BEYOND THE IMMIGRANT NOVEL
M3 THE MAGAZINE
with a contemplative look and warm demeanor, on a
balmy day recently at the entrance to the Central Park in
New York. The conversation was continued through e-mail.
What did the writing of Family Life do to you?
It took me 12-and-a-half years to write the book. I
changed during this period, of course. It is hard though to
tell how much of that change was due to writing the book
and how much was due to time passing.
One thing that writing this book did was that it made
me so unhappy over so many years that I decided that
whenever there was an opportunity for happiness I would
You know everybody has to deal with fools. Nobody can
avoid this. Now, instead of trying to prove myself right, I
try to go around the fool.
You went through a very difficult childhood, but as we
speak I do not sense any bitterness…
I had a difficult childhood, but I am not living in my
childhood now. Right now, I have a wonderful life. I have
a nice home. I have a wife who loves me. I am glad my
parents are as healthy as elderly people can be. Being
angry is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
This novel is just about 218 pages. Yet you have distilled
years of a difficult life and there is black humor in it as well
as delicate humor. What was the revision process like?
I don’t so much revise as rewrite. Once a draft is done, I
open up a blank document and start writing again. The
reason I do this is so that I am forced to only put down
the things, which are so important that they are unforgettable.
To me, one of the tests of a good book is that the book
can be shaken and nothing falls out.
There is something very specific that I am aiming for
and I am always testing to see if what I want is being
What I want is a novel that is irresistible. For me, that is
the primary goal: A novel that is irresistible.
I want people who don’t normally read to pick up the
book and become so intensely curious that they will keep
The other thing that I want is that I want the characters
and situations to be full of life. I want the characters to feel
real. I want the rooms and streets to feel real.
How do you work?
I wrote almost every day for the 12-and-a-half years. I
would write for five hours. I would write with a stopwatch. My goal was to write for five hours. If the phone
rang and I answered it, I would stop the stopwatch. If I
checked my e-mail, I would stop the stopwatch.
I ended up writing 7,000 pages over the course of the
decade plus that I worked on the book.
Since this novel is substantially grown out of your own
life, were you tempted to make it a memoir at any time?
I thought about this, of course. I don’t really know how
to write memoir while I do know how to write a novel.
For example, in a memoir I wouldn’t be able to use dialogue since I don’t remember what people said 20 years
ago, whereas in a novel I can.
Also, a memoir, to me, must meet the standards of
What are some of the things you invented for the novel?
objective truth. I can’t use composite characters. I need to
include things which don’t interest me, but which were
important parts of my experience as a child. For example,
a lot of my childhood was spent being bored and I don’t
have any interest in trying to represent boredom.
I don’t want to talk about this because telling what is or
what is not will affect how readers will read the book.
The dedication reads, ‘To my brave and faithful parents.’
In what way were they brave and faithful?
They were brave in that they did an enormously difficult
thing. They took care of my brother for 30 years; he died
only two years ago. To take care of a sick child for so long
requires enormous fortitude. It also requires a faith in try-
ing to do the right thing.
You said in an interview with the novelist Mohsin Hamid
that writing about the constant despair of living with
someone ill, of having no hope could be boring and kills
the reader’s interest in the other strands of the narrative.
Would you talk a little on this.
A book needs to be full of variety. It also needs to contain hope and joy. If that isn’t the case, the reader begins
to want to turn away from the narrative.
Also, it is important to remember that every day
includes some joy and if that joy is not being included
then the book is in some way fundamentally untrue.
You were an investment banker for years. What made
you give it up and move into far less lucrative field as
I didn’t like banking and I loved books. I like earning
money, but I don’t care about money tremendously.
Being an autobiographical novel, it surely unfolds in the
Indian immigrant family, and yet it transcends any limited
Yes, there are things in the novel which can only happen
in an Indian or South Asian family but overall, the book
should strike a chord with any reader.
Everybody has to deal with illness. Everybody has
already dealt with illness or will deal it. Also, everybody
wonders about what it means to be loyal.
How much should I sacrifice for the people who are
important for me? When does my sacrificing for one person begin causing harm to others?
I also want to be clear that while I resist being called an
immigrant novelist, I am proud of being Indian and
proud of my community.
My issue with being called an immigrant novelist or this
book being considered an immigrant novel is that when
I think a good book is relevant to everyone.
I also want to point out that Philip Roth and Saul
Bellow were called Jewish novelists and William Faulkner
was called a Southern novelist. These sort of terms reveal
more about the person using them then about the author
who is being discussed.
What was your reaction to the miracle workers who
came to your house and sought to cure your brother? And
those who looked at your mother as a living saint, an
embodiment of sacrifice?
I felt upset with the miracle workers and I also felt hurt
and frightened that my mother was allowing these people
into the house.
It seemed clear to me that my brother was not going to
get better and the fact that she was acting irrationally
made me question her judgment about other things.
I also felt that her reasoning was impossible to argue
against, that if a cure causes no harm and is free, then
why not try. Because I understood her reasoning and yet
felt frightened by the fact that she was doing something
that was pointless and which I found crazy and humiliating, I felt twisted up inside.
It seems important to note that miracle workers are not
unique to our community and that someone who suffers
from a grave illness might end up looking everywhere for
My mother was viewed as a saint and it makes sense to
me that she was. Here is a mother doing something heroic. If we don’t admire somebody like her, who are we
going to admire?
Your brother Anup lived severely brain damaged for
nearly three decades. Seeing him in that state did you ever
fear if something tragic could happen to you?
Not then. Not when I was a teenager and I went to college. But as I have grown older, I have gotten more and
more scared. I have friends who have had strokes, heart
attacks, who have had car accidents. I see my body as
fragile in a way that I had not as a young man. n
‘While I resist being
called an immigrant
novelist, I am proud
of being Indian’
I don’t so much revise as rewrite.
Once a draft is done, I open up a
blank document and start
writing again. The reason I do
this is so that I am forced to only
put down the things, which are so
important that they are
unforgettable. To me, one of the
tests of a good book is that the
book can be shaken and nothing
falls out. There is something very
specific that I am aiming for and I
am always testing to see if what I
want is being achieved. What I
want is a novel that is irresistible.