Author Highlight: Rajat Mitra Discusses his New Book ‘The Infidel Next Door’ and Stories from his Life
We are back with another author interview. Today, with us, we have Rajat Mitra – the author of ‘The Infidel Next Door’. In this interview, Rajat Mitra talks about his writing aspirations, the route to getting his book published, and his inclination towards humanity. Stay on...while we chat with him.
Kindly tell us a bit about you.
I am a Clinical Psychologist and have worked primarily with rights based issues of abuse and trauma, human rights, disability and mental illness of youth. At the start of my career I worked in a therapeutic center for schizophrenics, subsequently in prisons with violent offenders and finally I started an organization for providing care for traumatized individuals who were victims of heinous crimes and with human rights workers who face persecution across different countries of Asia.
My work has been in unconventional surroundings where I have worked with the marginalized and traumatized people all my life. It was also mostly in situations that required me to understand people brutalized by society and feeling powerless over their persecutors.
For twenty five years I faced situations that revealed deeper sides of human psyche and a human condition that was often hard to feel where I witnessed the altruistic and the evil side by side, how people sacrificed themselves to save others from threats of death, at the same time struggling with inner fears.
What I heard and observed left a deep impact upon me. People told me their stories to just not share their feelings but also so I bear witness and pass it on to others. It created a need in me to write them as I had heard firsthand yet not revealing their identity. So, I decided to write it as a fiction. If their stories affected me I realized they will affect others and have a potential to transform others by the sheer power of their narratives.
My father was not only a school teacher but belonged to the old school who believed that one must read avidly to garner knowledge from all sources. He had a passion for collecting books and reading them as soon as they arrived. He was a voracious reader and made copious notes on every page in every book. Many of my childhood memories are of standing on a pavement along with him, looking at old books strewn around on the footpath while he telling me why this book was important to buy and should be read. The joy of holding them in hand, their smell and carefully restoring their pages is what I spent hours on doing in my childhood.
We lived in a lane. Violence and street fights often took place between street gangs and opposing groups. As a result most of my time was spent inside in our library.
We had around five thousand books in the library. I lived in the world of writers, imagining them and their characters talk to me, interact with me when I was lonely. They were my best friends. I felt more at home imagining the ambivalence of Hamlet and the trauma of Macbeth. I imagined talking to Homer and Kalidas. I felt at home reading Gora by Tagore, Manto and Munshi Premchand’s books.
As I grew up, I began to get affected by social issues of injustice that I witnessed more than my friends. My first exposure to group violence was during the emergency in the year 1975 when the students in our school were asked to march in a procession on the streets extolling the policies of then Prime Minister Ms. Gandhi and her son. When some of us refused to raise slogans during the procession, we were hit and beaten by youth congress volunteers as the policemen on duty looked on helplessly. Our teachers too looked at us pleadingly for us to agree and didn’t intervene out of fear. That day I realized that India was a fascist state. I also saw people squirming in fear in front of officials who held the power of life and death over them. It was then that I decided that one day I will need to turn my attention to people who have no one to speak for them.
I frequently feel the need to turn lose, from my thoughts and my work and often feel like soaking up from nature to heal myself.
To unwind, I go for long walks in nature, even feel the vibrations from trees and listen to classical music for relaxation at home.
How do you handle the success of your first novel, The Infidel Next Door?
I am anticipating a moderate success for the book. It is a serious read and I am told that there is a limited market for such books in India. A book on Hinduism that too based on a character of a Hindu priest perhaps will have a limited audience and limited number of readers in the country. I wrote the book for future generations, for posterity so that they know what was it like for their ancestors to live under a system that didn’t tolerate their religious beliefs.
To me such a book is not measured by its commercial success.
The book has parallel with Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and is a coming of age novel for Hindu and Muslim boys in India, a bildungsroman novel, not usually written in Indian literature. I have kept the structure of the book in a dialogue form and its language simple and as colloquial as I could keeping in mind the readers. It deals with a complex and sensitive topic like how Hindus and Muslims in India see each other and how they see the world. If it indeed becomes successful I will be quite happy to know that there is audience for serious read growing in the country about such a topic.
