The Ideal Interviewer

By Anasuya Basu

I decided to take a break and head home to Assam and forget the cares of the world. Sitting by the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, I decided to read “People who meet people” by Swapan K. Banerjee. Published by Westland, the book is a collection of uncommon interviews of some 49 well known names in the world of music, literature, journalism, conservation and other fields. In the foreword, I. Allan Sealy brings out Swapan’s ceaseless journey from Kolkata to different parts of the country, patiently waiting to interview the stars without the benefit of being assigned by any publisher or an expense account at his disposal. Ruskin Bond in a generous introduction to the book calls Swapan “the ideal interviewer” and “a Boswell not just to one writer, such as Dr. Johnson, but to many writers” and lauds the way he gently persuades his subjects to open up and talk about their life, work and passion in a rather unique manner.

The book is a unique specimen of freewheeling conversations by some great names, nationally and internationally from diverse fields, and makes for compulsive and enjoyable reading.

Take for instance Khushwant Singh’s trademark candour and wit that come through in a series of well thought out questions about his work, controversies, his peculiar habits, authors he has loved and his wife’s illness. The last question is whether he felt lonely, to which Singh has replied he didn’t have any friend and didn’t set much store by the institution of friendship.

The author fondly recalls how nervous he was when he had to meet this literary giant. “I arrived a few minutes before the scheduled time and read the sign on the door which said ‘Do not press bell if not expected’. This is so Khushwant — a no-nonsense man, I thought to myself. Initially he was serious but soon relaxed and was laughing. He waited patiently as I fumbled with the voice recorder which for some reason failed to turn on. He could see that I was nervous but never once showed any irritation,” says Swapan warmly.

Pandit Jasraj’s angry outburst at a lady fan who had worn perfume which ruins his concentration, Ruskin Bond’s habit of writing in longhand and his love for his old typewriter, Kishori Amonkar’s aversion to using a microphone for her concerts are just little snippets of interesting information that this book has of people who have made headlines.

“Having a dialogue with Kishori Amonkar was a daunting task. With years of experience in interviewing well known personalities, she caught me off guard with her rapid-fire questions. She has very strong likes and dislikes and makes no bones about them. She got very upset when I mentioned Shobha De to her but gave me a wonderful interview, nevertheless,” says Swapan with a smile in his voice. The book is replete with fascinating anecdotes, quirks of personalities, frailties and a very human side to these great names which have escaped the attention of the media. Swapan unravels them through a series of probing yet meaningful interviews which have elicited some thought provoking response.

A specialist in literary features, Swapan’s works have been listed twice in the Dictionary of International Biography and he is well known internationally for his best-selling book “Rusty & I: Up-close with Ruskin Bond”. Asked why he chose to write this book as a series of dialogues, Swapan confesses that as a child he was painfully shy and an introvert and would love to read interviews of famous personalities and imagine being in conversation with them. He grew to love the thrill of fixing appointments with interesting and famous personalities or taking a chance of trying to get them on the phone and travelling huge distances to interview them.

The final product will hold the reader’s attention to the very last page. Every interview conducted, in the words of the author, has brought about a marked change in him.

Eminently readable, this book can be one’s companion while travelling or when unwinding with a cup of tea on a winter afternoon. Here’s hoping that reading it brings forth a new perspective to life.

First published in The Hindu

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