Is this your first visit to Sharjah?
What are you hoping to gain from the visit?
I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out.
How often do you go back to India? How do you find the
experience of revisiting the country?
Once a year when I let people I know in India know that I’m
going, and several times, secretly, on work/research visits.
In your most recent novel, A State of Freedom, one of the
characters finds himself “a tourist in his own country”. Have
you felt like that? Might it be a good thing for a writer to be
of a country but outside it?
Yes, of course, I’ve often felt like a tourist in India. I believe that
a writer should not be at home anywhere, least of all in the
country that s/he calls “home”. I call London “home” now and
I don’t think I’ll write about it until I leave the city and move
elsewhere. Writers should become insiders temporarily only to
listen, watch, eavesdrop, note, then they must exit quickly to
the outside. The outside is the writer’s true element, as water is
to the fish.
Is fiction nevertheless a way of overcoming this distance, of
engaging with others, as you do with your character Milly,
who from a very young age endures a kind of slavery?
Belonging and engagement/empathy are different things.
Certainly a writer is not allowed to forget the difference by
the chattering sphere: if s/he’s not one of the have-nots,
then writing about them is either research-based, or always
already a failure, but if the writer belongs to the class of haves,
then writing about them is middle-class navel-gazing; a
lose-lose situation in these days where identity politics has
infected literature too. The overcoming of distance that you
so rightly point out as the domain of fiction is a matter for the
The novel is a series of intricately linked stories. Why did you
choose this structure, and was it hard to manage?
I see it as a novel with all the connective tissue taken out, or one
that coheres not by the standard elements of plot or character
but by other means. Or you could see it as an experiment in
sabotaging the realist novel from within, while keeping the
surface effects of realism intact. As for the structure, it owes a
very big debt to V.S. Naipaul’s 1971 novel, In A Free State. It was
a great pleasure to manage the structure, but maybe that’s
hindsight speaking …
You have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and
have won the Encore Award. The writer Amit Chaudhuri
recently wrote sceptically about the Booker and about the
effect of prize culture on literature. What is your opinion
Whoaaaah, I have just read Amit’s piece!
He makes some very important points. I hope it sets off a
serious, long-running debate in the literary world but I’m not
holding my breath.
Neel Mukherjee’s participation in the authors program has
been made possible by the British Council and forms part
of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration and the
UK Guest of Honor program at the Sharjah International
Neel Mukherjee made his fiction debut with Past Continuous, which
won the Vodafone-Crossword Book Award in 2008; it was shortlisted
for the DSC South Asian book award, and in the UK won the Writers’
Guild award for fiction. His second novel, The Lives of Others, was
shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Award.
His most recent novel is A State of Freedom, in which five characters
- among them a domestic cook in Mumbai, a vagrant and his dancing
bear, and a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in
the city - experience displacement and migration.
Mukherjee was educated in Kolkata, studied English at Jadavpur
University, and attended University College, Oxford, on a Rhodes
Scholarship. He completed his Ph.D. at Pembroke College, Cambridge,
and graduated with an M.A. in creative writing from the University of
East Anglia in 2001. He reviews fiction for papers including The Times
and Time Asia.