Interviews with Artists

Balraj Khanna



Jeremy Akerman: JA
Eileen Daly: ED
Balraj Khanna: BK


Autumn 2010



ED: What motivates you to write?


BK: I have been writing ever since I can recall. It was a response to an inner urge that I never questioned, to put in words what happened to me or around me.  As a schoolboy I kept a journal, which was very basic writing: an account of who I played with, what I did, who beat me up, cricket, that I’d seen a pretty girl but she wouldn’t look at me, that sort of thing.


JA: Did you spin them into stories?


BK: No, I only recorded them in a school exercise book. Fiction I got into writing in my teens; what got me started was that I ran away from home when I was eight, just for one day. We lived in a small dusty town in the Punjab and one hot summer’s day I had a passionate argument with my family over something trivial. I was very serious, but no one else was. I was put down and laughed at. I felt everyone was against me, my family and the whole world. I thought: ‘To hell with it’, and I just quit. In a small Punjab town you can walk for 500 yards in any direction and you are in the countryside, thick and wild.  So I walked and walked, aimlessly. When I got very tired, I sat down in the shade of a leafy tree and fell asleep. Some time later when I woke up, I felt lost and lonely. Miserable. I missed home. So I walked back, but no one had seen me go and no one noticed me coming back. It was a real anti-climax, which I thought was funny and that I must write it down. Years later, I wrote a short story about it, which was never published. That was my first piece of fiction writing. When I grew up, I read English literature – by the way, I have no acquaintance with Hindi literature at all – English literature got me hooked on the written word.


JA: There is a strong autobiographical streak to your fiction writing?


BK: Quite a lot of the writing is coming from my background, and I feel very comfortable with that. One thing I have noticed with time is my writing is best when I am writing about young people.


ED: Did you have a corresponding engagement with art and particularly painting at that time?


BK:  There is a deep connection between writing and painting. They are both about seeing and looking for new things. I wrote my first novel at this very dining table on an old typewriter. I would laugh like mad. I would suddenly burst out laughing, and my daughters would say: ‘Oh, here he goes again!’ When you are writing things come to you that you had not thought of before; they’re not necessarily true, representing actual events, or recounting factually your own experiences. You just invent them, or rather, they invent themselves.

When I was in my late teens, I became a serious watercolourist.  I lived in a most dramatic part of the country, in the foothills of the Himalayas, an immensely beautiful and quintessentially English hill station called Simla, which used to be the summer capital of the British Raj. I was at college there, a boarder.  Built by the Brits for the Brits, Simla at 7,000 feet was surrounded by lofty snow-capped peaks in the distance, immediate deep valleys and bottomless gorges, a spectacular place. I always loved mountains even as a child, because the Punjab is all plain until it reaches the foothills of the Himalayas. Being surrounded by mountains was magical; I used to paint the majestic mountains, pine-covered hillsides, valleys, moving sunsets – sunrises I never saw – and I began to write poetry and used to read my poems aloud to the pine trees surrounding our hostel that made my friends laugh. The first draft of Nation of Fools was written in France when I moved there with my wife in the late 1960s.  I knew nobody other than Francine’s small family nor did I speak a word of French.  It was then that I started to write about my past, about life in India that I so deeply missed. I did so in a fictionalised way to remind myself of home. In effect the responses are physical: a response to nature through painting and then a response that involves distance, at a remove, which provokes writing.


JA: What are your rules for writing?


BK: I love to get up early in the morning and do a certain amount of writing – all is quiet and you feel at one with the world and with yourself. I write in long hand. If I can do a two hours, that’s good enough. Then I will paint downstairs in the studio till lunch and later come up to correct the writing. That done, I return to the studio and carry on wherever I had left things earlier. It may sound a bit mad, but it has become a way of life which I quite enjoy and it can change from day to day. If, for example, it’s a long piece of writing that requires greater concentration, I just carry on till I feel I can move on to other things. Ditto with a painting. That sort of thing.


ED: Was there any key moment when you recognised that you were writing more than a journal, that it had a purpose to it? Were you hoping to get your writing published at that point?


