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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 90: Celina Baljeet Basra (Happy)

Charlie and Celina Baljeet Basra (Happy) discuss the experiences undocumented migrants to Western Europe face, French film director Jean Luc Goddard’s seminal film Bande à part, Indian talkshow Koffee With Karan, and Celina’s particular usage of Umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.

The Abduction Of Europe
A review of ‘Park’, the 2017 exhibition curated by Celina
Bande À Part
Bruce Bégout’s Le Park
Uski Roti
There are no clips of the discussed Koffee With Karan episode on YouTube, but if you’ve the right channel, it is from 7th November 2010

Release details: recorded 11th September 2023; published 22nd January 2024

Where to find Celina online: Website || Twitter || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

You can contact the show at

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01:48 Why Celina wanted to tell this story: inspiration from a distant relatives’ migration from India to Italy
05:24 Celina’s highly unique narrative structure (fragmented) and how she used it to further achieve her aims
09:45 Would there have been a way for Happy’s life to improve, if what happened to him at the end didn’t happen?
12:07 The real riot of exploited migrants that was mentioned in the book
14:36 The character of Europe and the way Celina created a woman from a continent
19:32 The importance of the presence of Happy’s family in the novel
21:20 The phrases of Italian vocabulary included that shows us where Happy is in his learning about his new life
24:35 Wonderland – the real one in Jalandhar and Celina’s fictionisation of it
28:53 The inclusion of Jean Luc Goddard’s Bande À Part
34:35 The inclusion of Indian talkshow Koffee With Karan
40:22 Why Celina included the other narrative voices of Harbir and Zhivago at the end
43:37 What’s next


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 90. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Celina Basra. We’ll be talking today about her debut novel, Happy, which was released in November. Happy lived on his parents’ farm in Jalandhar until the Wonderland amusement park took over some of the area and he became employed there. But we first hear from Happy while he’s picking radishes in Italy – he travelled to Europe, after Wonderland, hoping to fulfil his dreams of being an actor and/or a screenwriter – probably, either would do. You most likely get the subtext here. It’s not always obvious whether Happy understands his now present life or not; his teacher had said in school that his writing was good but focussed too much on unnecessary details. There’s a lot of that in this book, however, as you might expect, the author has made it work, it is all intentional. We follow Happy through his seemingly unrelated experiences, his paragraphs of his mother watching Koffee With Karan, his brother’s life, the fact of a broken necklace, the thoughts of a cabbage patch, the dialogue he shares with the co-ordinator at the agency getting him to Europe definitely not via a authorised method, and the Italian phrases he picks up. Hello Celina!

Celina: Hi. Thank you for inviting me, lovely to be here.

Charlie: It’s wonderful to have you on. Thank you for waiting through all of that, I know it was quite a long introduction. I would like to ask you, first off, tell us the inspiration for this book, why you wanted to tell this story.

Celina: Well, I think that trying to write this book, or the idea of the book, has kept me company for a long while. I think the first idea, I probably had it when I was 16, so it’s about 20 years in the making. And I think maybe that’s sometimes noticeable in the book, that there really is a myriad of references and a whole constellation of ideas and details going into the book. I’ve kept notes for a long time, but it took a while to find Happy’s voice, and to get into the shoes of a person travelling to Europe in a way that isn’t by the books. And even though the book is entirely fictional and the characters are entirely fictional, there definitely was a real life inspiration in my life, in my own life, when I was a teenager, that prompted me to write this book. Basically trying to get down to the mystery of someone who migrated to Europe from Punjab, dying in an unexpected way and getting to the bottom of that. Sometimes there are things in your childhood, or when you’re a teenager, that puzzle you, or remain unresolved mysteries, and definitely this book is prompted by such a – to me as a teenager – mystery. And it took a while to find the voice, as I said. But once I did, it was such a joy to write, because for me, it was important, even though the underlying facts might be very dark, to find a balance with the lightness of voice and the joy as well.

Charlie: Well, if you don’t mind me asking, obviously, if it’s not okay to ask, that’s fine, we won’t go there. But you say about this effective inspiration, this experience, could you tell us more about that, and the mystery and what happened?

