27 February 2011

Not Just Cricket by Vikram Dravid

There's more to life than World Cups
When I reached page 97, I suddenly realized that this was a really good book.
I had been reading slowly, enjoying the story about a typical cricket-playing boy from a middle-class family in Bombay. There had been brief glimpses of a world beyond. At page 97 the world beyond shone through, clear and unmistakable, and I understood how and why this book really wasn’t just about cricket. Cricket is the fabric; it’s also the substance of the plot. However, Not Just Cricket also carries glimpses into rich, deep aspects of life that can be revealed to most of us only through fiction because they are so removed from our scheme of things.
Most of the books I read these days are just too long. They go on and on, invariably repeating themselves, aiming to thrill the reader with flourish after flourish. As you long for them to end, all you can do is stretch your eyebrows in exasperation at that fundamental horror creative people seem to consider themselves entitled to – of having the output of their genius savaged just for the user. So after a long time, I was happy to be reading a book which ended too soon. It simply did not do justice to all that the author has to say.
Vikram Dravid is a doctor. He grew up in Bombay and now lives and works in the US. He certainly has the knack of telling a story and his characters are developed with skill, but there were some things I felt were lacking and I emailed him with my questions.

I found the fake names really annoying. Why Suchen Chembulkar? Especially, why Dalmeinkuchkala?! These names are parodies and more fitted to a comic or satirical genre. I found that in your text, which has a quite serene context, they formed abrupt and jarring interruptions. Was there a reason why you did this? And how much of the Pakistan tour you’ve described is as real and thinly disguised? I’m afraid I don’t know cricket so you will have to tell me in case there was a specific series you were talking about. I did enjoy stepping in and getting glimpses of Pakistan along with the team, though.
I was going to use the real names of current cricketers but was told that using the real name, particularly of a celebrity, in a fictitious scenario required their permission. I wanted to give the cricket an aura of authenticity, and not seem make-believe. Using thinly-disguised versions of current day stars, that most of the readers would likely be familiar with, allowed me to extrapolate their real life characteristics into my book without having to flesh them out.
Interestingly, readers have either been turned off or extremely tickled by the names. Dalmeinkuchkala refers to a previous chairman of the board who had a reputation of many unsavoury deals. I must say there was a little inspiration from Rushdie's use of Rani of Cooch Nahin etc, although I recognize that my book is not of the same genre or calibre. The tour is all made up.

Your style is neat and simple and I also admired your frequent linguistic flourishes. But … I would have been a bit more careful with the editing.

Being a first-time author, I sought a lot of advice regarding this. The manuscript has been edited umpteen times. I do think some of the usage may reflect my own peculiarities of language.
I really believe that I am more of a storyteller than a writer. In fact I am better at narrating verbally and sometimes my prose is gushy and has to be chopped up on the second go around.

What I really would have liked is more details of the glimpses you’ve given us into the fascinating lives of Arjun’s parents. I kept thinking kept thinking that you have the seed of more good books in some of the areas you’ve touched on there – in particular the aspects of rural medicine. Maybe a collection of short stories?
The two stories about Arjun's parents have been liked the most by all readers. They did start off as short stories, but because they fitted in well I used them to add layers and dimensions to those two characters and to tie in the narrative.

How did you find a publisher? And how’s the distribution going?
Being removed from India, with no direct access to publishers, I sent out routine emails to the big publishing houses. They weren't quick to respond. I found Cinnamon Teal on the web. They have been very responsive. However, people have found it difficult to get their hands on the book. I guess distribution could be better. For instance, I would love for it to be available in a chain of stores such as Crosswords. Currently it will be made available in select bookstores, I don't know which ones. I would love to be more involved. However, distance and the lack of wherewithal are stumbling blocks. The book has done very well in North America where it is available on Amazon.

What are you working on next?

I do have a sequel in mind, but am currently working on a string of short stories that tie in together with a common thread.