Do you think that writing a dark and intense novel is as good as writing a normal novel? Please highlight your thoughts on it.
The question is, ‘Is it as good as the other?’ I don’t know how to compare the two though what I feel is that it requires a different type of mindset and framework to write the two kinds of novels. The former requires far more introspection, perhaps to search for a deep sense of perturbation within himself to attempt characters who are troubled inside and meet choices that force them to fall back on issues larger than life.
I believe writing the former takes more time, introspection and insight into human nature as one is writing about a human condition.
I don’t know if my novel is dark and intense. May be some readers feel this way and I accept this insight with a sense to look into it further.
I had often imagined what will happen if a temple and a mosque exist side by side. What conflicts it will generate as the two are built around a different definition of God and what religion should be. While one bans representing God in any form the other sees God in everything and prays to that in various forms. One says all paths lead to God while the other says only one path is true. While I began I hadn’t imagined it will bring me face to face with some of the deepest conflicts between the religions and ultimately of mankind.
I hope that my book brings some light into a dark area and brings healing for all those who have been victims of religious persecution in the world.
The world at the moment is going through a religious conflict. It is over the definition of God and my book is about that. I hope it raises a debate on this eternal conflict so we can leave it resolved for the future generation.
Now, tell us what’s your area of interest (genre) when it comes to writing novels? Is it general fiction or something else that you want to reveal later with the upcoming books?
I read all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction. The book needs to have depth for me to go into it. My read on nonfiction ranges from philosophy to history. I just finished ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’ and ‘Denial – Holocaust History On Trial’, one on trial around a writer who had to defend the holocaust. I finished reading ‘The Light Between Oceans’ and ‘All The Light We Cannot See’. I understand that many a people in the world are trying to hide the truth of what happened in our history and the other half doesn’t care enough except for a minority. I wish we bring the habit of reading back in our lives.
I don’t read romances, science fictions and crime novels. I gave it up long ago realizing they are fun to read but are not adding any value to who I am or what I want to become. My area of interest turned to historical works, books with a philosophical or spiritual tinge like ‘The Razor’s Edge’, ‘The Magic Mountain’, books with a meaning or quest like ‘The Sympathizer’.
Do you think writing a book from the comfort of bedroom or study room is possible?
I carry a notebook and a pen everywhere I go. I believe writing from anywhere is possible. It is a personal relationship between my notebook, me and my thoughts. When I open the notebook to write, the external world recedes and falls apart and I am not aware of it. Then it becomes an innate need in me to express myself, so I can do it anywhere. People can write in prisons, while being incarcerated and tortured and some on the verge of death breathing their last. What is often forgotten is how well the author can create and bring out the inner universe where his characters can travel free and unchained to express their deepest yearnings.
The writer connects to an inner core within himself that to me has no relation whatsoever with the world surrounding him and can dwell deep within to touch that depth from where words emerge woven together. It may seem like magic but is a process that can never be explained and delineated by conscious logic.
Having said that what I feel is that it is important to withdraw unto yourself wherever you are to be a writer. It is a state of mind that becomes one with who you are. You need to go within yourself without fear and come out with a repository of words that echo something which only you have known and seen but no one else has so far. The author bears the witness to tell that to the world through his work.
A writer creates an inner world that can come from imagination, by conjuring up in the mind relationships that never existed before but on reading them we see ourselves reflected in it wondering why we never thought of it in the first place when it was so near us. The author can do it in his private space, of a bedroom or study or even looked at by a hundred people at the airport. To me it doesn’t matter. I remember each time I listened to the people, I conjured up an image of an imaginary place in my mind from the numerous details of sights, sounds and smells that the people told me. This is something that the author does, to become one with the place, merge with it so that no distinction remains between him and the world he has created.
I decided not to go to Kashmir when I was writing the book. When I finally went to those places I had written about I found that it wasn’t very different from what I had conjured up in my mind. If I had been to those places first maybe the imagery that I built up wouldn’t have taken place. Sometimes truth has to travel with us together, far in imagination before it finds words to express itself. My Kashmir was a place rich in sensory details and when I conjured up the scenes they played in my mind’s eye, dancing and forming relationships that told me of an untold harmony that existed and played itself out when I visited that place much later.
