Prajwal Parajuly, Indian-Nepali author and creative writing postgraduate student at Oxford University, created a sensation last year when he signed a two-book deal with Quercus London, becoming the youngest author to be signed by the publishing house and the youngest Indian author to secure an international book contract. His first book of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, was published at the end of the year to positive reviews. Parajuly’s debut novel, Land Where I Flee, is due for release this spring.
Maria Dimitrova What was it like growing up in Gangtok?
Prajwal Parajuly Gangtok is a beautiful town. It’s the capital of Sikkim, which was a kingdom until 1975 when it became a part of India. Gangtok was a simple town then and, in many ways, it still is. To this day, big cities in India intimidate me. I find myself clutching my wallet all the time in Delhi.
MD When did you leave India altogether?
PP I moved to the US right after high school to go to Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. It was quite different from Gangtok and quite different from our impression of America.
MD Different in what way?
PP It is in the middle of nowhere. It’s nauseatingly monochromatic, heavily Christian, and diversity meant three Chinese restaurants and three Mexican restaurants. I came across some lovely people there. Fascinating. So many hadn’t been outside Missouri. Or been on planes. Many had never interacted with an Asian. I enjoyed every moment of it. I wrote an obnoxious column.
MD By which time you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
PP No, I didn’t. I knew I liked writing. I hadn’t "discovered" fiction yet. I wasn’t an English major. I didn’t take a single literature class in college. I liked writing, but I didn’t think I would ever make a career of it.
MD After you graduated, you went to NYC to work in advertising for the Village Voice. What happened there?
PP The first year was wonderful. You’re 21, you’re gloating about the Voice despite knowing fully well that its cool days were long gone and you’re out every night because, you know, you work for Village Voice – stupid, stupid publication that it may have evolved into – and are invited to events left and right. By the third year, I’d had enough. I’d claim I had appointments and disappear into Barnes & Noble and read. Or I’d see one movie after another. Leave at 10am, come back at 5pm.
MD I recall your quote that “writing [The Gurkha’s Daughter] stemmed from a dead-end job, looking at [yourself] in the mirror with self-loathing”. What made you quit?
PP You do that for too long, you quit. I realised I could live my life that way. Make a decent amount of money doing nothing. But imagine being 35 and doing the same thing you did at 22. Oh, for a very long time. But three years into that, you want out.
MD Did writing stem from that?
PP Writing stemmed first from picking up a Nepali paper in Queens and realising how difficult it was for me to read it. I hadn’t seen Devnagiri, the script, in forever. I used to be the guy who was proud about his flawless written Nepali. Secondly, the silly job. So I quit and travelled a bit. To ward off "what’re you doing with your life" comments, I claimed I was writing. The only writing I was doing then was blogging about my travels on Facebook. A college roommate and I were touring India. Soon, he left and I moved into a ghetto hotel room in a small town called Manali and wrote my first story.
MD What was the first story about?
PP Ah, this story about a Muslim shopkeeper in a Hindu-dominated town.
MD Based on an actual encounter?
PP Entirely fiction. It’s a cute story – not my best, not my worst. "Cute" is the word I use to describe it. It’s not poignant. It’s not funny. It’s not lovely. It’s cute.
MD So what happened between writing that first story and getting the book deal with Quercus?
PP I moved back into my parents’ house and wrote several more stories. I had six by November. My sister informed me about this creative writing course at Oxford. I applied and thought flying in to London for my interview would double my chances of getting it. I was there during the London Book Fair. Thinking that I’d mention having gone to a Hilary Mantel talk at the LBF would impress my interviewers, I headed to Earl’s Court. The LBF was a sorry place. The volcanic ashes in Iceland had created havoc. People who were supposed to be there weren’t. I sat next to a slightly disgruntled woman. We started talking. All her meetings had been cancelled. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Susan Yearwood.
MD Your literary agent.
PP I gave her the story I had. She later told me she thought, "Great, I’ve had a poor day and now there’s one more thing to carry."
MD But she did read it after all.
PP And asked me for another story. And all the stories thereafter. So, yes, I was lucky. She did mention that she hoped my second book would be a novel. She knew what the short-story market would be like. I told her I’d write a novel next.
MD How does it feel to be the youngest Indian author to have an international book deal? Has it changed the way you feel about writing?
PP I try not to take all these labels seriously. If you do, there’s too much pressure. I don’t even know where the “youngest Indian with a multi-country deal” came up. If that’s the case, the nation needs to buck up. We need to have 21-year-olds with 50-country book deals. That says nothing about me and a lot about my country.
MD You have depicted the lives of different layers of Nepalese society, both home and abroad. For example, the plight of Bhutan’s 106,000 refugee exiles. Was it your intention to create a broader portrait of Nepalis?
PP It wasn’t my intention to create social change or throw light on a political movement when I wrote the book. I am a fiction writer. The lives of a lot of these people I write about, however, are entwined with social and political chaos, so, yes, these aspects spill into the book.
MD I am sure a lot of people might be looking your way for such a statement or position, though.
PP I know there are expectations, but I have tried to make it clear that I am a writer of fiction. My community has good people and bad people. It has its positives and negatives. I am not a tourism brochure. Yes, I love writing about the culture, language and food, but this is fiction. My focus can’t be them.
MD Who are the writers you admire and have influenced you?
PP I admire a lot of writers: Wodehouse, Austen, Dickens, Tom Wolfe, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Hope Cooke, Ian McEwan. The list keeps growing. But I don’t think I was consciously influenced by any of them. I’d say I grew up reading them but I don’t have a hero.
MD You mention Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth. Are there any other Indian or Nepalese writers you look up to or find inspiring?
PP I think Arundhati Roy is a genius many times over. The reason she hasn’t written a second book is because she knows she will not be able to do justice to the first one [The God of Small Things].
MD Is that a feeling you share in regard to your second book, the novel?
PP I love the novel. I think the novel portrays my versatility as a writer far better than the short story collection does. It’s a fun book. A family saga. Takes wings of its own.
MD Do you ever have any difficulty writing?
PP A lot. Sometimes, I can’t write a word. So I just don’t write. I watch mindless TV. I have no discipline whatsoever. Can’t write every day. Can’t write a certain number of words a day. I sometimes wish I were more disciplined, but no.
MD How has your short story collection been received so far?
PP There was this glowing endorsement from the former queen of the former kingdom of Sikkim, who is also one of my favorite authors, which was great.
MD And what would you do if you weren’t writing?
PP I’d be a landlord. Rent a couple of places out and do nothing. I taught a Masters class in America, though, and really liked it. I wouldn’t mind teaching. You get your summers off.
The Gurkha’s Daughter is out now through Quercus publishing.