Siddhartha Deb

siddhartha debSiddhartha Deb talks to us about journalistic ethics, the inverse link between class and mobility in India, and his role as perpetual translator. 

You’ve written two novels and a nonfiction book of cultural exploration.  Can you tell us a bit about how you find the genre or form for a particular set of concerns?  That is, how do you know when something needs to be a novel rather than an essay or nonfiction book?  What distinguishes, for you, the function of each genre?  For me, the novel is the more challenging form, full of blind alleys and surprises. It’s less predictable than nonfiction in terms of the results you can expect from it, which makes it more dangerous, more exciting, and capable of transcendence. Nonfiction is, for me, more immediate, and perhaps more useful if you know from the beginning how you feel about a subject. 

In The Beautiful and the Damned, you offer portraits of different sectors of the “new Indian economy”—the wealthy entrepreneur, middle class call center workers, farmers struggling under de-regulation, factory workers feeding the economy at the expense of their bodies, and young women migrating to urban centers for service industry jobs.  The most dramatic reaction to your book in India was from the wealthy entrepreneur, who filed a defamation lawsuit; can you describe other reactions to the book in India?  You write at one point in the book that its unlikely that many of its subjects or occupants of towns you describe would ever encounter the book.  Has that proved to be the case?  Have you learned anything new about the country of your birth based on the reactions to the book?  In my nonfiction book on India, I felt that the “new Indian economy” was in many ways a partial truth which added up to a big lie, which was about how brutal the new economy had been for a majority of the people while benefiting a tiny elite which had become virulently sectarian in its intoxication with wealth and power. In that sense, it’s not surprising that one member of that tiny elite should have used an arcane legal system to prevent publication of the chapter, although that, oddly enough, led the book to even becoming better known.

One of the most difficult aspects of cultural research is navigating the relationship to interview subjects.  Did you find the ethics of the reporter/subject relationship to be difficult to negotiate?  Did you feel a sense of obligation to those you interviewed, especially when they were in difficult circumstances?  Have you kept in contact with any subjects of the book?  [The end of the book, in particular begs this question.  You profile Esther, who seems to be a compelling mix of smart and frustrated, tough and naïve; and you end the book, cannily, on a wonderful potential opportunity dangled in front of her to work for a member of parliament.  And, of course, you dig in and find there is no such member.  The book ends there; did your contact with Esther end there, as well?]  In terms of obligations, yes. I tried to avoid situations that seemed overtly personal, such as visiting a character at home (although a hardened nonfiction writer would have done so, and I made an exception with Esther). I also made a distinction between public characters, such as the entrepeneur who sued me – I felt a man who advertises himself in the mass media did not have the same claim to privacy as other people. For other characters, I changed or withheld details on their request. I do not name the company the engineer works for, and Esther is not Esther’s real name. I’ve stayed in touch with Esther, and so I do know more of her story. 

While The Beautiful and the Damned focuses on economic growth, and class and demographic upheavals, the ghost subject seems to be home.  Nearly all of your subjects have lost their homes—from partition, violence, poverty, or domestic/international migration; and they hang onto some scrap of home in poignant ways—Esther (a transplant to Delhi) lives with her siblings and becomes a quasi-mother to them; even though there seems to be little real communion, the men in the iron works room with others from their home state and cook together.  Can you tell us about other ways that you’ve observed uprooted people create a connection to or reinvention of home?  What about your own creation of home, since a great deal of your work seems to be about returning imaginatively to the area of your birth to understand the way the past bears on the present?  I think the point about home is especially perceptive. I found that only the rich characters (the management guru, the cigar dealer) are living where they grew up, which tells you a lot about class and mobility. Everybody else is floating around; even the farmer Gopeti worked in Dubai as a migrant laborer for some years. 

It seems to me that living and working in the United States but retaining Indian citizenship and returning for long stretches of research would demand a kind of habit of self-appraisal: what have I picked up, what have I set aside, what parts of my identity are involuntary and which parts deliberate. What does your “we” look like (beyond, say, the more intimate “we” of family or close friends) now?  Do you remember when you first felt part of a larger “we” in the United States?  What conditions tend to foster that sense of plurality here?  I’m sensitive to this for obvious reasons, including living between India and the United States, suspended in some way in the perpetual role of translator — between, for instance, my mother in Kolkata, whose English is rudimentary, and my son in New York, who doesn’t speak or understand Bengali. You’re right then to bring up the question of who “we” is for me. It’s not any one language or any one nation. It cannot be. It’s certainly not a class, although I’ll be blunt about the fact that I find both Indian and American elites incredibly disconcerting, and that I’m often most at ease, most able to make a human connection — in India but also pretty much anywhere in the world — amid the strata at the bottom, and among those who question their most deep-standing national myths, whether they’re privileged or not. 

 Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?  Ahh, fiction, among a hundred other things. I’ve been working on two narratives, one set in the 1940s in Calcutta and one set in India/New York around climate change.