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Imtiaz Akhtar Discusses His Book of Short Stories, ‘Kafka Sutra’

With this collection of short stories, Imtiaz Akhtar makes his bold debut. Kafka Sutra is the sort of book that as a teenager, I would have loved to sneak from my mother’s shelf, and that as a mother, I would secretly enjoy letting my daughter or son whisk away. A midget who can see the future, boys, girls, young men, lawyers, journalists, writers, musicians, prostitutes, wives, mistresses, and mothers collide in friendship, love, jealousy, anger, and death. They share treasured books, and plenty of sex, spice, and drink, in the author’s lovingly described India. In between your tears and your laughter, you will find yourself thinking more deeply about the great worth and fragility of love in all its facets; then you will read the stories again.

DC: Thank you for writing such a wonderful book. It is a kind of forbidden fruit full of carnal love and passion on the surface, yet it is a nonjudgmental and profoundly moral book at its core. Were you addressing your younger self or younger family members?

IA: Firstly, I am greatly honored that a book that I wrote, over an extended period of one year, without dreaming that it would get to see the light of day, has appeared. I am frankly so relieved. Now, let me come to your question. In so far as a nonjudgmental quality of the book is concerned. I would say that at one level it is the case. An author is, of course, not the narrator; but the narrative voice nonetheless cannot be so easily dissociated from the person who writes a story. By nature, I’ve always been like that. I don’t carry any moral baggage except those that I recognize. That is how I am. I hate to moralize about everything. I guess half the problems would disappear if we would just stop passing snide judgments on others around us. This would not mean that, like Raskolnikov, I would sit at home and theorize murder under the dim light of a candle. I too recognize certain bounds, but those, it seems to me, are very very wide. I don’t justify rape, but I dislike people who propose castration as the final solution. Let me come to the second question: who was I addressing? That’s a nice question. Maybe I was searching for a younger version of myself in print; maybe I was addressing the generation that will come after me. I have so many young children in my family: my nieces and nephews. I guess I was doing both.

DC: The stories in Kafka Sutra have a folktale quality.

IA: Okay, now let me tell you one nice little thing. I grew up in a house that was numerically dominated by women. I have four sisters, dozens of aunts and cousins, and back then both my grandmothers were alive as well. And added to this, we had neighbors who would drop in for a cup of tea. My father would, as usual, leave the house by afternoon. I’d be left alone with them. I guess, looking back, my first training on how to narrate stories came from that experience. These women were wonderful narrators; they knew how to exaggerate, how to lie like an eyewitness, how to twist and turn the narrative thread. Alongside this, when we were growing up in the early 1990s, we had Doordarshan, the state-owned TV channel. The quality of the serials, documentaries and movies that they produced was really good. You know, as a child, I shunned books like the plague. These were my only windows through which I saw the world. Later, in my adolescence and youth, when I took to reading books seriously, my models were Tolstoy, Kafka, Hemingway, Chekov, Mirza Waheed and others.

I have learned this from them: when you tell a story, keep it simple and don’t flaunt your knowledge or verbal skills. Folktales have this essential quality. There’s a certain childish simplicity in their prose, and this is something I love so much. I really marvel at the capacity of words to paint life in moving pictures. I guess these things have had their own influence on me. They’ve taught me to see life’s many complexities.

DC: Your stories are full of love. They appear to me almost as cautionary tales about how easily love can be warped by a culture of prejudice.

IA: In a way, the book is about love. As Orhan Pamuk once said, one cannot write about anything but only three eternal things: love, music, and death. What I’ve done in these stories is tease my reader’s sensibility. Some of them are written with that in mind. I’ve posed questions about relationships, about the desirability or undesirability of love. The people who are at the center of everything are boring to me. I’m more interested in the margins: in the lives of beggars, prostitutes, failed poets, jailed communists, petty thieves, habitual offenders, Sufis, Baul fakirs, gays, women, activists, and all other sorts, groups, and classes of people who are seen as the Other. My pages brim with their existence. Through these stories, I try to narrate people’s lives that barely resembles ours.

DC: One story, “First Sorrow,” is partly about the disappointment of capitalism.

IA: That story is based on a true incident. You know, after I wrote that story, I decided to mail it to a big publishing house in the United States. One month later, I received a reply. They said that they liked the story but somehow it did not “fit in” with their magazine’s content. When I read this, I sat on my chair and laughed like an idiot for a long time. In their case, it is understandable. The story demonstrates what people in human history have been saying for years now. Capitalism is an economic system that is based on pure deceit, which is sanctioned by law and public opinion. My only wish is to see it dying before my own death. The thing is, when you grow up and do some basic reading, you realize that capitalism is a conservative project. This is the truth. For example, while it prohibits free, open sexual relationships, it does not think twice before gaining commercial profits from sex.

I was once reading Osho. In one his books, he wrote that you see in tribal India that the very concept of prostitution is nonexistent. And why is that? Is it because tribal people don’t know what sex is? Clearly not. Amongst them, prostitute as a differentiated category does not exist. You find this differentiation in cities where lawyers, doctors, politicians, journalists, I mean civil society as a whole, maintains a rigorous register of sexual conduct. This isn’t so in most of India. Sex is a daily occurrence and nobody cares about how many people you sleep with. Nobody will give you a prize, that’s true. But trust me, you won’t be penalized either. You realize all this when you sit and think. I guess that’s why we have literature. It compels us to come out of our safety zone and think more freely. This acquires double significance in the face of elements in the government who want to imprison our souls.

DC: The book’s title is Kafka Sutra. This is somewhat incongruous, no?

IA: I, of course, love Kafka. You know, when I was reading his diaries, I kept telling myself, I could have written these. Or some day, when I write a diary, it’s bound to resemble this. Kafka was a lawyer like me, like me he had to devote his life to earning bread, when all he wanted to do was sit and read and write good books. And I also imagine Kafka as a sexually vigorous man. He may have died of tuberculosis, but that does not mean that he was impotent. Remember, he had several love affairs with women. So I don’t think there’s anything incongruous between the two. Today, we may like to imagine Kafka as a sick and asexual being, but I don’t think that was the case. He was like all of us, just as all of us are like him.

DC: What’s your next project?

IA: I hope that this book will be well received. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to. Once this is done, I mean once the tide settles, I hope I can go back to the novel that I’m still writing. It’s been four years, and I’m still stuck in it. I also hope that I’ll find a publisher like News Junkie Post Press, and editors like you and Gilbert Mercier. You’ve been very kind. This book would not have been possible without your indulgence.

DC: The pleasure was all ours, Imtiaz. Best of luck with your plans!

Editor’s Notes: Kafka Sutra was published on February 25, 2017; it is available in paperback, and as an epub in India, the US, and 11 other countries. It is the third book offering from NJP Press. Imtiaz Akhtar is an Editor at News Junkie Post. He holds a law degree from the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University, Faculty of Law. He is also enrolled as a M. Phil Scholar in the Jadavpur University, Department of Comparative Literature. He has worked as a journalist, subeditor of law reporters, and leader of creative writing workshops for under-privileged children. He lives in Kolkata, India. Photographs one, two, four, five, and ten by Michal Huniewicz; three, six, seven, eight, and nine by Eric Parker.

 

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