In a world of shifting cultures, Hari Kunzru understands the uncertainties of identity better than most. To look at, he is every bit the confident writer. Promoting his critically acclaimed first novel The Impressionist in India, he enjoyed the status of a highly eligible bachelor. One interviewer even asked him his credit-card limit and views on women's fashion. The toothy grin that spreads sporadically across his face while he talks, the Hugh Grant charm and Salman Rushdie attention to detail, all suggest a man who has always been sure of himself.
He certainly doesn't seem to worry too much about making powerful enemies. In November The Impressionist was named as the winner of the 5,000 John Llewellyn Rhys award. The John Llewellyn Rhys is the second oldest literary prize in Britain, but for the past 15 years it has been sponsored by The Mail on Sunday. Kunzru rejected the award, citing the newspaper's 'editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum seekers'. Kunzru demanded that the paper donate the prize money to the Refugee Council.
But the persona that the author now presents to the world is the result of a hard-won battle to reconcile competing influences in his life. Kunzru, who has an English mother and an Indian immigrant father, admits that The Impressionist's protagonist Pran Nath is modelled partly on himself. The mixed-race Pran is born into north Indian wealth at the height of the Raj. But finding himself plummeted into terrifying poverty, he eventually rejects his brownness and nurtures a borrowed white identity among the upper classes of England. While Pran is a character of extremes, Kunzru concedes: 'I write him out of my own experience of trying to fit into very disparate social situations.'
Kunzru's own beginnings are certainly less fantastic than Pran's, and are mirrored in the lives of countless middle-class British Asians. He grew up in an affluent London suburb (a 'heartland of Thatcherism'). 'There was hostility towards Black and Asian people and immigrants in general,' he remembers. 'I realised that I wasn't necessarily wanted. There were people who would be violent towards me and the people I cared about.' For the only time during the interview, his voice falters.
'Being young in the early 1980s there was also real nuclear-war tension,' he adds - his voice rising. 'I'd have nightmares about being annihilated.' These tensions were reawakened for Kunzru by the war against Iraq. 'We're living in fear,' he says. 'The imposition of this abstract war on us has led to increased hostility to immigrants. The way the asylum issue is being dealt with now is becoming an orthodoxy that we need to crack down, that we have too many of whoever they are. We're being taught to fear outsiders.'
The fears of his youth have helped feed his recent activism. Interested but not involved in politics for years, he now regrets his relative lack of involvement in politics while studying at Oxford University in the 1990s. 'I wish I had been more politically active than I actually was,' he says. 'I went on marches and I signed petitions, but I didn't do any organising; partly because I was very busy being an artist.' He whispers the word 'artist' almost shamefully, with the accent of a theatrical luvvie.
But since writing The Impressionist, Kunzru has found himself more involved in campaign work. 'Politics was sort of thrust on me,' he says, leaning back in the chair as if the weight of it is pressing on him now. Angered by the growing prejudice against immigrants in Britain's right-wing press, he has worked closely with the Refugee Council.
He wears the mantle of this new responsibility with a mixture of passion and understanding. While his empathy towards immigrants is clearly rooted in personal experience, he backs his case with countless statistics and facts. 'The Daily Express in one month last year did 22 splashes on asylum seekers,' he says. 'The cumulative effect of that is to demonise poor and vulnerable people who we should be protecting. The Daily Mail also has an agenda that is promoting hostility to non-white British people as well as immigrants. All the press are to a greater or lesser extent guilty of keeping the ball rolling.'
Kunzru's greatest strength is in pushing taboos. One he clearly feels strongly about is the fallacy that non-whites in Britain cannot be racist. Immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s are as guilty of racism -- particularly towards new immigrants and asylum seekers -- as the white population, he admits. 'You find the most vicious prejudice among those communities.'
The novelist is also roused by Conservative leader Michael Howard's recent attempts to exploit his Jewish immigrant background. 'He never said a damn word about his immigrant ancestry when he was trying to send all the asylum seekers home when he was home secretary. We only began hearing about his immigrant experience very recently.' Relaxing from his rage, he contemplates for a second before exclaiming loudly: 'Howard is Pran!'
In The Impressionist, Kunzru contrasts Pran with socialists that the anti-hero meets in Bombay; the Bombay communists condemn Pran for being the white man's 'lackey'. Pran's politics are put into even starker relief by the character of Gertler, a wealthy communist Jew who Pran first meets at public school. Kunzru says Gertler is 'someone who's prepared to assert his beliefs even at risk to himself... When they end up on opposite sides of a street fight between the communists and fascists, Pran realises he has gone a bit the wrong way'.
There are hints of Gertler in Kunzru as much as there are elements of Pran. 'There's an idea that if you're born privileged, like I was, you shouldn't try to work for a fairer world. It's absurd. There's a traditional fear of the rich communist because politics to them is more like a luxury or a hobby rather than something that is forced upon them by necessity.'
Despite his fears about the current political situation, Kunzru remains optimistic. 'The extra-parliamentary left is getting more significant,' he says. 'The social movements throughout the world are becoming more organised, but there is a real need to produce an agenda for the left that shows it is possible to have prosperity as well as peace.' After a little hesitation, he adds: 'I actually think that even within the Parliamentary Labour Party there are still a lot of people who would get behind another kind of politics. I don't think the Blairite version of social democracy is the only answer.'
As a former editor of every technophiles' favourite magazine Wired, it is immediately clear that technology is a subject occupying Kunzru's mind as much as racial politics. Though the nuclear threat has dissipated, he believes that technology still plays an important role in our lives. 'Social technologies like the internet are becoming increasingly important in both controlling people and giving them the opportunity to resist control. I think it's very poorly understood in Britain quite what possibilities for social control new technologies give. There are databases, face-recognition and various information-based technologies available to government. Future governments will be in a position to be able to control people. Anything that became seriously subversive would be snuffed out immediately.'
At the same time, Kunzru loves the internet for the possibilities it offers, especially to social movements across the world. 'Simply as a space for the imagination, the internet is amazing. I've been in discussion groups where you get all parts of the world thrashing out ideas.'
In his new book Transmission (out in June), Kunzru has combined the issues of race and technology. The book describes the turbulent journey of a shy Indian computer programmer to the US. Ashamed and desperately scared after losing his job, the hero introduces a virus to computer systems in an effort to create work for himself.
The theme of fear, which ran like an injected vein through Kunzru's first work, seems to be just as vital in his second book. In trying to decipher human behaviour, it helps that the author himself also understands what it means to be scared.