Celina: I would prefer not to go into the details too far, but it was a death in my extended family. It was someone who migrated to Europe, and he was working as a shepherd in Italy and died unexpectedly, and the causes were never fully determined. So what happens if you don’t have documents is, very often if there’s a medical emergency, that no one calls an ambulance. So that’s something that’s happening all over the place, that, basically, because people don’t get help, people that could have saved them, that is prevented because of the missing documents. It’s not unique to Italy, it’s not unique to Indian immigrants in Italy. And the thing is, I can’t even say much more because parts remain in the dark. And that’s why I really wanted to find a fictional way to work through this, but not for myself, but more for the voice, for Happy, for the person really doing it. And I know that I can never fully walk in Happy’s shoes because I didn’t walk that way. And for Happy, I found a way to write it in these fragments, because I would never claim to have a full picture or any kind of truth. But, yeah, this was the way I could finally see to write this story.

Charlie: Goodness. Thank you for telling us what you have. I think we can fill in the details from there, certainly, as well. But that’s interesting about how you’ve done the narrative, and you’ve explained there what you’ve done. So furthering what you’ve said on this narrative – because it is very unique – you’ve also got this aspect where Happy’s teacher said that he writes unnecessary details, which you think, okay, well, that might be in the text, but also you’ve got this idea that he could be trying to use all of this as a coping method. Because as we see, particularly as the novel goes on, and absolutely, definitely, at the end, there’s a lot going on that even we can’t see in the text that you’ve got to kind of work out yourself. Actually, if I just say, could you talk more about the narrative structure, more about how you’ve done it, rather than the why, because we have the why, and how you used it to further achieve your aims?

Celina: Of course, yes. So, as I said, I feel that some stories – and that’s not unique to stories of flight or migration – are told in fragments, scattered in figments. Because really, life is not always lived in a linear way. We know that. So my entry point was finding Happy’s voice through the letter of application. And, maybe, to just briefly expound on that starting point, I’m interested in the politics of food – obviously, that becomes apparent in the novel – but also of work and workplaces. And in some way, I do see this novel as a workplace novel of [a] different kind because we do follow Happy through lots of jobs and the dynamics of these jobs are different and according to the places he works in. So that’s one thing, the letter of application and deconstructing the idea of a letter of application as a means to present someone in a most perfect way, but to sort of get into a character’s voice, that was an entry point. And then to find a way to portray him, because what I envisioned is that we, in the end, as readers, find these… like a bag full of notebooks and notes and flyers and half written poems, maybe bad ones [laughs], songs, screenplays. So all of Happy’s life on paper, in a way, because we as writers and readers, we love paper; and he took notes of his life. And I believe that even if it was a brief one, he touched the lives of the people he met, but also, he documented it in his own way. And also, you mentioned, initially, his teacher commenting on the fact that he mentions a lot of unnecessary details. And, yes, Happy, of course, for obvious reasons, as the novel progresses and his reality becomes bleaker, tries to escape his life and build another one, maybe even ignore the facts entirely. So up to a point, he might be an unreliable narrator for sure. Painting pictures and running in all kinds of directions but not sitting still to look at what’s in front of him because that might be unbearable. And my take, or argument, is that in some cases and for some lives, that’s fine. [Laughs] I think I’ve been told as a child that I read too much and escape reality too much and that I should not read so much that I do not live in the real world. But sometimes I think that’s totally fine to build your own worlds and do it in the way that Happy does. Although there’s an element to it that when you do experience traumatic events, such as Happy certainly does, I think the journey to Europe alone is such a traumatic event, or a lot of them actually, that you do split off a certain part of yourself, certain elements, unwanted elements, you do sort of split them off and keep them somewhere, shut them in a drawer. And that’s, I think, definitely what happens. You do get glimpses, but, yeah. Also inviting many voices in, such as the voice of a bag or a tree or a split necklace, were important to show that this is not a narrative that can be told in one voice, and it’s rather many that make up the whole picture, or an attempt of a whole picture.

Charlie: Yeah, reminding us that there are, well, there’s many people in this sort of situation. I think I’ll ask you about it more later on, but I like how you brought in other voices, kind of ,how would you say it? Definitively other voices; they’re definitely other voices at the end. But, on this immigration, we see what Happy goes through, through his paragraphs, and we can piece together the rest. There’s going to be people who are in Happy’s situation, there’s people who’ve done better, et cetera, et cetera. Would there have been a way for Happy, in his circumstances, to improve himself if what happened at the end of the novel didn’t happen? Could he have maybe not have become a screenwriter, but could have things been better for him?

