Q&A: A Talk with Syed Afzai Haider about His Lumnious Novel of India, France, and Beyond


Syed Afzal Haider’s ambitious and luminous second novel, Life of Ganesh, follows Ved, a middle-aged man from India, who left his home country in his twenties to attend the University of Chicago where he met the love of his life, Joyce, an American woman.  At the time of his and Joyce’s meeting, however, he was already engaged to Sita, an Indian woman his parents had introduced him to and fully expected him to marry. 

When the novel opens, it is present day, and Ved is in the south of France with Sita and their young son, Vijay, and Ved and Sita have now been married for several years.  What follows is a story that moves back and forth in time, across three continents, each page rich with sensory detail and incisive, often witty observations about marriage and the unpredictability of desire.  Christine Sneed, who conversed with Syed Afzal Haider about his new novel for The National Book Review, contends that “with his unblinking authorial eye, in Life of Ganesh, Haider examines with insight and sensitivity the themes of love, family tradition, loss, and Eastern versus Western values.” 

Q: Your novel spans more than 30 years and takes place in the south of France, Chicago, and the small town of Jhansi, India – when you began this novel, did you envision covering so much ground, temporally and geographically?  

A: Although a two-week vacation in the south of France with family and friends really did happen, and we did rent a house and we did meet an American woman living in the village where we stayed, I didn’t plan passages of the protagonist Ved’s journey the way it happens in Life of Ganesh. It is all fiction. The challenge was to create a believable narrative from this trip. The real pleasure was the vacation and the sights and sounds of the places we visited, of being there in that village, and writing in the journal I kept during that trip.  

But to answer your question, no, initially I didn’t think that a story would emerge, one that would take me from France to India, to Chicago back to France. The beauty of storytelling for me is when the story takes over the narrative and starts telling itself, although it took many drafts for it to evolve and for me to get there.

Q: While vacationing in France, as noted in the introduction above, Ved finds himself attracted to a young American woman named Marilyn who is likewise drawn to him. Americans’ views on infidelity are pretty straightforward, i.e. it’s bad.  France, on the other hand, is sometimes characterized as a country rife with philanderers and less prone to being scandalized by infidelity—did this color your thinking as you wrote the scenes between Marilyn and Ved?  

A: The dialogue in the novel and the interaction [between Ved and Marilyn] are all part of my imagination—maybe my fantasy.  John Fowles said he always fell in love with his leading lady. So do I. None of the fiction in that scene is true or near true. Although I did somewhat exploit France’s amorous men, I guess once upon a time I foolishly considered myself as one of those men (my wife [not Sita] would agree with what I am saying).  Infidelity is not straightforward; it tests the limits of love in committed relationships. Still, it is fun to test its limits in writing.

Q. One of the themes that interested me most in Life of Ganesh is your handling of regret and loss—Ved is beset by memories of a girlfriend from his past, Joyce, whom he didn’t stay with in part because his parents insisted that he marry an Indian woman.  You also wrote about a man who must handle a serious loss in your first novel, To Be with Her—would you say this is the theme that most preoccupies you as a writer?  

A: By 1989, I had accumulated my share of losses and made a major decision to escape to writing and become a practicing writer.

“I don’t think of myself as giving up work to be a writer. I’m giving up work to, at last, be,” John Fowles once said. 

This was the time in my life, when in my mind I was a writer, but keeping a journal most of my life did not make me a writer. I lacked the tools; I needed to learn how to write and be a writer, show something for my existence. John Fowles’ summation of story: a sequence of very small happenings, little bricks of opinion and feeling, gave me a conceptual understanding. “Loss is essential for the novelist,” said Fowles, and “immensely fertile for his book, however painful to his private being.” He continues: “Loss has given me a voice. What is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call a lost thing until it returns. Without loss there would be no literature.”

“Novelists,” he said, “are like conjurors, always expert at misleading.”

So yes. I am obsessed with loss, this is the theme that most preoccupies me as a writer and I’m learning to be conjurors, trying to be an expert at misleading.

I think I’m getting carried away. I shall stop.

Q: I see Life of Ganesh as alternately a celebration of passionate, youthful love and a quieter, more domesticated love.  Ved might be very attracted to Marilyn, but he’s faithfully married to Sita.  Nonetheless, he’s often at war with his desires.  Do you think of him as an optimist more than a pessimist despite the disappointments in his past?   

