[Since his novel, The Revised Kama Sutra, was first published by Viking Penguin India and then in the U.K. and other countries, Richard Crasta has been interviewed dozens of times, by the BBC, Australian television, Indian television (by many different channels), newspapers, and even a couple of magazines which chickened out at the last moment. Because it would be too much effort to reproduce all of these, the following questions and answers are a composite of these interviews including the unpublished ones and an author interview with amazon.com, and have been updated to briefly comment on his later books and the current state of affairs.]
Where are you from? How-if at all-has your sense of place colored your writing?
Though living exclusively in India until I was 26, I have mostly lived in New York and traveled widely in the last 23 years, often visiting India and engaging in literary activities over there, including the publication of my books. Technically still a New Yorker, I now spend most of my time in Asia. But it is your childhood that defines you, that makes the greatest impression on you. I grew up in Mangalore, a coconut-palmed and innocent South Indian town, from the age of six till I was twenty (and have returned many times since, and also spent much time in Bangalore), and that fact, and my roots in the Konkani Catholic culture, has colored my writing, in the sense that my protagonists are bewildered, Kafkaesque characters, innocents and ingenues at sea in the complexity of the larger universe, lost yet always, almost unreasonably, demanding justice.
When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I began writing when I was ten. I wrote an atrocious 12,000-word “novel” in which the hero was a composite of John F. Kennedy and Robin Hood. Writing was an outlet for my fantasies, which I used to escape my real life. But I did not consider myself a writer until many years later when I wrote the first two chapters of my first novel and felt that I had found my voice.
How long did it take you to write The Revised Kama Sutra? And which of your other books are you or your readers passionate about?
If you were to take an average writing day to include around 1-2 hours of original writing and 1-2 hours of editing or research, I would guess that my novel The Revised Kama Sutra took me four years from start to finish. But it actually took me longer than that, nearly 8 years, because in the exact period that I was writing my first novel, my three sons were born, and as I was the stay-at-home parent, that meant I had other obligations. I also worked at three other jobs during this period, for varying lengths of time, all of which resulted in long breaks from writing. The other two books that I, and many of my readers are passionate about are Impressing the Whites: The New International Slavery, a nonfiction book on the subject of racism and how it subverts and distorts the authenticity of writers, artists, and others from the weaker, nonwhite world. And The Killing of an Author, which is partly autobiographical and partly a critique of the Western and Indian publishing industry. These books, which took between a year and a year and a half each (assuming I was writing 1-2 hours a day, every day), took a lot of courage to publish, besides making me enemies who have tried to disappear me from the literary and publishing world–an act of authoricide that I am trying to resist by continuing to write with whatever strength and capacity I have left. Truth is what I am passionate about, and I shall continue writing it until I no longer can.
Who and what has influenced your writing, and in what way? What books have most influenced your life?
That’s hard to say. It wouldn’t be fair to blame any one writer. [laughs.] If you mean the writers who impressed or moved me greatly, I should mention: Oscar Wilde, the ultimate subversive. Bernard Shaw. Shakespeare. Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Evelyn Waugh, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Baldwin, Somerset Maugham, R.K. Narayan (the first celebrated writer I met in a small group, a class of 8 IAS probationers), V.S. Naipaul, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon. Writers who are moved by injustice, who fearlessly confront and write the truth, writers with a sense of humor or a satirical bent. Kafka’s The Castle, Henry Miller’s contempt for the hypocrisy of society and his complete and holy regard for the sexual instinct that is responsible for our existence . . . these come to mind. It would be incorrect for me to claim that any one of these specifically influenced my style, though. One day, I found my voice-and that was it.
The books that have most influenced my life? Off the top of my head, I would say, Hamlet, Ulysses (James Joyce), Tropic of Cancer, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Perhaps even Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I remember reading Invisible Man almost by accident, and being overpowered, being transported by a shock of recognition.
What is the most romantic book you’ve ever read? The scariest? The funniest?
The most romantic? I do not think of myself as a reader of romantic books, but The English Patient, maybe, or Love Story? The scariest is an Edgar Allen Poe short story in which some nasty things get done to a cat (don’t even ask me about it). The four that tie for funniest are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
What music, if any, most inspires you to write? What do you like to listen to while writing?