Celina: Yes. In the acknowledgements, I think I mentioned, that there was or is an initiative by Malinese farmers in Italy, who left these exploitative working conditions to found their own collective, where they grow their own produce and sell it on markets and do all of these things on their own, and for themselves, and to organise themselves in a different way. And then there’s, of course, Harbir, because Harbir would maybe be a more accurate portrayal of Indian relatives I know or know of, who then also went on to live in Italy and maybe also elsewhere in Europe and build a life and live there as Harbir does in the end. So this, for me, is an alternative ending, in a way, for the Harbir figure, who’s quite important in the beginning, maybe as an antagonist, but then as a friend, for Happy, I feel. So definitely there are different endings that I could imagine, but it was always clear to me that Happy would die. It was necessary, in a way, because… then these paths into Europe, they are deathly, and that’s a fact. And even if there’s a character who’s seeking beauty as much as he does, that doesn’t prevent the facts, the statistics. You’re looking at what happens.

Charlie: I liked Harbir because he did show… although by the time that he is introduced, we – the reader – can see what’s happening and they can see everything fully, Harbir does also present, as you said, that alternative view, basically, you can see that he knows what’s going on fully, whereas you sometimes wonder if Happy does. But you say about the collective in real life, and I think I noted that the riot in the book where the farm workers are trying to better their circumstances because, oh, my goodness, they need to be bettered, they are living in shipping containers, it’s horrific. But you have noted the real riot in the book that you were, if we say, influenced by; could you talk to us about this riot, the real one, and what happened?

Celina: I think it’s maybe a mix of a few incidents that I encountered while researching across, maybe 20 years. But there’s one particular one where it actually wasn’t a physical assault, but I believe a Malinese farmer was shot, and it was a racist attack. And that sparked protest, that then led to, finally, at that point, an outcry in the media. But yeah, I mean, as we see with the political situation in Italy right now, it’s nothing that’s ever solved. So what in my research I saw was that there were these instances of protests sparked by certain events, and one was this attack in the south of Italy, and then another was also the suicide of a farm worker of Punjabi origin, which was recorded in the media. And then, actually, there were quite a few of these. Yeah, so there were these instances where then protests followed, and sometimes for certain small communities, then things changed, but not in the bigger picture. And that’s also something that Zhivago says in the novel, that the whole system of finding your cheap veggies at Lidl depends on exactly that. And, yeah, so that’s it. Where do the cheap radishes come from? You can just look at the label of where the tomatoes come from and then imagine. And this is not unique to Italy, that’s also important to note, of course. You probably know that in the UK there are certain sectors in agriculture, or I don’t know whether it’s chicken farming, that are dependent upon migrant labour; here, it’s asparagus we harvest in Germany. So really you can just look in front of your doorstep and find it. You don’t have to look to Italy.

Charlie: Yeah. Cheap vegetables from Lidl, yeah. Everyone wants them to be cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and well, there’s one way to achieve that, isn’t there? And that’s it, yes. You have the person, or it seems to be the person, of Europe. And I was wondering if I could ask, in terms of the narrative and the narrative voice, where the reality is, where the coping methods come in. If you could just talk about that for a little bit?

