Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Dancer and the Raja by Javier Moro

Javier Moro and His Passion For India

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 by Sergio
Bestselling Spanish writer Javier Moro discusses what it’s like to write about India and to have his books challenged by one of the most powerful women in the world.
Javier MoroJavier Moro is one of the most successful bestselling writers in the Spanish language. Author of six books, one of which earned the Planeta Prize, Moro writes what he likes to call “dramatized history”, which consists of recreating the life of historical characters. In order to do so, he travels around the world, interviews relevant people, and does extensive archive research.      
Born in Madrid, Spain, he traveled to India when he was 14 and has been obsessed with the country ever since. Although he published several novels based in Asia before, he didn’t gain international recognition until the publication of The Dancer and the Raja, a story of love and betrayal between the Spanish singer Anita Delgado and the wealthy maharaja of Kapurthala, Jagatjit Singh. An immediate success, the novel went on to sell more than one million copies and was translated into seventeen languages.
Three years later, Moro published The Red Sari, a fictionalized story of the prominent Indian political family, the Nehru-Gandhi, through the life of Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress party since 1998. An immediate bestseller in Europe, the success of The Red Sari was stalled by the threat of lawsuits by Sonia Gandhi, saying that it contained damaging and inaccurate material. This sparked a violent outrage from the party’s supporters, who burned copies of the book and pictures of the author during public demonstrations. The book was set to publish in India in 2010, but after threats of legal action, Moro decided to indefinitely delay publication.
Despite his critical and commercial success, Javier Moro is relatively unknown in English-speaking countries because his books haven’t been published in English until now. During the next couple of months, the digital publisher Open Road Media will publish The Red Sari and The Dancer and the Raja, making them available in English around the world for the first time. 
In this interview, Javier Moro talks about India, the controversies surrounding his books, and the new translations of his works.


How did your passion for India begin?
I traveled to Bombay for the first time when I was 14 years old in the late 60s. There were very few cars, elephants and bears in the streets, snake charmers in the India Gate, people sleeping on the pavement . . . it was all so different from what I had ever seen that it sparked my curiosity forever! I returned many times when I was an adult.
I think India is a mine for good stories. It is so surreal, it is a country where the 13th century lives side by side with the 21st century. Where else in the world do you find headlines such as “First Child Care Center Run by a Hijra (a Eunuch) Opens in Patna”? Or problems such as car pollution in Bombay, which kills the vultures, so the dead bodies that are left in the open in the Parsi cemetery are not being eaten, which makes the neighborhood stink and the people angry?
So many layers of civilizations, races, religions, and ethnic groups make for a rich canvas, an unending source of inspiration.
You spent several years reading about the Nehru-Gandhi family and about Anita Delgado’s life, in addition to doing extensive travel to India, before writing the novels. What was your research process like and which challenges did you encounter during it?
I like to stay close to reality, so I always do extensive research. I rented an apartment in Delhi and used it as a base for following the footsteps of Anita Delgado and maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. I interviewed several members of his family, including the Raja’s son. I even found an old aunt who still had memories of Anita. I was able to go through photo albums, letters, dinner menus, etc. I went to Kapurthala and visited the palace: The furniture is still there, the relatives of the former employees live around, and I was able to interview them. I went to the places they used to go, so I could get a sense of the landscape.
I followed the same process with the Sonia Gandhi character. I went to Italy, to the village where she was born, met her relatives, and was able to recall the story of her family (which the Congress party’s hardliners did not seem to like). The challenge here was Sonia Gandhi’s opposition to have a book written about her life. She let me know that she was totally opposed to it. In fact, there were no books on her, except political pamphlets. So at the beginning I wondered how could I write this book without her consent and almost abandoned the project. But then I thought what I had always thought: that it was a remarkable story. Had I invented it, nobody would have believed me. So I decided to go ahead: She was a public character, so why couldn’t I write about her? Wasn’t India a democracy, with freedom of speech? I was still startled by the story of this Italian woman who had become the most powerful person in a country of more than a billion people. And without wanting it! She got power in spite of herself. And in order to do so, she had to transform herself into an Indian woman. How can one do that? What were the clues of that transformation? It made for excellent dramatic material.
At the end of the whole process, I was glad to have written the book without her consent because otherwise I would have been influenced and forced to ask her if she wanted some parts removed or changed. I did not have to deal with any constraints. Not counting on her gave me the freedom I needed to write this story.   
Your books are often classified as fictionalized biographies but also as historical fiction. If you had to, how would you classify your books?
Hard question. Historical fiction means you can invent characters and make them interact with people that really existed. I never do that. I do not invent characters out of the blue, or situations. I try to get as close as possible to the historical facts. But of course, based on the information I gather during the research, I interpret these characters, I imagine their dialogues, I recreate their conflicts . . . I would call it more dramatized history.
The Red Sari and The Dancer and the Raja are based in the lives of public figures. Did you expect your books to be controversial in India?
Yes, but not that much! Youth Congress members, the party of the Gandhis, organized demonstrations against the book (which had not been published yet) in the streets of Delhi and Bombay, where they burned my effigy! As if I were George Bush! Why? Because I dared to touch their Goddess, to tell her story in spite of her not wanting it. I wrote about her humble origins in the village of Lusiana, where her father was a mason, and they did not seem to like that at all, probably because in the Indian mindset she was perceived as low-caste. And in India, the party cultivates her image as one of royalty, as she has been married to the grandson of Nehru. The information conveyed in my book clashed with the official information the Congress party gives of her life.

In another interview, you said that The Red Sari involuntarily became a test to freedom of expression and democracy in India. Looking at those moments several years ahead, what was the end result of your book’s publication in India?
In fact, the Congress party’s hardliners did not want the book to be published in India, but as there was no ground for legal action against it, they could not ban it. An intense debate on freedom of expression followed in the Indian media and I decided not to publish it in India before it got published in the US and the UK.
It’s remarkable that The Red Sari created such a stir without the book being available in English in India. How do you think Indians will react to it now that it will become accessible to a vast majority of them?
There is not a day when I don’t receive messages from Indian readers wanting to buy the book in English. I think there is a huge demand for it, because political groups vastly manipulate history in India and individuals want reliable information. You may like the book or not, but it puts the Gandhi-Nehru story into perspective. Indian readers that have read it in German or French or Italian have sent me the same feedback, that now they understand the Nehru-Gandhi years much more clearly.  
In an article you published, you said, “India is a permanent spectacle, a country rich in diversity, a drunkenness of the senses.” Do you think you succeeded in recreating India’s essence?
That is a question that should be answered by readers! But, from the feedback I got, it seems that my books do convey the smells, the noises, and the colors of India.
Your novels have immediately caught the attention of film producers, such as Penélope Cruz, who has already purchased the film rights of The Dancer and the Raja. How would you picture your books being adapted to the big screen?
A film adaptation can add to your book or it can harm it. It all depends on how talented the moviemakers are. That is always a risk. I would want to run that risk with proven moviemakers, like director Shekhar Kapur (he did Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett), who expressed his love for the story of The Dancer and the Raja, for example.
Your latest books have had a change of setting to Latin America. Do you have any plans or interests in writing novels set in India again?
Yes, of course. But I will write stories that happened in the more distant past, so the characters—or their lawyers—can’t protest or threaten me! If you write about people who are alive, you will probably run into problems because it is unlikely that the vision the writer has coincides with the vision the character has of himself, which is generally more indulgent and self-serving.