Interview: Timeri Murari

Posted on July 24, 2007


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Peopled as it is with characters like Harold Pinter and Graham Greene, Amol Palekar and Sanjay Khan, Timeri Murari’s life has been as eventful as his fiction.

JULY 23, 2007 – ONE EVENING at his ancestral home in Kilpauk, Chennai, Timeri Murari demonstrates to me the difference between a casual conversationalist and a clever writer. If you or I were to admit to a leaky memory, we’d probably go, “Uh, I have trouble remembering things.â€? But Murari couches a similar admission in one hell of a yarn. “Many years ago, when I was living in London,â€? he recalls, “I was walking up Piccadilly, near Green Park, with one of my close friends, and this beautiful blonde girl was coming towards us. It was winter. She had a fur coat on and a fur hat. We were both looking at her, thinking what a wonderful, beautiful girl this is, and how do we get into bed with her. She drew abreast, threw her arms around me and said, ‘Tim, what a wonderful time we had! Don’t forget to call me. I want to see you again.’ And then she kept walking. My friend turned around and said, ‘You were joking. You know her!’ And I said I didn’t know. I couldn’t remember a damn thing.â€?

After the laughter, though, I remark that it does seem a bit odd, that he would remember an incident from over thirty years ago and then use it to illustrate his forgetfulness. But Murari is like that. The things that really meant something, those linger on. I ask him the unavoidable who-did-he-read-while-growing-up question, and after a huge intake of breath – possibly to conceal his impatience at this overfamiliar biographical pit-stop – he rattles off names as if reading them off a list in his hand. Marquez. Graham Greene. Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler. Hemingway. RK Narayan. Arthur Miller. But the effort shows when he turns to more current writing, especially from India. “Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pankaj Mishra… his recent book was very well written.â€? Which recent book, I want to know. He raises an arm and waves his fingers, as if leafing through index cards in an invisible library drawer. He gives up.

Wasn’t it Proust who said what we are is due to memories, due to remembrances of things past? Could that explain why Murari has made a name for himself as a writer of long-long-ago novels? The most famous of these, of course, is the fictionalisation of a part of the Mughal era through the prism of the Taj Mahal, but there’s also Four Steps from Paradise, set in a recently-independent India (and in a family of Naidus, a bit of detail that likely bounces off Murari’s upbringing in a Telugu-speaking household), and the Kiplingesque dyad – The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory – that resurrects Kim for all-new adventures during the last days of the Raj. I ask Murari why he chose Kim when he could have written the same novel with, say, a Jim and circumvented the Kipling comparisons. “I’d been wanting to write about the British period in India – about the early 1900s, because the fall of the British had started by then. My themes are partly about dislocation and the diaspora – and I thought Kim was an interesting person. He was born in the streets of Lahore and he worked for the British – yet he was very Indian. I was interested in what would happen if he had to make a choice between nationality and identity, between his imperial masters and his love for the country. It’s the same choice that one has even today when you’re living away.â€?

MURARI TALKS from experience, having spent a large part of his life away from his homeland. “I was born here, in this house,â€? he says, gesturing to the space around him. That was 65 years ago. Then, after schooling at Bishop Cotton’s, Bangalore, he left for England to study electronics, “which didn’t work out at all, and about 1961, I went to McGill (in Canada) to do a BA in History and Political Science.â€? For a term paper that he had to write in his second year, he decided to focus on his experiences while working at a logging camp in British Columbia. The piece turned out well, and Murari decided to try his luck with the press. “There were two newspapers I really admired, the New York Herald Tribune and the Guardian (then known as the Manchester Guardian). By the time I finished the article, the Tribune had folded, so I sent it off to the Guardian.â€? He didn’t hear anything for weeks. Then one day, he was at the university library, looking through the air-mail editions of the papers, and there was his article, on a full page. “And once you see your name in print, your ego goes kinda crazy.â€?