The music of silence, the sounds of the sea, the feeling of being away from everything, of having nothing come between you and nature. I wouldn’t mind living in a metropolitan cultural center like London or New York behind soundproof windows with a view, and a balcony that accommodates a couple of chairs, so long as I could frequently escape to a hideout in the mountains or by the sea. I also love to park my chair on a lawn, beneath a large umbrella or under a tree, while I read or write. Though I hate noise, I love people-watching; New York and Miami to me are rich cities for watching people. But I do love a wide variety of music, from Mozart to Ray Charles, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon), jazz, blues, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Dylan.
If your name is Richard Crasta, why did you choose to publish the American edition under the pseudonym of Avatar Prabhu?
Note: this name was also preferred by European publishers who were given a choice, but the Italian edition has come out under my regular name!
It was a subversive gesture, and the complete answer to that question comprises a six-page essay called “An Obituary for a Name” in my second book, Beauty Queens, Children, and the Death of Sex (HarperCollins India). But now, having made my statement with that American edition in 1998, and not being able to carry on this subversion with a straight face, I prefer the name I was born with, and which is a part of my identity. I bristle at the common Western stereotype, though, by which Indians are automatically assumed to be vegetarian Hindus who do the shirshasana or yogic headstand before every meal. You unperson the rest of us (240 million non-Hindus, that is) by doing that, you erase our existence. Real people are real people, and when a mass of wealthy consumers demand stereotypes, they are served stereotypes by panderers. That is why I call much of Indian fiction published for foreign readers as Potemkin fiction; it often has little to do with the reality of modern India.
To what extent is your novel autobiographical?
I take the question as a compliment. Indians from my part of India have said, “It was exactly like that.” Americans from the Midwest have told me, “I grew up Catholic, and your novel evokes so many memories for me!” Others have asked me about the editor character: “Was there really a female editor you slept with?” And Khushwant Singh, India’s “doyen” journalist and author, said to me almost immediately after we met for the first time (and he had just read my book), with innocent awe, “Do you really have these permanent erections?” My answer to the autobiographical question: I admit I really did have long conversations with Winston Churchill’s sperm, and confess to some of the protagonist’s sexual prowess [laughs] -and his innocence and his follies. The rest is pure imagination. And as for the permanent erections: thank God, no, I can imagine getting into serious trouble in the New York subways during rush hour.
Your Indian protagonist in The Revised Kama Sutra has an American Dream. Was that also true of you, growing up?
Of me, and perhaps half the people growing up in the Third World today with America as the sole superpower and supplier of 70 percent of international television and movie programs. My American dream must have begun when I was eight. Sown by about a dozen imported Reader’s Digests, it took strong root in the soil of cultural deprivation. By the time I was ten, I knew about fifty stories of Catholic saints and near-saints, two hundred biblical stories, another hundred stories of the Arabian Nights and Grimm’s Fairy Tales variety, and perhaps ten stories from my own culture. Nothing in what little I had been given of my own ancestral heritage could compete with the virile, American world of gloriously long and aeronautically designed Pontiac Bonnevilles and Cadillacs and motor boats advertised in the Reader’s Digests, and the supersonic jets and ICBMs flashed about in Time and U.S. News.
The New York Times described The Revised Kama Sutra as an American novel.
I suppose they meant that some of the language was influenced by American slang (while others is influenced by Indian dialect and Indian English). Or that, instead of the men beating the women-as is the well-known Indian custom, a la Arundhati Roy and countless others-the women (the nuns and aunts) in this case beat up the little boy. But Indian reviewers celebrated this novel as the story of “an Indian Everyman.” Indians, among them Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, agnostics, and expatriates, could relate to this book and this character, and spoke about reading it nonstop. On the other hand, it is true that the narrative and the language is influenced by American slang, American dreams, and an American escapade.
What inspired you to write this novel? How did you decide upon its title?
Ever since I was sixteen years old, I knew I had a novel to write. But I was too poor to afford clean white paper. Finally, I found my voice-and paper too. After toying with Pelvic Paradise Lost and Desire Under the Coconut Trees, I hit upon The Revised Kama Sutra. The Kama Sutra, you see, is one of numerous Western cliches about India: sacred cows, beggars, train accidents, riots, yoga, spirituality, a nation of bride burners and female-subjugators. The people who associate these images with India rarely know or consider that we are also a country of scientists, English-speakers, and powerful female prime ministers and politicians-take the septuagenarian men who fall flat on their faces in obeisance to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. In juxtaposing the Kama Sutra with the word “Revised,” my intention was to present an outrageous rejoinder to all those clichés, to emphasize that there was a real, modern India that was significantly different from the media images or from the usual literary and “exotic” stereotypes. My India is an India with the veils uncovered, at least for a few moments–certainly the artificial veils added for Western consumption. As you will discover when you read the novel, it is a comic and ironic title that works on many levels.