A: Desire is different than love, but like love it does take hold of you. Being faithful in a committed relationship is a decision we make; to love and obey and be faithful forever are the rules of game.  It is natural, but at times it can be trying.  Pleasure is another consideration.  To me life is dark—the glass is always half empty. I’m depressive, damaged and difficult.  But I do appreciate the joys of living.

Yes, in my mind I think of Ved as more an optimist than a pessimist despite the disappointments in his past.

Q: You alternate between the present and the past throughout the novel – was this the narrative structure you had in mind from the beginning or did it evolve through drafting and redrafting?

A: When I started this novel, the only thing I had to work with was my travel journal, and a trip I took with family and friends in South of France, along with my pain and losses.

In the Pillar of Salt, Albert Memmi’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young boy growing up in French-colonized Tunisia, the young hero and narrator Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche believed only exile and writing fiction—“mastering . . . life by recreating it”—would avert despair. I, an Indian/Paki/American, a total alien in any land, do live in exile and do try to write fiction, or fictography, in the hope it will avert despair.

But then I lost the first draft of the manuscript of Life of Ganesh, something I was able to touch, so many blank pages scribbled with an almond green Walter A. Sheaffer fountain pen in Pelican 4001 ink, Brilliant-Braun, a hand-written manuscript that became a lost domain. Forever lost, forever sought. I had the narrative in mind and the rest was my effort to find the path of telling the story and getting there. It, the path, did evolve, through drafting and redrafting, as the story needed to be told for its full effect and impact.

Writing is re-writing, drafting and redrafting, layering and re-layering.

Q:  You mention in Life of Ganesh’s introduction that John Fowles is a key influence on your work. Who (or what) are some of the other major influences?  

A: Writers who greatly influenced me are few, partly because I’ve only read so many authors in detail. R.K. Narayan has shown me the simplest way of telling my story, text and expression. And Mr. Camus has shown me the human disconnect that says: You are never home, always an outsider from within.  For me the origin and the heart of a story evolves from the “lost domain, for ever sought, for ever lost.”  Then there are Ret Marut aka B. Traven, The Honorable Miss…, Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, Hanif Kureishi, Intimacy

The writer’s heart is a cheating heart. He falls in love with all good writing—his writing, her writing, writing in any language. Storytelling is fictography: autobiography, biography and fiction. The writer scribbles the voice of a source unknown. Which flows through a domain, a lost domain forever absent forever sought. And only I can tell my story.

Q: How does your work as an editor of the well, regarded literary journal Chicago Quarterly Review affect your own fiction-writing.  Do you see yourself learning from what’s working and what’s not in the submissions you consider for publication?

 A: As reader, editor and writer, one thing that I see as most important is, what’s working and what’s not. In good storytelling, the writer makes the reader believe The sky is falling, is plausible and possible. I believe that to write well one needs to read a lot, old classics as well as new writing.

There are times when I get annoyed with myself for spending so much time reading other people’s writing to stay abreast with the work of the magazine, instead of working on my writing.  But in the end, there is enormous joy in reading and selecting excellent writing. There is delight in finding diamonds in ashes and in the rough.

 And yes there is learning from what’s working and what’s not in the submissions I consider for publication. It makes me see my own writing along with the story I am reading. I learn from reading. It helps me be a better writer and more humble person.

Q: What are you working on now? 

 A: Life of Ganesh, as you mentioned, is my second novel. I have written and published plenty of short stories.  Briefly, I thought of putting together a collection of my selected stories. I already had a tittle in mind, Lust. Loss. Longing. But for now I literally put that idea on the shelf. What came to mind is my very first novel, another story of pain and loss that I wrote and finished more than twenty years ago. My agent liked the writing but she thought the story needed more of a focused ending. So, I put it away, and now I plan to open old wounds. I think now I know what my agent was saying.

I already had a title, Incomplete Conversations. But I will work on it under a new title, Before Cartoons.  It is always a challenge to pick up abandoned work. Wish me luck, please.

 Christine Sneed is the author of the four books, the most recent of which is the story collection The Virginity of Famous Men.  Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train.  She has received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year Award, and a number of other awards.