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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 7 | Jul. 8, 2004

MAking the Fantastic Matter-of-Fact

Anosh Irani takes readers and playgoers on magic-realist journeys

By Erica Smishek

Anosh Irani has always loved to tell stories. But only in recent years did he realize that writing them down was what he wanted to do with his life.

“I was not one of those kids who knew they wanted to be a writer,” says Irani, who holds a BFA in creative writing from UBC and will complete his master’s degree in the program this fall. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Ever since I was little, I was good at telling stories, I was good at invention, making things up on the spot.

“I remember being in school and if we had some free time during class, the teacher would ask me to tell a story. I had no idea what I would say but by the time I got up from my chair and went to the head of the class, that’s when I would start making a story up.”

While Irani’s audience was once limited to his pet cockatoo, classmates and instructors, his stories are now making their way to a broader audience.

His first full-length play, The Matka King, premiered in October 2003 at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver while his first novel, The Cripple and His Talismans, was published in Canada earlier this year to critical acclaim. It will be published in the U.S. in 2005.

Born and brought up in Bombay, Irani steeps his fiction in the city’s suffering and strangely beautiful chaos.

The Cripple and His Talismans takes readers on a magic-realist journey in search of the narrator’s severed arm. The novel alternates between darkness and light, violence and tenderness, humour and horror, and is infused with fascinating characters -- a leper who bites off his own finger and gives it to the cripple, a woman who sells rainbows, a blind man who cannot defecate unless he hears the sound of a train, a beggar who lives under an egg cart.

The work originated with a horrible, albeit absurd, picture that came to the personable and playful 30-year-old’s mind while he was writing the end to a short story.

“I had an image of just amputated limbs hanging from the ceiling in a dark place,” he says. “I had no idea what that meant. But I just decided to make a note of it. I wrote the first sentence and I just didn’t stop writing for four hours. And then the image refused to go away, the story refused to go away.

“I think that’s the biggest lesson for a writer. When something refuses to go away, when it keeps coming back, it eventually has to be written.”

Irani came to writing after he “wasted five years” earning a business degree.

“Initially I thought I’d take science because that’s what men do in India. They try to become doctors or engineers,” he explains. “But I had no interest in becoming anything. I just took it to make my parents happy and within two days I realized it was a complete disaster. So I shifted to commerce because it wasn’t science. It’s not that I liked commerce either. I hated it.”

He wowed the creative director of an advertising agency with his rather imaginative application -- “I had nothing to put on my resume obviously so I made a very funny resume. For skills, I wrote ‘marbles’ and ‘kite flying,’ which would be of no use at all.” Irani spent a year writing ad copy before following friends to Vancouver in 1998.

While he misses his extended family and friends, and admits to brutal bouts of loneliness, the move has given him a fresh start and time to write every day.

“I think the separation has helped me. When you have distance, both physical and in terms of time, it helps you look at a place from a distance and you can be more objective. What’s also interesting is as vivid as my memories are sometimes, I don’t remember places. They’re hazy. In this novel, that’s what I’ve used for the character. He’s someone who hallucinates. He’s not entirely sure, he does not have a good sense of place. He’s disoriented.”

Irani’s talent, charm and ability to mix realism with pure invention have caught the eye of many, including UBC creative writing professor George McWhirter, who offered guidance and encouragement throughout the writing of the book (done for McWhirter’s novel class).

“Anosh is very, very intelligent,” McWhirter says. “He identifies problems with his work ahead of time. He’s usually the one with the questions. He’ll be able to be his own questioner and answerer some day.”

Asked about Irani’s penchant for succinctness, his instructor says, “It’s so extravagant what he writes concisely about. He writes about fantastic things yet they seem so matter-of-fact. You know, he’s also a terrific poet. He uses gorgeous, gorgeous images. He’s got a gift for the image.”

Irani graciously acknowledges the support and experience of his teachers at UBC as well as Arts Club Theatre artistic director Bill Millerd, who introduced him to playwriting during a summer internship.

Playwriting has given him a particular love for and skill with dialogue, which is evident in his fiction.

“Dialogue gives you a sense of what the people are like. And it gives you a chance to be humourous. I love listening to the way people speak; especially in Bombay, they have great one-liners. People just have that dry wit or they’re completely ridiculous in the way they speak. I love that.”

Still submitting assignments for his master’s, Irani is working on a fourth draft of Manja’s Circus, a play commissioned by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and writing notes for a new novel and for Bombay Talkie, a commission from Toronto dramaturgical company Nightswimming which shops scripts around to potential producers.

When asked about his achievements, Irani replies modestly, “I’m getting there. It’s a good start. It’s a good start.”

Irani's Recommended Reads

Too busy playing football and cricket to read much as a child, the adult Anosh Irani has become a voracious reader.

He chooses books based on the quality of the writing, perspective of the writer, voice, whether there is a story and whether he cares about the characters. He prefers to read writers from many countries and cultures to “get a sense of what different landscapes are doing in terms of the voice, of what kind of stories they’re telling, what kind of style.”

His suggested reads include:

  • Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
  • Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Thirst for Love by Yukio Mishima
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima
  • The Outsider by Albert Camus
  • My Name is Aram by William Saroyan
  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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