Kunal Basu has mastered the art of putting himself in someone else’s shoes. From writing the story of motherhood from the view of an orphan woman in Sarojini’s Mother to depicting the double life of a 16th-century court painter in The Miniaturist, the Indian fiction author has lived many literary lives. I recently — and virtually — sat down with him to find out how he finds his international inspiration and the secret to writing a long and ongoing series of bestselling novels.
Born in the town of Kolkata in India, Basu studied engineering at Jadavpur University before joining the University of Florida where he earned a Ph.D. He later settled in Montreal, Canada, and worked as an associate professor of marketing at McGill University for over 10 years. In 1999, I moved to England to continue teaching at Oxford University. It was at that time that he published his first novel by him, The Opium Clerk.
“The biggest challenge was that up until a certain point, I was able to manage two careers,” he shared. “I realized that writing fiction is the most dangerous drug that you can have when I didn’t want to get up from my desk to teach a class or do a Ph.D. seminar.”
Shortly after, the writer left the renowned university in pursuit of full immersion into his true calling. Since 2001, Basu’s published literary works include 13 novels, a collection of short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He even started dabbling in acting.
“The transition from fiction to film was very coincidental,” said Basu.
It was during a party he said he nearly missed that he met Aparna Sen, a fellow Bengali and award-winning filmmaker. This encounter led to the 2010 film adaptation of his short story by him, The Japanese Wife.
“The initial impulse for a story comes out of an unstructured, reflective kind of mind,” he said. “I realized that the more unfocused I am, the more creative I can be. I tend to attend to the sensations of the world as it appears to me.”
The author has an unquenchable curiosity for human life, for which some of his most successful stories arise from the people he has come across in real life. But how does he capture various perspectives so well?
His writing routine begins with two conditions. First, there is a need to “feel deep empathy and connection with a character who is outside of my skin,” said Basu.
Once emotional proximity is identified, he conducts diligent research to grasp as much information as possible about the circumstances of this person’s life. Combined, this creative process is what may lead to creating an authentic character.
“Our job is to actually go outside of our world to explore and understand,” said Basu. “One of my Indian novels, which has become very popular in India, is about the life of a male sex worker. It took me two years to research and understand that world.”
His latest work, In An Ideal World, is a racy detective novel that tells the tale of a mysterious disappearance of a young Muslim student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The fictional story is derived from the real wave of kidnappings and imprisonments of liberal supporters and those suspected of anti-nationalism that took place in India in 2016.
“Don’t fuss about creativity,” said Basu. “Be excited about life, indulge in it, and don’t be judgmental. Don’t judge people, don’t judge situations, immerse yourself as much as you can.”
Stephanie Ricci contributed to this story.