Neel Mukherjee


Neel Mukherjee (1970) was born in Calcutta and lives in London. He was educated in Calcutta, Oxford, and Cambridge. His debut novel was first published as Past Continuous by Picador India in 2008. A UK edition titled A Life Apart was published by Constable & Robinson in January 2010. The novel tells the story of an Indian student in Oxford and the novel he is writing. Both in India and in the UK the book has earned its author a number of awards, among which the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Fiction, and ‘Book of the Year' mentions. Mukherjee's second novel, The Lives of Others, is due to be published by Chatto & Windus in 2013.
Mukherjee reviews fiction for The Times and TIME Magazine Asia and has written for a number of leading publications. An extensive archive of his insightful and often witty reviews is to be found on his own website.


Authors' text

Letter to Rachida Lamrabet


Dear Rachida,


A city, if you have lived in it for any substantial period, as I have in London, becomes as much an imagined space as a real one existing in the outside world. You don't just live in London or Brussels, you also live, crucially, in a London or Brussels of the mind, a city imagined.

15 months ago the population of London was nearly 8 million; of the entirety of Belgium, 11 million. That is one way of thinking about relative magnitudes. Another way, which you point out, is through understanding the accretions of migration that the places in question have seen; the immigrant populations, in other words. Any cursory knowledge of a great city like London will reveal two inalienable and intimately related facts: everyone in the city has arrived from somewhere else, and, waves of immigration have given it its character, magnificence and standing in the world. To give just one throwaway example: where would that astonishing cultural, historical and psychogeographical richness of the East End have come from without the Huguenots, the Jews, the Bangladeshis coming to settle and work there in successive waves over four centuries and counting? So, yes, in a substantial way, the debate about multiculturalism, which you point out, has already happened in London; it's a donnée, a sine qua non of London's existence. It is outside the scope of this letter to begin a discussion about the reasons why this may be so but it can be pointed out, skimmingly only, that Britain's expansive Empire, which came to an end only 60 years ago, has a lot to do with it.

So, while a lot more open to literatures from its ex-colonies, such as the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean and Australia, than a lot of other countries, Britain still remains mostly impervious to the great strides made in European, Asian and Middle-Eastern literatures. There are very few internationalists in the publishing and literary-media sectors in the UK; you can count them on the fingers of one hand. Here is the interesting (and slightly baneful) counterpoint about the London ‘literary scene': one of the world's most multicultural cities - you hear more languages spoken in the streets of London than anywhere in the world, even New York - seems to have hit a glass ceiling and decided to shrink back into the room instead of shattering that ceiling and breaking out of insular confinement.

And, yet, the cosmopolitanism the books-business in the UK lacks it makes up for, as you so perceptively point out, in the potential stories that London abounds in. As you go about your life in London it is easy to forget that notorious ‘3%' tag that the UK publishing industry has earned. This ease may be an illusion, a comforting illusion for a praxis of life rather than a theory of it; I mean, it is possible for everyone in London to slip into a cocoon of familiarity (or insularity) without having to bother much about alien realities brushing up against her everyday life. But the writer living in London needs to break this illusion everyday anew otherwise stasis and shrinkage beckon. Multiculturalism must not become a mirror in which you are reflected back at yourself, patting yourself on the back for appreciating the familiar. This is the task of the writer who lives and works in London, to go back to a point zero of location every day and start again.

To make a city or a place your home can have unprecedented costs for a writer. I am, of course, alluding to Theodore Adorno's dense aphorism in Minima Moralia: "It is the moral duty of a writer not to feel at home anywhere." We can keep unpacking that formulation for a long time but, for our present purposes, I take it to mean that the condition of outsiderness is a productive one for a writer, and a moral one too; the point zero I mentioned is a locus of unbelonging, of standing outside, looking in. It is not the zero of nothing but more in spirit of the final line of the poem ‘Vermeer' by the great Tomas Tranströmer, "I am not empty, I am open".


The great European filmmaker, Michael Haneke, once remarked that the history of twenty-first century Europe is going to be overwhelmingly characterised by one force - the mass migrations of peoples. On a crisp, unblemished autumn afternoon this week I went for a guided tour of Molenbeek in a group that consisted mostly of young (late teens to early twenties) asylum seekers residing temporarily at Le Petit Chateau, the nineteenth-century barracks building on the canal. A young man came up to me and started speaking in broken Urdu; he had clearly placed my origins with a fair degree of accuracy. I asked him where he was from; he replied, ‘Afghanistan'. When I expressed my surprise at his smattering of Urdu, he said that he was a big fan of Hindi films - Bollywood is the term preferred by the West but I dislike it - and had grown up watching them in his country, one of India's biggest markets, both white and black, for its Bombay-produced films. All his Urdu had been picked up watching Hindi films, probably pirated, in a country that would have had an entertainment ban for much of his life and this he was now trying out on an Indian writer who lived in London but was staying in Brussels temporarily. Here, if you will, is a provisional definition of globalisation: the possibility of communication by the unexpected drawing of a new line connecting Calcutta, Bombay, Afghanistan, London and Brussels.

I hope I've begun to answer some of the complex questions you put to me. I look forward to carrying on the conversation.

Yours truly,

The letter of Rachida Lamrabet.

Passa Porta
10.10.11 > 21.11.11

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