Hailed by Salman Rushdie as “the most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation,” critically acclaimed writer and artist Rana Dasgupta made his debut on the international cultural scene in 2005 with his first novel, Tokyo Cancelled. This “story cycle” of post-modern folktales explored the ruptures, dislocations, multiplicities, and yearnings of our globalized times, with striking originality and luscious linguistic brio, and was praised in The Guardian for “outdo[ing] the Arabian Nights for inventiveness” (Rachel Hore, “Hazy Memories”, The Guardian, February 12 2005).
Dasgupta’s second novel, Solo (2009), is the brilliant, breathtaking story of Ulrich—a blind Bulgarian centenarian, whose life is a beautifully grounded metonym for the vicissitudes of the twentieth century. The first “movement” of Solo, “Life,” interweaves the old man’s memories with his degraded state in the present, meditating on the nature of failure and the diminishing of human powers. In the second “movement,” through the optic of Ulrich’s “Daydreams,” we see those powers gloriously unfurled and ascendant. In linking these two “movements” of the human spirit into an integral whole, the novel soars by showing how the triumph can be wrought from defeat, and how the crucible of struggling to make one’s place in a world that is simultaneously falling apart and being forcibly remade, can teach us about our powers, and our capacity to re-envision the conditions of our lives, which is integral to our ability to make our world anew.
While “Life” contributes to the literary genre that catalogued the grinding human degradation and loss of faith that accompanied the rise and fall of major political movements of the 20th century, exemplified in the works of writers such as Solzhenistyn, Klima, Kundera, Koestler, Bauman et al, “Daydreams” adds Dasgupta’s distinctive voice to the new body of literature grappling with contemporary life in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and post-socialist East Bloc and its legacies beyond those geographic locales, represented by writers such as Aleksander Hemon, Lara Vapnyar, Gary Shteyngart, Anya Ulinich, et al. But it is the alchemic combination of “Life” and “Daydreams” that especially distinguishes this work from both of these genres.
It is precisely in the way the two “movements” complement one another, that Solo offers its philosophical provocations most eloquently and efficaciously. “Life” and “Daydreams” are sides of the same coin, in a sense. The world and our human existence are neither wholly the province of degrading human diminishment nor the playground of unleashed creative powers bursting forth, but rather a necessary mixture of the two that often feed off one another. Or, as Ulrich puts it: “there is far more to us than what we live”(314), and those daydreams are a real part of us too—they are our imaginings of what we could be, of our most vibrant selves, immanent.
Thus, Solo offers a poignant account of the waxing and waning of twentieth century hopes and disappointments, but also the possibility of redemption and reclamation of our powers to make life meaningful through imagination:
The blackness of [Ulrich’s] obliterated vision has made a fertile screen for his daydreams, and they have intensified during the last years. There he finds treasured smells, and tunes he has whistled, and other remnants that are lustred, now, with the mauve of nostalgia. He pictures the strange offspring that might have grown out of a man like him, whose blurred faces float among rows of lamps strung like greenish pearls in the darkness. He forgets that his own son, if he is still alive, would now be over seventy, and he dreams of strong young people filled with the courage he never had. He pleasures himself with implausible tableaux of revenge, and sometimes he can see himself on the streets of New York, as clear as day. (82)
Much like Solo, the Carbon series of photography works (2003-2008) offers a de-centered visual narrative of human failure, dissolution, decrepitude and impotence, alongside the possibility for the reclamation of both vision and voice. Indeed, Dasgupta’s works suggest that is precisely in places such as the crumbling world left by the collapse of the FSU and the ideological project of Communism, or countries such as China and India undergoing massive, rapid, historically unprecedented transformations that new vital human energies are being constituted with particular frisson. In these interstices between past and future, between the hard, unyielding structures of what once was and those that will eventually be fixed in place, perhaps we can identify a critical juncture where there is a greater latitude for human agency in the forming of the new order of things, and where human beings—freed, albeit in a limited and ephemeral way from their fixity in these structures—can find their own voices, or, songs, as it were.
