Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Vikram Chandra

Vikram In Vikram Chandra’s earliest memories of his mother, she is scratching out screenplays in the afternoon sunlight.

“She’d sit there at the kitchen table for hours with these long sheets of writing paper and a pen,” he says. He sighs, and yanks his eyes from tree branches outside his Academic Center office. “But of course she was properly skeptical about our prospects. Like all good Indian parents, she wanted us to be doctors.”

Mrs. Chandra’s concerns never materialized. The little boy who once peered around the door is immersed now in his third book – and the critics are panting for more. He teaches creative writing at GW, sitting pretty in a tenure-track position.

The years that led him here, across oceans from his childhood in India, are perhaps best understood geographically.

Bombay Days

“My family came from the north, near Delhi,” Chandra begins. “Then we moved to Bombay in the 1970s. Bombay is sort of like New York in that people from all over the country come there – even though Delhi is the capital.”

Speaking of his birthland, his voice wears the words as easily as a linen suit.

“I tend to spend a lot of time in India,” Chandra admits. “I end up there about five and a half months out of the year. The hybrid nature of the self becomes very clear in India – there are many things all at once. You can see it even in the landscape.”

Chandra grew up multilingual, though Hindi is his mother tongue. In post-independence India, he explains, English was a compromise since many Indian languages existed.

“In English we are all equally lost,” he says.

The author writes in English, but just as he has no real homeland, he has no singular tongue of thought.

“It’s strange to hear my characters speak in English,” he said. “I have them speaking in Hindi sometimes and have to translate as I write. But then I realize that certain things can only be done in English, and others can only be done in Hindi.”

Shedding nationality

Chandra’s generation, he says, had a fascination with things American as it grew up. Long before glimpsing American skies through an airplane window, Chandra’s imagination was tugged by the idea of the United States.

“I was restless, I wanted to go elsewhere,” Chandra remembers. “I wanted to travel here, I suspect in the same way that Americans used to want to go to Europe.”

So the young man went west – far west. Even after earning his English B.A. from California’s Pomona College, Chandra stayed in the United States. As much, at least, as he stays anywhere.

Chandra’s family remained in India; he lives in their Bombay apartment during his journeys home.

Oddly, Chandra says he has no photographs from India. Perhaps he does not need them. Perhaps years of pendular swings between the two lands have taught him to exist in neither country and in both countries.

“The first week (in a country) is always strange,” Chandra says. “I feel like I’m floating. The smells, the sounds, the visual layout is different, and then I settle back in.”

He writes equally well in both countries, Chandra says.

“It’s actually productive for an artist,” he explains. “Orientation is a welcome thing, but we take it for granted. The expatriate experience teaches you the edges, the contours of yourself.”

A funny thing happened at the library.

Undergraduate studies behind him, Chandra faced an open future. He wrote fiction, but his name meant nothing yet to publishers. He worried – the odds of hacking out a living on a typewriter seemed impossibly low.

He had grown up interested in film. His mother’s work had grained movie-making into his thoughts from a young age. Today Chandra still speaks in cinematographic metaphors.

He trekked east to attend Columbia University’s film school. Chandra settled into the big city, his mind recording sweeping shots of the jangling streets.

Chandra laughs. “And then I had a little bit of a detour,” he says.

One fateful day, Chandra poked through the stacks at the Columbia library. He chanced upon a translated autobiography of James Skinner, a nineteenth century cavalryman of half-English, half-Indian descent.

Chandra’s muse sang at last. Twenty-five years old, he dropped out of film school and began his first novel.

“I became obsessed with this man, with his life and that of his family,” Chandra explains. “It was a tragic story, very trapped between two worlds.”

“Red Earth and Pouring Rain” is a “very, very fictionalized” narrative set against the churning years of India’s colonial encounter, Chandra says.

The writing process swallowed six years. The research needed to capture the historical moment proved head-spinning.

“And of course there was the living,” Chandra adds. “During those years I was a starving graduate student.”

Days between

While he wrote the novel, Chandra passed through the University of Houston’s master of fine arts program. He supported himself as a teaching assistant, and later discovered he could pull in some money as a computer consultant.

Starving is hugely overrated, Chandra insists.

“It’s such a lie that artists shouldn’t care about money. It’s ridiculous!” Chandra’s usual low, self-contained tones crawl up a few decibels. “And it results in such stupid suffering, and wastes time, and time is of the essence! Of course you should care! You’re working. You should get paid.”

He settles back into his seat, his eyes considering the wall. “I’m really very contemptuous of that whole idea,” he offers apologetically. “I think it’s a clever little trap that’s all too convenient.”

While in Houston, Chandra worked with Donald Barthelme. Although the two men had different ideas about writing, Chandra says they were able to forge a bridge between decidedly distinct aesthetics. Barthelme died in 1991.

“He was one of the great American postmodernists,” Chandra says solemnly. “He taught me the economy of the sentence, that every word has a weight, a texture, and a history when shaping the rhythm of the page. One misstep can set the whole thing wrong.”

Politically speaking

Last year, Chandra published his second book. “Love and Longing in Bombay,” a collection of short stories, attempts to color the various stones Chandra observed growing up in a city he describes as a “mosaic.”

Bombay continues to hover on Chandra’s mental horizon. “It’s a very crowded city and the infrastructure creaks under the density of the population,” he explains. “It’s the location of a lot of dreams in Indian mythology. The politics are intriguing, and somewhat brutal.”

Chandra is now writing his third book. The second novel has grown from a character from one of Chandra’s short stories, a sheik police inspector.

“I liked him,” explains a paternal Chandra. “I couldn’t get him out of my consciousness level. The book is a cop’s life – it operates on a fairly seamy level.”

Chandra’s writing has so far paddled through Indian waters, but he expects his attention to turn to the United States pretty soon, he says. Americans continue to interest him.

“Americans are very idealistic and are often impelled to do things in service of idealism,” he says. “But you can watch a sort of breaking down of those same ideals in the electoral process.”

D.C. has been food for his imagination and political interests, he explains.

“It’s a precarious place to be, the democratic process,” Chandra explains. “That’s one of the things I love about Trollope – corruption, the subtlety of its ways. Human beings, and what happens to them when they become a part of it?”

On a good week, Chandra writes five days. He has no particular system, he says. At home in Adams Morgan, he lets music play – sometimes Indian classical, sometimes potluck radio – and sets his fingers loose on the computer keys.

“My life feels good to me right now,” Chandra says. “The department at GW is very nurturing, and teaching is a good gig.”

Chandra’s eyes move to the wall over his desk. Besides the window, only one ornamentation, a poster, breaks the
scrubbed surfaces of his office.

“You see this thing,” Chandra points to the poster. “It’s an Indian film, but does a lot of quoting of American westerns. But the people here look at this film differently.”

Indian actors vamp from behind the gloss, watching over the precise stacks of papers, the top of Chandra’s head.

“Which really goes back to the difficulty of translation.”

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