So he’s young, rich (well, at least a millionaire) and Nilanjana Roy thinks he can write. She also thinks he’s cute, and she lets us know that there’s more to The Impressionist than a big advance.

There are two ways in which you can summarise Hari Kunzru’s first novel, The Impressionist. This is the traditional version:

The half-caste Pran Nath, unprepossessing, amoral and lacking in identity, is slung out of his Hindu mother’s home after the revelation that he was fathered—during a rainstorm—by an Englishman. As 19th century India rushes into a turbulent 20th century, Pran Nath suffers at the untender hands of hijras, is an unwitting pawn in a game of skullduggery between corrupt Maharajas and a lustful British major and reinvents himself briefly as Pretty Bobby in the care of missionaries on Falkland Road. As Jonathan Bridgeman, he assumes an English, white-skinned identity that will be his downfall and send him to darkest Africa to continue the business of an Empire where he is subject, conqueror and rebel. This gloriously funny debut has elements of dark farce illuminated by flashes of brilliant writing et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

This is the version I prefer, taken from Kunzru’s exuberant website,

“The following precis of The Impressionist is brought to you by the MS Word autosummariser:

Pran Nath

Pran nods. Pran glares. Pran knocks. Pran nods. Pran nods.

Time passes.

English women. English men and ladies. Heads turn. Buck up, old man!

Tribal men. Pran sleeps.

White Boy

White men beaten to death.

Pran understands. “Bobby? Bobby!”

Shellac man. “Bobby? Bobby! “Bobby! Seven, eight men? Jonathan Bridgeman

Jonathan nods mutely.

“Boy! BOY!”

Jonathan insists. Jonathan Bridgeman, Astarte Chapel.

Jonathan calls her Star.

The magnetic men

Jonathan steps forward. Jonathan suffers. Jonathan watches the white party. This man. Star. Black man. Star.

“Star?” asks Jonathan. “Star,” says Jonathan. “Star –

“White men! Jonathan shakes his head.”

Kunzru, his shaved head and intelligent eyes making this 32-year-old something of a babe magnet in male eye-candy starved Delhi, grins wickedly. We have just finished discussing Kunzru’s Theory of Cataloguing Reviews. There’s the “he got so much money and the book’s still not perfect” review; there’s the Parlour Game “he’s influenced by Evelyn Waugh and Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens and Tom Sharpe and Henry Fielding and E M Forster and M M Kaye” review; there are the Mutually Contradictory Reviews (“that was a BRILLIANT ending!” “that was a TERRIBLE ending!” “HATED Pran Nath!” “LOVED Pran Nath!” “Pran Nath who?”). In the depths of his computer, though, he swears he finally found the perfect reviewer in the Auto-Summariser.

“That Bill Gates,” he says solemnly. “He knows what’s going on. He understands me. The Auto-Summariser gets it; it really gets it.”

The Auto-Summariser has another virtue as reviewer; it doesn’t feel it necessary to do what Kunzru calls “the money paragraph”. At an estimated £ 1.25 million, the advance for The Impressionist is one of the highest ever received by a debut author. The former correspondent for Wired magazine and music critic for Wallpaper is about as cool with the cash question as you could expect any 32-year-old raised overnight from hackdom to millionairehood to be. Perhaps the first thing he did with the money was to buy his friends a round of drinks. A much-lusted-after Saville Row suit was a classic I’m-a-millionaire purchase, but it didn’t change Kunzru’s journo style—at his reading in Delhi, packed with fans, Big Noises in publishing and a contingent of family members from the Clan Kunzru, he apologised sheepishly for wearing white shoes, having forgotten to pack his dress shoes. A hiking holiday in the Highlands of Scotland to sort out what this would mean to him, a few upgrades (new DVD player), and the rest, he says, has been invested for the lean years.

A much-lusted-after Saville Row suit was a classic I’m-a-millionaire purchase, but it didn’t change Kunzru’s journo style—at his reading in Delhi, packed with fans, Big Noises in publishing and a contingent of family members from the Clan Kunzru, he apologised sheepishly for wearing white shoes, having forgotten to pack his dress shoes.

