- Tom Miller
Ardashir Vakil was born in Bombay and now lives in London.
He was educated at The Doon School in Dehradun, India and at Cambridge University. He has taught English at several London comprehensive schools and currently teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. His short stories have been anthologised and broadcast on BBC Radio.
His first novel, Beach Boy (1997), charts the adventures of 8-year old Cyrus Readymoney who lives in Bombay. It was translated into eight languages, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award. His second novel, One Day (2003), is set in North London and was shortlisted for the Encore Award. He continues to publish regularly in international journals, and contributes to BBC broadcasts and other conferences. Short stories have appeared in Raritan: A Quarterly Review.
Ardashir Vakil’s award-winning first novel, Beach Boy (1997), is Bombay’s answer to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
A poignantly autobiographical work of fiction, it centres upon Cyrus Readymoney, a privileged Parsi boy, and his formative years at a strict Jesuit school during a period of family turmoil and crisis. Like Joyce’s modernist classic, it deals with themes of sexual awakening, religion and cultural alienation, as the itinerant narrator wanders a city where he is variously seduced and repulsed by the sacred and the profane, faith and food. Set in the early 1970s, the novel was described by Salman Rushdie as 'sharp, funny and fast', and by John Updike as reminiscent of Nabokov’s Russia in terms of its reflective portrait of India. Praised by some, criticised by others, for its transient preoccupation with the superficial and mundane surfaces of urban life – the novel nevertheless seems to faithfully capture the thought processes, and cinematic imagination, of an eight-year- old boy. The fact that the novel has already been translated into ten languages would suggest that other readers agree.
Vakil’s second novel has a similar formal impressionism to it that is signalled in the very title: One Day (2003). Covering 24 hours in the life of Ben Tennyson, the novel inhabits the same social milieu of the well-to-do and the wealthy, but is written from an adult perspective, precedes at a more measured pace than his debut and is set in London. Ben is a teacher and aspiring writer (once again the biography the author is partially staged) who lives with his wife Priya and son Whacka in north London. Ben (like Vakil when he was writing One Day) suffers from writer’s block. The narrative is largely composed of interior monologues and stream of consciousness moments that, along with Beach Boy, recall a modernist literary tradition. As Eleanor Byrne described it in The Independent:
'Vakil emphasises the isolation of his protagonists by delving into their thought processes. The routine he describes is full of associations: "One day equals a lifetime. It's as if everything important that's ever happened to you finds its way into some recess of the brain." The line feels like a manifesto for a method that packs histories into moments. On his regular route to work, Ben passes the intersection where Priya "knocked over a motorcyclist, sent him careering into the window of E Wood, butcher". On Farringdon Road, he drives by the offices of The Enquirer, "where he was nearly hired as restaurant critic, but lost out to Leigh Perry whose face now grins out from billboards" …. One Day is a powerful study of character and cohabitation: of the ties of memory and friendship that hold people together, or threaten to drive them apart.'
The novel is also a brutally honest depiction of marital relations as Ben (reserved, disciplined and hardworking) struggles increasingly to square his life with the passionate, disorganized and unfaithful Priya.
The episodic structure and impressionism of both Beach Boy and One Day might suggest the random and chaotic thought processes of the protagonists, but they also point to the author’s studied interest in form. This fact is confirmed in Vakil’s short stories to date, which include ‘Who Else Can I Talk To?’ (1998), ‘The Whole Biriyani’ (1999) and ‘Eva’ (2006). His story, ‘Soft Boy’, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World in 2004. However, it is the content rather than the form of these narratives that has attracted most critical interest to date. Vakil’s first novel was once criticized by an audience in New Delhi for pandering to Western tastes, and its lingering emphasis on Indian cuisine was read by some as carrying more than a whiff of the exotic. This accusation appears to have been self-consciously worked through in One Day, which can be productively read on one level as a self-referential work of metafiction: that is a work of fiction that simultaneously comments upon its own artistic process. Thus at one point, Ben, the struggling food writer, encounters Jehan, a successful if arrogant Indian author who stirs in the protagonist certain less than charitable emotions: ‘He couldn’t help deluding himself that if hehad the right name and the required style, he too might sell 100,000 copies’. At another point in the novel a character comments ‘What I can’t be doing with are novels about the trials and tribulations of middle-class north London couples.’ Moments such as these reveal One Day as a work of self-inflicted satire, which does not so much apologise or defend as poke fun at itself. As Leo Benedictus wrote of the novel in The Observer: ‘It is as if we were watching London's intellectuals write a novel about, and for, themselves - full of knowing glances to familiar shops and streets and nudge-nudge postmodernism. One Day is one of the cleverest pieces of new writing that "people like us" will see this year.’
Dr James Procter, 2010
Why do I write? Because I think that I can get into words something that might make my readers feel the way I have felt, throughout my life, when I read certain stories and novels. This feeling, in its totality, can be described as a recognition of the joy of being alive and awake to the sadness and pleasure that makes us human beings. It includes laughter and epiphany, madness and misery, hope and natural beauty. Above all, it attests to the transformative power of description and storytelling.