How does it feel to have your first novel The Skinning Tree published in your eighties – and to win a prize?
It was like a door had opened for me, a door I had been staring at for over 40 years as a journalist and wishing that I could write the novel that I had been thinking of ever since I returned to India in 1955.
Once I had written The Skinning Tree I wanted someone to read it in the publishing world. So I submitted it for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. My well-wishers had told me it was a good novel but I was surprised when the judges awarded the prize saying it was a beautifully observed and polished work. I have now a small platform from which I can keep on writing. I have already started my second book.
How did your childhood and upbringing influence the novel?
Three factors influenced me: my mother was a journalist and author; my upbringing was in an anglicised world; and, the fact that I was miserable at boarding school.
My mother’s influence was very important because, even though we were anglicised in every way in British Calcutta, my mother was a staunch nationalist, and both my brother and I were never allowed to forget our Indian roots. My education was in Catholic schools and we were taught about the world that was the British Empire. I grew up reading English comics and books about the Empire, [authors] G. A. Henty, R.M. Ballantyne, H. Rider Hoggard. Perhaps it was a love of adventure stories that influenced me to write about the school.
It was in a wild and fearful place in Northern India, more than 1,000 miles from Calcutta, a place to stick in the mind of a nine-year-old child for ever.
Why did you want to explore the long-term effects of brutality and violence, especially among children?
I never forgot the awful beatings we received at boarding school. As we were amenable children I thought it was a cruel way to put book learning into our heads.
So it set me wondering why physical violence was seen to be different to sexual molesting of children. I don’t think they are different; both can have serious long-term effects, both leading to some serious consequences, as can be seen by the suffering children in the hands of cruel parents or guardians. I have tried to explore the effects of absolute authority over children.
I have also tried to show that shame can be a troubling companion in life, however many times you wash your hands. You are as much to blame as the follower of a group that makes the wrong decision. As boxing legend Joe Louis said: “You can run but you can’t hide”.
Perhaps the book is also a metaphor for Empire, where authority was absolute.
How did your years as a sports journalist impact on your writing?
I have my years as a sports journalist to thank for my ability to write the book. My years with The Times gave me the discipline to write. As the Boxing Correspondent for 13 years, I was very fortunate in finding myself in the company of some of the greatest British and American sports writers. I was also involved in a sport that was never short of drama and humour, both in the ring and outside it, and never short of one-liners and quotes from boxers and promoters.
I think, also, because I was from the hard world of boxing, that my book was drawn to the harsh world of the school and the soft world of the child who lived in his own imagination.
You returned to India recently for the first time in several decades - was it better or worse than in your memories?
I had left India for the last time in 1965 and returned there 47 years later to receive my prize in Delhi. I was there for four days and I did not see the India I had left behind. The burgeoning market economy has transformed the country and brought it into the 21st century. The old India had been modelled on British commercial lines but now it's more American, a land of opportunity for those with the enterprise, vigour and money. Modernity has taken hold, even if it was not noticeable on the roads which were even more chaotic!
It seemed to me that India has broken away from the old order of the family and people are now individuals in their own right, ready to play their part in shaping the future of their country.
Was it important to you that The Skinning Tree was published in the UK?
The greatest moment of my life was when Alma decided to publish The Skinning Tree in England. I was so delighted to have my book published in India, as it took me back to my home country, but to see it published in England was something special, particularly as the publishers and critics in England have the highest reputation in the world. It is most important for an unknown like me to be seen and, if possible, judged here.
Eleanor Catton has just won the Man Booker Prize at the age of 28. What do you think younger and older writers can bring to the craft?
I like to think that both young and old writers bring the same degree of liveliness and excitement to writing. As an old person I prefer not to write about the immediate past but rather to look back to my Indian days. Living in England, I can see the connection between the two countries and many ideas for other books come to mind.
Young writers have the advantage of growing up quickly these days and learning about life earlier than the older generation did. As a result a young person of 28 today is capable of showing the maturity of much older writers. Whereas the older generation have experience to rely on, today writers can also fall back on excellent writing schools to help them on their way.
What books have you read recently that you've enjoyed?
The last book I read recently was George Mackay Brown’s A Calendar of Love. It is not a long book but as I spend much of my time in the Welsh countryside, I dwelt long on his descriptions of the streets, houses and people.
The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen is published by Alma Books.