Celina: So, Europe. Yeah, of course. She was, after the letter of application, which is the prologue, the first sort of thing, there was a dialogue with Europe and Happy, which now is not part of the book any more. So there was a beginning to go into to find the beginning of the book, basically. And it was just, for me, first, a fun way to explore this. Okay, why? Why come to Europe? Why go to Europe? And this voice of Europe as a… I think she’s a head recruiter here, but sort of an HR manager, and to have this mix of myth and bureaucracy and really look at what is Europe really, nowadays. So the idea of Europe coming together in this figure of a woman… I had a lot of ideas how she could then also become more human and have lots of fun with Europe, but it was too much, so it’s not all part of the book any more [laughs]. But the whole imaginary surrounding Europe that was important. And of course, there’s this prompt for Happy to start imagining the dialogues of Europe as he sees this illustration or picture of the Abduction of Europe. And he looks at this old mosaic, it’s an antique depiction of Europe, and she looks a bit like Jazzy, which is his teenage love interest, unrequited. The thing is, the way he comes about his inspiration, it’s really what he finds around him, and I felt that me as a teenager, I got my hands on a book, and I was like, oh, this book is now very important for my life. And how you find your idols or the things that then really sort of keep you company for quite a long while or influence you, it can be quite random, it’s what you find at the local public library and what is at the shelf next to your favourite book, and then you take it home, and it’s suddenly this thing. And he then develops this whole world, obviously, from certain things, films he encounters and this depiction of Europe. And it’s just a way to show how these processes work: you form an idea of how you can be a different person, and this happens all around, it happens to me or my best friend living in Berlin that we think, oh, we should start a new life somewhere, and then we research all about it. And the difference is that for some people with some passports, it’s so much easier to try. And of course, funds – again, class comes into it – but that’s the whole difference. And then for others, it’s a life-threatening thing. For some places, it’s only just, oh, well, this dream because I couldn’t really find a job in the south of France, but then for others, it’s a whole lot more than just one shattered plan. And Europe is a way to also have fun with this idea, but then there’s this whole lot of things behind, like the idea of Europe and the bureaucracy of it, or the concept of it, and what is it even, in times of Brexit, what we see politically right now in all these countries of Europe. But I’m fond of Europe. Yeah, I like her.

Charlie: Okay.

Celina: The character in the book at least.

Charlie: Yes. Yeah. Well, given what you’ve said, I want to ask, should we then have some level of empathy for Europe or see her as not quite a bad person as we possibly have because of where she’s associated with everything?

Celina: I don’t know. I think that bureaucracy is also a way to hide and not really take full responsibility, because that’s also happening. And then we have all these attempts to take care, but then it doesn’t work because of bureaucracy or the rules, to put it naively. And we have this little interlude where Europe talks about she wanted to do this care package to welcome people, but then it really didn’t get through her proposal, and now there was only these disposable hand wipes, but even those Happy didn’t get because, well, that didn’t work out. Or her ‘dress as your favourite culture’ week, where she puts on a sari and is well, that’s a nod to your culture! I think this shows the level of caring and maybe there’s a lot more behind, but I wouldn’t fully say she’s a bad person, but definitely she’s not really doing her job [laughs]. So that’s it, I think, hard to put my finger on and say really what it is, but that’s maybe my verdict right now about Europe.

Charlie: That makes absolute sense because you’ve said that, and I’m still like, but is she, is she okay, though?

Celina: Yeah.

Charlie: Which I think is a good thing to keep questioning. We’ve talked about Europe, so I suppose if we say the family, Happy’s family – how important was it to you to give them a bit of a voice in the novel?

Celina: Well, I think that Happy’s voice, this sort of bright eyed, at times, also seemingly or actually naive, voice, it really needed different voices to become fuller and to also give us other eyes through which to see the world. And so this really evolved, actually, quite organically and beautifully, as did the whole thing, in the end. His parents were important also to give a connection to older worlds. India, the partition, the older generation, his siblings, who were also significantly older than him. Then the random people, a dude at the market selling him lady fingers, or maybe the other pickers; also I had fun with these voices, to just present a more varied ‘field’ of perspectives coming in and also showing that this is one way to tell this story, but it’s not the only one. So that, for me, was always important and a good means also to explore the world of the book further for myself. Quite helpful.

Charlie: Fair enough. I did wonder, because when we first hear… I want to say it’s Ambica we hear from, I’m not sure who’s first, but of course, the first thing I’m thinking of is, is this a created dialogue, a created scene by Happy? Is it part of a screenplay? Is it real? That could just be me; that was my interpretation, how I found it at the time. But then definitely as we carried on, I was like, okay, no, this is a grounding in a different way. It was good. I liked it. I particularly liked in the narrative where you have these very small sections where you literally just state the vocabulary that Happy has learned. And you don’t give translations. I don’t speak Italian, at all; some of it’s easy to translate. Some of it, obviously, you can put into Google Translate, and they really are amazing because it’s literally just these couple of lines, progresses the story by itself. When did you come up with the idea to include this bit, this aspect?