Unlike Dasgupta’s fiction, however, the explicit appearance of the human form is rare in the gritty urban tableaux in Carbon. Nevertheless, the images are redolent of visceral, uneuphemized humanity. Fragile yet stubborn traces of quotidian life force their way through the rude and ramshackle, pocked and palimpsest surfaces, hijacking each other’s meanings, interrupting and disrupting, dispossessing and possessing, displacing and inhabiting one another in this set of subtle, striking photography works. For there is life here, in these images. On the pitted, cracked, flaking surfaces of city walls; in infrastructure and urban hardware; in cluttered lanes and derelict public spaces; in the haphazard bursts of graffiti, and the tattered remnants of outdated messages, ads and postings—the clotted visual debris of the city—there is life.
Rather than merely offering up images of the city and our future as a meretricious beacon of “modern progress” or a Manichaean stage upon which the grandiose and grim spectacles of contemporary wealth and poverty are played out, Dasgupta’s photographs and fiction recast urban space, human imagination and creativity as unpredictable sites of radical multiplicity—spaces where we can see the traces of myriad values contending for dominance, where selves are made and unmade; where voices rise and fall, mingling in harmony and cacophony; and where visions are lost and recovered once again. And in these fraught and involuted spaces, rife with the cast-off surplus of human desires and surfeit of unmet needs, there is room, yet, for a panorama of new imaginaries to unfurl before us, so that we might envision ourselves and our shared world anew.
Maya Kóvskaya: You’ve had a rather unusual life and lived in a variety of places.Tell us about where you grew up, went to school, came of age, and came into your own creatively and professionally?
Rana Dasgupta: My life doesn’t feel particularly unusual. I grew up in a conventional British middle-class environment. I studied French Literature at Oxford, a four-year degree, one year of which was spent in the south of France. Did some time in a management consultancy firm before going to the US—the University of Wisconsin-Madison—to do a Master’s in Media Studies. Came back to the UK and began work for a marketing consultancy, with which I moved first to Kuala Lumpur and then to New York and San Francisco. While I was working there I began work on my first book of fiction, decided I needed to devote myself to it more exclusively, gave up my job, and moved to Delhi to write. I was in love with someone who lived there, which is why I chose Delhi. I didn’t intend to stay there, though now I’ve been here for nine years.
There’s nothing really unusual about any of this. I don’t have a sense of being an unusual person, or having lived an unusual life. I guess not everyone gives up a corporate job to see if they can write a novel but in a way I couldn’t help it. I was afraid of dying without doing it.
My mother is English, my father Bengali. As kids my sister and I went often enough to Calcutta with our parents, and we had a strong connection to our family there, even though we were foreigners who spoke not a word of Bengali. I suspect that this corridor into a world entirely unlike my own did give me a slightly different sense of the world from most people around me. It probably made me a bit cynical of local meaning systems that purport to be universal ones. I still cringe at the UK’s glib parochialism when I go there. And the desire to find different forms of subjectivity—multiple, extensible forms—is quite evident in all my work, visual and textual.
MK: What do you remember most from your childhood? Can you share some impressions and experiences that were personally significant to you?
RD: Well I played the piano pretty seriously for about fifteen years, and it was perhaps the defining thing of my childhood. Music lessons are of course about music, which is an amazing terrain in itself. But they are also important structurally, because they are as different as one can imagine from school, which is the other dominating system of most childhoods. In music lessons you are not measuring yourself against other kids. You are engaged in a one-on-one conversation with an adult, a conversation about the most complex things. That conversation stands in opposition to a lot of the other systems by which a child enters the world, and provides a space in which you become confident of your own potential, your own judgments.
MK: Tell us about someone who deeply influenced you and shaped your thinking, your values, your aesthetic proclivities.
RD: Roger Pensom, who was then a Professor of Medieval French Literature at Hertford College, Oxford. Another person with whom I spent a lot of time one-on-one. Severely arthritic, with twisted hands and feet, Roger was an immensely charismatic man, whose lectures drew big crowds. He lectured on medieval French ballads such as Aucassin et Nicolete, from which he quoted at length and (authentically) in song, singing the old French in a tenor for the male voices and falsetto for the female. Improbably, perhaps, he managed to make this look sexy—he had a beautiful Welsh tenor voice—and women loved him particularly. He had a clavichord in his room, I seem to remember, and a portrait of Artaud. I remember once he told an anecdote about his wife, who was a Quaker. He himself was an atheist, but he had started to go along to his wife’s Quaker meetings which were held, of course, in silence. He was impressed by how different these meetings were from each other, though nothing was said and nothing happened. Some meetings were very good, and everyone knew it, and sometimes a meeting didn’t amount to much. He was very intrigued by the world — I’m sure he still is, though he has retired now—which made him what some might call an eccentric. He was one of the most brilliant people I’ve met, and after each hour-long tutorial with him I emerged with a sense that the whole world had changed.
