*** SPECIAL FEATURE - October'13 ***
About the Author
Timothy Jay Smith lived in Jerusalem for two and a half years during the rollout of the post Oslo peace process, assisting Palestinian businesses regain market access. Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust leading to an international career that has seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through war zones, and stow away aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three day ocean crossing that landed him in an African jail. Smith's awards include the Paris Prize for Fiction, and the Stanley Drama Award.
You have been to India many times. When did you first come, and what keeps bringing you back?
In 1978, I embarked on a trip around the world with a backpack on my shoulders and a thick wad of $10 and $20 traveler checks in my pocket. After three months in Europe and North Africa, I flew on Aeroflot from London to Sri Lanka, with a stopover in wintry Moscow where refreshments consisted of 5-cent shots of vodka passed around in a shared glass. I landed in Colombo the next morning, and proceeded to fall in love with the Indian subcontinent, spending a month each in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal
I was hooked, and knew I had to return.
Years later, living in Bangkok, I was USAID’s finance adviser for development projects throughout Asia. I frequently flew to Bombay to work with the Maharashtra Cooperative Housing Society to provide housing for the very poorest families. On those trips, I got to know the menu in Cathay Pacific’s business class and stayed in the old wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel when I arrived, so I experienced an elite side of India as well.
My last trip to India was three years ago and I am already planning my next one. I have traveled to 98 countries, but no other place is as exotic or astonishing as India. It is timeless and beautiful, challenging and engaging.
Why do I keep coming back? India is why. Essential India.
Is there one experience for you in India that stands out the most?
I boarded the third class compartment of an overnight train from then-Madras to then-Calcutta, wearing my normal clothes: a blue button-down Oxford cotton shirt and jeans. Sitting across from me was the weirdest person I had ever seen, wearing a revealing loincloth, his body smeared with green paint and ashes, and fingernails so long they looped back on themselves. I couldn’t help staring at him. Meanwhile, everyone else in the train car was staring at ‘normal’ me.
It was an eye opening experience. For me, nothing had ever so perfectly illustrated the concept of world view, and how it could be so different. It’s a lesson I have taken with me around the world; and one that I rely upon to this day, while living in France, that puts into perspective conflicting notions of how things should be done.
We all have different world views. Thanks to a moment in India, I understand that.
Have your trips to India influenced your writing?
I have not set a novel in India, and I am not sure that I am qualified to write one that is. My readers frequently comment that they feel like they are “there with me” in my stories, and that’s because I have written about places I know well. A Vision of Angels is set in Palestine and Israel, where I lived for over two years; and my current novel-in-progress is set in Greece, where I have spent about seven years out of the last forty. (My first job after college was in Greece.)
I set my earlier novel, Cooper’s Promise, in a fictitious African country. I knew Africa well enough to create the mood. Because the setting was fictitious, I had the luxury of building Cooper’s world street-by-street and building-by-building, and dropping into it places I had experienced in my travels. A hammam in eastern Turkey. A bar where I hung out while stranded for two weeks in Cape Verte. The streets of Calcutta at night.
I was in Calcutta during an energy crisis, and that meant power was cut at night. Without fans or water, people poured into the streets to escape their stifling hot apartments. In the poor neighborhood where I stayed, so many hundreds of people camped out that traffic had to stop.
That memory inspired two passages in Cooper’s Promise:
“Where all the people hid during the day Cooper could never determine, but the broken concrete patches that passed as sidewalks were crowded at night with refugees who’d fled the ransacked countryside—though why they thought they’d be safer in Langatown was anyone’s guess. The moonlight draining over them turned their black skins ashen, and the sky too seemed too white for night. Counterfeit white. Some people already slept while others, squatting in small circles or sprawled out lazily, kept up lively conversations. Mothers waved a hand over their babies’ faces to chase off annoying flies while fathers fretfully dozed off, riddled by more acute worries. People cooked what they had managed to scrounge that day, and for sleeping, they spread out pieces of cardboard that they safeguarded as if royal beds. Youngsters tumbled and tussled about while their teenage brothers and sisters huddled together, separated by sexes and talking about each other.”
“People drifted sleepily back onto the streets, and by the time he reached his neighborhood Cooper was forced to stop running. He wound his way through the families curled up in restless clusters, recognizing some of the regular nighttime denizens. A couple of times he heard “American” murmured, but the children who frequently dogged his heels begging for a pen or bubblegum were too drowsy to dog him with more that night than a silently cupped hand. It seemed an ordinary end to an extraordinary day, and it was with relief and exhaustion that Cooper slipped into the small yard behind his building.”
I cannot claim to be influenced by Indian writers except to say that I admire several. When I turned the last page of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, I wanted another 1,000 pages. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is one of the only books that I have ever read twice, and to this day I recall scenes from it. Though not Indian, Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, captures how every moment in India is an image worth recording.
I did recently write a short piece on India, requested by a blogger from Calcutta, which can be found at: http://www.timothyjaysmith.com/blog/.
You describe yourself as a ‘political animal’. What do you mean by that, and how would you describe India through your political eyes?
I am political in the sense of the body politic. I am concerned about humanity and the pressing issues of our time. Before I became a full-time writer, I devoted myself to a career largely trying to create economic opportunities for low income people. When I became a writer, the issues that concern me became a natural part of my work. Not heavy-handed messages, but stories that personalize and give a human face to issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human trafficking, and the international economic crisis as it plays itself out in a small Greek village.
So that’s the political animal in me.
From that perspective, as to India I can only comment on what I have observed. I mentioned earlier that I had seen two extremes in India—business class and the poorest class. The most obvious change has been the emergence of the middle class. On my last visit, it startled me that, in airports, television monitors displayed nonstop the stock market tickertape. I remember India when there was hardly a calculator, television or telephone to be found.
When I say Indian food to you, what immediately pops into your head?
Wonderful! I love Indian food. I especially love anything spicy enough that it makes me sweat when I eat it. Like India itself, I always want more of it.
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3 kindle copies of winner's choice of either A Vision of Angels or Cooper's Promise