Celina: Oh, thank you, first of all, because I’m happy that it does work. I was, of course, just putting this vocabulary in there, which really is sometimes oscillating between maybe almost poetry for Happy, but then, sometimes he jotted down some vocabularies that might be useful. And really, that’s how I envision it, how I want to travel to a country, and I don’t speak the language, I note down… maybe it was a notebook, now it’s maybe a phone, note down some useful words. Maybe have the new note as his time progresses. And then there’s this basic need, asking for food related things, or asking for the way, saying who you are, saying your name. But then maybe it progresses to more of a detailed or special need or desires. And it’s connected to his love for film and movies, and really an expression of his wants, his needs, his desire, his dreams. It came into the writing, I think, after I finished the first draft, and then in the rewrites and the edits, this was something I added. And again, it was a joy to write. Maybe I’m in a good position to do it because I did learn Italian, I studied art history, so I did take courses in Italian. And I planned to go to Italy for a year abroad. I had it all in place, and then I fell in love. I decided to stay in Berlin. Stupidly. But then instead of going to Italy after this romance ended, I went to India. So I have all this Italian vocabulary that then was never fully put to practice. I travelled to Italy a lot. A lot. But still, my Italian is really rudimentary [laughs]. I experience it with other people who learn German, or maybe who learn English: you’re more perceptible sometimes to a certain beauty in words, because you don’t fully comprehend them, or you have a quite unorthodox way to use them, which I find beautiful. So also, in my whole work, because I’m dealing so much with translation, and translating our texts to different languages, or dealing with the fact that we work so much in English and then so many mother tongues are never taking place, like in the art world or something. Yeah, Astra House, the publishing house, they really like doing that – to leave sentences and words in the original language as they are and not put them in italics. And I find that beautiful. So that comes in for sure, and to definitely give a feeling for Happy, trying to sort of build his world in Italy, again in this fragmented way. Yeah, that’s it, basically.

Charlie: Interesting answer. Very interesting. So, okay, then we will go to Wonderland.

Celina: Yes.

Charlie: I didn’t know it was a real place first, and I thought, my goodness, this is a really good creation. I suppose it’s still relevant; it’s still a good inclusion, even though it’s a real place. Can you tell us about the real Wonderland in Jalandhar and why you have used it?

Celina: So it’s very important to note that the Wonderland in the book really is fictional. For years, I’ve been interested in the idea of parks. I curated an exhibition in 2017 that was called The Park, in German. And I find it interesting that amusement parks are this space where we may experience fun and a place for leisure and experience fun in a controlled way. And there are many spaces that are parks. Not just amusement parks, also just parks where we go to hang out and have a picnic. The Internet is a park, really. And I read this book by a French philosopher called Bruce Bégout, called, also, The Park, which is quite a dystopian vision for a park that lets the visitors discover, on a remote island in Borneo, very dark aspects of human reality, like a prison, even torture. Again, this is a very dark topic, like the way he explores the park in his book. But what I find interesting is that parks also are very often places where you find copies or simulacra of European sites. Like when I visited Shanghai and I walked through this quarter, like a whole little neighbourhood, which is a copy of Paris, and then there is also, near Beijing, a Wonderland where the construction was abandoned, and now there’s this big concrete skeleton of a copy of a Disneyland castle, which in turn is a copy of Castle Neuschwanstein in the south of Germany. So if we look at amusement parks, we have all these copies of copies of copies, and here, of course, the significance is that if you find a little Paris or Champs-Élsées, you have this idea of Europe or copy of Europe, expressing a desire to be elsewhere. And I think the real Wonderland in Jalandhar is quite your go-to amusement park. I think there is a thing, the Rocky ride, i’s the only thing that does, I believe, exist, which is inspired by the movie Rocky. So movie inspired-rides are, maybe, common, but the whole Wonderland in the book is fictional. And also Happy’s is, of course, maybe satirical, but also a far more local version, where he envisions rides that are inspired by historical events in India and not like the Eiffel Tower, which, if you think about it, it’s so boring [laughs]. If you go from amusement park to amusement park all over the world and you have the same copies of the rides. So I like it that Happy has his own ideas. But in the end, of course, it’s also one of the things that Wonderland is, just in the book, an image for life-changing, the rural communities changing, which is fine. They’re allowed to do that if it then enriches the communities or makes them more prosperous and creates jobs. The question is always, what does disappear? And I think regarding farming in Punjab, the things I give, like Wonderland or the Moth, are just images for a myriad of political conditions and also real life challenges and climate change and everything that does challenge farming realities in India and all over the world. So just to sort of put this straight, that this is a fictionalised way to sort of tell this storyline and give the backdrop, that this is the backdrop against which this is happening – why do you imagine a different life? And why do you need to leave? Because maybe there’s no futures right in front of your doorstep.