Where do you write from? Do you go to some specific place, like beachside or into the hills?
I write anywhere and everywhere. I have written ‘The Infidel Next Door’ while travelling in almost ten countries. I have done so while standing and waiting for a bus, for trains, at airports, in airplanes, in war zones. I have written it on the sea shores of Hong Kong where I lived for nearly four years, in the snow-capped mountains of Nepal and in Burma after talking to the detainees coming out after years of incarceration. Once I was in south of Thailand and a loud explosion took place on the same street that I learnt later was done by terrorists and I wrote one of the chapters staying there. When an idea strikes me, I stay there and write. Sometimes, I just felt that no one was around even when there were a hundred people around me. It was just me, my ideas and my notebook. The notebook became my friend, almost like a mirror that I carried and would carve out a shape, a form, an idea that would crystallize taking a sharper outline each time.
Several later chapters I wrote in a monastery. I was staying there while doing a course on Trauma and had the opportunity to meet and talk to several monks. I got a firsthand idea of how they make a decision to leave the world behind them and what sort of struggles they face while being there.
Did you do proper research before penning down this book or was it something based on personal life?
Both real life experiences and research around it needs to merge in a good story. You have to explore your real life experiences to their very roots, to their very origin so that you know where they are coming from and why they are so important and to merge the subjective with the objective.
My book is on psychological trauma that results from losses of different kinds, loss of identity, loss of homeland and loss of what you thought you were inseparable with. Psychological research shows trauma is trans-generational in nature and many losses you are dealing with have their roots in distant past that our ancestors faced and left them for us. The trauma got passed on from generation to generation till it took a concrete shape one day and burst out in consciousness shaking the very soul of a people.
The trauma of Jews, the Armenians, the Tibetans and many exiled people is like that. The story of Kashmiri Pandits is similar. They faced seven exoduses in the last five hundred years one after another till in the final one they were rooted out of their homes from Kashmir. Their story, their history goes to back thousands of years.
I wish to share a story here.
One day while coming out of the camps for refuges near Jammu, an old man came up to me and said pointing his finger at the camp “This was Aurungzeb’s dream”. It took me quite some time to grasp what he was referring to. As I researched, I found he was referring to Aurungzeb, the Mughal emperor who dreamt to convert whole of India to Islam and why he wanted to start from Kashmir. That became the beginning of my story of why a protagonist goes back to his temple that was razed to the ground three hundred years ago.
What inspired you to write this book? Any tales to tell or did you live in Kashmir to pen down this book?
Nothing concrete as such inspired me. It was a nebulous idea that slowly formed in my head of writing a story of a temple and mosque side by side and the conflict between the two characters who live in that place over their definition of God. I had worked for years and heard many stories of religious persecution, terror that I realized lay hidden. It bothered me why the trauma of Kashmiri Pandits is never talked about in trans-generational terms like Jews or other races that have faced persecutions for centuries? I discovered that psychological trauma of Hindus is not a topic that finds mention and has a history that is linked to the colonialism that was suppressive of any attempts at resurgence of Hindu identity and consciousness.
This made me feel deeply perturbed and I decided to bring that alienation out in my writing by writing about characters who face resistance to becoming who they want to be rather than who they are and taught to be. My zeal became even stronger as the book became a symbol for me of all the oppression that a section of our society have faced historically and I realized that I have to give it a shape, a form, to leave behind for the future generations.
What was your biggest learning experience throughout the publishing process?
The biggest learning experience was to discover my roots through my understanding of religious violence, of Hinduism and Islam, how I belong to a persecuted race and religion. I realized that invaders both British and Muslim have in their own ways tried to annihilate. I learnt how the destruction of temples have affected the Hindu psyche leading us to become passive. I never knew my history in that form. I had known that the English had ruled us and made us slaves but I never knew that our history of subjugation dated back much earlier that the invaders tried to suppress and destroy our ethos and the pain we carry within ourselves.