07 February 2011

Hickory Dickory Shock by Sundip Gorai

Superpower supercrime
This book is a murder mystery set in a software company. Since it’s written by a Business Intelligence and Analytics wiz, the plot is complicated and has any number of enjoyable twists and surprises. But Sundip Gorai writes simply and directly, and with frequent spurts of mildly giddy-headed humour which gave me the feeling that he was really enjoying himself. I have to regretfully point out that the idiom here is slightly below par – and for this I would blame the publisher’s editors for not doing a proper job.
As I read, a few things bothered me and I mailed Sundip Gorai with questions and I have reproduced our email conversation below – in tact, so as to give a sense of the idiom in the book – relaxed and easy, but fundamentally faulty.

Why did you use a cliché like Shivan when you have such strong, original characters and plot?

I believed that for a reader, at the point of purchase, the front and the back cover play a crucial role in deciding whether to buy or not to buy a book. This is especially true for a book whose name is not known to the reader – though my book is published by Rupa & Co, till the book was published, I was an unknown entity in the world of writing. I consciously used SHIVAN Computers as the name of the mega enterprise where the story is set so that readers can easily identify it with an IT scam and would be egged to read more. I believed that on reading the story synopsis the reader would peruse the table of contents which would egg them to read the first chapter, which in turn would make them buy the book. With the first print sold out I think the marketing strategy is working well. On a side note, the name was suggested by SHIVAN Mittal, my friend’s nephew.

What do you see in common with your book and Da Vinci Code?
The protagonists in Da Vinci Code are in trail of the Holy Grail, whereas in my book the protagonists are after a cutting edge software invention (called LoRD) that has been stolen. In both the books the lead characters are chasing cryptic clues, albeit of very different kind – my cryptic codes and clues are laced around Indian history and Indian heritage monuments, beyond this, the stories are very different.
I had to do a lot of research to formulate the cryptic codes - the book uses anagrams, substitution ciphers, math puzzles, Vedic math concepts and more. I would like to mention here that Edgar Allan Poe, Dan Brown, Umberto Eco, Dorothy Sayers , and Conan Doyle have had a significant influence in fashioning the cryptic codes in HICKORY DICKORY SHOCK!
Da Vinci Code is set against the backdrop of the one of the most controversial questions of Christianity –Christ’s bloodline, whereas my book is set around one of the most controversial scams in the history of computing – a billion dollar IT scam. My story has other subplots that are of a different kind, namely intriguing vanishing culprits, strange math puzzles inspired by Vedic math, LoRD – the cutting edge invention that has been sabotaged and stolen, LoRD’s accounting books that are used to perpetuate the crime, and LoRD’s software code that hold the fraudulent data related to the accounting fraud.

How much of the background of your book is based in reality – I mean floundering projects, mindless HR and so on?
The book brings out many triumphs and tribulations of the Indian IT Industry .The story draws a lot from my personal experience but characters are given shades of grey with the primary intent of storytelling – the book does not intent to preach that all people doing a certain kind of job in IT company are necessarily corrupt.

And how much is based in research (ciphers, American history and stuff like that) – or is this just stuff that you have always been interested in or came across by chance?
I have been an active participant in quiz programs during my school days and have always been the lookout for interesting trivia on almost anything. Over the last four five years, I had analyzed hundreds of plot devices which could form the core of my story. After a lot of deliberation I settled on eight or nine standard tricks used to craft a detective story. I also had to use anagram solvers, code programs to create some of the clues in the book. (A teaser for those who are yet to read the book - “BIG HAT VANISHED GAVE DATA” is an anagram. Can you crack it?) The research that went in the book, namely, ciphers, codes around Indian historic monuments, interesting trivia around mathematics, and world culture, required a scouting various sources. I have been fortunate to get support from Barry Perlus - art historian at Cornell University, Sam Loyd’s museum, Atlanta Fulton County libraries, and my learning from the seminal Indian historical and spiritual texts.

