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The stream of consciousness: Sudhir Kakar and the novel

Sudhir Kakar is a psychoanalyst and writer who turned his attention to the novel relatively late in life. He talks to Vineet Gill about the pitfalls and pleasures of writing fiction, and the blandness of Joyce.

Vineet Gill  29th Aug 2015

Sudhir Kakar speaking at the Mountain Echoes festival in Thimphu, Bhutan.

udhir Kakar is an expert in psychoanalysis who also writes books. But to my mind, he is a writer first who nevertheless happened to be a professional psychoanlyst, perhaps the best known in the country.

He has written extensively on subjects like sexuality, the Indian identity, violence, mortality and the self — subjects that wouldn't seem out of place in a great novel.

And having written non-fiction books for most of his life, Kakar turned to fiction relatively late — it was only when he was 60 years of age that he wrote his first novel The Ascetic of Desire.

His most recent work is another novel, The Devil Take Love, which once again touches upon the twin subjects of sex and desire that have preoccupied Kakar's imagination for years.

When I met him at a recent literature festival in Bhutan, Kakar was sitting on the patio of his hotel, sipping vodka from a glass and smoking a fancy Cuban cigar. "I smoke one cigar a day. Always fancy," he told me.

Throughout our conversation, he only asked me one question: "Are you a literature student?" But before he could turn the tables on me, so to speak, and assume his familiar role of the interviewer, I brought the discussion back to its main focus —his life and his work. It was his turn to be on the couch.

Q. Do you remember your very first published piece? And whether it was fiction or non-fiction?

A. It was a short story in German. The year was 1962 or thereabouts, and this was when I was studying in Germany. So I published four or five short stories in German newspapers — it was a very regional paper called Mannheimer Morgen. Those were the first published stories, and then I forgot completely about fiction. The stories were like all kinds of emigrant stories — about nostalgia for India. But they were not very good, and I have made sure that nobody ever sees them again [laughs]. But my very first literary effort was a short Urdu radio play I wrote at the age of nine, which I sent to the All India Radio, and walked with a rejection slip for months in my pocket.

Q. An important aspect of being a writer is being a reader. What were you reading in your early years in Germany? Where you were studying Economics?

A. I was studying Economics, yes. But it was really naam ke vaaste (for name's sake). I was hardly...I mean, I was much too drunk by four o'clock. There, I got into a group of artists and writers. My best friend was a painter. And through them I discovered the world of European literature and art; and of course the pleasures of drinking wine and all. Also, the Economics went along — it was easy to do. But it was the reading and writing, that really began to interest me during my student years in Germany.

Q. And the decision to become a psychoanalyst? Was it something to support your writerly ambitions? Or did you choose this profession over being a full-time writer?

A. It was not an either/or thing. My career was very much psychoanalysis. I absolutely wanted to do that. And psychoanalysts and fiction writers are not very different. You have stories of individuals in both these areas. As for the writing — I wrote non-fiction for a long while. Then, I followed the Hindu Ashram Dharma. So when I turned 60 — this is a time for vanaprastha — leaving the psychoanalytic practice and Delhi, I went to a small village in Goa with my wife. I lived there and wrote my first novel.

Q. Writing your first novel, did you find it easy to make that transition to from non-fiction to fiction?

A. With the first novel, one is always afraid. So one keeps to what one knows. And since the erotic and sexuality are very central to Freudian psychoanalysis, I picked my figure [the principal character of the novel] and made him a scholar who deals with sexuality. So I think the novel has this little fault — writing it, I couldn't completely let go of my scholarly part. It has portions that may appear as pedantic digressions on sexuality, although anything to do with sexuality is never so dull [laughs]. So the first novel kept to that. You know, with my non-fiction I knew that there's a floor I cannot sink under, and a ceiling I won't rise above. With fiction I had no idea of the floor and the ceiling. But once that fear went away, after the first novel, it became easier.

Q. Could you talk about the process of writing fiction, which Norman Mailer says, springs largely from the subconscious brain. Does this make fiction writing easier or not?

A. Through writing, you're trying to describe some emotion or feeling that your characters go through. And unless you experience some form of that feeling yourself, it won't be authentic. Which means you come into, you are present in, almost every character. But is writing fiction easier? No. Is it more enjoyable? Yes. It's not easy because when you're writing fiction sometimes you just sit there and nothing happens. With non-fiction, you know there's an argument to be built and what you need for that.

With non-fiction, I knew that there’s a floor I cannot sink under, and a ceiling I won’t rise above. But with fiction I had no idea of the floor and the ceiling. Once that initial fear went away, after the first novel, it became easier.

Q. The expectation from a psychoanalyst is to write a certain kind of novel. You know, the stream of consciousness and all that. Did people have similar expectations of you?

A. No. The expectation was: you're a psychoanalyst and not a novelist. So you shouldn't be writing novels at all. The literary people had come with a very distancing and suspicious attitude. And one had to kind of overcome it. But luckily, where one was not that well-known as a psychoanalyst, like outside India, people did not have a similar attitude. So that made me feel okay. In India, the expectation was — he cannot do it. The same expectation probably still exists, I don't know [laughs].

Q. To return to the subject of reading. What did you think of writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who were, and still are, associated with a particular kind of psychologically-deep prose, when you first read them?

A. Joyce...I did not... it know these are figures you have to pay obeisance to. You cannot say you don't like Joyce if you want to be taken seriously. So I would never say that. But I didn't enjoy Joyce, and if i don't enjoy reading anything I don't have to. Virginia Woolf, of course, I liked very much. Because she is very close to the first-person perspective, which I love in novels. Many of the Indian novelists I have a problem with, because they don't have a first-person perspective — it is always detached. I am much more interested in characters' emotional truths coming out rather than finding out what they are doing and who they are interacting with. But then I read more continental fiction. Like Thomas Mann was my hero — I started reading historical novels because of Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. Then there was Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. This was because I was living on the Continent, you see, from where England, and English fiction, didn't seem as central as it does from here. Except for Shakespeare perhaps.

Q. May I ask if you were able to finish reading The Man Without Qualities, all 1,100 pages of it, in one go?

A. I did, I did. I mean I was young and enthusiastic. Now, I don't know if I'd be able to do so [laughs].

Q. There are some critics who believe that it becomes trickier to write fiction as you get older. Philip Roth, when he called it quits, was certainly propounding this view. So how does writing change with age?

A. My age is pretty up there also, so I'll tell you what happens. When you're young you can, so to speak, scatter your seed all over the place, and it doesn't matter. But with age, the time you have becomes very limited. And in this time, you have to be very, very sure of at least reaching an adequate level of writing that you feel okay with. And this in itself becomes an inhibiting factor — whether I can match what I have done before.

Q. Your latest novel, The Devil Take Love, contains some explicit portrayals of the sexual act. Roth did the same in some his works. But I see most novelists avoid writing about sex. Is it because of emabrassment or inhibitions?

A. Yes, I know writers avoid it, and I was aware of this Bad Sex Award and all that stuff. But I still decided to attempt it. The point of portraying the sexual act is to convey the emotions behind it. Almost every writer attempts writing about sex, hoping that it will work. Because it is the most important stuff, and you can't keep avoiding it.

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