RAHUL RAINA means business. His debut novel, How to Kidnap the Rich, refuses to be categorized — it’s a caper, a satire, and a coming-of-age story of class mobility all at once — and the author refuses to compromise, to simplify or stereotype India, for a global audience. Tackling corruption, caste and class inequalities, and the moneyed and mighty, he takes a sharp knife to “the-centre-of-the-world’s-greatest-democracy” with writing that is refreshing and unrestrained, and that will leave you roaring with laughter. A wild ride through modern-day India, the novel announces the arrival of a bold new voice in 21st-century Indian fiction.
Over email, Raina and I spoke about Delhi, global English, and masala — the three ingredients that make up his work.
SANA GOYAL: I read somewhere that the original title of your novel was Garam Masala …
RAHUL RAINA: Spice, hot, heat, action … I wanted the reader to know from the title itself what this book was about. But we didn’t want people to confuse it with a cookbook. Now, it has the same directness and bite and cut, but in a different way. Maybe one day we’ll be able to have Indian books with Indian titles.
Very early on, the protagonist clarifies: “But this isn’t a story about poverty. This is a story about wealth.” Fiction from the Indian subcontinent continues to face charges of “poverty porn” — of romanticizing poverty and pandering to Western stereotypes. Deepa Anappara, author of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (2020), recently said that “writing about poverty in India is such a risky enterprise.” What kind of story were you trying to tell?
Delhi is literally unrecognizable as the city I used to know in the 1990s. The traffic, the buildings, the salaries, the population, the cost of everything has exploded. Indians are, as we’ve seen from the elections, extremely comfortable with reaping the benefits of authoritarian capitalism, as long as it benefits their wallets. I wanted to write about a protagonist who was surfing that wave, making money off the corruption of the country’s elite, who was making a killing from their intense, out-of-control competition for their children’s educations. Education has become, as in the West, the ultimate status good, and I wanted a character who was a part of that world while at the same time being necessarily cut off from it. In my charity work, I’ve met people who have come from massively disadvantaged backgrounds and who have lucked out in the lottery of our economic growth, primarily by using their knowledge of, and access to, the English language to build up businesses for themselves in tourism and the call centers. There are winners and losers across all strata of Indian society, and the losers are screwed, adrift in a country where the safety net is a lie. But we can’t pretend the winners don’t exist. Delhi is a city that negates stereotypes. It confounds, and surprises, everyone. It resists typification.
Depending on who you ask, Delhi is eight cities, each conqueror building on the corpse of the last; or two, the rich and the poor, as the Westerners say; or one, where all of us live arse cheek to arse cheek; or thirty million, once you factor in the underpass dwellers, victims of the famines in Bihar that the government says don’t happen.
In a recent interview in The Bookseller, you’ve said: “Part of my thinking was trying to put my version of Delhi onto the map, because Delhi as a city often gets ignored.” Can you talk about the many Delhis — this palimpsest city — of How to Kidnap the Rich?
This sentence is, on the one hand, a reaction to Western conceptions of Delhi and the sort of lazy tour guide/literary guide writing that exemplifies so much of the sort of “Mughal pleasure garden” approach to Delhi. It might have been true in the 1880s, but it’s not true now, and it kind of shows that many of the people writing this stuff either haven’t been to India for 10 or more years, or have rose-tinted spectacles on. Delhi changes hugely in six months. Ten years is an eternity. But, of course, it’s also a reaction to Delhi being just the number-one showcase for the aggressive effect that access to Western money has had on Indian life — in physical form. All those old Delhis have been wiped out by five-star hotels and basement gyms and shopping malls. If it’s in the way and it’s old, the Archaeological Survey can’t complain — it just gets wiped out. Delhi, as opposed to Bombay and Calcutta, just doesn’t have much of that old character left anymore. It’s a city that’s wiped its history out — be it the Mughals, or the British, or Partition, or whatever. It’s a city of the constant future.
You write: “This India, my India, smells like shit. It smells like a country that has gone off, all the dreams having curdled and clumped like rancid paneer.” As I type this, we’re seeing a catastrophic failure of the Indian government in relation to the coronavirus. Recent books, such as Megha Majumdar’s novel A Burning (2020), have gone some distance toward addressing the authoritarian regime. In your book, for example, “The Saffrons” stand in for the Hindu nationalist government. How does one write about a country where all the dreams have curdled? And why did you choose fiction to do so?