The ego went crazy enough for Murari – a brown man in a land of whites a long time before the software industry made the multicultural workplace an inevitable reality – to go looking for a full-time newspaper job. “I got a job with the Kingston Whig-Standard, in Ontario. I still remember the name of the editor, Don Soutter. He taught me the basics of journalism. But he left after six months and a new editor came and I was the only brown face around and the first person he fired was me.â€? This is one instance Murari’s memory doesn’t fail him. He remembers exactly what the new boss said. “You don’t fit in here.â€? So Murari hopped on to London, to the Guardian, and began writing features there, “profiles (of famous people like Gloria Swanson and Paul Newman and Josephine Baker) and long pieces (about London).â€? He became good friends with another Indian working at the paper at the time. “He used to be a cartoonist,â€? Murari pauses. “Abu Abraham.â€?

“Abu and I were about the only two Indians on Fleet Street then – the late 60s, the early 70s,â€? Murari says, but the Guardian was committed to him. “They first thought I was Italian – due to my name – so they just went along with it. But I was also writing well for them. I used to get a lot of mail for my material. So they couldn’t exactly turn me out.â€? One of the loyal readers was a not-yet writer named Amitav Ghosh. “He was in town for a book reading recently. I was introduced to him and he said that, at the time, mine was the only Indian writing he could read. Of course I didn’t write much about India. But at least Amitav knew I wasn’t Italian,â€? Murari laughs.

A FEW years on, the first novel came about. “By that time I was freelancing,â€? says Murari, “and the Sunday Times sent me off to Coventry to cover problems among unions and the racism in the immigrant community.â€? But nothing came of it after the paper’s legal department vetted the piece and had issues with it. “I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I’d been trying to write novels, so when the newspaper story didn’t happen, I sat down and tried to tell the story through fictional ways.â€? The article thus turned into The Marriage – a “kind of love story between an Indian girl and an English boy, and at the background is her father, along with the unions and the politics of it and everything else. I think it was the first novel about Indian immigrants written in England.â€? Real life, though, cast a bit of a twist on this plot. Murari’s own love story was that of an Indian boy and an Australian girl. “Maureen was visiting London the time I was there, and we ended up crashing at a common acquaintance’s place. That’s how we met.â€? They got married in New York, 26 years ago.

Other books followed. One was The Oblivion Tapes, a bio-thriller. One was Goin’ Home: A Black Family Return South, a non-fiction work that The Washington Post found was told with “sensitivity and candour, with sympathy restrained by objectivity.â€? Murari isn’t immune to flattering things being said about his work – this review excerpt does feature on his web site, after all – but he admits, “There is a lot of backscratching in the book business. If you know the right person, you can get your book a good review. I’ll be honest. It’s happened to me. I used to play cricket with the literary editor of the Independent, so he’d make sure I had a good review. I guess this happens in every field.â€? But it’s an entirely different set of situations that brought about the nine words of praise that Murari possibly cherishes the most: “I was very much impressed by Field of Honour.â€? The “Iâ€? was Graham Greene. “He was in the South of France and I was meant to do an article on him for The Guardian,â€? Murari remembers. “I finally didn’t do the piece, but he was very courteous to me.â€? And when Murari completed Field of Honour, “I wrote to Greene and asked if he would mind looking at it. He said okay. I sent him the galleys. He sent me a very kind note. It was wonderful.â€?

Despite the blurb, Murari says that Field of Honour only did “fairly wellâ€? in the States and in the UK, but then not every published work of a writer can become his “biggest selling book, published in 12 languages, a bestseller in the UK and in France, and still selling almost a quarter century after its first publication.â€? That, of course, would be Taj, A Story of Mughal India, which the Penguin web site helpfully describes as “the story of the Taj on two parallel levels. The first one tells the passionate love story of Shah Jahan and Arjumand. The second recounts the later years of Shah Jahan’s reign, the building of the Taj Mahal and the bloody pursuit of the fabulous Peacock throne by his sons.â€? If that sounds like the very definition of a breathless narrative, you should hear Murari recount his adventures after the book’s release. “I had a call from Sanjay Khan,â€? he says. “His wife had read the novel and liked it, and he wanted to make it into a television series, a 100-parter like Tipu Sultan. But I felt that television had moved on from the days of Doordarshan, and I suggested a three-parter, like a mini series.â€?