Charlie: Yeah, as you were saying that, I was seeing that the conversation about partition and Happy’s parents had to move during partition, and then yeah, they effectively have to give up some of their farm. And then you’ve got, obviously different circumstances, but Happy moving himself to Europe and moving further afield. Yeah. So if we go to Jean Luc Goddard, and I’m going to completely ruin the pronunciation here, I expect Bande á Part or Band of Outsiders, I believe it is, in English. I wasn’t able to find a copy of this film. I have watched little clips on YouTube. But I just wanted to ask you, why did you make this such an important part of the book?

Celina: Yeah, that’s very interesting because it happened, as many things, very organically, and seemed very clear to me, [that] yeah, this is the way it goes. I think maybe I might circle back to something I said earlier where I feel sometimes when you’re young, a kid or a teenager, and you find certain things, they fall into your hands and then they become such a great significance. Or you turn it into this big thing. And this is what happens with Happy. So to maybe also increase the pull of Europe, there is a thing, this movie, where he feels he looks like one of the characters played by the actor Sammy Frey. He was a favourite of Goddard’s. And he finds this image when Sammy Frey was young, around the time when he filmed with Goddard and thinks, well, I do look a bit like him, don’t I, like in this angle? And this thing where you do want to find an alter ego or a different self. A different self that carries you outside your immediate surroundings, that you find drab and old and constricting and sort of free yourself in this idea of someone else, and that for him is this actor. So, not only just does he want to become an actor and also a playwright, because he wants to do many things, he’s sometimes also not clear on how exactly or what exactly, but for sure there’s the enthusiasm and the imagination. And also of course Bande á Part, which is a movie that is so often described as something Kafkaesque or Alice in Wonderland-esque, it really feeds right into or fits right into Happy’s world, and his style of narration and the feel that everything is possible; something seemingly silly or unrelated, yeah, let’s make it happen, let’s do this dance, let’s run through the Louvre, let’s just… why? That’s not important, just do it. And it’ll become part of this big work of art. So I think that is it, his entry point. And also the fact maybe that once he gets behind the black and white thing, which might seem boring initially, or you lose interest if you’re not used to it, but then yeah, anything is possible really. That’s so important for me. That’s also why in the very end, I mentioned Uski Roti, the Mani Kaul film that he watches with Zhivago. So, it’s not to say that arty cinema doesn’t exist in India, not at all. It’s just that he finds this piece of new wave and cinema, and that for him becomes something that increases his desire to go abroad to Europe, because that’s where his future will be, that’s what he believes. But of course, there’s those wealth of cinema beyond Bollywood, also in India, and we all know how important cinema is in India and what a big part of people’s lives [it is], but not just because of Bollywood; there’s a whole lot of different stories there, which are not as visible sometimes., but yeah. So that’s definitely a big thing for Happy. But that’s why Bande á Part grew into this whole thing. Also something very random, the Indian Bird of death: he picks this detail out of the movie, which for some might not be interesting at all, but he’s like, ‘Indian bird of death’, okay, I can find out more about that, because he’s like this professional Googler. He’s a keen researcher with the means he has. And also important to note, that you don’t always have the means to watch this movie. It’s very hard to find. Very hard to find. Like my partner has a big Goddard DVD collection, but then no one has a DVD player any more. So I believe Happy also mostly watch these in bits and pieces. And again, there we come back to the fact that sometimes if we are recipients of great works of art, we don’t always have the privilege to have all this time to look at them, have all this time to look at art or to write or to create, but then we have all these other jobs to do. We might not have the background that allows us to do so, and that’s the case for many, many, many people in this world. But everyone has the right to just sit and just write, to sit and watch and just look and perceive. But the time is not always there, so we watch in bits and pieces. And that sometimes means that our knowledge is not complete, but there are a lot of holes in there. Yeah, that’s also an aspect: the way he watches it, the way he remembers it, the way he talks about it, how he picks out these details that then become so big, and how it then plays out from there. And then it’s also important that Happy imagines the plot after the movie ends because that’s also something that he finds fascinating, I find fascinating – what happens after the happy end or not happy end or after the ending, and how do these characters then play out after that?