What are you working on now?
Given a demanding day job I did most of my writing on weekends, late nights, flights, airports, and hotels. I am planning to give writing a break for some time, though there are requests coming in for commissioning screenplays. I have a very interesting story in my head - a conspiracy theory related to a great modern day Indian invention, Invention of an airplane by an Indian (this is a true fact – this happened before the Wright brothers invented the plane), Hitler’s obsession with the Aryan race and the related expedition he sent to India, the myth surrounding modern day religions, UFOs and more – hopefully, someday this story will becomes a reality , either as a novel or a screenplay.

When I started reading this book I was thoroughly charmed by the description of the hero, Tuten, the explanation of why he had a name like Tuten, and the stark fact that even someone graduating from IIT cannot be guaranteed a campus placement – in a world where so many B and C grade institutes blithely assure their applicants of “cent-per-cent placement”.
As it progressed, I found my attention lag. The book is similar to Da Vinci Code – but I must say I felt sorry that Sundip does not have the compelling style of Dan Brown, which you just can’t stop reading even though his language is so cheesy. By the time I reached the end, I couldn’t help admiring all the thought that had gone into the book and the fact that, with all its layers and flourishes, it was a real murder mystery with a proper surprise ending. What I liked most about this book, however, is its setting. Sundip has done a great job of showing us what a software company is really like from the inside. Even though his reply to my pointed question was rather diplomatic, I did find many of his characters and situations familiar, and I’m sure people outside the prestigious industry will be interested to read how its Projects, Sales and HR actually function.

06 February 2011

Show me a hero by Aditya Sudarshan

The slow thriller

I don’t like the expression “coming of age” to describe a book. It smacks to me of primitive, and suspiciously unhealthy, puberty rites. The publishers have used it here because, I suppose, it deals with a period in the life of a group of youngsters who experienced certain events that moved them from, say, one rung of maturity to another.

Instead, if this book must be labelled, I’d prefer to call it a slow thriller. Its plot builds up gradually, with sharp teasers that promise action ahead inserted at widespread intervals. The matter of suspense itself is plausible and carefully constructed, and when surprises happen it is with elegance - in fact, more elegance even than drama. I liked that.

Reading the simple dialogue and easy descriptions which don’t bother to contextualise situations for those unfamiliar with them, superimposed with the strong characters and the complexity of their thoughts, I started thinking fondly back to Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and emailed Aditya Sudarshan to ask whether he had perhaps been influenced in any way by the great Russian novelists.

He replied: “I've not read the classic Russian novels properly. I've read some short stories by Chekhov and a few by Gogol. I think I can see why Chekhov has the reputation he does, but that style of dealing in impressions and images doesn't feel that close to me personally. I like more ‘narrative’ oriented short story writers, like Roald Dahl or Daphne Du Maurier.”

When I asked him to tell me something about himself and his influences as a writer, Aditya mentioned that two of his favourite writers were G K Chesterton and Scott Fitzgerald – and that the quote show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy is Fitzgerald's.
He also said that he had studied law at the National Law School in Bangalore, and then worked with a criminal lawyer but took up writing full time and has been doing so for nearly four years.

When I heard that Aditya could have easily been a highly-paid and eventually high-profile lawyer instead of a writer, it made me wonder (as any overbearing Mummy might) what his parents had made of this switch. It also reminded me that Vaibhav, the hero of this book, lives in Delhi, away from home, and works for a wildlife organisation, a niche sort of occupation reasonably well indulged by his well-off parents though I must admit my sense – perhaps imagined – of a certain amount of forehead slapping on both sides.
So I asked Aditya how much of this book’s hero Vaibhav was actually him, and he replied that he had used different aspects of himself for all the three main male characters in the book.

What I liked best about this book is that it is occupied by a population of highly intelligent people.
Reading it, I tried to think about when I had last met so many people together, making the kind of perceptive and thought-provoking remarks I came across here and, honestly – I don’t know if it’s ever happened. Perhaps back when I was school? Or perhaps occasionally, with some of my (grownup) children’s friends. But it’s not that common in daily life. After all, most of us adults are nothing but lazy and mediocre whether in ability or sensitivity or wit.

