One of the few historical writers in India, Kunal Basu says writing about time periods unfamiliar to him excites him.
"It's the unfamiliar that excites me, and in this case, the unfamiliar is the past," says Basu whose fourth historical fiction, "The Yellow Emperor's Cure" was released here recently.
Set in twentieth century China, the novel published by Pan Macmillan India is about the journey of a Portuguese doctor who travels to China to find the cure for syphilis in traditional medicine.
The 56-year-old author known for his acclaimed short story Japanese Wife which was turned into a motion picture by Bengali director Aparna Sen, says the idea for his latest book struck him during a visit to a Chinese museum.
"I visited a museum in China full of bizarre exhibits of deer's intestines and the like, and I got thinking, if this seems bizarre to me, how weird would it seem to, say, a European traveller in the twentieth century?" he says.
Building on this idea, he eventually wrote the story about the maverick playboy Portuguese doctor who travels to China to find the cure in ancient medicine for syphilis, that his father is afflicted with.
Basu says he enjoys the research that goes into historical writing, but makes sure that he doesn't read too much as he fears it would kill his creativity.
"I need to remember to read just enough to fertilise my imagination," he says.
Non-fiction writer William Darlymple, who was in conversation with Kunal Basu at the book launch in Delhi praised the author for his use of words to evoke visual imagery in the minds of readers.
"I tend to think like a director when I'm writing," says Basu who has penned acclaimed novels like The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist and Racists
The author who also teaches at the Said Business School, University of Oxford admits that he finds it difficult to manage the dual life of an academician and a novelist.
"It is incredibly irritating to go and talk about some aspect of business when you'd rather be writing," he says.
"My agent once told me that 95 per cent of English fiction writers have day jobs. In the remaining five per cent you have the J K Rowlings of the world," he says.
Basu, however, does not write for commercial success, believing, instead, in telling stories he feels "compelled to tell."
The author, whose favourite writer is Bengali historical novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, says his upbringing was responsible for his attraction towards history.
"My father was a publisher and my mother was a historian.
I grew up in a house full of books and my parents forever seemed to be suggesting to me all sorts of historical fiction genre," he says.
Despite the limitations in historical writing, Basu says there were enough "nebulous zones," or details which historians had missed, which he could manipulate to tell an interesting story.
After three novels set in different periods of history, Basu's next book is a contemporary novel based in Kolkata. "I won't tell you what it's about, you'll have to wait and find out for yourself."
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