A chat with Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’

Veteran journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s biography, “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times” is on a success sprint: booksellers say it’s a favourite with the readers (http://bit.ly/1tvOtHB) and news articles reach out to the author for quotes on Modi (http://bit.ly/1sA4xaI).

We’ve published e-singles from the book, which you can download online! ‘A Time of Difference’ presents a painstakingly researched, truthful account of Narendra Modi’s marriage: http://bit.ly/1mtAtdc. ‘Childhood Lessons’ unearths Modi’s childhood, that forms the core of his formative years: http://bit.ly/1i4Unuz

We also had a quick chat with the author about the book. Here’s what he had to say:

Q1: What were the challenges you faced, while writing Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times?

Nilanjan: The biggest challenge was to stay neutral and not get swayed by criticism that one heard about him every day in the press. It was also important not to be influenced by claims of his publicists and admirers. The next big challenge was to negotiate my way through interviews in such a manner so that he did not get annoyed and stop speaking to me. He eventually did so half way into the writing of the book but this was not due to any provocation from me. He is the best person to explain why he chose to speak to me in the first instance and later withdrew his pleasure. But as a writer, I suspect, he must have learnt that some of the people I was interacting with, were among his bitter critics and he did not appreciate this. Writing the book was also a challenge because of the sense of constantly being under scrutiny. I was assured that one of his brothers, Pankaj, who works for the State Information Department, would accompany me to his village, Vadnagar. At the last minute he dropped out feigning illness. Similarly, another brother Somabhai, had promised to meet at the Old Age Home he ran on the outskirts of the village. But when we went there, we were told that he was away from the place. When I called him up, he said he had an urgent chore to attend to and had to come away. This demonstrated that it was extremely difficult to meet people and get them to talk impartially about Modi. Many political leaders who I had known for years also sought to be excused. They were willing to talk about anything else but Modi.

But on the positive side, whenever I either met or spoke to him he was extremely polite. When it came to sharing official information and providing access to visit parts of the state to witness various development projects, he personally directed his officers to be of assistance.

Q2: What has this book done to you as an author?

Nilanjan: The book has brought me tremendous respect and recognition. I have been commended for having attempted to be absolutely fair in my scrutiny of my subject despite the fact that he evokes sharply polarised views. In the last one year, I have been interviewed extensively by national and international media – print, TV and Internet. Most journalists have used my book as a guide for their own work. For instance the reporter who interviewed Modi last year for the international news agency Reuters, wrote to me saying how he had used parts of my book to prepare for the meeting with Modi. Similarly, most reporters and senior journalists have read my book and are very appreciative. The book has also been received very positively in the market and this has been heart warming.

But more importantly I have been invited to academic seminars, been asked to deliver lectures and interact with students. Writing the book also gave me tremendous confidence in my writing abilities. I have also been invited regularly to literary festivals and whenever I attended them, the audience was out in full numbers. The book has considerably enhanced my professional stature.

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A Small Story About The Big Fix

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The publisher and the prospective author were chatting companionably over breakfast. The writer, who usually worked late into the night, rarely had breakfast and tended to be grouchy early in the morning. But the food was good and the company was pleasant, and so he was feeling uncharacteristically cheerful for that time of day.

‘How’s that thriller of yours coming along?’ asked the publisher. ‘The one about spot fixing?’

‘I’m almost done with the first draft,’ replied the writer. ‘I should be wrapping it up in a couple of weeks or so. Then I’ll take a little time to revise it. Should I send you the manuscript once it’s ready to see if you’d be interested?’

’Sure,’ said the publisher. And the conversation drifted to other topics.

The writer’s phone beeped just then. He smiled apologetically at the publisher and glanced at the message that had just come in. Then his eyes widened and he leaped from his chair as if he’d been shot out from a cannon. The publisher raised an inquiring eyebrow.

’Holy shit!’ exclaimed the writer. ‘Three cricketers have just been arrested for allegedly being involved in fixing in the Indian Premier League. The book just became very topical. Assuming you like it, how soon do you think you can bring it out?’

