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.

India Today - - CONTENTS - By As­mita Bak­shi

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

Pages 304 Price `399 blooms­bury in­dia re­leases in july

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