Kunal Basu

Kunal Basu

Infobox Writer
Name = Kunal Basu

Img_size = 250
Landscape = yes
birthdate = birth date and age|1956|05|04
birthplace = Calcutta, West Bengal, India flagicon|India
website = [http://www.kunalbasu.com KunalBasu.com]
occupation = University Reader in Marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
spouse = Susmita Basu

"Kunal Basu" ("Bengali:" কুনাল বসু) is an Indian author of English fiction who has written three acclaimed novels - "The Opium Clerk" (2001), "The Miniaturist" (2003), and "Racists" (2006). His most recent work is a collection of short stories, "The Japanese Wife" (2008), the title story of which has been made into a film by the Indian filmmaker Aparna Sen.



  1. "The Opium Clerk, 2001"
    Hiran, the eponymous clerk of the title, is born in 1857: the year of Mutiny and the year his father dies. Brought to Calcutta by his widowed mother he turns out to have few talents, apart from an uncanny ability to read a man's lies in his palm. When luck gets him a job at the auction house, Hiran finds himself embroiled in a mysterious trade, and even more deeply embroiled in the affairs of his nefarious superior, the infamous Mr. Jonathan Crabbe and his opium addicted wife. An unlikely hero, Hiran is caught up in rebellion and war, buffeted by storms at sea, by love and intrigue, innocently implicated in fraud and dark dealings.
  2. "The Miniaturist, 2003"
    Set in the Mughal court of Akbar the Great in the 16th century, this novel tells the story of Bihzad, son of the chief court painter. A child prodigy, Bihzad is groomed to take his father's place in the imperial court but the precocious and brilliant artist soon tires of imperial commissions and develops a grand and forbidden obsession. He leads a dual life – spending his nights painting the Emperor as his lover, and his days recording the Emperor's official biography in miniatures. But rumours about the wild, passionate nature of his secret drawings bring his enemies out into the open, who use his art to destroy him.
  3. "Racists, 2006"
    1855: on a deserted island off the coast of Africa, the most audacious experiment ever envisaged is about to begin. To settle an argument that has raged inconclusively for decades, two scientists decide to raise a pair of infants, one black, one white, on a barren island, exposed to the dangers all around them, tended only by an young nurse whose muteness renders her incapable of influencing them in any way, for good or for bad. They will grow up without speech, without civilization, without punishment or play. In this primitive environment, the children will develop as their primitive natures dictate. The question is: what will be left when the twelve years of the experiment are over? Which child will be master, and which the slave? For surely one will triumph over the other. Or will they all, children and scientists alike, reap the fruits of breaking the taboo, and they discover love and loneliness on the wild but beautiful island of Arlinda?
  1. "The Japanese Wife (Collection of short stories), 2008"
    An Indian man writes to a Japanese woman. She writes back. They fall in love and exchange vows in their letters, then live as man and wife without ever setting eyes on each other – their intimacy of words finally tested by life's miraculous upheavals.

    The twelve stories in this collection are about the unexpected.

    An American professor visits India with the purpose of committing suicide, and goes on a desert journey with the daughter of a snakecharmer. A honeymooning Indian couple is caught up in the Tiananmen Square unrest. A Russian prostitute discovers her roots in the company of Calcutta revolutionaries. A holocaust victim stands tall among strangers in a landscape of hate.

    These are chronicles of memories and dreams born at the crossroads of civilizations. They parade a cast of angels and demons rubbing shoulders with those whose lives are never quite as ordinary as they seem.
    The Japanese Wife has now earned the added distinction of its title story being made into a film by the renowned director Aparna Sen. Narrated by the author over a casual conversation in Oxford, she found it "an improbable and hauntingly beautiful love story, almost surreal in its innocence". That, and "the potential for great visuals" was what impelled her to make the film, she said in a TV interview.

