Interview with Naresh Fernandes

This is the complete interview with Mumbai based journalist Naresh Fernandes on his writing, early days of journalism and he as a Goan. It’s always disappointing when I have a kick-ass interview of almost 2000 words and I need to bring it down to nothing more than 700 words.  Despite the word limit, I submitted a 900 words piece to The Goan, which was brought down to 700 words. Shall share that some time soon too! 🙂 Till then enjoy this…

NareshCongratulations on the release of your second book – City Adrift.
City Adrift has now been in bookstores since the last 10 days. I do have an event Literature Live lined up in November at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) where I plan to launch the book.

What went into choosing City Adrift as the title of your second book?
City Adrift is a part of a series launched by Aleph Book Company that covers six cities in India. I, along with five other authors, were commissioned to write about each city. The core hints are the same, and all the books carry the same title description – a short biography of so-and-so city.

I must add, telling a story about Bombay is nothing less than a daunting task. There are over 300 books about Bombay, and it’s quite intimidating to be commissioned to write something about the city that’s not been written before. After giving it much thought, I anchored on a theme that revolved around land in Bombay.

Why land? I’ve always been fascinated by how the past reflects in the present. For more than three centuries, land (or rather, the lack of it) and soil have remained Bombay’s preoccupations. This is a unique Indian city that has been reclaimed. The Bombay society is assembled. Incentives had to be offered to people from across India to live here to make the city habitable for the East India Company. So I thought it was good to use land as the spine of the book and also to tell the story of Bombay, the drifting city.

How long did the research take to put together the 168 pager? Run us through the kind of research that went into materialising City Adrift.
I was given a year and a half to complete the project. For a good one year, I was only trying to harbour a particular theme. I started writing in January and was through with close to 40000 words by the end of May, this year. The purpose of this book is to make history visible in the context of present Bombay. A lot of land has been encroached, including the caves.

It was a nice form of work. It was a reportage, memoire, personal history and ancient history. It’s always a thrill to tell people stories about the city they live in all their lives.

Last year you released a coffee table book called Taj Mahal Foxtrot. Why did you decide to launch a coffee table book?
I would just call it an oversized book.

During my research on Jazz in Bombay, I gathered a lot of photographs of Jazz bands, musicians etc. So, I wanted to throw all the material to the reader. Pictures tell a story of their own and this was my first and only chance. Along with the book, I also sent along a CD with songs spanning across four decades – from 1927 to 1967.

How would you describe Taj Mahal Foxtrot in a nutshell?
Bombay: The city I know best is a product of different elements, and music is one important element. I wanted to tell a story of Bombay through a certain kind of music that went back to the time this city tried to get nurtured under colonial rulers. The Portuguese brought along church music and the British, military music. This was the introduction of Western music to Mumbai, to India.

The two books you’ve written so far are non-fiction. Would you ever consider writing fiction too?
I have no imagination. I lack imagination in the extreme. Since I don’t have stories of my own, I need to tell other people’s stories.

I always call myself a journalist. Writers have big ideas, I just consider myself a reporter, a journalist.

What about Mumbai fascinates you so much?
All the great global forces can be seen in our backyard – industrialisation, liberalisation, religion etc, And I like to see how all of this affect the lives of my neighbours.

Not to make it controversial, but so you prefer Bombay over Mumbai or is it because both your books chronicle the city’s past?
My friends and I call this city Bombay. If I’m speaking Marathi, I call it Mumbai. Bombay is a colonial name. Mumbai came about after the 1992 riots and when Shiv Sena came to power in Maharashtra in 1995, in partnership with BJP. This is a part of the Sena’s campaign of hate. Though the words Kolkata and Chennai roll easily off my tongue, Mumbai sticks in my craw.

Where did you complete your Education?
I went to St Andrew’s School in Bandra and completed my graduation in Bachelor of Arts from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. I majored in Economics and Sociology. My imagination led me to believe that Economics had a prospect of giving me a career and Sociology would help me know the world.

Fortunately, after my graduation, I signed up for a journalism training programme conducted by The Times of India. This training left an impression on how I think and how I do my craft.

I took up journalism because I couldn’t do anything else. This is one profession that legitimately lets you poke your nose into other people’s business.

I started with TOI in 1990 because I always wanted to write.

Did history ever fascinate you?
Well, I’m interested in how history determines our present. It’s the little cause and effect game I like to play. Sometimes the answers are not all clear, but they are broad markers. History tells us what we are the way we are.

You are currently the editor of scroll.in. Tell us more about the web-newspaper and your role.
My friend Sameer and I have been talking for 10 years about how we can work about the challenges newspapers face. There’s an assumption that politicians are the biggest threat to news publications, but actually it’s the corporates.

We wanted to construct a model that’s independent. Scroll.in will focus more in reportage.

What’s your role at the New York University’s Institute of Public Knowledge? How did you come about getting this?
I am a poesis fellow at the New York University’s Institute of Public Knowledge. I’ve been interested in writing about cities and they had a fellowship programme. It takes me to NY a couple of times for meetings. I get to meet people from different people from different parts of the world and being fed with different views.

What are the key challenges you’ve faced as a writer?
The challenge about writing non-fiction is to keep the reader gripped. In fiction, a writer can alter the plot to make the story more engrossing. In fiction, a writer needs to construct a narrative from reality.

What would you be doing when you’re not reading or writing?
I used to play the piano many, many years ago, but now it’s out of tune, so I sleep. My job is to read, write and talk to people. Often, my leisure feeds into my work.

Which are the authors you look up to or draw inspiration from?
Ramachandra Guha, Amitav Gosh, Kiran Nagarkar, Adam Hochschild, Salman Rushdie and Katharine Boo. Many of these writers have found ways of telling our stories. They’ve influenced me. It’s the writing styles as well as the way ideas are transformed into words.

Were you born and raised in Mumbai?
I was born and raised in Bandra. For some 60 odd years, my family has been living in Bombay. Prior to that, they were in Karachi pre-undivided India where my father was born. It was my great-grandfather who decided to leave Goa during the colonial rule to settle as Karachi-Goans. Much later, my grandparents decided to settle down in Bombay.

How would you describe Naresh Fernandes as a Goan?
I like feni and pork sausages. I am Goan in a large cultural way with a large kinship.

What’s coming next from your desk?
I don’t know. Nothing for now. I don’t have any big ideas. But I’d like it to be something without Bombay in the title. I need to find another theme. 

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