Bishwanath Ghosh: ‘I like to talk to the reader and not talk at the reader’

Based in Calcutta, Bishwanath Ghosh is an Associate Editor with The Hindu. He’s been a journalist for three decades and has earlier worked with The Times of India and with New Sunday Express. In addition to his work with newspapers, he is a bestselling author and his books – Aimless in Banaras, Gazing at Neighbours, Longing Belonging, Tamarind City and Chai, Chai – have garnered all-around acclaim and have earned huge praise from readers everywhere. We’re big fans of Ghosh’s work here at BooksFirst and caught up with him for a quick chat about his work, what inspires him to write and what is it about being a successful author that makes him happiest.

How did the idea for Chai, Chai come about? What was it that made you interested in small towns like Jhansi, Itarsi and Mughal Sarai, and what inspired you to go and look for stories in these towns?

It was the Diwali of 2006 when, as usual, I was visiting my home in Kanpur. I was, at the time, writing travel pieces for the newspaper and my future publisher had told me he would like to publish me if I came up with a new idea. So, during the Diwali trip to Kanpur, I happened to come across a copy of the railway timetable. My father was addicted to the timetable; he would turn the pages whenever he was free; that was his way of armchair travel. When I looked up the railway map in the timetable, I found that some of the busiest railway junctions were places one knew very little about. For example, Itarsi. One knew of it as a busy railway junction but nothing about it as a town. It was a kind of place where trains halted but no one ever got off. I made a list of seven such places and decided to get off there and spend a few days in each of them. The result was Chai, Chai. It is my most popular book till date. Its Hindi version is equally popular and it has a Marathi version too.

Chai, Chai was very successful. Did that make it easier for you to get your successive books published? Also, your straightforward style of writing makes your books very accessible. Did this come naturally or did you have to work hard to find the right ‘voice’ for your books?

I signed the contract for Tamarind City even before Chai, Chai was published. I had the contract for each book even before the preceding book was in the market. I guess my publisher had faith in me because they were familiar with my style — or voice, if you like. To make your writing accessible, to describe the simplest of things in the simplest of manner — is a lot of hard work. My aim is always to write in a manner that the book is relished equally by the CEO of a company as well as his chauffeur. I have no literary muscle to flex, I am a simple person. I like to talk to the reader and not talk at the reader.

Bishwanath’s books provide unique and very interesting snapshots of life in Calcutta, Madras, Banaras and across many small towns in India

For you, personally, what is most satisfying about the fact that your books have been so successful and have received such acclaim from readers? Any memorable piece of feedback you’ve received from readers, for any of your books, which you would like to share with us?

Every successive book has made me realise that I’ve a longer way to go. When Chai, Chai came out, I felt very important — that my book was a big hit. But fortunately the balloon burst almost immediately, and with passage of time, with every new book, I realised I was still learning the craft. One never stops learning. One does this kind of writing out of passion, and not for money because there’s very little money. Your biggest reward is the love your receive from readers. One reader — a bright young man — once wrote to me that he measures his life according to the important dates in MY life. For example, how he got his first job exactly 10 months after I moved from Delhi to Chennai. He knows my books — and therefore details of my life — even better than I do. Can there be a bigger reward!

Do you read a lot of books? Any favourite authors? Any favourite Indian authors?

I buy a lot of books but I don’t read as many. In fact I hardly read these days even though Amazon delivers almost one book a day. Most of the time is spent looking at the phone — on Instagram, on Amazon, and to read about my favourite writers and poets. I wish I read them rather than reading about them. V.S. Naipaul is one author I admire. He was a genius. Anyone who writes a book like A House for Mr Biswas at the age of 26 has to be a genius.

Are you working on your next book? What will it be about, and when can we expect to see it in bookshops?

I am working on a collection of Hindi poems. Frequent visits to Banaras have made me realise that when it comes to poetry, my mind works best in Hindi. In the sense that when I write in English, I have to make an effort to sound profound or inaccessible, whereas in Hindi the thoughts flow naturally. Writing in Hindi — since I cannot type in Hindi — also allows me to put my fountain pens to paper. There can’t be anything more pleasurable than that! In fact, my first book of Hindi poems, called Jiyo Banaras, has turned out to be quite popular and even earned me a small sum as royalty.

Bishwanath Ghosh’s books are available on Amazon

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