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Pass it on...

Hari Kunzru's novel, "Transmission" launched last week, is the story of passing on of cultures. ANJANA RAJAN speaks to the author.


INDIAN CULTURE has the possibility to pop up anywhere, like a virus. Who else could get away with this kind of statement but Hari Kunzru? Not merely because "Transmission", his latest novel, released in New Delhi by Penguin this Wednesday, traces the trail of terror and destruction caused by a virus let loose on the cyber world by a desperate Indian IT professional in California. But also because as a person of Indian origin born and brought up in the U.K. with family across the world and experience of living in India and countries of the West, he has had ample opportunity to watch the transmission of elements of Indian culture across the continents - though not always with such devastating consequences as his protagonist's virus in the latest work.

The kind of networking that unites Indians across the globe via the Internet, with email, online chatting and websites offering every facet of hometown life, from temple pujas to the latest Bollywood hits, justifies Kunzru's statement that "Transmission" "is about how culture has untied itself from place." But in this networked universe, "anything can happen and anything will," as the catchline of the novel goes. And "anything" may not always be a good thing. That provides us with enough suspense to read through the book, laced with a humorous irony that takes in its benevolent sweep the sleaze of Bollywood, the grimy reality and frequent "meatiness" of what hopeful Indians see as the good life in the U.S., and finally, the North Indian upwardly mobile masses in their high-rise flats. All part of the contemporary urban images stored up in his mind, a mind that can understand - like other Asian Britons who keep in touch with India - the thought processes of both cultures.

His British Asian identity is not much of an issue with Kunzru, who grew up in London and studied at Oxford. While he sees two parallel streams in Britain - those who increasingly accept the amalgam of cultures that make up the country and those growing insular, especially after 9/11 - he says, "Even in my most pessimistic moments I know it's a lot different from the `70s." But for the author of "The Impressionist", his acclaimed first novel, and numerous articles in journals and newspapers, "the real breakthrough" would be "when writers like us are allowed to write about anything and not have to write about race, when we can write as British rather than Asian writers."

His next novel will perhaps throw out that challenge, he says. What is it about? "I started off lying to people that it's a science fiction novel, or a romantic novel, but then I thought it's unfair to lie to people," he says with a sweet smile. We will have to wait for that. But meanwhile there are other things to look forward to. A film on "The Impressionist" by Mira Nair - "a director I admire" - and perhaps a film of "Transmission" too.

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