BK: I showed the first draft of Nation of Fools to a well-connected collector of mine who sent me to a literary agent in London. The agent said she liked my novel but was afraid that the market for fiction at that time was very ‘infirm’ and sent me packing. I got depressed and discouraged and then got busy with painting and showing my work here, in Paris, New York and Delhi. A few years later, Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children. I read it and said to myself: ‘Dammit, he’s writing just like me, I have done all the things he is doing here.’ That really spurred me on to re-write my book. Some time later, another friend was able to present it to a publisher, Michael Joseph, who took it straight away. The Royal Society awarded it the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and the novel got rave reviews. And in spite of the title, it got very good reviews in India too where I was only known as a painter. Then there arose a problem, an identity crisis. People started asking me if I was a novelist or a painter. They still do. It’s a difficult question for me. I can only say that I wish there were two of me so that I could send one down the stairs to paint and keep the other locked up in the study, writing. The fact of the matter is I love doing both.


JA: What is your writing style?


BK: I like to write very straightforwardly, in plain English, pretty much as people speak to each other. People can be very funny and you capture this by maintaining a direct stance and by not being too complex or convoluted. I love writing dialogue. It comes naturally to me. It becomes a habit for a writer to store in their heads memories of how people speak. That’s the job of a writer: to make characters speak in their own tongue. That’s how you authenticate a character, through his or her speech.


ED: Another trait in your writing is the use of humour; say something about that?


BK: I can’t write anything that isn’t funny; you can be hugely serious through being satirical. I was told that my books made people think a great deal about India, the Indian character and personality, and you can do this by being satirical not vicious.


ED: Are you consciously fostering that trait?


BK: Not consciously, it is just the way I write. ‘Style is the man’, as Matthew Arnold said. Yet one’s style of writing need not correspond with one’s personality or character. Writing happens on a subconscious level, you do it without thinking. The way you dress is a result of a conscious decision. The way you come across to others is a different matter. Some writers go out of their way to be outlandish, to impress, to shock … I admire artists (who do have the poetic licence to shock), especially writers, who do not aim to impress you.


JA: What names come to mind?


BK: I like Rushdie very much, I like Martin Amis too, but I prefer his father, Kingsley Amis. I am very much into history these days and biography. I read a lot about the Second World War. I can’t get tired of it because I find it most amazing, something that belies belief, that a single man – Hitler – caused it all and a whole nation of 80 million followed him, embroiling the rest of the world in it.


JA: I wondered whether there was a crossover to what you call the physical action of painting. Is that also something we could think about as happening on the page?


BK: Yes, I am a restless person by nature. I must be doing something all the time; I have to be doing something  – paint, draw, make – otherwise I become miserable. Similarly, there is a structure to my work as a novelist in that the characters have to keep developing. As any character grows with time his thinking is changing, his actions are different, his movement is different, so there is a very abstract connection there: the same man doing two different things implies a certain conjunction.


ED: To follow on from that, the character of the boy or young man, Omi in Nation of Fools, Paul, the young man in Chatterbox, or Rahul in Mists of Simla, they are often wayward characters who get by on charm or wit and to a certain degree through luck, but they are also characters who stand to one side and slightly go against what’s expected of them.


BK: They are very individualistic characters, and an individualistic person would have that approach to dealing with life and the world.


JA: The writing is very visual, isn’t it, it’s a general thing that Eileen and I have noticed amongst artists’ writing that there is a strong emphasis on the visual, obviously perhaps, perhaps too obvious to even state. But leading on from that, do you think of yourself consciously as an artist, or is that an irrelevant question?


BK: I don’t know. I don’t know what an artist is. I know a writer is someone who writes books and a painter paints pictures. I did not go to an art school, but I do have an MA in English literature.


ED: Looking back on what you’ve written, what surprises you most? And which are the pieces that stand out for you.


BK: I thoroughly enjoyed my latest work of fiction – Rajah, King of the Jungle, a book for children that was published in 2011. Looking back, I can say that this book enchanted me – it made me one of those I had written it for. Nation of Fools stands out because it was totally unselfconscious. At about the time when I ran away from home, we lived in a large house with a huge garden with mango orchards and fruit trees and all the way round there was a brick road and I started running around it several times every morning, and my family thought I was a silly boy: ‘Stop running’, they would say. And I asked myself, why am I doing that? The running was disciplining myself. It’s like keeping a journal, nobody’s asking you to, nobody’s reading it, it may never get published; you don’t think about it, you just do it.



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