Charlie: Given what you’ve said then, I will say to listeners, if you are in the same situation as me and you haven’t seen Goddard’s films, it seems from what Celina has said, that it’s okay to watch the bits and pieces [Celina laughs], and certainly the idea that I got about the vibe of the movie it’s definitely there for the taking, if you watch the few clips. Yes, a lot of it doesn’t make sense. It’s a fun thing as well. That’s good to know as well. So we’ll move on to a different industry, I suppose. Bollywood, you have Koffee with Karan, Happy’s mother’s programme of choice, she watches it loads and loads and loads, it’s mentioned a lot, and that’s why I feel we should bring that in further than saying, ‘just’, in quotes, ‘just’ Bollywood. And you have a focus on… I think it’s Deepika Padukone, but also particularly Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan. And then, yeah, you do bring Aishwarya Rai back into it a few times: Happy focuses on her eyes, her eyes are in the car when he’s on the journey to Italy. I suppose I want to ask yeah, why Koffee with Karan? Why Aishwarya Rai particularly? That sort of thing.

Celina: Well, yes [laughs], I do think that there is a thing where Happy imagines – well, for him, it’s real – the loo interviews, where he’s interviewed. And I think that this is a very luxurious situation to find yourself being interviewed about the things you did; actually, the situation I find myself in now for the first time in my life, because normally I’m at the other end and talking to artists about their work. So this is something quite beautiful. And for me, Koffee with Karan, it’s a talk show which is about the Bollywood gossip, really, the icons of Indian Bollywood cinema, the hot couples. And Happy has this fascination with couples and love, and we find that a few times, even when he watches other people and guests in the restaurant in Rome. So to have this iconic couple of Indian cinema, quite like a royal couple, actually, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan interviewed on Koffee with Karan… I think I put it there like an Easter egg for people who might know the show. And it’s not like there’s, I think, such a great significance why I picked, particularly, Koffee with Karan, but just to give a real life sort of… how does Happy get his feeling that if you’re interviewed, you’ve made know? And that is part of it, because once you sit there on a seat and people take their time to ask you all these questions and play all these games and who do you fancy in which movie? When I lived for a brief time in India, in 2010, and I was going through all these celebrity magazines, they even sometimes discuss what happened on Koffee with Karan. So Karan Johar, the host, is, I think, quite an important figure, not just as a host, but also as an actor and producer for Bollywood cinema. So I think to just bring these figures in because they are part of your daily life and backdrop in pop culture, is quite important to balance the picture. He has this vivid internal life, but then there’s the outside world, and this is what he sees – the glimpses of a mother who doesn’t even really like the show, but watches it, it’s a constant background hum. And I think the background hum idea is quite important; what makes up the thing that you have at the back of your mind, the songs that you play [on a] loop in your head, the voices that make up the voices in your mind. So this all amounts to it – the TV running, the songs playing, which are linked to Bollywood culture – but then there’s a myriad of other things, the outside influence that he gets himself. So it was quite important to have the playlist ,have the sounds, to look at the videos, to have the voices at the back of my head to write to.

Charlie: Maybe I should have seen it when I read the book, but you speaking here, it’s made me think that in many ways, then, Koffee with Karan is almost like an inclusion and narrative of Happy’s mother. It’s a way he includes her, yeah.

Celina: Well, yeah, I think so. I think it’s also a small connection – how you sometimes really talk to our parents. It differs so widely across generations, cultures, characters. So sometimes these little moments when you watch something together can be so nice. And for him, that’s something that links him to different family members, and then he has these pairings of watching partners in the family, and snacks, obviously. These little moments he shares also with his mother.