MURARI WROTE the three-parter, and then found himself in the middle of a bit of brotherly warfare not unlike the one that broke out between the sons of his protagonist all those centuries ago. “One day, Sanjay called and said his brother (named Akbar, no less) had taken my novel and must be stopped. He asked me to write to Akbar. I wrote a courteous note saying I was working with Sanjay, so please don’t use anything from the novel. I got a very rude letter about the story having no copyright. I agreed, but I said the dialogue and everything else was mine.â€? So when Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal finally made it to theatres, Murari was one of the ten people in India who watched it. “I took my lawyer friend along. I said if they’d used anything of mine, we’d go to court. But it was so bad and embarrassing, I didn’t want anything to do with it.â€? And now it appears there might be a happy ending after all. In 1999, Fay Gabriel – “someone with Hollywood contactsâ€? – got in touch with Murari about a movie version of Taj. He put her on to Sanjay Khan, who owned the rights then. “The meeting didn’t go well. Sanjay said he didn’t need her.â€? But last August, Gabriel called again, and this time Sanjay Khan was out of the picture. “She said she had a producer who’d like to put it together. We’ll have to see where it goes now.â€?

This is as good a time as any, I decide, to ask Murari about his other bad film experience. “You really want to know the whole story?â€? he laughs, when I prod him about Amol Palekar and Daayra. But of course, I reply, somewhat indignant at the prospect of settling for anything less than a blow-by-blow insider account about a film that Time magazine anointed one of the ten best of the year! “It was an original screenplay,â€? he begins. “I was in New York and I’d been visiting India because my father was here. I was driving around somewhere in South India. I saw a very pretty girl herding goats. I went out to take a photograph of her. She saw me and started screaming. The villagers came charging out. Luckily my sister was with me, as was my wife, so they didn’t attack me. They said there were a lot of kidnappings in the area. The girl thought I was going to kidnap her.â€? The idea simmered away inside Murari, and he decided to write a screenplay about what happens when a girl is kidnapped from her village. As he was rewriting a draft, the character of the transvestite “suddenly appeared and started talking to her, and then it began to be about the relationship between him quote-unquote and her. So she came from reality and he came from my mind.â€?

“It took me a long time – two to three years – to get the script done. I wanted to direct it myself. I thought I’d get some finance out of London.â€? (Murari had moved back to India by 1987, “due to personal problems.â€?) But that did not work out, and the producer who came in did not want his screenwriter to direct. It was then that Palekar’s name was brought up. “I asked around and everyone seemed to know about him and his work. So I met him, though I can’t say I got along terribly well with him.â€? The relationship deteriorated further as principal photography began. Murari was on the sets, when he discovered that Palekar’s wife Chitra was actually directing the film. “Suddenly Palekar turned around and said: I want my wife to have half the screen credit. I said she didn’t do anything on it. It’s my script. In that case, he said, we’d stop shooting.â€? Some time later, they started shooting again, and “I saw that he’d changed my ending.â€? Murari explains that the girl in the film is raped by three thugs – which is the way he wrote it – but, later, Palekar made the same three thugs come around from behind a boulder and kill the transvestite. “Palekar said these things happen. I said no, they don’t happen without proper motivation, otherwise it looks like this person is dressed as a woman, so he needs to be punished.â€?

THINGS GOT really interesting when Daayra made it to the festival circuit and the team got up on stage to take audience questions. “They asked me about the ending. I said it’s not my writing. It’s what he did.â€? And Palekar was furious. “He said you don’t bring these things up in public. I said, ‘Yes I do, especially if I’m being blamed for something totally illogical.’ That’s the last time I’ve seen him.â€? There’s still some resentment eating away at some corner, for after our interview, Murari e-mails me a note: “On Palekar. I do resent him saying that Daayra was the first of his trilogy on sexual themes (lesbianism, homosexuality, which I’ve not seen), as if he’d created it in the first place.â€? Murari had a happier experience with Daayra when he directed a stage version – called The Square Circle – in Leicester, with a cast that included Parminder Nagra and Rahul Bose. He’d directed plays earlier in Chennai, and the theatre said they liked writers to direct their own plays. “It was an interesting challenge to work in British theatre,â€? says Murari.