I felt my identity become deeper may be more profound as a result of writing this book. I became more sensitive and affected to religious persecution everywhere, not just to mine but to those of early Christians, Parsees, Jews. I realized how they had suffered and are still trying to come to terms with it.
During the publishing process I found the entire industry was very conservative and does not think outside set boundaries and primarily through a leftist worldview. Most of the publishers, editors have a leftist outlook and cannot see outside that unlike their compatriots elsewhere who are not limited to that. They looked askance and told me I was trying to go outside those set parameters and my book will not be a success. Some tried to tell me it is a controversial theme and no one writes on that. Some told me publishers don’t take risks and publish only on fixed themes such as college romances or caste.
It was very stifling for me as an author and made me understand why so few works of literary merit come out from Indian authors. It is as if they are trying to conform to a standard defined for them by western publishing houses and haven’t evolved on their own.
One publisher outlined the controversial elements in the book and told me to delete them. “It has enough material to succeed without them.” When I told him it is an integral part of the story and the controversy already exists and I am not creating it, he shrugged and said that if a book portrays a Hindu priest as a protagonist, it will not create much appeal for the intelligentsia of the country. That kind of statement pains me. That to me is an indicator that freedom of speech and expression are may be in a peril in our country.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in as a writer?
What did I do to become an author? I had to change my identity from that of a psychologist to being a writer. That wasn’t easy. As a psychologist, I thought, felt and wrote in a definite way. It was the way we were taught during our education. It was to be clinical, detached and objective. Though many of the early psychoanalytic writers wrote in a deeply poetic and abstract way that came after years of analysis and introspection when they had already built their own schools. Freud is even reported to have said that he wrote nothing new and everything he wrote had already been written by the poets before him.
I read avidly about authors, their lives, their way of looking at life and reality. I realized it is not very different from being a psychologist except that the medium of expression changes.
While writing I began to understand the unique bond between the writer and the reader. The writer is not telling just a story in words, he is also letting the reader imagine it, immerse into it so that it becomes a lived experience for him or her. Once I understood that it became easier to think and write like an author.
I did many a wrong things too and learnt from the process. It was learning about the deep political divide that exists when you begin to think like an author according to what you write. An author becomes a political symbol whether he likes it or not. I lost friends who were used to seeing me as a psychologist and now felt my work had begun to take political overtones. It pained me to see some close friendships dissolve and distance myself as a result which I understand is a necessary part of any authors’ identity when he writes about sensitive subjects. I also realized that I will have to stand by my convictions to uphold my book and every word I have written in it. Every word of it matters and I should be able to speak up for why I wrote it and defend it if necessary.
Any best piece of writing advice from your side that we haven’t discussed?
Writing is an inner process. It is innate and not taught by any external teacher except life. To write an author has to be true to his convictions and his inner feelings. He has to discover them what he feels about a certain issue and be meditative about that. The words will come. Nothing else. An author has to please no one when he writes and stand by what he has written. Writing has a natural flow that comes from your soul. Great writers never studied about writing or did a writing course. Solzhenitsyn wrote after facing torture in jail. Today you have dozens of writing courses that teach us methodologies of a different kind. Of course we can study them and discover our own flow as I did over countless hours. I shifted or added on a new way of looking at things apart from being a psychologist and that is of an author. The two are markedly different. Can you combine the two? Yes, you can and that is what the whole process taught me. Deeper insights about human nature, universal truths about human condition can be expressed through poetry, through writing in a flow like an author. They come first from somewhere that we cannot see ourselves almost like a magical moment of discovery.
There is a saying that there is no good writing but good re-writing. I firmly believe in that. I also take feedback from other authors about my style, my way of saying things and it is a constant ongoing process for me.
Something personal about you people may be surprised to know.
That inspite of writing an intense book and being an intense person, I can sometimes turn away from it all and give it up to become playful, be satirical and create a self that is different from the above.
Any future books that you would like to discuss now?
My future book that I am currently writing is on the Indian freedom struggle as seen from the eyes of the colonialists and those who suffered. What did it feel like to live under the British rule for an average Indian?