The Traveller’s Tale
Writer Diksha Basu has done it all. From working a corporate job to being in a feature film and being a restless traveller. Now, her second novel is on its way to becoming a TV series.
Writer Diksha Basu on her new book, travel and other inspirations
The second most popular joke about Delhi, after the enervated but all-too-real quips about the lack of safety for women, is how its residents acquire an accent just by being in transit at an international airport. Writer and actor Diksha Basu, however, is a refreshing exception to this old chestnut. The 33-year-old, who spent her childhood moving between Delhi and New York, and could legitimately be expected to roll her r’s and curl her l’s, speaks effortlessly like a Dilliwali, unaffected by any identity or linguistic crisis. “It wasn’t your usual story of disappearing to America and coming back 10 years later when everything changed,” she says, fondly remembering a childhood next door to her grandparents, grateful to her mother and father for keeping the family firmly grounded in India, even though they moved often. “I think it’s made me a bit of a cultural chameleon. I even change my accents depending on whom I’m speaking to. It’s important in a changing world, it allows me to adapt to where I am.” But no matter which part of the world played storage space to Basu’s suitcase, she lived constantly in scholarly surrounds, created by “intellectually curious” parents, Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist, World Bank, and Alaka Malwade Basu, sociologist, currently professor at Cornell University. “I guzzled PG Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, the Russian stories, Tagore—we had a lot of Tagore in our house— we are half Bengali,” she says. And her interests were just as varied and eclectic as her reading choices. A graduate of Economics and French from Cornell University, Basu went for a high-paying corporate job. But eternally agog, she simultaneously dabbled in theatre in the Big Apple. And she was good too. A review of Manjula Padmanabhan’s sci-fi parable Harvest in The
New York Times described Basu as “particularly good as Jaya, the only character with anything like a conscience”.
This is what motivated her to move, this time on her own, to Mumbai in order to pursue a career in acting. The then 23-year-old, who grew up on Satyajit Ray films and very little Bollywood, had a few savings and dreams she shared with million others who pour into Maximum City each day. “It was lovely, I was in my early 20s. I wasn’t that focused on how ridiculous the whole industry was,” she said. “And while it was in many ways, completely taking away my intellectual agency, I wasn’t bothered by it, because I was young and enjoying the experiences and taking it all in.” Her love for Mumbai, however, transcended the glitzy world of Bollywood. “I love Bombay too. I actually do call it home. I have the good fortune of calling many places home and Mumbai is one of them. It’s a tremendous city that just throbs with energy.”
But Basu wasn’t the quintessential “struggler” in that she didn’t allow herself to be disillusioned by reveries of stardom permanently. “It’s still a very male-dominated industry,” she says. “There is sexualisation of women that is put ahead of their intellectual abilities. And that was also not something I had any desire to partake in.” Her first book,
Opening Night, which reads like a (highly personalised, but non-autobiographical) work of literary fiction on Bollywood, alludes to this and other ordeals in the dreary underbelly of the industry. Basu eventually bagged a film titled A Decent
Arrangement, 2014, where she played Chandigarh girl Amita Chandra, a woman filled with paradoxes—fiercely independent and immensely qualified, but conforming to traditional ideals and fulfilling conventional filial duties by returning home to have her marriage arranged by her parents. However, Basu’s own views on marriage are vastly different from those of her on-screen persona. “It was a non-issue for me. I was never militantly for it, I was never militantly against it,” she says. “I was raised to be ambitious and intellectually curious and work and find my professional passions and that’s what I
“I have the good fortune of callIng many places home, and mumbaI Is one of them”
was doing.” Her marriage to full-time music producer and also part-time traveller Mikey McCleary, from New Zealand, therefore, she asserts, had more to do with him than any idea she has of the institution. They met in Mumbai, and that’s what prolonged her stay in the city. (They are now parents to a baby girl, Sky Aria Basu-McCleary).
Another long-lasting love affair she “stumbled into” in Mumbai, was with writing. “At some point you realise, you’re wasting a lot of time, sitting in rickshaws, going from place to place as opposed to actually acting,” says Basu. “It had to happen. I had to be a writer. I don’t want to use the word ‘calling’ because that’s an annoying word but
when I started writing, I felt freed.” So eventually, she packed that red suitcase once more and was off to New York to do a master of fine arts (MFA) from Columbia University. That’s where her latest novel, The Windfall came into being. What began as short stories during her masters programme in Columbia soon turned into a funny, insightful and real account of a middle class family from Delhi falling into money. The book traces the journey of the Jha family, who lives in an apartment complex in East Delhi, before patriarch Anil Jha, sells his website and makes a killing. It changes their lives emotionally, sociologically and quite naturally, economically. Basu writes in great, easy-to-read, detail about the change, while also introducing readers to characters from different strata of society and their response to these changes. “If you lived in Delhi in the 90s, it was hard not to see the explosion of wealth all around,” she says. The book explores aspects of life in the Capital. Basu writes a nonpatronising perspective of watchmen manning gargantuan gates of Gurgaon bungalows, the sexuality of women across generations and countries, the experience of a confused Jha progeny, Rupak, studying in New York and the crippling effect money has on his future along with that of his father’s. “I think the main thing is, to avoid falling into condescension against anyone—be it the rich or the poor. I feel so much affection for each and every one of the characters in this book,” she says.
The novel effortlessly and sometimes satirically also navigates, through the lens of fiction, changing notions of sexism—both casual and overt. What reads like a light-hearted commentary on the most visible phenomenon in the Capital is also a chronicling of relationships and romance, and reveals the heartbreaking reality of repressed conflict, the intrusive but comforting intimacy and passive ambition of the Indian middle class. And so well-received is the novel that the story is now on its way to the small screen. Filmmaker Shonali Bose is working towards making it a TV series, with Basu keeping a close watch as series consultant.
Basu, whose life on the move, both geographically and professionally, went on to be a big influence on her life and literature, sums up her worldview quite perfectly. “Forgive me the cliché but what I’ve learned through travelling is how similar we all are. Circumstances may be dictated by borders but basic humanity isn’t.” This astute, but succinct observation resonates in her writing, relationships, liberal values and most importantly, her life.
A family affair (clockwise from top) diksha basu and husband mikey mccleary during their wedding celebrations; diksha with parents Kaushik basu and alaka malwade basu and brother, Karna basu
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