Sujit Saraf, 39, is a space scientist who has worked at NASA. He is also the author of The Peacock Throne (2007). Saraf was schooled in Darjeeling and Delhi and studied engineering at IIT Delhi and the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Palo Alto with his American wife and their two children. He spoke to Trisha Gupta about Indians, politics and his new novel, The Confession of Sultana Daku.
You once said in an interview that people in Delhi may not be conscious of it, but just being a Dilliwala gives you a sense of relevance, even if you’re just a speck in the larger scheme of things.
I’ve lived in Delhi for seven years – school, IIT and later when I was teaching. But I am not a Dilliwala. I grew up in a small town, and Delhi was the first big city that I ever saw. And like every other country bumpkin, when I first arrived in Delhi, I was certainly very conscious of the fact that this was the capital of India – and the Prime Minister, the Parliament – these are within a mile ofyou. There is this certain air of power that non-Dilliwallas associate with Dilliwalas. And Dilliwalas don’t care. They take it for granted. And a certain arrogance creeps into their attitude or their speech, which they may not know the reason for – but I think it has something to do with being in the capital.
Would you say both your books are about people trying to acquire power?
Since I have spent a lot of time in India and a lot of time abroad, I am very conscious of how aggressive and cutthroat Indians are. How in any line for a bus, say, they will cut across and find a seat. I, of course, grew up in that environment, so I myself would do that. Then, after I had lived abroad for a few years, I became soft. (laughs) I’d come back to India and I’d be shocked. I’d be horrified, and I’d be contemptuous – ki kaise log hain. Then over the years, it hit me that people in India are merely reacting to their environment, just as people abroad are. Because there are ten people and five seats, they behave in this manner. The moment you double the number of seats or halve the number of people, this behaviour will change. Because I have seen similar behaviour in the most rarefied Western environments, when faced with a temporary shortage. That’s what The Peacock Throne was about – people in a society where the pie is very small, and people are doing what they can to get by, and to get a bigger piece of the pie. It was about the exercise of power in India where everyone is trying to exercise power over everyone else – to the extent possible. Of course, birth, wealth, luck and looks aid some people. But my villains are not people I dislike, and I have no heroes. My villains are victims too, and my victims are villains, when they get an opportunity. In The Peacock Throne, my people were small-time power-brokers, councillors in Chandni Chowk, MLAs, perhaps MPs: people who are concerned with the pursuit of petty power. That was the life they knew how to lead. Even the Bangladeshi boy abandoned by his parents – someone whom you would certainly consider a victim – does what he can to oppress, given the opportunity. He is a victim only because he hasn’t yet found a victim of his own. And the same goes for oppressors – they become victims when someone more powerful comes along. It was, in my opinion, an amoral novel, not an immoral one. Of course, my characters do what would be considered immoral things. But when I first show a prostitute, she is beating the hell out of a customer. While the madam of the brothel isn’t exactly powerful – she is a victim too… so I was neither sympathizing with my victims not condemning my villains.
Unfortunately most reviewers seem to think that there are no good people in this novel, there is no place for romance, for tender relationships. They seemed to think, here’s this guy who lives in sunny California and this is his way of saying, ‘Look at this screwed up place. But in reality I thought what I was saying was, ‘Look at these people behaving how all human beings would, in similar circumstances’.
And with The Confession of Sultana Daku, did you set out to write a political book?
Now, anything written about three people is political. To that extent I suppose this is political, too. But one comment I do make in this novel – simply by not making it – is about nationalism. Sultana lived through the period from 1919 to 1924. Those are periods of political ferment: particularly the period of non-cooperation. So you would imagine that there would be a lot of talk of India versus the British. But there isn’t. There is a lot of talk of bhantu versus bania versus thakur, with the white man fully accepted as the natural master. Which in my opinion was the attitude of the vast majority of Indians. Sure, there were politically conscious Indians, and Gandhi had his educated followers, but the vast majority of people who followed him did so for the wrong reasons: they felt he could cure them by touching them, and so on.
Sultana’s enemies are not white people, they are banias and thakurs. Freddy is not, for Sultana, not a white colonial oppressor, he is simply a policeman trying to capture a daku – whose victims are thakurs and banias – other Indians. Also, he may have been sustaining an empire which is colonial, but this is not about a white man oppressing black or brown people. Of course towards the end of the novel, Sultana gives a speech to Freddy Young saying, ‘I am doing Gandhi’s work’. You are not meant to believe him entirely, of course.
But we have with the advantage of hindsight, projected nationalism onto that age. Inspite of the mass mobilization that Gandhi carried out, only a few million Indians truly understood the idea of an “India” in the 1920s. There is, in Sultana’s world, no such thing as India, there is no United Provinces – his country is Rohilkhand, which as far as he is concerned, should be ruled bybhantus – not banias and not thakurs and not even Gandhi. In the end, Sultana says to Freddy, after Gandhiji has kicked you out, we, bhantus, will kick Gandhiji out – because he is a bania. While white people are rulers, they are fully acceptable. Towards the end of the novel, Sultana even tells him, ‘I can talk to you like this, I cannot talk to a bania or thakur – they are enemies’.