
Since I review a lot of books, what I read might surprise you. At present, I am reading 1971 – a wonderful oral history of the Bangladesh War – by Anam Zakaria, Emergency Chronicles by Gyan Prakash, and A Place of Greater Safety (a novel on the French Revolution) by Hilary Mantel.
Are there any particular authors, crime or otherwise, who you’d say have influenced your own storytelling?
I owe debts to several writers. After all, one cannot be a writer without first being a reader, isn’t it? I would never have ventured into writing serious crime fiction if it were not for the novels of Graham Greene. The one book that I particularly admire is The Third Man.
Roberto Bolano is another great influence on me. He also frames many of his experimental novels as crime fiction. Elena Ferrante showed me how it was possible to use personal material in a literary manner; Hillary Mantel is a genius in crafting plot.
Can you recommend for our readers some crime fiction reads and thrillers that you particularly cherish?
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is one of my favourite writers. Her plotting is wicked. What I like most are the different perspectives provided by different characters in this novel.
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This is less a novel and more a true crime narrative, and though Capote was later accused of altering many of the facts, I find this an absolutely stunning exercise in the narrative art.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. If you have read the book, you know what I mean. I don’t want to give away spoilers.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. This is another example of the writer using the vessel of the crime novel to comment on class.