THE ROAD WELL TAKEN by Siddhartha Sarma

'East of the Sun' by Siddhartha Sarma

(A new post by the 2011 winner of the Bal Sahitya Puruskar of the Sahitya Akademi! Congratulations, Siddhartha!)

There are different ways of travelling. Some prefer their travel plans to be made by professionals, but personally I feel it takes away from the overall experience of a place if the itinerary has been made by somebody else.
Another way is to make your plan yourself, which gives you a lot of space to make matters interesting. Using this method, you can either choose to take the road many others tread, or go find your own, little-known places. It is entirely up to you.
If you are travelling using the third method, a lot of care needs to be taken about what you carry. Backpacking is the best method, for the obvious reason that you might end up walking a lot, and having both hands free is a big plus. Also, your back can carry a lot more weight than both hands.
As a backpacker, you will soon realise the necessity of packing light. Unless you are the sport of person for whom clothes matter a lot regardless of where you are, you will eventually learn to manage on the barest minimum, depending of course on the duration of your trip. Also kit yourself appropriately for the weather and the climate. This last will not be difficult to do, but there are some places you might find yourself in with vast temperature differences over relatively short distances, and these can affect your body some.
Be ready for different kinds of food, sometimes not cooked in exactly hygienic ways. If your stomach is not accustomed to different kinds of food, it will limit the kind of places you can travel in.
An essential you have to remember if you travel alone is a first aid kit, with medicines for headaches, nausea (if you are into high-altitude travelling) to other ailments which might strike just because the water or food is different. It pays to watch your back, particularly when there is no one to look after you.
Finally, after you’re done packing and have reduced the weight to a manageable level, remember that the new or exotic place you’re travelling to is someone’s home, or homeland. Respect the people and try not to get on their wrong side, and you will find that, no matter where you go, you will meet the most hospitable people you ever expected to encounter.
Once you do that, you will find that your pack weight is much lighter too.
(You could check further details on how to set out travelling in my travelogue, East of the Sun).(Siddhartha Sarma is the writer of The Grasshopper’s Run (published by Scholastic and Bloomsbury) which went on to win the 2009 Vodafone-Crossword Award, and more recently, won the Bal Sahitya Puruskar of the Sahitya Akademi. Westland has recently brought out Sarma’s East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land under its Tranquebar imprint.)

‘THE BUTLER DID IT’ by Siddhartha Sarma

Siddhartha Sarma

Next to erotica, crime thrillers must be the most difficult to write a half-decent story in. The advantage is, if you write a bad piece of erotica, people assume it sort of reflects on your, shall we say, personal life. No one has yet accused a crime thriller writer of being a bad murderer.

The principal difficulty in writing a crime thriller is to decide which part to concentrate on. As far as I have gathered, the plot, the characters and the technical details are all significant in crafting a whodunit. Some concentrate on one of these three, and the really good ones are known for this concentration. Of course, one needs to do it properly to be, if not in the same league, in the same frame as the masters.

Sherlock Holmes is a character created solely to be a superb analyst. Doyle’s stories, therefore, do not pause much to reflect on the characters, but rather on the elements of the case. As Holmes himself says, in The Sign of the Four, he regards a human as “a unit, a factor” and nothing more.

In contrast, Christie’s novels have a lot more human elements to them. The characters are explored to some extent and the crime is not solved so much by a brilliant little piece of deduction as by gradual probing, not unlike that of a surgeon.

PD James comes somewhere in between. You get introduced to all the suspects, and some amount of details go on about the characters’ motivations. There is more to the plot than just the crime.

Police procedurals, on the other hand, are a more appropriate reflection of how crime is solved in the real world. People like Michael Connelly bring their experience covering crime or being involved in the myriad branches of the
crimefighting world into their plot, and carry the reader along towards the denouement.

Of course, one can introduce elements of the fantastic or eerie into a crime thriller, but here one needs to tread even more carefully. People like Janwillem van de Wettering’s Grijpstra and de Gier conduct lengthy dialogues on the meaning of life and such, which are woven deftly into the plot.

In other words, it takes all sorts to write a good piece of detective fiction. I have not, I must clarify here, read much crime fiction from India, but I hope the samples available do justice to the genre. Like fantasy, as I pointed out in my
blog a while ago, crime fiction is such a small pool in India that only the best need to be published, and some heavy winnowing is in order so the pool does not get muddied.

(Siddhartha Sarma is the writer of The Grasshopper’s Run (published by Scholastic and Bloomsbury) which went on to win the 2009 Vodafone-Crossword Award. Westland has recently brought out Sarma’s East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land under its Tranquebar imprint.)


ON SEX by Urmilla Deshpande

Urmilla Deshpande

Since the last blog was about marriage counselling, and since my last book was carnal prose, this blog could only be about one thing: cooking.

No, I’m joking, don’t touch that remote. It’s sex.

I often joke to my friends that Indians don’t do sex. And they counter with the billion plus population. But I really do want to re-iterate: Having children has not much to do with sex. Not of the kind I’m talking about anyway. Just like food: we eat for survival, but we also eat for pleasure. And, we have sex to procreate, but we also have sex for fun. Or to express our feelings for a partner. Or to feel good. Or to make someone else feel good.

