In conversation with Sujit Saraf

By Nandini Minocha
In the Bay Area, Sujit Saraf is best known as the founder, director and creative head of the Indian theatre company Naatak which recently celebrated its 25th production. But Sujit also works full time at Lockheed Martin as a research scientist and has recently published a novel. He has also directed feature films.

An author, a playwright , a director and a scientist… Sujit  Saraf wears many hats and wears them all well.

I met him for lunch at Dee Dee’s, a no-frills place in Mountain that is authentically Indian, not unlike the subject of my interview.

We had just an hour so I jumped right to it. My first question was, “Who do you see yourself as – a scientist an artist or a director?”

His unassuming reply was, “I’m a writer. ‘Artist’ is a pompous term. And my directorial skills would not stand scrutiny when set beside the skills of others known for that. However, I believe I compete with distinction in the art of writing”.  His novel “The Peacock Throne” has just been picked up by Sceptre for distribution in Europe and India.

I congratulated him on getting published and asked him to tell me a little about the novel.

‘The Peacock Throne’, which Sujit wrote 3 yeas ago, is set in Chandni Chowk in Delhi.. The novel begins on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated and follows the fortunes of a near-blind, bumbling man named Gopal who is catapulted into the corridors of power through various events beyond his control. I asked him how he found the time to write while holding down a full time job, directing plays and looking after his family.

“I was lucky that my previous job was a boring one,” said Sujit only half-jokingly. Most of the Water, No Ice › Create New Post — Water, No Icebook was written in those doldrums. His current job is pretty interesting and he admits that writing time has become scarcer and more precious. He has a writing ritual of picking one particular table at a local Starbucks where I guess both the muse and the coffee flow smoothly!

‘The Peacock Throne’ is Sujit’s second published book. Interestingly, his books are all in English while his plays are written in Hindi. “It is based on the intended audience,” explains Sujit. “My plays are meant primarily for the Bay Area Hindi speaking audience whereas my books are meant for a non-Indian readership. It is a sad fact but the English speaking Indian readership is just not large enough to sustain a literary career.”

He adds, “Every Indian writer in English faces the problem of how to handle direct speech. How do you make it sound normal when 2 rickshaw pullers in Delhi talk to each other in English?”  For a play this is an enormous issue because a play is a hundred percent direct speech. “An English play set in India is a non-starter. I have yet to read a play that is any good.”

I asked him about the future direction of Naatak. “We want to produce small plays that are less cumbersome in terms of production values because the skilled production people keep moving on. Ideally we should stage about 4 plays a year.” “We are not full time theatrewallahs,” he added with a smile, “We will never be more than what we are – engineers who do theatre for fun.”
What would his advice be for an aspiring writer or playwright? “Write about what you understand very well and don’t write about what you don’t know. Throw away the first five books you write. You are probably far worse than you realize. Don’t write about yourself – in most cases you are just not interesting enough!”
 
“Write about world events, other things, not yourself. Creative writing classes are useless. You hear of many good classes but not of good writers who took those classes. The best thing to do is just write.

He quotes from Kabir –

nindak niyare raakhiye, aangan kutii chhavaay
binu paanii binu saabunaa, nirmal kare subhaay
 
'Keep your critics close, in the shade of our own courtyard.

They clean your nature without needing water or soap.'

 
“Practice writing, be humble and have honest and brutal critics around.”

Sujit’s next book is set in Bangladesh and is a fictionalized biography of his grandfather who was from a Shekhavati Marwari family. The working title is ‘Harilal and Sons’.

‘The Peacock Throne’ will be available online on Amazon. More information on Sujit and his writings can be found at his website.

For Naatak’s schedule check out their website.

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