Australian author John Zubrzycki has had a long standing love affair with India. From working as a diplomat in New Delhi and Jakarta to donning the role of a foreign correspondent, and having three of his books set in India, two being biographies and one tracing the evolution of Indian magic, Zubrzycki isn’t done yet. The award-winning writer, slated to speak at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, tells us about his favourite places in India and the element that keeps drawing him back to ‘the country (India) with a rich vein of untold stories.’ By Amitha Ameen
1. Tell us about your association with the Mountain Echoes Festival?
This is the first time I’ll be attending Mountain Echoes. I’ve heard so much about it and I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. It’s fantastic that its showcasing new Bhutanese writing and bringing together authors from South Asia and around the world. And, of course, it’s taking place in Bhutan, a country that I last visited in the nineties and immediately fell in love with!
2. How do you think a festival like Mountain Echoes is helping today’s youth?
Making literature accessible to everyone, particularly young people can only be a good thing. Festivals like this are fun and informative. It’s easy to interact with writers, and hopefully this will inspire young people to read more and try their hand at writing.
3. Is this your first visit to Bhutan?
My first visit was in 1992. I am curious to see what changes have taken place.
4. Three of your books are on India and its magic. What is it about the country that keeps drawing you back?
My first two books were biographies set in India and my last book was on Indian magic. I’ve always found India to be a country with a rich vein of untold stories as well as stories that need to be told. My first book was on the last Nizam of Hyderabad. It was an extraordinary narrative set against the background of the downfall of India’s richest princely state, the Australian desert where the Nizam went to live and Turkey where he has spent the last two decades in a kind of self-imposed exile. My second book, the Mysterious Mr Jacob, was about a largely forgotten character who lived in India during the heyday of the Raj and was a diamond merchant, magician and spy. My book on Indian magic was an attempt to document an extraordinarily rich but undervalued tradition and the fascinating characters that really changed the way the world viewed India and its magical traditions.
5. What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I love the forensic detective work that comes with researching a good story, getting beyond the hagiography, bringing out the extraordinary in people’s lives and how they shaped history. Once I’ve done that it’s the satisfaction of assembling it into a narrative that has people going ‘wow, I never knew that’ and of them being appreciative that I’ve taken the trouble of bringing an aspect of their history to life.
6. Which is your favourite destination in India?
I have so many it’s difficult to say. I do love the north-eastern states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh because of their sheer beauty and the fact that they are still off-the-beaten track. But, I am also drawn back again and again to cities such as Calcutta and Bombay, because of their rich layers of history, and because they are sources for so many untold stories.
7. Which other place do you keep going back to?
I’ve always been attracted to Burma, again because it is relatively unexplored. Pakistan is another country that I’ve travelled to frequently. The people there are extraordinarily friendly and there is so much to see. Both countries, of course, have historical, colonial and cultural links to India, which adds to their attraction.
8. Do you prefer solo or group travel?
Solo travel definitely. I love the freedom of travelling at my own pace, taking a detour if I want to and travelling rough if it means getting to places other travellers have ignored.
9. Which is the best place that you have visited in 2019?
In June I went to the small village of Aru in Kashmir. I wanted a break from the heat of the Indian plains. I was simply staggered by the mountain scenery of that part of Kashmir and the peace and serenity. I never imagined that in a country of 1.3 billion people one could walk for miles and only meet some nomadic shepherds and find such unspoilt nature.
10. What kind of a traveller are you?
Picky. I carefully research every trip to make sure I get the most authentic experience. There are still places to discover that are worth the time and effort to get to.
11. How does travelling help you write your books?
It’s all about the people you meet while travelling. They are usually my first inspiration for the books I write, then of course, it’s the places that bring the stories to life, that provide the texture and context. It’s all about recreating an event, making a narrative more interesting, bringing a story to life in as many dimensions as possible.