I was asked, after Slither came out, why Indian writers, most writers, in fact, fail at sex writing. I hadn’t thought about it, and I’m not qualified to make that judgement. But I did say that the answer might lay not in our skills as writers, but as sexual beings. I want to use this forum to explore this idea, and I encourage readers to join in the discussion. Let’s keep this serious folks, and not get all silly about it. Indians have a tendency to get silly about all things sexual.

For example, I was recently asked about a kiss in some film – I’m told there’s a controversy about whether or not it should stay in the film. Not having seen a Bollywood film in years and years, I had no idea this was still an issue. Especially as the song videos that play in the one Indian restaurant in my small town look to me like pornography in full clothing. I mean they are doing it all. All but penetration, that is. I think I’d rather watch honest pornography. There is something inherently ugly about the non-sex in the Bollywood song and dance. It makes me cringe, in spite of the undeniable beauty of the stars.

Seriously, is sex a problem in India? I have not lived there in over a decade, so I don’t know anymore. But, here’s an anecdote from my former life: I had this boyfriend. I assumed he felt about me the way I felt about him. We were young, and not in love of course, but definitely attracted in the way the young are. But, he wouldn’t physically respond to me in any way. In fact tried very hard to keep our relationship in public places. I mean movie theatres and restaurants. I finally asked him point blank what the problem was. He said, ‘after marriage’. I was appalled, and stopped seeing him. I was accused of being sex-obsessed, and various other things too. You know, the usual. But from my point of view, what if I married him – or anyone – and then found out he had limbs where he should not, or that he smelled like old socks?

You tell me, don’t you test drive cars before you buy them? And more important, don’t you learn to drive, and get a license even before that?

I remember being interviewed by Society magazine. I was asked how I felt about living with my boyfriend (different one from old socks). I know now the question was about sex, and not about sharing the utility bill. The journalist wouldn’t ask directly, and I didn’t catch on. I really just didn’t. I assume today lots more people are living with people they have sex with, and marriage is not a prerequisite to sex anymore. But now, that we are having more sex (of the non-procreating variety), are we having it well? Creatively? Satisfactorily? Most important, are we getting experienced enough to write about it well?

That’s where I was going with this: how are we supposed to write about something we know nothing about? Something we are not allowed to know about? or at the very least have to pretend not to know about?

(Urmilla Deshpande is the writer of Slither: Carnal Prose, A Pack of Lies, Kashmir Blues and co-editor of Madhouse: True Stories of the Inmates of Hostel 4 (IIT-B))

HELP THYSELF by Vijay Nagaswami

Dr Vijay Nagaswami

When I first started writing a self-help book several years ago, I paused and asked myself what on earth I was trying to do. Would people actually read a book to find answers to burning questions? Would the quality of their lives really change by merely reading a book? And in our country, at that? Given that we operate on a ‘panchayat mode’ when it comes to conflict resolution, would we be willing to buy a book to deal with our issues? I still had no clear answers to these questions when my first self-help book was launched in 2002. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, for  the response to not only my first book, but my subsequent books (Westland’s ‘New Indian Marriage’ series) was unexpectedly remarkable. It appears that educated urban Indians are perfectly prepared to use the self-help route to find answers.

However, as one of my email interlocutors asked me, “If a marriage is coming apart or one has experienced extraordinary stress, wouldn’t one do better seeking professional intervention than reading a book?”  In an ideal world, yes. But, in our country, there is still a strong stigma attached to seeing psychiatrists or counsellors. A book, though, can be read in relative anonymity and just like one finds it easier to open up to a stranger on a train, one might find it easier to establish an in-absentia-therapeutic relationship with the author of a book. Compared to suffering in silence, reading a book, seems to me a pretty good option.

Expecting people to resolve all their marital or other problems by reading a book would be foolhardy. But what I do expect to happen when one reads a self-help book, is that it might jump-start a process of seeking solutions. Rather than believe that nothing can be done, readers do feel empowered enough to seek solutions by talking, listening, reading some more, and maybe even talking to a therapist. In other words, reading a self-help book could be a very vital first step in moving out of the victim mode that most of us fall into when faced with a crisis, to a survivor mode that gets us out of emotional quagmires. But let us not for a moment believe that a book can offer us neat and pre-packaged solutions. I think the trick to using a self-help book is not to expect it to magically resolve all one’s problems, but to rather think of it as a piece in a jigsaw puzzle (a corner piece if the book is a good one). In other words the book is not going to change your life. But it can empower you to change your life.

That self-help books are here to stay is a well-documented fact of contemporary life. The truth is, we all need help and advice, whether it’s on cookery, gardening, adoption, relationships or healing the soul. The sooner we come to terms with this reality the better. Before we dismiss this tendency towards using self-help books as a ‘western’ phenomenon, let us remind ourselves of the phenomenal success, in our own country, of the Chicken Soup series and others like it. Obviously Indian readers are willing to invest in self-help books. In the final analysis, if we learn how to use self-help books well – as sources of inspiration and mental stimulation than of solutions, we might well find ourselves browsing for these online or at our friendly neighbourhood bookstore, and not just at airport bookstores while we wait for our delayed flight to be called.

(Dr Vijay Nagaswami is a couples counsellor. He has written two bestsellers for Westland’s ‘New Indian Marriage’ series: The 24 X 7 Marriage and The Fifty-50 Marriage. His next in the series, about handling infidelity, is 3’s A Crowd, out in November.)