Kunal Basu

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Kunal Basu
Kunal Basu at an International Conference at the University of Burdwan.JPG
Born (1956-05-04) 4 May 1956 (age 60)
Calcutta, West Bengal, India
Occupation University Reader in Marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
Spouse Susmita Basu

Kunal Basu (Bengali: কুনাল বসু) is an Indian author of English fiction who has written five novels – The Opium Clerk (2001), The Miniaturist (2003), Racists (2006), The Yellow Emperor's Cure (2011) and Kalkatta (2015). He has also written a collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife (2008), the title story of which has been made into a film by the Indian filmmaker Aparna Sen.


Kunal Basu was born in Kolkata to Sunil Kumar Basu (a litterateur and publisher and one of the early members of the Communist Party of India) and Chabi Basu (an author and actress). Born to Communist parents, he was brought up on books and enriching conversations at home that was visited by a galaxy of prominent men and women of the day.

In between he worked for an advertising agency, in freelance journalism, dabbled in filmmaking, and taught at Jadavpur University for a brief period of 16 months. In 1982, he met and married Susmita. Their daughter, Aparajita, was born soon after.

After his doctoral degree, he was a professor at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, from 1986–1999. His 13 years at McGill were interrupted only by a brief stint at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, in 1989. Since 1999, he has been teaching at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. He has also written financial pieces for business publications such as Fast Company and MIT Sloan Management Review.[1]

Influence and themes[edit]

Basu is one of the very few Indian practitioners of historical fiction. Apart from his love of history, it has something to do with the influence of his favourite author, the Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838–94). Bankim (himself heavily influenced by Walter Scott) was a writer of historical novels, as were many other Bengali writers of the 19th and 20th centuries whom Basu avidly read as a child, like Ramesh Chandra Dutta and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. But more than anything, he has said what draws him most to this genre is the "romantic possibilities of the historical novel",[citation needed] the scope to inhabit other places and times and thus enable the reader to romance the strange.

Basu is the first writer to deal with the opium trade in Indian fiction. This part of British colonial history is often ignored nowadays in British history textbooks.

The Mughal court, once again, made its first appearance in Indian-English fiction in The Miniaturist. Basu has always had a great fascination for Mughal history. That innate interest coupled with several trips to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri helped him recreate the 16th century setting.

This Muslim novel by Basu was followed by Racists, a book which did not have a single Indian character in it. It was the first Victorian novel to be written by a non-white and was nominated for the Crossword Book Award.

Basu has said that there is certainly 'deep' (as opposed to 'surface') autobiography in his work, and cites Mahim – a member of 19th century's Young Bengal – as the character that comes closest to him as a person. His first novel is also partly located in the city of his birth – though a Calcutta 100 years before his time.



Hiran, the eponymous clerk of the title, is born in 1857: the year of Mutiny and the year his father dies. Brought to Calcutta by his widowed mother he turns out to have few talents, apart from an uncanny ability to read a man's lies in his palm. When luck gets him a job at the auction house, Hiran finds himself embroiled in a mysterious trade, and even more deeply embroiled in the affairs of his nefarious superior, the infamous Mr. Jonathan Crabbe and his opium addicted wife. An unlikely hero, Hiran is caught up in rebellion and war, buffeted by storms at sea, by love and intrigue, innocently implicated in fraud and dark dealings.

Set in the Mughal court of Akbar the Great in the 16th century, this novel tells the story of Bihzad, son of the chief court painter. A child prodigy, Bihzad is groomed to take his father's place in the imperial court but the precocious and brilliant artist soon tires of imperial commissions and develops a grand and forbidden obsession. He leads a dual life – spending his nights painting the Emperor as his lover, and his days recording the Emperor's official biography in miniatures. But rumours about the wild, passionate nature of his secret drawings bring his enemies out into the open, who use his art to destroy him.

1855: on a deserted island off the coast of Africa, the most audacious experiment ever envisaged is about to begin. To settle an argument that has raged inconclusively for decades, two scientists decide to raise a pair of infants, one black, one white, on a barren island, exposed to the dangers all around them, tended only by a young nurse whose muteness renders her incapable of influencing them in any way, for good or for bad. They will grow up without speech, without civilisation, without punishment or play. In this primitive environment, the children will develop as their primitive natures dictate.[2]

  • The Yellow Emperor's Cure, 2011

Lisbon, 1898: philandering surgeon Antonio Maria discovers his beloved father is dying of syphilis, scourge of both rich and poor. Determined to find a cure, Antonio sets sail for Peking in the hope that traditional Chinese medicine has the answer that eludes the West. But when Antonio encounters the alluringly independent Fumi, he finds the first love he cannot leave behind.

  • Kalkatta, 2015

Jami is the Gigolo King of Kalkatta. Smuggled into India from Bangladesh and given refuge by his uncle, a leader of the ruling Communist Party, he grows up in Zakaria Street—a Little Baghdad of the old—dreaming of becoming a pukka Kalkatta-wallah. When friendship with a local gang disqualifies him from school, he ends up as assistant to a passport forger, and then a masseur. Soon enough, innocent massage leads to 'plus plus treatments', and Kalkatta opens its doors, drawing Jami into the world of the rich and famous, housewives, tourists and travelling executives, and occasionally to high-paying and dangerous 'parties '. Danger looms, too, from rivals and the police, and the ever-present risk of losing his cover. Jami's shadowy double life takes a turn for the unexpected when he meets Pablo, a young boy who suffers from leukemia, and his single mother Mandira. Made to oscillate between his refugee family, the neighbourhood gang, his massage-parlour clients, even the cultured world of Bengali intellectuals inhabited by Mandira, he succeeds in becoming a true Kalkattawallah, but a stranger to himself. Until his love for Pablo threatens to destroy everything, and even drive away from his beloved city.

Short story collections[edit]

An Indian man writes to a Japanese woman. She writes back. They fall in love and exchange vows in their letters, then live as man and wife without ever setting eyes on each other – their intimacy of words finally tested by life's miraculous upheavals.

The twelve stories in this collection are about the unexpected.

An American professor visits India with the purpose of committing suicide, and goes on a desert journey with the daughter of a snakecharmer. A honeymooning Indian couple is caught up in the Tiananmen Square unrest. A Russian prostitute discovers her roots in the company of Calcutta revolutionaries. A holocaust victim stands tall among strangers in a landscape of hate.

The title story of the The Japanese Wife has been made into a film by director Aparna Sen. Narrated by the author over a casual conversation in Oxford, she found it "an improbable and hauntingly beautiful love story, almost surreal in its innocence". That, and "the potential for great visuals" was what impelled her to make the film, she said in a TV interview.[citation needed]

For Basu, this film represents a further tryst in his long affair with cinema, "the most magical of all the arts". He had acted in two of Mrinal Sen's films – Punascha and Abasheshe – as a child; and was later involved in the making of two documentaries – Football (1980) and The Magic Loom (1997).


  1. ^ Homo Calculus
  2. ^ Kunal Basu (2006) The Racists, Penguin ISBN 0-14-306225-5

External links[edit]