A Conversation with Uday Prakash
Arnab Chakladar: If I may begin a little abruptly, you were mentioning just now that Khari Boli Hindi is a bit of an acquired language for you--so let me begin by asking you about where you are from.
in my mind the author's job is to remain on the sidelines of mainstream society, with the people, and to write from this side and he has to be honest
Uday Prakash: I am basically from the border of MP and Chattisgarh, from a very small village called Sitapur. It is located in a district called Shahdol (now it is in a newly formed district called - Anuppur)--a very small, backward area. 52% of the population is tribal and poverty is very high. It is a single crop area, only paddy is grown and we all depend totally on the rain. In 1970 I saw electricity first come to my village--at the time I was quite grown up. Before that we lived in a situation where modernity had no meaning. In other places people were talking about development, big dams, public-sector, private-sector, but for us life was very different--like a R.K Narayan village, Malgudi or something like that. For example, in our own house we had an elephant. It was there till 1962. You know...let me say in Hindi, "hamne sher ke bachche paale hain"--and we had two cubs and one was quite grown up...so you can imagine that kind of life. After school we used to just roam around the forest and try to find out which bird has put its eggs in which tree. Till my twenties I lived that kind of life. But there was one turning point in 1964, when I was 12 years old--my mother died of cancer. After her death my father became an alcoholic--he was very attached to her and he just kept drinking. And after a few years he died as well in 1969, and that too shockingly from the same disease--cancer...carcinoma on cheek.
So after my mother died I had to leave my village and move elsewhere in the district. Fortunately, I found a very good teacher. He knew that I was a good painter and also that I wrote poems--he was very kind to me and helped me with my education. After my father died I shifted to Saugar University. I had already started working for the student’s wing of Communist Party since the age of 16 and I formally joined it later. Those were the days when we were convinced that ideology was going to change the society, and we were really working very honestly. And we were working with people who were very poor, very backward--and you know, even now I feel that there are people who are very pure in some ways, you know people who still have faith and belief in a different kind of ideology and politics--and people would come from the urban areas and tell them, "you must do this to improve your situation" and they would just follow....Anyway, I did my post-graduation with distinction in Hindi literature and again I was involved in this movement. And so during the Emergency I had to flee the area and I came to Delhi. So since 1975 onwards I am here in Delhi.
with the kind of thing I was doing with literature it was difficult for me to make enough money from writing for my survival
Arnab Chakladar: Are you based all the time in Delhi?
Uday Prakash: No, I go and come. I still go to my village 2 or 3 times a year--I still have some land and I have to take care of the agriculture. For the last 17 years I am totally a freelance writer. Since 1990 I have not joined any organization and I solely depend on writing--whether writing for films or television. Occasionally I make documentaries. Recently I made 10 short films for Jaipur Doordarshan based on the short stories of Vijaydan Detha. He is a very eminent Rajasthani writer, very well-known filmmaker--Mani Kaul made a film from one of his stories, Duvidha and it won awards in France in a festival. Recently Shahrukh Khan (laughs) has produced and acted as a lead character in a film made from same story, Paheli--anyway, I am not Shahrukh Khan. I have made 10 films from his stories--and he feels that these films from his stories are much better creatively than these commercial ones. And the total cost of these 10 short films must have been lower than the bills the Shahrukh Khan production had paid for bottled ‘mineral water’...
Arnab Chakladar: When did you start getting involved in films?
Uday Prakash: Initially, I was in print media--the last job I did I was an assistant editor in Sunday Mail. And before that I worked for around 10+ years for a Times of India news-magazine. Around 1982 onwards when the multiplication of media came in, and television came in...it was the beginning of the collapse of socialism, and the beginning of globalization, and we witnessed a colossal collapse of vernacular magazines in terms of capital. For at least 3-4-5 years it looked like they had no future. Those were some unpredictable and incomprehensible changes that were taking place. But then later after the early 1990s these newspapers and magazines started coming back, and now if you look at recent surveys the top 3 in terms of circulation and readers are these vernacular publicatons--I fail sometimes to understand these kinds of changes. My short story "Paul Gomra ka Scooter" tells about the comic, dismal ironies of this time.
Anyway, in 1990 I joined this television group, ITV and then PTI (Television). It was the Press Trust of India television section--we did one cultural magazine, it was very successful--the title was Taana Baana and it ran for almost a year. It was very popular--that time there were no private channels, only Doordarshan. So that was the first thing I did and I felt very comfortable. Secondly, with the kind of thing I was doing with literature it was difficult for me to make enough money from writing for my survival--so media provided me a way to make more money, and it was a more open area. I could make one documentary and save money for 3-4-5 months. And so I continued like this, and to this day I hardly earn anything from literature...I can tell you that it was about three years ago, with Peeli Chhatri Waali Ladki that I first earned a good amount of royalty. That was a turning point--and now I am a little hopeful and Penguin has approached me for three books. So, now I feel there is a positive change.
Arnab Chakladar: Are you still involved with the Communist movement?
Uday Prakash: No, I am now completely apolitical. I look very skeptically towards any kind of combination of politics and power. But in my mind the author's job is to remain on the sidelines of mainstream society, with the people, and to write from this side and he has to be honest. And that I am still trying to do.
writing is a solo kind of a process--you have to be alone, left with one pen, one piece of paper, you don't know if anyone will read it
Arnab Chakladar: This reminds me of the American writer Don DeLillo's comments about the marginal position of the writer in a world where visual media has taken over...
Uday Prakash: V.S Naipaul has also said something like this--it is not an original statement--about the end of fiction or the novel and the author and so on. It has been pronounced many a time. But I really believe very strongly that there is a difference between writing and film-making and things like that. You see, mass media, television or cinema is viewed by millions collectively; it is sort of a collective viewership, and its production also--at the moment you start making a film, you know it is kind of a collective art form, so you have to be aware of a large number of people who are taking part in making and there are more going to watch the product. But writing is a solo kind of a process--you have to be alone, left with one pen, one piece of paper, you don't know if anyone will read it. And reading also is a private thing, you read privately--you can't read a novel collectively, in a crowded place. Reading like writing is a private... a personal act. So, I think it is going to last--because no matter what changes happen, people need to be alone, they need solitude…need their own space. This is the reason that a true writer is doomed to be a loner and marginalized. Marginalization is another thing-- possibly it tells more about a social status. Now a writer is no more a celebrity, does not have a defined place in a society, he lives in absolute powerlessness...not in the way that writers in the past could have talked with a Nehru or a Gandhi.
Arnab Chakladar: What effect do you think this changed status has on the writer and writing?
Uday Prakash: Creatively, I think it is a better position. Because now you are forced to, compelled to become a common person, become part of the real civil society. In the past when print media was the dominant media, many writers perhaps were outside and above the society. Now even a cameraman in television has more power, more glamour, more money than someone like me (laughs). Let me tell you one very interesting anecdote that a Hindi publisher told me. He had published the autobiography of a film director, and it made a lot of money, and there was a Rs. 25,000 royalty, which is a lot for writers. So he went to Bombay and he gave the check to the director. The director laughed and told his secretary to deposit it. The secretary asked, which account should I put it in? Dog's Fund, the director said. The publisher asked, what is this Dog's Fund? The director replied, it is the account from which we pay the writers! (laughs). So, that is the writer's condition today.
Uday Prakash: But really I think this is a good thing. Writers should be in this position--it makes them more authentic, more reliable.