Udayan Mukherjee on his debut novel Dark Circles, and why he may never return to television studios
The joy of imagining a world and writing about it can never be compared to the career I had in journalism, says Udayan Mukherjee
Udayan Mukherjee’s debut novel Dark Circles tells the story of a family ruptured by a revealing letter. Mukherjee, a leading journalist who was formerly the managing editor for CNBC India, left the newsroom some time ago to go live in the mountains. He spoke to Firstpost about why mental health was a key issue he wanted to address in the book, his own journey from the newsroom to the writing desk, and why he never plans to return to television studios again.
How has Dark Circles taken shape — its journey if you like — from that idea in your mind to a complete book? Did it turn out exactly the way you thought it would?
When I started, I had a sense of the basic premise — that the novel would traverse the life of a family over two generations connected by an umbilical cord. This was not only with the idea of reinforcing how the past affects our lives, but also to explore how we deal with inheritances or legacies, emotional or physical. The very idea of family intrigues me, as I find it to be everything other than the warm, secure and caring place it is made out to be. Of course, it can also be that. But, I had very little sense of where the story would head. It evolved and changed as I wrote, and when it ended I went back and changed many things over again.
This, I imagine, is inevitable, as the more you write the more the characters come alive in your own head, and often parts written don't seem to sit well with these people you have created. Halfway through the book, the protagonists in the novel became part of my life. I would think of them often — their sorrows, frustrations, relief and anguish became my own. And then when you start to put it down on paper, it is almost as if the pen leads on its own and you are writing in a trance. By the end, the book had taken a shape quite different from what I may have envisaged it to be, and that was one of the great surprises and lessons for me as a first time novelist.
For so long you’ve been associated with broadcast television — a medium that is frighteningly fast and immediate. Was it easy turning to a format that is so slow, so laborious at times? What does the written word – reading or writing – offer to you that perhaps the thrill of television doesn’t? Surely there is something that it doesn’t as well?
For me, long format writing is everything that live television could never be. In the studio, there was never any time for deliberation; it was a fastest-finger-first universe. It had its thrill, but in hindsight it was a cheap thrill. The charm of it wore off. I also had had quite a bit of it by the time I walked away. But writing was not a rebound or a reaction from that fast-paced world. I had always read literary fiction. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my most admired people are writers.
Yet, I had never had the time or mind-space to pursue writing, nor was I confident that I could produce anything of acceptable quality. Once I started spending much of my time in the mountains, the idea of writing became far more attractive and real. I would never run down my life in television; it gave me a lot of things. It is also the reason I have the privilege of sitting in the Himalayas writing away without worrying about paying my bills. But the joy of imagining a world and writing about it can never be compared to the career I had. This is love.
Dark Circles revolves around a family, and how it deals with a troubling fact that is definitive to each of its members. Some would say that is a soap-ish premise, but in your book it dives to greater depths and meaning. Why did you think this was a story you wanted to tell? Your gaze is largely concerned with the threads that connect the people of this family – did that intrigue you more and why?
The lives of families are hugely interesting to me. It is almost as if it is a microcosm of the larger world. You see something on the surface and form an impression, but often, only a slightly deeper gaze gives you a sense of the layers and layers of complexity that are hidden underneath. Mounds of insecurity, fear, anxiety, hostility, desire, guilt and regret piled up over the years — dangerously combustible. It's no surprise that it has fascinated writers and filmmakers down the ages. The way we negotiate family life, papering over cracks till they cannot be any longer, oscillating between the volatility of the young and the wisdom, even resignation, of the elderly, is what engages me deeply. In attempting that, you have to go deeper and deeper to access your characters, which I found useful as a first-time writer, as without that there cannot be any literary fiction.
The book has crucial invocations around the debate of mental health, and how even happy families might let one of their own drift. How crucial is it for a family to talk about these things? Have you personally ever confronted the problem, with yourself or with someone you know? And can literature help us have this conversation better?
Depression is the cancer of our times. It affects many many more people than we know, or think. I am no expert on this, but feel that most of us are somewhere in the wide spectrum of mental illness. The notion of how we recognise it and deal with it has undergone a change between our parents' generation and ours, but I feel we have only scratched the surface. Each of us should have a sense of the signs — when we can see that someone we are close to is clearly in a dark place.
Difficult that depression is, often the smallest acts of engagement and affection can douse very big fires inside us. It may seem trite to talk about issues like loneliness and disaffection, but these are real issues that pertain to each of us, in our everyday lives.
Has writing a novel come any easier than writing about things you are now considered an expert in? Can you describe your process of writing this book – did it tire you, or could you not stop writing?
For a year before I started on the novel, I wrote columns for newspapers on subjects ranging from politics to economics. While this was not meant to be preparatory, I do feel that writing, like anything else, is habit. The more you write, the better you get, at least with the craft of it. But short format journalism and writing a novel are as different as chalk and cheese. I don't have extensive experience of this, either with writing columns or novels, but I sometimes feel that the two don't sit well together. The discipline of one can seep in to corrupt the other.
For me, the real joy is in the novel. At the risk of sounding facetious, it is like Test cricket, with the column being T20. Short format is where the world may be heading, but a novel is the real thing to me. Everything cannot be seen through the prism of numbers and popularity. I found the process of writing to be exhilarating in most part, sometimes trying and frustrating, but it is all I want to do — to sit and write. Among other things, it teaches you stillness and distils the relationship between you and your head.
You chose to begin the book with what is perhaps a revelation most writers would have reserved for the end – why? Did you feel it was a risk, or are you confident the readers will follow and want to read through?
I wanted to start with the disclosure. Not only because I hoped that it would be a powerful hook for the reader and draw her in, but also because it was crucial to set the platform on which the narrative of the lives of the two brothers would unfurl. I did hold back a bit of it, in the interest of narrative suspense. In doing this, I set up a challenge for myself — to necessarily have to ensure that the rest of the novel did not seem insipid in comparison to the loaded start, that the pages turned easily. This was important to me, as I hadn't set out to write a thriller, even a moral one. In my book, the life of an ordinary family, with all its complexities, should make for a gripping enough story in the hands of a good writer. Readers will say if I succeeded in that endeavour or not, but it was a risk I was prepared to take.
How has time away from the studios been? What has kept you busy other than the book? Are there moments when you wish you were in the newsroom for something?
I didn't have a moment of doubt when I decided to give up my day job. Almost everyone else did, predicting that I would be back soon. You never say never, but in this I do. For nearly 20 years, I had one life. It would have been so easy to just continue on that path, on auto pilot, collecting the rewards. This is what the corporate world does to you; the system of remuneration and inducement is such that you are pigeonholed into that one area where you may have developed a tiny bit of expertise. So much so, that you almost have no option but to play along till your productive years are exhausted. I was clear I was never going to do that. It is one life, after all. I want to do different things. Since I quit my day job, I have set up a few retreats in far flung Himalayan areas, built a house for myself in the mountains, engaged seriously to support the blossoming of a textile venture for weavers in Barabanki and done some writing – none with a purely financial motive.
If one doesn't get out of an urban bubble and experience life, how can one even hope to be a writer of fiction? I will never ever do a job again in this life; I want to write more books and see where life takes me. The worst that can happen is that I will fail. I know I will. I won't say it doesn't scare me but the prospect of a dull, safe life frightens me much more. I must try. So far, I am loving it.
Dark Circles, published by Bloomsbury India, is now available on Amazon and will be in bookstores next week.
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