Murari’s introduction to British theatre, however, was one of those real-life coincidences that, had it been an anecdote in a novel of his, would have been laughed off as a desperate deux ex machina. “I used to be on the cricket team for the Guardian,â€? he remembers, “along with (film critic) Derek Malcolm and a couple of other guys. We used to play with Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. I talked to them about their plays and thought I’d like to try theatre.â€? (Isn’t that a bit like someone deciding to have a go at Hollywood after running into Coppola and Scorsese in a church group?) In one way, Murari says, he prefers the novel, because “I’m left to myself and I work with one editor. But at the same time, the joy of working on a script for the theatre or for films or television is that it gets me out of my room. It forces me to meet people. You get other points of view, and there are so many ways of expressing yourself.â€? One such expression came from reviewing books. Murari talks about the time he reviewed a Stephen King novel, the one about a writer – and his brow furrows in the effort of digging out the title. “The Shining?â€? I suggest. “No, the one where the writer is trapped…â€? Ah, Misery. Murari allows that he enjoyed the book. “I think King is a good storyteller, and at the end of the day, a good storyteller is very important.â€? That’s why Murari didn’t review many more books, because he wanted to tell his own stories. “Reviewing someone else’s work takes me away from my own writing.â€?

His “own writingâ€? went on to include newspaper articles, novels and plays, and Murari recalls how Pinter “got mad at me once. He said: You got to make up your bloody mind. You’re either a journalist or a novelist or in theatre. You can’t do all three.â€? Imagine Pinter’s apoplexy, then, had he known that Murari was looking into a fourth form of writing – screenplays. During the sixties and seventies, there were a number of Hollywood producers living in London, and Murari used to play football in Hyde Park with a group of actors and film directors. “Through them I found a couple of film producers who wanted me to write scripts.â€? But it wasn’t easy. “In the film business, you do scripts which are never made. I worked for two-three years on British television, where you get paid to write, but it never gets made because the boss has just changed or something. Those years were frustrating,â€? he says, adding to these frustrations his experience with Hugh Hudson. “By ’75, I’d moved to New York – being curious about America and everything else – and Hudson optioned my book The New Savages. I wrote the screenplay. He said he’d come back to it because he had another film to make, but eventually The New Savages never got made.â€? What Hudson made instead was Chariots of Fire.

THAT MUST have resulted in a fair bit of excitement, that almost-brush with an Academy Award winner. Doesn’t he miss all this, now that he’s back in the city he still can’t stop thinking of as Madras? “My father wasn’t well,â€? Murari explains, “so I needed to come back. There was also some ancestral property to be settled, and that court case dragged on and on for five years.â€? But what convinced Murari was probably the meeting with RK Narayan. “I used to see Narayan when he was in Mysore. He was a very nice man. He said: how can you write about India from abroad? You’re doing it as a tourist. You’re coming in and taking a piece and going back and remembering it.â€? And that “sort of ate away at me,â€? says Murari. He’d come back once to cover the elections after Indira Gandhi’s assassination – for The Hindu and The Guardian – and “that convinced me further. I thought I needed to spend some time here. I just got tired of the West, of America. Thirty years is a long time to be away.â€?

Murari has no regrets about moving back – except that he lost five years of writing. The court case lasted that long – “because of this damn judicial system in our countryâ€? – and he was forced to take this break, “from ‘88 to about ’93.â€? He then came back with the screenplay for Daayra, and the work since has been quite regular, encompassing both fiction (The Arrangements of Love) and nonfiction (My Temporary Son, based on the experiences Murari and his wife had when they took an orphan into their lives). “I prefer fiction,â€? Murari says, “because you have control over your material, but nonfiction challenges you to be honest and accurate and it gives you a chance to explore issues of some kind.â€? Despite his output, Murari feels he’s still an unknown figure in the wider context of India, which he terms North-centric. “In Madras, people have read me, but in other places, I’m not quite sure they’ve figured out what to do with me, how to judge me. The Indian papers have given me good reviews, but my books are not the same kind of book, and that confuses them a bit.â€? Yet, his new novel, due this October, won’t make an easy bid for acceptance outside his hometown. It’s not that it’s set in Madras so much as its title, which – at least for now – is Small House, which is a literal translation of the Tamil slang for “mistress.â€? But even in Madras, I ask Murari, will such a title not attract the salivating attentions of the wrong kind of reader? He thinks a little, and then declares with the honesty of his writing, “I’m not very good with titles. Marquez is wonderful with titles. I can never get myself to think of them.â€?

Copyright ©2007 Man’s World

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