“I don’t know that it’s always done me favours,” Kunzru says of the advance. “I think I’ll only get an honest reading of the book several years down the line, when someone buys a copy not thinking, oh, here’s the million-pound novel, or borrows it off a friend.” And he’s pragmatic about what he calls the “Cult of Youth sweeping the publishing business”. “If I’d been 25 and written The Impressionist,” he says, “the money would have been a lot more. If I’d been 40, the amount would’ve been halved.” While he admits that he’s a beneficiary, he still sees the current media obsession with young, unproven writers as dangerous. “It makes sense in the world of modelling, where you are better-looking at 19 than at 49,” he points out, “but writing’s a profession where people tend to mature and get better over the years. The old tradition of allowing a writer to establish a reputation over a period of years, perhaps decades, no longer holds.”

Kunzru, however, is clearly in this profession for the long game. Several short stories preceded The Impressionist, and they point to a style that is completely different from the satirical, lampoon-laden picaresque on which the novel rides. The Impressionist does draw on autobiography—Pran Nath’s cuckolded father stays on horseback to avoid germs during the flu epidemic, just as Kunzru’s grandfather was reputed to have done. It’s also hard to avoid drawing parallels between Kunzru’s search for an identity, as born-and-bred Briton of Kashmiri origin, and his hero’s own quest. But Kunzru’s insistence on finding the right form for his tale helped him avoid the usual dive into first-person sentimentality that first novelists tend to make when they plunge into print. “I was absolutely sure that I didn’t want to write a sentimental tragedy,” he says. “Pran Nath is a bastard; he never does really nasty things, but there’s a nasty streak in him; he’s always looking out for number one. I didn’t want readers to come away saying, oh, the poor chap, what terrible experiences he’s had—even when they are terrible.”

The picaresque appealed far more to him than the psychological novel (“which dominated the 19th century completely and still exerts its influence”). So did the challenge of looking at Empire and Indian nationalism from a different perspective. “Either you’ve had the liberation story, the struggle of oppressed against oppressor, or a glorification, even a justification, of the Raj—‘they built railways’, that kind of thing. At this sort of distance in time, it seemed to me possible to actually look at a lot of the misrecognition and the absurdity of the whole situation. I wasn’t surprised when a few people said it was totally ripped off—Forster, Waugh. But writing after them, it is inevitable that you’ll keep knocking against tradition, and I did it quite deliberately.”

Every stereotype he could locate was gleefully punctured or inverted, from the decadence of the maharajas to the quintessential British tea party, to the hackneyed image of the tiger shoot, to the education of the Englishman, to the Conradian foray into darkest Africa. “I did lots of reversals of Kim,” he says with no small glee, “[Kipling’s] text is such a fascinating example of the British fantasy about access to the Real India.”

Kunzru insists that the next novel will demand a change of direction, pace and style. “I have a wider range of interests than is stylistically represented in The Impressionist,” he avers. As his short stories testify, Kunzru is especially fascinated by the repercussions of new technology, and by writing far more experimental prose than the classical structure of his first novel would allow. “The next book is going to have a contemporary setting, and will probably be far less conventional. It might surprise the hell out of a lot of people—it will reflect some of my interest in new technology.” Then he breaks away from the critic-speak into more normal Kunzru mode. “I do like telling stories,” he says, with the genuine happiness of someone who has not only found his calling, but also found the means to pursue it, “I’m traditional that way, I have a love of just story, it’s one of the basic pleasures of fiction.”

He is indulging other basic pleasures in the aftermath of one of the more successful debuts of 2002. “I’ve always been frustrated with my lack of Hindi,” confesses this British-Indian writer, “but now my latest wheeze is watching DVDs of Hindi movies—the old ones—Sholay of course, the Guru Dutt films. I find my Hindi’s improving a bit.”

But that isn’t the real pay-off. Grinning shyly, Kunzru confesses his secret, “I’ve got a little crush on Nutan at the moment.” Money, fame, success: it would have ruined young Pran Nath, but it’s nice to see it hasn’t gone to Kunzru’s sexily shaved head.

This story was first published in the June 2002 issue

Image courtesy: Neeraj Priyadarshi/Indian Express