MK: To what extent have your family and experiences growing up been a creative stimulus, or a factor shaping certain enduring preoccupations and projects for you? What kinds of useable inheritance have you received intellectually, morally, creatively from your family? And when did you first begin to think and express yourself creatively in explicitly visual terms?
RD: My parents gave me many things and my spiritual inheritance from them is rich. But if we’re talking about photography, I honestly think this belongs to the most solitary part of my personality. It satisfies a set of impulses that arose, if I understand myself well, from refuge. All through my childhood and teens I made visual things—paintings, drawings, collages—which were a form of retreat from the family. This activity was obsessive to an extent that nothing else was: when one of these projects occurred to me, it was catastrophic for everything else in my life. I could not sleep or eat while this thing was there needing me. I would spend disastrous amounts of money to acquire the materials I needed; I would get up in the middle of the night to look at the work-in-progress… To describe it in these terms makes it sound like a nascent love affair, and it’s true that my work in the visual media has always borrowed from my own erotic energies. I don’t mean by that simply that the eye is an erotic organ, which is obvious. I mean that the act of producing visual work has always been, more even than my writing, a cognate of sex. It’s possible that this kind of activity became, early in my life, an escape route for sexual energies that could not be expressed in my household. Like sex, as I’ve said, drawing and painting were torrid, and destructive to my citizenship in the family. But unlike sex, the final product—a beautiful object—could be “brought home” in a ceremony of filial offering and parental pride. Parents can claim all of their children’s achievements—school results, sporting successes, musical prowess. But they cannot claim their children’s sex lives as their own success, which is why the moment when children become sexually active is so radical for a family. I think a lot of artistic work is, ultimately, outrageous Eros recycled into social usefulness—and even respectability. My childhood artistic impulses definitely fell into this category: antisocial, manic energies that ultimately, after a struggle, found a form that could be recognized by all, and even framed and hung on the wall.
MK: Let’s talk about your photography. When did you begin to work in this medium and what was the process of making Carbon like?
RD: It was not until my late 20s that photography became the house in which all these earlier impulses took up residence.The photographs that are part of the Carbon series were all taken in solitude, and with the kind of euphoric, empty-stomached energy that I can remember from my earliest days of drawing. They are records, for the most part, of cities I did not know, and they contain—I think—the trembling intensity of encounter. They are about surface: the unexplored, unknown skin of strange new places, and there is a clear fixation with the textures, shapes and scars of those places. They are records of the desire that can exist between a person and a new city—and this is not a one-way relationship. Sometimes the city gives back—and half your roll of film is good.Sometimes the city has no interest at all, and you can shoot as many rolls as you want: nothing is going to happen.
MK: So how does photography differ from your fiction in terms of offering a vehicle for the expression of your enduring preoccupations? What draws you to the particular sites you photograph and how do these sites, as rendered by your lens, function as signifiers for you?