I come from a background of middle-class solid believers in Nehruvianism — I’m a Kashmiri Hindu, he was one of us, we almost physically had to be Congress. But all of that support is gone now, gone to the AAP and the BJP, mimicking the decline and downfall of the Nehru-Gandhi family. How many of those idealistic 1950s/’60s socialist civil servants exist any longer? The IAS is a corrupt mess — every Indian knows stories of IAS officers breaking laws, skipping queues, thinking the country is their plaything. This ties in with the educational angle, too — all of the super-bright kids who would have gone into government have left, or will leave, to go to the West; they’ll work for Microsoft instead. I have Nigerian friends, Pakistani friends, Chinese friends who all report the same thing — elite corruption has destroyed the postcolonial socialist dream, and elite corruption always flows downhill, poisoning every sector of society in turn. All we have left is the Washington Model and people, like the BJP, who are happy to take advantage of Western political networks, who destroy central planning in the name of the free market — and the ignorance of those Westerners as to whom they’re getting into bed with. How many Wall Street Journal articles did we all read pre-2014 praising Modi as a can-do free-market reformer when we all knew he was a thug?
As Indians, we are surrounded by news, by opinion, by comment — nonfiction is almost poisoned. Everyone promises us facts and gives us lies. Better to deal with all this in fiction, something that promises up-front to be a lie, that uses hyperbole and swagger and drama and masala, than in just another Time magazine article.
Following on from this, I want to talk about your use of satire — a form often associated with political disillusionment. Your characters Ramesh and Rudi aren’t just rich; they become “richer than God himself, or a reforming, business-friendly, Davos-attending chief minister of Bihar.” Your characters aren’t just angry; they are “post-cricket-loss” or “march-over-to-Green-Park-and-burn-the-whole-charity-giving-NRI-infested-place-down” or “the Maoists in our eastern states” levels of pissed off. Can you talk about writing humor, but also anger? The protagonist’s voice is singular, but I was wondering which writers or works had influenced your brand of satire, the comic timing you have on the page.
Comedians always believe they are outsiders. I wanted my character to be like that but to an extreme: the ultimate outsider, forced, even though he hates it with every fiber of his being, to be a part of the very system that denies him advancement, and for him to be forever trapped across the looking glass from the rewards for his efforts. This leads in turn totally to his anger. He has to live with the one thing that keeps him from normality every day. Ramesh sees everything for what it is, rather than the other characters who have been almost socially conditioned from birth, or who have chosen to become blind, to the world of wealth around them.
As Indians, we deal with so much of what life gives us with gallows humor, with refusal to talk about emotions or problems — I know so many primarily young Indians who try to discuss mental health with their parents and get laughed off. Comic fiction has always been so popular with the Indian book-buying public — yet absolutely not with Western literature recently — agents and publishers kept telling me this! I wanted to mimic some of those razor-sharp, sometimes pitch-black, social satires, by the likes of Wodehouse, Graham Greene, Waugh, and Maugham, that we, as Indian middle-class kids, grow up seeing on our shelves in yellowed paperbacks.
It was a conscious choice to write something that called back to that specifically Indian spin on Western literary history. Zadie Smith, too — a huge influence, a swaggering, socially observant, take-no-prisoners attitude — so much of which we’ve lost in the post-9/11 world. Akhil Sharma, too — that totally dark absurdity that’s also a commentary on the suffocations of extended family and friend networks, but in reverse almost, having a character who was cut off from society in a very Western, atomized way, and who finds himself through embracing connection. Then, of course, there’s Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley — a deeply spiritually Indian book — the replacement of the idle-rich upper-class American by his more industrious social inferior, because all routes to advancement are cut off by snobbery, and so the only option left is simply to steal someone’s entire identity. And Jerry Pinto’s work, which is an attempt to deal with the collision of the Indian nuclear family and as a challenge to Western conceptions of what terrain an Indian novel should cover, his use of comic vernacular to tell a story of mental illness. Also Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard — for language and the playfulness of its critique of what happens when Indian social and religious traditions meet the brave new world of the post-1991 economy.
You’ve said somewhere that English is your third language. Hindi words punch through the prose. You don’t gloss over things for a “Global North” literary marketplace — none of the “foreign” words are italicized or translated. Can you talk about this deliberate choice to not explain, or simplify, India — to not be a cultural spokesperson, as is often expected, for a country?
