Kalyan Ray describes himself as an accidental author. After decades of teaching and writing academic articles, US-based Ray wanted to get to “the blood, the grit” of creating something. While his first book, Eastwords, grew out of his interest in Shakespeare and the bard’s surprising references to India and colonialism, his second book is a rawer and a more real work of fiction. “Colonialism is the continuing theme, as it was rattling around in my head even after I finished Eastwords (in 2005),” says Ray, explaining that his second novel, No Country—which is being launched in the city today—is largely about hybridity, identity and the idea of a nation.
“I have lived in three continents and seen how people struggle to find their identities no matter where they go. We are constantly looking for an answer to the question, who are we,” says the author, who himself went through a loss of identity when riots uprooted him and his family from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and brought them to Calcutta.
Ireland being the first English colony and the link it had with India no doubt influenced Ray, even as he added America to the mix, since “all populations tended to America”. A lot of research went into writing the book, he admits. “For six months, I deliberately read nothing but Irish newspapers, books, political tracts—so that I could get the rhythm of their speech, their vocabulary,” he says, explaining that he also scoured libraries for photographs. “I literally studied them with my magnifying glass. So when I described a street in 1841 Dublin, I had a window to it. Similarly, 1910 Calcutta and New York,” he adds.
No Country has been nominated for the 2014 Kirkus Prize for fiction, with the review magazine stating that “the variegated colours, tastes and textures of Ray’s narrative… lends a powerful sense of context to both the most trivial and the most tragic of human circumstances.” However, others have found the book’s 10 narrators confusing and the history shoe-horned in. But Ray defends it, saying, “Not all book are for everyone. Some people have no sense of history, so how can you speak about anything other than the here and now, and films like Dabangg?”
Ray has now retired from his teaching position in New Jersey and is planning to move back to India. “The response to the book has been so amazing that it made me wonder how I will use the time left to me. I don’t want to do anything which I don’t want to do, which my wife (filmmaker Aparna Sen) believes is absolute obstinacy,” he laughs. He’s also finished one-third of his next novel. “I am not interested in repeating books, so the new one will be totally different. It’s about how religious identity and violence are closely linked, and is set in India, Massachusetts and Somalia—with a historical figure as a main character,” he signs off.
No Country will be launched today, at 7 pm, at the Vivanta by Taj – Connemara. Published by Bloomsbury, the 560-pager is `599. Details: bloomsbury.com
—Surya Praphulla Kumar