What would you say is the source of your individuality and quirky viewpoint? How would you describe your philosophy of life?
Possibly the source of my individuality is my outsiderness. I come from a minority religion speaking a minority language in a minority district of my State. I even have a minority physique. And now, I am a minority of one in New York: perhaps the only Konkani-Indian-Catholic-New-Yorker author on the planet. So, as I said, I think of it as the Ultimate Outsider Novel from India–something I might not be able to write if I had been adopted by the Establishment early in my career.
What I really am: a man and a writer who asks questions and has no answers; in other words, a profound, all-round skeptic whose religion is literature, laughter, and love. I cannot really be pinned down to any particular philosophy, I don’t even know that I have a philosophy (it’s a luxury, at the present moment); therefore, and any attempt to summarize my viewpoints in a few lines do me an injustice. I disavow any views I may have expressed earlier on religion, or on karma, or on Hinduism (I do not have the time to study it at depth, and it would not be fair to express any views); I do not have the time to explore these subjects. I often contradict myself within the course of a novel that was written over a period of many years. As for my answers to face-to-face interviews, they are often the result of a fleeting thought or the pressure to deliver an answer where there really cannot be any answer. I cannot be pigeonholed without such such an act doing me an injustice; I am a free writer in search of what I consider to be the truth, and expressing what I feel as and when I feel it. Anti-Christian or pro-Christian: either label is an absurdity; religion as an abstract principle is simply not an issue in my life right now (whereas, when I lived in Mangalore, it was a very important issue), though I do make occasional observations on the influence that religion seems to have on human behavior. As for “Christian values”: I now doubt there is such a thing. How do George W. Bush’s Christian values compare with the Dalai Lama’s Christian values? Every human must be judged by the way they treat their fellow human beings, not by the religion they claim to belong to.
How do you feel now about your two later books, Beauty Queens, Children and the Death of Sex and Impressing the Whites. Why One Little Indian?
You have to read The Revised Kama Sutra, and to compare it to what Indians were writing at the time it was written, in the Eighties and early Nineties, to realize that after I wrote it, driven by an inner force, I myself was in shock at my own daring. I became defensive, afraid of attack and of being banned. However, despite its occasional clumsy, pompous or defensive sections, Beauty Queens still has some of my funniest and most passionate writing–and I am proud I trusted my own inner voice, a la Ralph Waldo Emerson. Impressing the Whites is again me, trying to prove to myself that I still have the guts, that I can, as the Asian Age described the book, “go where no man has gone before.” If there is value to be placed on courage and honesty in writing, especially from Third World colonial subjects, then these books deserve at least a fair reading. One Little Indian takes away some of the stigma attaching to the title Revised Kama Sutra in puritanical modern India, and honors those women who have been moved enough by the childhood story as to think it makes a novel by itself. Because of the nonexistent launch and the atrocious cover design, however, the book was withdrawn and never had a chance to test its potential.
Any other thing?
The American edition of The Revised Kama Sutra is the weakest of all the editions (I suggest you don’t buy it, you’ll regret selling yourself and your time so cheap by buying the American edition from someplace online–it is the cheap editions that are being sold, from illegal stock, for a fistful of pennies; it will disappoint you, and you won’t know what the book really was at its best.) Best to buy the Invisible Man Books, Penguin. Fourth Estate editions, or the new HarperCollins one if you live in India. But it does have one distinction: it was at that point the only novel in existence dedicated to the Yoni Goddess AND to Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and the American Constitution. The dedication, I think, represents the novel: tongue-in-cheek, earnest, passionate, and sometimes purely silly. I met Kurt Vonnegut, by the way, and he was generous in agreeing to read my novel; he wrote me a beautiful letter of appreciation.
This novel is about sex and motherlove and sin and sordid dreams and childhood and pedestrian reality (and yes, you could say almost exactly the same thing about James Joyce’s Ulysses, except that you won’t find a single mention about pole, sannan, and Mangalore in Ulysses-which is about Ireland, as it should be). It is about the mind, and how it’s all in the mind. There are no ghosts, demons, spies, murderers, or rapists in here, no international conspiracies specifically hatched here, no Byzantine thought-systems explained here. And yes, no fakirs, freaks, foreign cousins, maharajas, princesses, British officers, and so on.
If you have any questions not answered here, or would like to interview me, please feel free to contact me.