Charlie: And, also, you said about other pieces of culture, and there is a lot of pop culture following on from Goddard and Koffee with Karan, and Bollywood. Was it a Rihanna song, Umbrella in there?…

Celina: Umbrella, yeah. I really love that because the book is about how to find the room of your own that can protect you, and standing under one’s umbrella, finding the people who protect you. Or is it possible at all? Because then in the end, with this little thing from Bande á Part, where she asks Franz, can you close the hood of the car? And he says, the hood doesn’t close – it’s broken, basically. So the question is, can you ever fully close the hood, like, to protect yourself? Or is it just an illusion? And does Europe really protect you? Where are you protected, actually? Where are we all protected? And these little things, like Rihanna’s Umbrella. I really wanted to put that quote at the beginning of the book, but including song text, the rights are so expensive. I mean, Umbrella… yeah, it’s like an echo that reverberates also through the restaurant kitchen, because that’s the moment when Happy has it in his mind.

Charlie: That’s fascinating. I didn’t know there was so much going into that, that’s interesting to hear. I have a couple more questions then. You have a… I want to say it’s a paragraph, no, I think it’s a few paragraphs, actually, from Zhivago after his death, which I actually wondered if he was dead or if he wasn’t. But can I ask you why you included these narratives? Because you’ve got him, I think you’ve got one from Harbir as well, after Happy’s death, and obviously, Happy has written all the narrative. Why did you want to continue on with other voices afterwards?

Celina: That was very important from the beginning, so that was clear for me from the beginning. And, of course, like the name Happy, I debated it. I was like, okay, is this a good decision? But I wanted a continuation, I wanted to keep the wheels turning, because they do. If someone dies, then the crazy thing is that the other people’s lives around them, [no matter] how much they love them, they continue. They have to, or if you choose to. So, to give this little outlook on Harbir’s life, as I also mentioned before, was important to me, to give a glimpse into a different kind of life evolving in a different way, in Italy, a different story of migration, because there’s so, so, many, so many, evolving in so many different ways. And also to have this voice as a continuation and also an echo of Happy. And that’s, of course, debatable. And for me, also, and I want to leave that open, definitely to the reader, from where Zhivago is speaking, as much as his [Happy’s] voice and the songs and the constant humming because that’s what it is in his head, the constant humming, the echo is still there. I mean that sounds kitschy, but he might still be present in the people who are speaking at the end. With Fatepal, his brother, who was just in the very background the whole time, to show what kind of real life consequences a death like that has to someone close to you, and how you deal with it and how then could you have prevented it. And we have this moment earlier on in the novel where he talks about the death of his brother Davinder, the handsome one. Happy definitely does reimagine real life events as if they were a movie – that’s very apparent throughout – that happens. So he does that with the death of his brother Davinder, to explain it to himself, for it to make sense. We need these narrations for things and these traumatic events, to make sense to us. So he does that with Davinder, and he wonders, on the day you die, do you know it, or is your life just cut off like that with a knife? So, yeah, that’s maybe a little foreshadowing there.

Charlie: I am happy to hear that you did leave what you did leave open ended, open ended. I like that. And I think it’s poignant, that there’s been an investigation into the farm that Happy and Harbir and Zhivago, and everybody else has worked at, and nothing’s come of it. Well actually, something did come of it – there was violence from the owners burning everything up. But that’s interesting about the open ending. What are you writing at the moment? What’s next?

Celina: Well even before I found Happy’s voice and then the flow for the novel really happened, I was working on a collection of short stories. So this is definitely something I’m working on right now. And so some themes definitely reappear – the politics of food and work and definitely the lives of the diaspora. But then, also, I think much more than that. So that’s something that I love working on right now. But I also started the next novel and definitely a continuation of some of the characters in different reincarnations reappearing in these different narratives and stories.

Charlie: Excellent – you tell a tale in a very unique and incredibly poignant way that really works. So yeah, Celina, this has been lovely having you. You have given me a lot more appreciation for your novel than I already had. Thank you very much for being here.

Celina: Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely talking to you.

[Record later] Charlie: I do hope you enjoyed this episode. Do join me next time. And for more information as to upcoming authors, check out The Worm Hole podcast episode 90 was recorded on the 11th September 2023 and published on the 22th January 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.

Photo credit: Lilian Scarlet.


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