I wrote this book totally without an eye to publication. It was partly for myself, for people like me — Indians who speak English, Indians who come into contact with the West on a daily basis, through work and social media. On the other hand, it very much mimics popular Indian films, so it was definitely for a wider Indian audience as well — the ones who have a little cultural cringe and inferiority complex toward Western entertainment. I wanted to show that an Indian down-to-its-core sensibility — a complete mishmash of social satire, thriller, romance, comedy — could work in Western literary fiction as well as in our films. Many editors did not like this.
I hate italics, and my editors never asked me to italicize or dumb down or explain. It’s exoticization. It’s ridiculous. It cheats the character, and the reader. Or even worse, to have those little sentences immediately after “foreign words” that explain words or concepts in ways that Indians would never do on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t want to compromise at all. It was an obstinate choice, to make Westerners engage on our terrain, to show them that the future of Global Englishes is coming. It’s not going to be their language very soon. Also, my first language is Kashmiri, which will soon disappear. I’m always aware that languages change, and die, and are forgotten all the time.
Toward the end, you write: “What do Indians love more than anything? The West. And what does the West like more than anything? A rise-and-fall-and-rise-again story.” You’re critical of — never sentimental about — India. You’re critical of the West, too — unabashedly, without restraint. Without constructing old, tired binaries, what did you want to say about this relationship?
Something I think about quite a lot is how psychologically close India and the West have become since the rise of social media. It used to be that you could get a break from Western politics and media when you were in India, but since 2012 or so and Reliance Jio, etc. — no way! We are part of the same conversation, all the time. The same memes and jokes and prejudices and hatreds travel around the world in the blink of an eye, and it’s very annoying to have to fight the same fights all the time in both halves of my life.
This is very much tied to the rise of the right in India, and that weird psychological thing their followers exhibit of being simultaneously desperate for Western attention and praise while also hating it for “Hinduphobia” and criticism of poverty and the BJP and corruption. The Slumdog Millionaire paradox — “We won Best Picture! Yay! They said our country was poor! Burn them!” We’re in a weird period — which the pandemic will make worse — of an India that is becoming openly contemptuous of Western morals and ideals, but not for the right reasons. I would love it if we, as a society, could cast off our subservience to Western culture as part of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious process of reconstructing a proud, progressive Indian identity, free of the shadow of colonialism. But as part of a right-wing revanchist project that secretly prays for a repeat of the Uyghur genocide? Fuck that.
This is all linked to something I believe about the West: they are totally, totally unprepared for a world in which the most powerful man will be nonwhite. (And let’s face it, it will be a man, since the rising Eastern conservative middle classes are determined to reject Western feminism and “SJWs” and “wokes” and trans rights because they are “weak and snowflake-ish.”) It will be the biggest dent in their power since the Industrial Revolution accidentally catapulted them to the economic and self-labeled moral leadership of the world. It is going to be tough.
So, we’re in the craziest, most maddening of all positions. The white leadership and domination of the world, of its economics and trade and morals and customs and books and art, the basic way we think about ourselves, is going to be ended by authoritarian, nakedly corrupt, genocidal regimes. Yay!
You’ve said elsewhere that the germ for the book came from America’s “Varsity Blues” university admissions scandal. The book has gone on to garner comparisons to global writers and works: Oyinkan Braithwaite’s novel My Sister the Serial Killer (2018), the films Parasite (2019) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018). Can you talk about why you wrote it, who you wrote it for, and what you want readers everywhere to take away from the novel?
I think really the main thing I wanted to put across is this: We’re out there. We’re coming. We know all about you, about your foibles and lies, how you got your riches and your wealth. We know. You might think we’re all illiterate and that you can pull one over on us, and that global culture is always going to be formed in New York or London or Hollywood, but we know it isn’t. Welcome to the future. We can beat you on your own terms, and at your own game (and yet, those are the three cities that have paid me to write the book, ho ho ho).
The novel is so cinematic. It’s already been optioned by HBO. What are your hopes for How to Kidnap the Rich?
That it makes me money, annoys my relatives, and gets my effigy burnt by the RSS. But really, that it makes people in the West see us as humans and not as caricatures from long ago. We’re fully aware of what the West thinks of us. We have the same problems, but they’re lost in a world where the only novels that people know about India (Rushdie and Roy) are decades old now. We’re all part of the same conversation now. But we always have been! We have had the same struggles with technology and loneliness and love and power and wealth that the West has always had, but it’s just the West’s idea of the elephants and the cows and the widow-burning that’s got in the way. It should be totally clear to everyone now that we are all in the same boat.