RD: I don’t think these photographs mean in the sense that my novels mean. They are a record, rather, of a movement in a city, an intensity of arrival, a voracious gaze. They attempt to capture the ravishing beauty of city surface, which is a particularly insistent kind of beauty because it arouses disgust as well as desire. The pawing of places with hands, the peeing and spitting, the decay of things that used to work, the pathetic uselessness of old announcements—here is the great smelly multitudinous waste that we do not want in our homes and lives. But waste, as the artist Ilya Kabakov has shown more eloquently than most other people I can think of, is full of instruction. It is the place of history and habit and life, and we cannot dispose of it without a sense that we are losing ourselves too. These are the tensions I find in city landscape, and these are what this series is made of. As I wrote once, thinking of my images of Tbilisi:
The opera house on Rustaveli Avenue, still graceful, is run-down, and large trees grow out through the cupolas on the round billboards outside. Many houses are empty and collapsed: balconies have fallen to the ground and staircases lead up to floors of bare wooden beams. Children play football in courtyards where the glass has broken in the carved window frames, to be replaced by chipboard. Such decay is everywhere, reaching beyond the old city into the more monumental areas built during the Soviet era. Many of the large housing complexes from the 50s and 60s are now only habitable thanks to makeshift repairs with corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. David Agmashenebeli Avenue, a major thoroughfare of the city’s twentieth-century expansion, has become a proletarian mockery of its former affluent self, with signs for currency exchange and second-hand clothes plastered rudely onto the dilapidated façades of what once were theatres and boutiques and cinemas. Old women sit in every doorway selling sunflower seeds, whose husks lie in little piles under their stools, and apples and onions that they bring in plastic bags. The street is full of idle taxis, whose drivers sit together on the curb to smoke.
There are graffiti on nearly every wall. “Toyota” invokes the unencumbered power, perhaps, of the Land Cruisers that are standard issue for the city’s gliding diplomatic and UN personnel.The names of British football clubs and American actresses (“Angelina Jolie,” “Jennifer Lopez”) resound with glamour and achievement. Some walls have been decorated painstakingly, with drawings of animals or trees or women’s faces. The most common graffiti, however, are “Tupac” and “Eminem”. Heroes for an in-between age, who stand for no particular set of ideas, but who seem to aim all their monumental masculine media power against the way the world is, and thus provide an ego ideal for bored, frustrated youths who have little to do except rail impotently and play video games in Tbilisi’s many arcades.
The walls are the repository of fantasies and outbursts. They are a place of accidental juxtapositions and unintentional poetry. Isolated from function and place, abstracted into the photographic frame, official notices point nowhere, and ephemeral announcements sing. I enjoy this recovery of voices from the city: all the various ways that absent people make themselves heard and felt in the streets comes together in a kind of oratorio made of scraps.
MK: The photographs in the Carbon series all feature facets of urban life. Let’s talk more about art and “the city,” or rather cities (since the idea of “the city” as a monolith is part of a larger narrative of modernity embedded in that tired old enlightenment teleology we’ve hopefully long gotten past) in a couple of ways. How does the city function as a site of self-making, and can art (visual, verbal, or otherwise) enlarge the scope of the conceivable? Can it offer, house and cross-fertilize among expanded imaginaries of who we are (both individually and collectively) and who we can be? Conversely, what aspects of cities and urban space militate against the unfurling of human agency or at cross-purposes with human freedom and self-expression?
RD: I have to say I continue to be surprised at the extent to which the dominant cities of the world—vast cities, with enormous human variety—can successfully organize and neutralize unproductive feeling. You would think that places like London or New York would generate great surpluses of frustration, poverty or disgust which would regularly and catastrophically explode, each time causing mutations in the social order. But no—for the moment, at least.
And isn’t it true that contemporary art and aesthetics are very directly implicated in this process of neutralization? The bright, chirpy surfaces we’ve become used to in houses, cities and products, the mainstreaming of contemporary art museums, the rise of “design,” the merging of art and advertising into a sealed membrane around the city. The concomitant enthusiasm for destroying the useless and obsolete, for new developments, for art projects to provide reassurances about spaces whose meaning is unclear, for redevelopments that turn historic function into an object of contemporary aesthetic contemplation. It’s not that the “plain” cities of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were ugly, or that they didn’t work. It’s that we now seem to have a greater investment in frills. We don’t seem to be able to withstand the same amount of reality. We need our surroundings—and indeed all our social processes—more adorned, concealed and disguised.
After all, it’s not as if one feels that all this aestheticization arises from a profound social preoccupation with Beauty. One can think of moments and places when an aesthetic outpouring was attached to a social question, but I am not sure that any question is being addressed here. Aesthetic questions are not particularly talked about or debated in these societies—certainly not to the extent that one could expect such a massive social investment in aestheticization. Nor is this phenomenon connected to any authentic idea of Freedom—even though it is often marketed as an expression of a free and joyful spirit—since it is associated with a whole new set of prohibitions on urban behavior. This aestheticization is intolerant, cynical and prudish, and at its very heart lies the desire to punish that which is wayward or ill-defined—which is all redefined as “unsightly”.