    For Basu, this film represents a further tryst in his long affair with cinema, "the most magical of all the arts". He had acted in two of Mrinal Sen's films – "Punascha" and "Abasheshe" - as a child; and was later involved in the making of two documentaries - "Football" (1980) and "The Magic Loom" (1997).

Uniqueness as a Writer

Historical fiction:
Basu is one of the very few Indian practitioners of historical fiction. Apart from his love of history, it has something to do with the influence of his all-time favourite author, the Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94). Bankim (himself heavily influenced by Walter Scott) was an acclaimed writer of historical novels, as were many other Bengali writers of the 19th and 20th centuries whom Basu avidly read as a child, like Ramesh Chandra Dutta and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. But more than anything, what draws him most to this genre is the "romantic possibilities of the historical novel", the scope to inhabit other places and times and thus enable the reader to romance the strange.

Each novel has been a first:
Quite incredibly, every novel of Kunal Basu has been a first in some way.Basu happens to be the first to deal with the opium trade in Indian fiction. This tainted part of British colonial history is often ignored nowadays in British history text books. But it is interesting how Basu digs up this glossed-over history of the Empire to tell a fascinating tale.

The Mughal court, once again, made its first appearance in Indian-English fiction in The Miniaturist. Basu has always had a great fascination for Mughal history. That innate interest coupled with several trips to Agra and Sikri helped him recreate the age. But it must be kept in mind that though the novel is set in the 16th century, it is essentially about art and artists - a timeless theme in Mughal clothing.

This out and out Muslim novel by Basu was followed by Racists, a book which did not have a single Indian character in it. It was thus even more ambitious in Basu’s avowed adventure of going 'beyond self' in his novels. But more than that, the importance of the book lies in the fact that it is the first Victorian novel to be written by a non-white. Basu has, in fact, done a reverse Kipling here. Besides its success worldwide, it was nominated for the Crossword Book Award.

Minimal Autobiographical element:
It is difficult to find Basu in his novels. He thinks that there is certainly 'deep' (as opposed to 'surface') autobiography in his work, and cites Mahim – a member of 19th century's Young Bengal – as the character that comes closest to him as a person. His first novel is also partly located in the city of his birth – though a Calcutta 100 years before his time.

It may be worthwhile to have a brief look at his biography here.

Kunal Basu was born in Calcutta to Sunil Kumar Basu (a litterateur and publisher and one of the early members of the Communist Party of India) and Chabi Basu (an author and actress). Born to Communist parents, he was brought up on books and enriching conversations at home that was visited by a galaxy of prominent men and women of the day.

He attended South Point High School (India) in Calcutta, and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Jadavpur University (1973-78), which was followed by an MS at the Florida Institute of Engineering (1978-79). He returned to the US again in 1982 to do a PhD at the University of Florida. By this time, he had switched course from Engineering to Management – "from the regime of numbers to the republic of words".

In between he worked for an advertising agency, in freelance journalism, dabbled in filmmaking, and taught at Jadavpur University for a brief period of 16 months. In 1982, he met and married Susmita. Their daughter, Aparajita, was born soon after.

After his doctoral degree, he was a professor at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, from 1986-1999. His 13 years at McGill was interrupted only by a brief stint at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, in 1989. Since 1999, he has been teaching at Oxford University's Saïd Business School.

His creed as a writer:
There's very little of the above history of his life (either directly or indirectly) in his works. As Basu once narrated: "During a TV interview in America, the interviewer challenged my credentials – writing about China and Malaya when I was an Indian (re: The Opium Clerk); about Islamic art and the Mughals (re: The Miniaturist) when I wasn't a Muslim; and about Victorians (re: Racists) when I wasn't even white. I own the world by my imagination, I replied. These are grand words. But I believe them."

Indeed, these words epitomize his creed as a writer – as readers familiar with his work would know.

-- () 22:43, 10 September 2008 (UTC)


[Kunal Basu(2006) "The Racists", Penguin ISBN 0143062255]

External links

* [http://www.kunalbasu.com Kunal Basu official website]

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