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'In India, things can change quickly'

 

In a conversation with Snehangshu Adhikari, British novelist, critic and librettist Philip Hensher shares his views on what has been one of the principal thematic concerns of his work as a writer – the challenges of being gay in a changing world
SNEHANGSHU ADHIKARI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Kolkata | Philip Hensher | British novalist | LGBT parties | Rainbow Pride |
 

Philip Hensher, 47, a British novelist, critic, columnist and professor of creative writing at the University of Exeter, is celebrated as a modern-day stylist who experiments freely with both form and substance. He was at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata recently for a discussion organised by the British Council. The topic: his latest book, Scenes from Early Life.

 The critically acclaimed book is a biography written in the form of an autobiography. The narrator of this memoir is Hensher’s partner Zaved Mahmood (a human rights lawyer), who was born in Dhaka in 1970, only a year before the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation out of one of the 20th century’s bloodiest civil wars.

 An author of eight novels, a collection of short stories (The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife, 1999) and an opera libretto, Hensher was a clerk in the House of Commons until he was dismissed for controversial statements he made in an interview to a gay magazine. In 2006, he was listed among the 100 most influential LGBT people in Britain.

 Hensher, who writes a Wednesday column for The Independent besides contributing to The Spectator and Mail on Sunday, has won numerous awards over the years.

His 2008 novel, The Northern Clemency, which is generally regarded as his most assured work of fiction, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His short story, Dead Languages, one of the 14 tales in The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife, was selected by AS Byatt for her Oxford Book of English Short Stories, making Hensher the youngest author to figure in the collection.


Excerpts from an interview:

Electronic communication has taken over our lives. Instead of writing letters, we send emails and text and fax messages. What’s your take? You tackled this question in your book, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why It Still Matters. How serious a threat is digitization to the individuality that handwriting can express? Will it kill the handwritten word forever?
I hope it doesn’t. Digitisation has immense advantages of speed and connection, but it is characteristically less humane, less intimate, less revealing and less interesting. I’d like to look forward to a world where we rediscover the advantages of handwriting, and write in a variety of different ways, slow, fast, human, efficient, inefficient, lovely, bland, and any number of other ways. I don’t want to lose this forever.

In 2006, you were listed as one of the 100 most influential LGBT people in Britain. You belong to the western world, but was it easy coming to terms with your sexual identity?
Actually, I’ve been listed like this pretty well every year since 2000, when The Independent’s 'Pink List' started – you shouldn’t restrict your research to my Wikipedia entry. I’ve been lucky to belong to the first generation where you could live your life relatively openly. I’ve never been secretive about my sexuality since becoming an adult. One day I hope that everyone in the world will be able to live openly, too. We are getting there.

On July 15 this year, Kolkata witnessed a march similar to the Rainbow Pride Walk – Remembering the 1969 Stonewall riots. Is the LGBT community in India close to achieving equal rights? Some people still regard homosexuality as a ‘social curse’.
 I’ve got many LGBT friends in India and Bangladesh who live open and fulfilling lives, so I think you might be a bit behind the times in the people you know. The point is that learning from our own experience,  individuals are often very tolerant, but the media and the political classes lag behind and go on encouraging hatred. But when things change, they tend to change extremely quickly.
In India, things are developing much more quickly than some people seem to appreciate and the Kolkata march is only one aspect of the changing programme. To people who go on insisting that sexuality can be an absolute social curse, I would say that they need to get with the programme.

Please tell us something about your latest book Scenes from Early Life… what’s the theme? 
It’s the story of a family living through the 1971 war of independence in Bangladesh, told through the eyes of a narrator who is a very small child at the time.

Do you have any personal association with the history of Bangladesh war of independence?
Yes, the narrator is based on my partner, who was born in Dhaka in 1970.

Have you ever been to any gay or LGBT parties/clubs in India? If yes, how different is the ambience here in comparison with yours?
Yes, I’ve met many LGBT people in social settings in India and in Bangladesh. I think most of the people I’ve happened to meet are very westernised in outlook – not because being gay is a Western thing, just because those are the gay people that a Western author is most likely to meet. The social ambience is very pleasant and welcoming. The food is better and most of the atmosphere is much more open and friendly. I love an Indian party of any sort.

We know that early in your career you worked as a clerk in the House of Commons, from which you were fired over the content of an interview you gave to a gay magazine… How did you overcome that experience?
It was hilarious. I didn’t feel humiliated. You can only feel humiliated if you consent to being treated like that. I forced them into a position where they would have to fire me. I think it’s fair to say that they felt more humiliated than I did in the end. I took no money from them, and I maintained a position I could feel proud of, and I left a ghastly institution with my head held high. Also I found myself earning a good deal more outside the institution than I did inside it, and with a much stronger voice on public affairs. So I would recommend the experience of being sacked to anyone.

Your semi-autobiographical novel The Northern Clemency was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Do you still lament that it couldn’t touch the finishing line?
No, being shortlisted was great, and at the end I was very happy that it only went so far. Afterwards, the winner has to go on putting up with PR and interviews and all the rest of it. I got up in the morning after the prize and went out for a lovely long lunch and ignored all the phone calls. It was excellent.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a novel. I’ve learnt not to talk about it to people I don’t know, though. It’ll probably be published in 2014.      

 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017