No: the whole thing seems more like a cover-up, in the same way that the extreme aesthetic refinement of some men seems like a cover-up for their own feelings about the cunt-wound. It seems like a flight from something that simply cannot be acknowledged, absorbed and processed.
Contemporary social organization tries very hard to ensure that the many scandals of capitalism do not return to haunt its hard-working elites. If, for example, tribals from the Indian state of Orissa, whose environment is being ransacked, poisoned and ruined, were to turn up in the boardroom of the mining company responsible for their woes, the encounter would be impossible. What could the CEO say to their outrage and suffering? All he could do is to bring the embarrassing encounter to an end by insisting, as if reluctantly, on the rules: “I’m sorry but outsiders are admitted by invitation only…”
It feels as though the aestheticization enterprise exists to protect the residents of the world’s leading cities from this kind of unpleasant and unnatural resurgence. We all know that the contemporary world is absurd, and that the liberties of metropolites are bought at the cost of enormous global fall-out. But we do not wish to have to confront this absurdity on a daily basis, or answer for the basic facts of our life, because we are unable to do so. Not only that, but we think it would be unfair that someone asked this of us, because we didn’t “choose” to live like this. We just inherited a system.
This “we” is an extremely fragile personality, of course—someone who has no control over the basic parameters of his or her life, and who is terrified that the basic absurdity of those parameters might at some point become too clear. This is the kind of personality that needs the world to be veiled.
Does art have any existence outside this process of aestheticization? Can it do anything else than contribute to the massive numbness of the world? Yes it can. It can rupture and infiltrate, and change the terms of reference. It can deliver thoughts and ideas of such boldness that no cladding is adequate to conceal them. But it is a precarious and uncertain business, and it’s never sure which way things will go.
MK: How are we to conceive of “freedom” in our present, extremely fraught and constraining contexts of existence and subsistence? How can we think about freedom, given the grotesque asymmetries of power and authority that delineate the “rules of the game” and divide the social and political fields into zone of invidious exclusion, and require those who enter into the “game” to buy into predefined tacit doxa about what constitutes a “win” and a “loss,” and the implicit, shared criteria for making judgments about the desirable and the possible? When the sphere of legitimate public discourse is so circumscribed that many needs and demands and alternative conceptions of the good are rendered unutterable, unthinkable, even, what avenues of recourse remain open to us? How can we think about freedom under such conditions of constraint and what kinds of practical, cultural strategies can be employed to shatter the existing doxa and insert heterodox conceptions, ideally multiple conceptions of the good and the possible into public discourse.
RD: I see the world pretty much as you have described it there, and in this context “freedom” is indeed a pretty elusive thing. I haven’t met many people I consider to be “free.” But whatever freedom is, it must in our context have something to do with the imagination. If you are to avoid your inner “game” – as you put it – being entirely “fixed,” you have to have a pretty powerful route into other worlds. If you’re to live surprisingly, you have to be grounded in some alternative fecundity of your own. Freedom is not just about a facility of critique. There is critique all around us: it is a fundamental part of our landscape. But it does not necessarily release new currents, new forms of being.
I don’t know the answer to your question: “What kinds of practical, cultural strategies can be employed to shatter the existing doxa and insert heterodox conceptions into public discourse?” My sense is that it is not the right question, because the “existing doxa” is not brittle – in fact it is paradoxically reinforced by impact. I would look for different images of change – not smashing and reconstructing, but something more insidious, directionless and distasteful. Rationality, routine, and hygiene have come to define “the good” – and whatever arises to disrupt the order in which we live it must dare to part ways with these things.
I think there have been moments in history when many people have simultaneously begun, not only begun to see their reality as denuded – which is after all true of many people today – but also to imagine totally different forms of private, social and political life. One can think, for instance, of England in the 1640s, Russia in the late 1880s or the US in the mid-1960s. These moments are miraculous. To me, the people who produced and lived those moments, acting in the face of reality, seem to be borne along by improbable, otherworldly currents. They seem to draw on a richer dream life. I am interested in creating such a dream life – or helping to do so.