Meet the Singapore-based writer, publisher and filmmaker who is now living his dream of being an entrepreneur. A pioneer in connecting Asian writing to the world with his web-based platform Kitaab.org, Zafar Anjum is ready to take on new challenges.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Zafar. Tell us something about yourself that not many people are aware of.
Zafar Anjum: Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and to the readers of GAT. Those who have read my books usually know me as a journalist and writer. Now, I am turning a new corner in my life by becoming an entrepreneur. I am the co-founder of two startups in Singapore and am working on my third one simultaneously.
Vinita Kinra: Share with us the moment when your heart said to you: “I want to be in the creative arts!”
Zafar Anjum: That must be at a time when I was still a kid. I would read stories and novels and admire the writers. I also used to listen to journalists on the BBC Radio Service and used to wonder if I would become like them one day. I became serious about writing only after I finished my journalism degree and starting working.
Vinita Kinra: What sparked off the idea for your latest book, Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Short Stories?
Zafar Anjum: I was traveling in Germany and coming back from Berlin’s Tegel Airport when I got this idea of Kafka starting off on an imaginary journey from Germany to Ayodhya. That was at a time when India was tense about the impending Allahabad High Court judgment on the disputed structure in Ayodhya. However, Kafka in Ayodhya is only one of the stories in this collection. There are seven more stories in the same collection that present different facets of life.
Vinita Kinra: How much of your books are autobiographical where characters reflect your personal experiences?
Zafar Anjum: The writer is always there in his or her stories, either as part of a character or as part of a thought. Most of the stories that I write are usually responses to realistic situations. So, I guess I am present at least at the level of thought in my stories.
Vinita Kinra: Who has been your greatest mentor?
Zafar Anjum: Books and my own instinct, and writers like Chekov, Manto, Kafka, Marquez, Borges and Coetzee.
Vinita Kinra: Does the journey of seeing an idea develop and flourish into a full-fledged book teach you something about yourself or make you a better person in any way?
Zafar Anjum: I don’t know if the process of writing a book makes you a better person. Perhaps it doesn’t. I know many writers who aren’t your ideal human beings but that’s how the world is.
Vinita Kinra: Having explored fiction and non-fiction in profound depths, which genre do you prefer?
Zafar Anjum: Of late, I have veered towards non-fiction. I don’t know why this has happened but perhaps I have gotten rid of many of my illusions about fictitious worlds. The world we live in today is so brutal that reading fiction seems like a guilty pleasure. More than writing, we need to fix the urgent problems that the world faces today. I am really disturbed by what is happening in India, in the Middle East, and Africa. Our humanity lies exposed today.
Vinita Kinra: How important is the commercial side of writing and promoting your books as opposed to the sheer joy of the creative art of expression?
Zafar Anjum: We are living in the digital age where social media has become the mainstream media and the individual is at the centre of his own universe. There was a time when it was considered unbecoming of any decent individual to toot his own horn. Not any more. In this digital world, not promoting your work is akin to showing apathy towards your own work, your own ideas. Today you are required to be more visible and more engaged. Sure, there is a commercial side to books but as far as I know, literary books don’t sell that well. Whether you write for money or not, whether you write literature or business books, the plain truth is that there is no money in writing for a majority of writers.
Vinita Kinra: In your personal context, is writing about escaping the reality or embracing it?
Zafar Anjum: For me, writing is about questioning the realities around us, not escaping from them. Writing is a tool of engagement with the world, an instrument of protest, of making oneself heard about the issues of our times.
Vinita Kinra: Do you think writing books is a viable career option as opposed to conventional professions?
Zafar Anjum: No, writing is not a viable career option unless you want to live a low-income life. It can be a fulfilling career for stay-at home mums or dads who have other sources of income. I am not talking about the Dan Browns or Stephen Kings of the world. Writing books is largely a matter of passion. Don’t write for money because most probably you will never see it.
Vinita Kinra: What inspired you to lay the foundations for your venture, Kitaab.org?
Zafar Anjum: When I founded Kitaab ten years ago, no web-based platform existed in Asia that connected the Asian writing community. There was a vacuum. Secondly, I was pissed off with the mainstream media. Most of them focused only on the big time authors. In my experience, most of the literary coverage depended on connections and favours. In the process, many deserving authors were denied the oxygen of publicity. Kitaab wanted to challenge the status quo and create a platform for Asian writers and readers that was more democratic and accommodative. Since then, thankfully, a lot has changed, and social media platforms have empowered the writers and readers.
Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from your latest book: Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Short Stories.
On 21st September, I was at the Tegel airport when I received on my phone an email from N., an Urdu poet who runs a small clothes shop in Varanasi: “The judgment, you know, is coming soon. The situation is tense here. Closing my shop and taking the train to Faizabad. Hope nothing untoward happens this time.” The email, it appeared, had been composed in haste. The reason was obvious.
The judgment from a court of law! I gave a gentle laugh, shaking my head at the cruel impossibility of the idea of justice emerging from a decadent bureaucracy. Joseph K. knows about it very well, doesn’t he? I wished he were here to share the joke with me. But he had left for a legal consultation after dropping me off at the airport. I kept waving back at him for a while—the devil looked dapper in his dark suit and black bowler hat.
At the airport, I was waiting for the boarding gates to open for my flight to Delhi. There was time yet, so I called N., and cutting short my plan to surprise him, I asked him to wait for me at the Varanasi airport the next day. He sounded worried, but when he heard my plan, he agreed. “Thanks,” I said, my voice oozing with the controlled happiness of a shy man.
Having made the arrangement with N., I could relax a bit. I tried looking at the women in the lounge, just like I did in my youthful days at Madame Goldsmith’s establishment in Prague. Ah, those were the days! I chuckled heartily at my own lustfulness, now more a memory than a sensation in my decaying body. With age, the deeper realm of sexual life was already closed to me. Two rows ahead of me, I saw a short girl wearing glasses sitting on a plastic chair and reading a paperback. She had plump little legs. Seeing her, memories of Hedwig Therese Weiler came rushing back at me. I was in love with Hedwig. Little did I know then, and that was decades ago, that my life would be a series of disappointments in love.
Gregor, whom I was taking along to India, jumped about inside the suitcase. Perhaps he was hungry. I dropped him a few slices of cheese and placed the case steady on my lap. I pretended to read a newspaper while listening to the scratching that Gregor’s little limbs produced. That was not music to my ears but was still better than the noise that my sister used to make by rubbing a card between her teeth. My house was the very headquarters of uproar and even the doors screeched as though from a catarrhal throat. Between my house and the sanatorium, between company and solitude, honestly speaking, I always preferred the sanatorium, and of course, solitude.
What is it about the sanatoriums that perks me up—I don’t know. Is it the Teutonic order that attracts me or is it the luxuries of the establishment? Hard for me to figure out. Or maybe it is the Luftbader, the hydrotherapy, the electric light baths—all these apparatus to treat neurasthenia that produces the sweetness one experiences in a relationship with a woman one loves. Ah, how I miss Zuckmantel!
Ten more minutes passed. I waited patiently for the gate to open—it was almost time but the Chinese girl at the gate was busy chatting on a phone. How insensitive! Is the plane going to be late, I wondered. A stream of men, women and children visited the toilets that were just about a hundred meters from where I was sitting. I felt the urge to visit the toilet too, but then, thinking of Gregor, I decided against it. Poor Gregor was having his dinner and it was not proper to disturb him in that state.
Finally, fifteen minutes past the scheduled time, passengers were allowed to board the plane. I set Gregor nicely in the overhead luggage compartment, made a last call to Dora and switched off the phone. Thinking about the long journey ahead, I was already feeling dazed and sleepy.
The long flight felt like a time in the sanatorium, only with very little leg room. A fat air hostess in a blue dress (she reminded me of the hostesses at Madame Goldsmith’s who performed professional services for a set fee of ten imperial crowns in pre-war Prague) insisted that I had a nightcap. It would have been impolite to decline her offer. I had a cognac from a small plastic glass and soon after, I dozed off like a good old man, watching parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being between waking up and falling asleep. The film based on my fellow Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novel was almost like soft porn, with a sex scene thrown in every ten minutes. The only insightful moment in the film was when Daniel Day-Lewis, the doctor protagonist, talks about Oedipus Rex: how Oedipus, after unknowingly killing his father and sleeping with his mother, was filled with guilt at his unethical act; on the contrary, the Czech politicians didn’t feel any shame or remorse after having raped their own motherland and having sold it to the Russians; they could see everything but their own crime—that was the point Kundera seemed to make.
Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.