Set in an unnamed Indian metropolis – Roshan Ali’s debut novel, Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, which has been shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award – follows a dissatisfied, chronically gloomy young man named Ib. Raised by a meek mother who must care for her son as well as a husband with inadequately treated schizophrenia, Ib looks to other sources for models for living.
He observes the people around him, sizing them up, while neglecting to introspect. What he gleans about human nature, he cannot absorb into positive lessons for himself. The novel also explores the myriad ways in which cities of our times do not live up to the promise many upper middle-class young people believe they possess.
In this candid interview, Ali spoke to Scroll.in honestly about the very human reasons a writer may choose to conclude a project, the encouragement that shortlists and awards provide, the fears that accompany releasing the novel into the world, naming the novel in a hurry, the joys of positive reader reception, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
In an essay on writing your first novel, you say that to have “created something” with your time is the “only thing that matters.” I am curious to understand what the drafts before the published novel meant to you. What drove you to keep going?
Perhaps I was being a bit disingenuous when I said that. Creating something isn’t the only thing that matters. But it’s one of the big ones and for a writer, at the end of the day, the only measure of success is how much and how well you have created. Obviously what follows is important too and the main thing about getting published is the appreciation you receive from fellow writers and good readers.
I hated almost everything I wrote till the day it was accepted for publication. For the record, apart from the first 30 pages or so which I changed almost completely 25 to 30 times, the rest of the book is my first draft (not counting the editorial process of removing bits and reworking minor things). I am not proud of this, but I was so upset and fed-up with this book that I didn’t have it in me to rewrite bits that I didn’t like (which was most of it).
I don’t know what kept me going. It is quite mysterious, quite subconscious. The only logic I can draw is despite how much I hated my own writing, the only reason I went on doing it, is that deep down I knew it might have some value for someone. Why else would I keep doing it? It was a kind of madness. Also, it helped that I didn’t have anything else going – my life was the novel and as life progressed so did the book.
The novel has been shortlisted for the JCB Prize as well as the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. What does that recognition mean to you?
It means a lot. As you can probably tell, I’m not the most confident writer (or person) and the thought that these people seriously considering so many books feel that there is some value in mine – enough value to make it to the last five – is a huge shot in the arm. Considering the JCB Prize, the amount of promotion and publicity and serious work they are putting into our books feels wonderful because (at least for me) it is the first time that anyone is investing so much time and money in my writing. It really had been a wonderful experience interacting with the organisers. I would recommend this prize to anyone.
The nature of cities is an important preoccupation in the novel. How do you personally relate to the city?
For me a city is a contradiction of chaos and order. So much order has gone into creating this machine and yet it feels like permanent chaos. It is at the same time a testament to ingenuity, the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, the ordering and taming of nature, and chaos, corruption, pollution, filth, disease, poverty.
I love cities but I also hate them – like everyone. I think one feels lonelier in cities because everyone else seems to be having a great time.
Despite all this – or maybe because of this – cities have a terrific energy. They pulse and thrum like large Lego hearts. I could never live permanently in the countryside, I think. I would have to come back to this mess quite often.
You spent ten years writing the novel. What has it been like to reach the end of that process and to release the book into the world?
At first it was a tremendous sense of relief when my book was accepted for publication. Also, a sneaky feeling of regret that I perhaps hadn’t done my best to make it as good as it could be. I hurried the end of it for example. I read bits of it and cringe.
But now that some time has passed, I am a little kinder to myself and the book. Now that the world has opened up, I feel like I was so ignorant, naïve, small-minded that I couldn’t have possibly written anything better.
And on top of all that to get recognised as a writer by other writers and readers makes me feel almost ecstatic. But again, I feel ashamed and guilty that I didn’t do a better job at it. This goes on.
In the novel, Ib’s father is schizophrenic. Tell us a little bit about where that character came from?
I’m really not sure. I have known some people who have this illness but this character is nothing like them. Perhaps I made him schizophrenic as a metaphor for Ib having an absent yet present father. A father who is in some other world and can’t be a father to Ib – through no fault of his of course. Some fathers are cursed to be absent – they are humans like everyone else after all, put in a difficult position of raising a child but they have their own stuff going on. This is an extreme version of this predicament that so many fathers and sons find themselves in.
I am intrigued by the word “endless” in the title. Why did you choose that word in particular?
I thought it was less grandiose and trite than “eternal”. But honestly, I didn’t think much about the title. I named the file that because I had to send it to the editor in a hurry and it was an unnamed file on my desktop.
Also, Ib’s search is endless. He will never find satisfaction because he is not the type of person who will ever find it. Even if he comes across a baby playing with a puppy, he’ll find a way to look at the dark side of it. It’s just who he is.
What are some books you’ve enjoyed reading recently?
I didn’t read much for the ten years that I was “working” on this novel because of a mixture of insecurity and jealousy.
The day Naipaul died I began to read A House for Mr Biswas – an astonishing book. The sheer scale and depths of the human experience captured in that book makes my skin tingle.
I am half-way through Herzog by Saul Bellow and have saved it for when I’m a bit older.
India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha has been a great read, especially for an ignoramus in the field of Indian history like me.
I also recently read The God of Small Things which I found a bit purple and overwrought. But between all that there are some moments of inimitable genius.