He won the Sahitya Akademi award way back in 1991 and is the author of novels such as Hero, The Brainfever Bird, Trotternama, which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and The Everest Hotel, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Irwin Allan Sealy speaks to Sayandeb Chowdhury about his latest novel, Red, which was launched in Mumbai last week.  

You once wanted to be a painter. And finally, there is a book about Matisse. 

Oh yes. I wanted to be very early in my life. But I soon realised that painting did not want me, so I tried to do with words what I thought I would do with colours.

Why Matisse? 

One of the things that drew me to Matisse was the fact that he worked from home, under difficult circumstances. He knew how to make personal space within the sphere of domesticity. This, in a way, is also how I work. I work from home. And domesticity has its pressures, interventions. So I found as much resonance in Matisse the man as in the artist.

Red’s narrative has been compared to an electrical circuit — with red, black and green wires.

The red belongs to Matisse, naturally; the black to the thieves, to those belonging totally to the margins; and the green to the narrator N. All of them are arranged in such a way that one can follow the linear thread of the narrative. There is no reason to be confused. In fact, a writer would not consciously confuse a reader. I want to be read. I don’t want to be difficult.  

The book cover is unusual. Very spartan. 

Yes, I wanted it like that. I had insisted that my name should not be on the cover. I wanted the idea of the colour red to come out fully and exponentially.

Didn’t your teaching come in the way of your writing?

I have taught in various countries, and over a period of time, I realised that I could not do too many things at the same time. Writing is what I wanted to do. So, I chose the hermit’s path. To my work and work only. In isolation. I am a single-minded man. 

Has your Anglo-Indian identity affected your imagination in a conscious way?

No. Not really. I see India as you see it. Yes, the language of interpretation of that reality varies. It depends on the way one is brought up, the language one speaks, etc. That is why we have so many different kinds of writing. My being Anglo-Indian is a similar trope for me. I see as you do. But I realise what I see in my own way. 

After The Everest Hotel was published, people said you are a chronicler of quieter times and places. But you shattered that myth with your depiction of Delhi in The Brainfever Bird

Delhi is my city. I went to university there. I know the area between Kashmere Gate and North campus very well. Delhi is my lover. Dehradun is my wife. The former I go back to. The latter I live with. So it was not difficult for me to write about Delhi. In fact, I call The Brainfever Bird my love letter to Delhi. 

You have always been reclusive, maintaining a distance from the hullabaloo of the publishing world and the media.

Well, it is the way one works. When I am working on a book, I simply do not like interference. I like to be in a vacuum. In a physical vacuum, I mean. For example, you cannot write in a newspaper, on which something is already printed, you need a blank paper to write, right? That’s what I mean when I say I need a physical vacuum to be able to write — and you don’t get that kind of empty solitude easily, definitely not in the hustle-bustle of a city.

And yet you are appearing for readings and interviews now. 

I have to make a living. If my presence helps sell books, so much the better. In any case, I do not sell much. I am not a mass writer. In fact, I am grateful to my publishers that they know it and yet publish my books. 

But you are critically acclaimed.

Oh yes. You can say that. I mean, I hope I am.