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Neel Mukharjee

Neel Mukherjee: “Migrant Lives are Fractured”

“Feeling like a tourist in one’s own country is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Man Booker Prize shortlisted author, Neel Mukherjee, whose A State of Freedom formed the basis of a literary discussion on the ideas of home, migration, freedom, identity, and other questions he deals with in his books at the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF 2017) on Friday evening.

“Migration and movement is a theme that has remained a constant through human history. If you think of the words of the European filmmaker, Michael Haneke – he once said, ‘the history of the 21st century is going to be characterised by one and one thing only, the mass movements of people’. Various countries are now experiencing the same, which is leading to a great unraveling of states, constitutions, peoples, conglomerations and the way people aggregate together,” Mukherjee said addressing “Why do people move? Maybe because they want better lives than they have been given? This remains one of the most fundamental urges of human societies and human lives. We want to move to a better place than where we are, and my book explores that,” he added.

“When you visualise the idea of freedom you visualise a kind of freedom of movement, but the moment you start moving you bump up against constraints,” he said observing that one of the things he does while shaping up characters is studying people who want to move to change their lives for the better, and analyses how they deal with these constraints – whether they are able to overcome them or are subdued by them.Neel mentioned V.S. Naipaul’s 1971 novel A Free State having had a big influence on his work, and said that researching the topic of a novel only gets you to the door of the room that one’s wants entry into. It is one’s imagination that gives us the key to unlock this room, enabling us to move around it. “Writing is nine parts instinct,” he added urging aspiring writers to read and explore the vast universe of reading and texts.Neel calls himself a book reviewer instead of a critic, and says that writing a good review – one that convinces people to buy it – is a more difficult task, and he prefers to do that for 6 to 9 books a year, than just writing a book off. He also mentions a keener interest in graphic novels.

Upon being inquired if India, a recurring theme in all his three books, will be part of his next work too, and if he feels pressurized to write about a certain topic only, Mukherjee responds: “I don’t want to write on India again, I think I’m done with writing about the country for a while. These could be famous last words”.“Writers stereotype themselves because they internalise their own idea about what it is they should be writing about. I don’t try to fit myself in a box. I don’t feel under pressure to write a book that is chasing topicality,” he adds.   

“A great part of your talent dies if you feel assimilated somewhere,” the author noted, saying that not being able to call a country his own is very enabling for him as a writer. Neel Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India and educated in Calcutta, Oxford and Cambridge. He is a fiction reviewer for The Times and TIME Magazine Asia, and has also written for several other major newspapers in the UK and US. His first novel, A Life Apart, set in England and India, was published in 2010. It was previously published in India in 2008, as the award-winning Past Continuous. He lives in London.The event was part of Sharjah International Book Fair’s ‘UK Guest of Honour’ programme – one of the highlights of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration initiative between the UAE and the British Council.

 During Neel Mukherjee Session.