With my skin tone and Indian-sounding name, it was not surprising when my readers asked if the eponymous character in my second novel, Babyji—precocious, quantum-mechanics—obsessed, flagrantly bold—was me. To my chagrin, friends took to calling me Babyji. What is surprising, in retrospect, is that when I chose for my first book, Miniplanner, a narrator named André Bernard—a freewheeling "gay" white New Yorker (a male of the species, to boot) who was sleeping with his boss and his boss's wife—I got more or less the same question from readers: Is it autobiographical? With each book I wrote, I noticed a link between my characters, my readers and, by extension, myself. But I didn't want to be pegged to any identity at all. I sought a wider audience.
Both here (the U.S.) and there (India), I find myself perpetually negotiating with my readers, not through my stories, but through the checkboxes we so hate having imposed on ourselves: Female or She-Male. U.S. Permanent Resident or Non-Resident Indian. Gay or Morose. There's only so much a writer can take. So I decided to find myself an old man called Prem for my third, most recent novel, That Summer in Paris. Prem—decades older than myself and, I believed, the audience I had cultivated—would remind my readers that the checkboxes didn't matter.
It might be naïve to insist that one is a writer and only a writer. That really, no other identification is possible. Alas, doing so appears to be quite difficult; I have culled bits and pieces from all my characters, learning from them and, apparently, prompting others to recognize me as embodying those very characters. After two books, I realized that I would have to live forever with my hero and heroine in our age of never-out-of-print books. I had been transformed—in the eyes of my friends, family and readers—into a melange of Abha, André and Babyji.
One thing was clear: I had to put a stop to having my identity mixed up with those of my characters; it was preventing me from reaching a bigger audience. But it gets worse. It turns out that not only are you identified with your characters, but readers like to identify with them, too, and, by extension, with you. A sizable fraction of the e-mails I receive from my Web site speak about how the reader identifies quite directly with one of my characters. Great to know one is writing believable fiction, but less great to know that one has now been crowned with whatever tag the audience has chosen for itself. Unless one has set out to speak on behalf of a group of people, this can be cumbersome.
Small press or major house, paperback original or hardcover, to everyone's credit and to my relief, no one in publishing really cared about the identity angle. But bookstores have to put you on a shelf, and with a book (Miniplanner) published by Cleis Press (the biggest name in queer publishing), you're likely to find yourself in the gay section, even if André sleeps with two women. With Anchor, despite Babyji's never having slept with a man, the book wound its way to literary fiction.
In American society—which, more than any other, classifies you by your age—I am pegged to my youth more than any other trait, and so are my readers. Attempting to debunk at least one classification, I decided to write about older people like Prem, hoping the notion of age-based identification will crumble. In Brazilian samba schools, the oldest ladies dance in the kernel of a graceful circle, while the youngsters shake it out on the edge of the ripple. I miss that easy mingling of the ages and ache to put my books between hands like Prem's that are mottled and wrinkled, wizened and wise.