01 February 2011

Tender hooks by Moni Mohsin

P.G. Wodehouse reporting from Lahore
This book is a sequel to Diary of a Social Butterfly, the 2008 novel derived from Moni Mohsin’s popular column of the same name which ran in Pakistan’s Friday Times from January 2001 to December 2007.
I hadn’t been too sure whether I really wanted to read more about Butterfly’s vapid life and the preoccupations of people with wealth but no culture that Moni Mohsin pokes fun at so well. But I spent some time with Namita Devidayal at the Jaipur Literature Festival and she mentioned more than once how “fab” Moni was and for a bit we even exchanged a few witticisms a la Butterfly,
Janoo – it was so good, na
and so on. Janoo being Butterfly’s long-suffering husband who happens to be an Oxen, having being educated in Oxford and all.

So while others on the flight home from the festival had their noses buried in Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Irvine Welsh and others, I was rather diffidently reading Tender Hooks, glancing around furtively every now and again to make sure that no had spotted me for a bogus. But when we landed, and I spied a P.G. Wodehouse tucked under the arm of someone at the luggage belt I had a moment of appeasement – which soon turned to wonder that I had never before seen the similarity.
Both Moni Mohsin and P.G. Wodehouse base their stories in small, rather comical communities preoccupied with lineage, inheritance, suitable marriages and so on, and speak in quaint dialects all their own. Even the names resound – key characters in this book are Butterfly’s Aunt Pussy and her son Jonkers.
So I rushed home and dashed off the following email to Moni Mohsin:

Dear Moni,
I’ve just finished reading Tender Hooks and had a few questions – I hope you’ll have time to reply?

  • I tau found so much resemblance to that fellow, what’s his name, PJ Woodhouse, na? So I was wondering, were you inspired by him in any way?
  • I also got quite digressed, arre baba felt sad na, about Butterfly and Janoo’s relationship and was thinking ke in this book till nearly the end, so many bad bad things were happening between them. There was total no communication and so much quarrels, na? Also I was feeling sad about things in Pakistan – you were showing downslide na? Then in the end Butterfly and Janoo get all lovedovey so it donned on me that maybe you feel optimistic about Pakistan?
  • And: Your Butterfly has a bit of a split personality Moni – she’s scheming and greedy and shallow. Yet there’s a smart, sensible side to her. And a brave, honourable side too. How does that happen? Is it there in all those bitchy socialites you are parodying?
Waiting to hear.


To which she replied deadpan:

Dear Saaz,
Thank you for reading my book. The Butterfly is a character like us, with good and bad in her. That's what makes her fun. If she was just mean and shallow and greedy you wouldn't want to read about her. She would be unidimensional, predictable and hence boring. I know that I can be frivolous and serious, generous and mean and fun and dull depending on the time, place and situation, without necessarily being schizophrenic.
And yes the book shows you what living in Pakistan on a daily basis is like and that was part of my purpose in writing it. But people try and wrest what is positive and redemptive even in these grim days and that too is what I wanted to show in my book.
And no, I haven't been influenced by P G Wodehouse though I do love his books.

All best,

About her first book I had written in a Sunday Mid-day column:
It has a compelling similarity with Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist! It’s not just the authors’ shared name, city of residence (London) or affiliation with Gulberg, Lahore’s ultra-posh reserve of the city’s most affluent and influential. Each one’s main character narrates the entire novel in a conversational first person monologue with almost no intrusion. Butterfly picks up at 9/11, where Changez winds down. And while Hamid’s Changez is suave, genteel, highly cerebral and Princeton-educated, Moni Mohsin’s Butterfly is an astonishingly accomplished woman herself!
In this book I found another reason to admire the author’s craft in the sharp voice of reason that the Oxen Janoo brings to it, which you can spot in Moni's response to my email, and which allows Butterfly's giddy-headed narrative to step aside briefly for perceptive sentences like this one to be inserted: “From my experience, even bleeding heart liberals revert pretty quick to colonial sahibs and memsahibs when they find themselves in places where help is cheap and has no rights.”