The publisher smiled calmly. ‘How soon do you think you can finish it?’ he countered.

The publisher was Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland. The author was yours truly. And the book is – you guessed it – The Big Fix.

I mention this anecdote because many friends who have read the manuscript asked me if I’d been inspired by the controversy that rocked the IPL earlier this year. In fact, ninety per cent of the book had already been written by the time the allegations hit the headlines. It’s an amazing coincidence, but that’s all it is. This book is completely a work of fiction, and the characters have sprung from my imagination. The Big Fix in no way purports to depict reality or facts.

However, some of the on-field banter has been borrowed from actual conversations between players, and some real-life events did serve as catalysts for my imagination – most prominently the dramatic death of Bob Woolmer, the South African coach of the Pakistan cricket team, in the middle of the 2003 World Cup. Of course, investigators have officially declared that Woolmer died of natural causes, and there is no logical reason to believe otherwise. Still, conspiracy theorists insist that there was more to the tragedy than meets the eye, and the subject keeps getting raked up every now and then. It was during the course of one such conversation that the idea of writing The Big Fix popped into my head.

Few sports have been written about as extensively as cricket. An enthusiast could probably spend years ploughing through all the great non-fiction works on the game and still have plenty of books left to read. But strangely, given the drama and tension inherent to cricket, very few memorable novels have been written about it (Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman and Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor being the only exceptions that I can recall off the top of my head).

So I set out to write a book that would, hopefully, appeal to both whodunit buffs and cricket fanatics. I wanted (rather ambitiously) to create a murder mystery that would have readers furiously turning the pages to get to the end, while simultaneously coming up with passages that would make them feel as if they had been transported straight to the field, in the midst of the heat and dust of T20 battle.

That, anyway, was the idea. I’ve given it my best shot. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is for you, the reader, to judge. I’d love to hear from you. Do read the book and let me know what you think. Post your comment here, or tweet to me at @authorvikas.

Extract from the forthcoming title, Longing, Belonging: An Outsider at Home in Calcutta by Bishwanath Ghosh

Extract from the forthcoming title Longing, Belonging: An Outsider at Home in Calcutta by Bishwanath Ghosh

THEN ONE EVENING, in the autumn of 2010, I found myself in the dimly lit confines of Trincas, the restaurant on Park Street. I was sharing a table—laden with bottles of beer and varieties of kebabs—with two men who were distantly related to my wife and were now my friends. The live band was in attendance, and all eyes were on the singer—a small woman, mildly plump, wearing a black cocktail dress that was short and tight.

‘How old do you think she would be?’ one of my companions asked.

‘Twenty-five, or twenty-six?’ guessed the other.

‘Are you out of your mind? I first came here some fifteen years ago and she was here even then. She couldn’t have been singing here at the age of ten.’

‘Then how old do you think she is?’

We all looked at the woman. Under the soft lights, it was impossible to even guess. We returned to the beer and the kebabs.

Later that evening, as we stepped out of Trincas, I asked the liveried doorman who had just saluted us, ‘That woman singing inside, how old do you think she is?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘Since when has she been singing here?’

‘Since a long time ago.’

‘How long?’

‘Very long.’

‘And since when have you been working here?’

‘Since a long time ago.’

‘How long?’

‘Very long.’

‘Still?’

‘I don’t remember the year, sir. When I joined, Usha Uthup was still singing here.’

A long time ago. This was an expression I was coming across often in Calcutta. And the ‘long time’ would invariably be traced back not to a particular year but to the lifestyle indicators of the time.

One waiter I had spoken to at Olypub, also on Park Street, had come from Orissa at a time when one drink at the bar cost Rs 1.75 and a cotton vest was sold in the market for Rs 1.25. A little distance away, on Camac Street, is stationed a cart that sells dal vadas. The joint is called Victoria Vada because the owner had started off by hawking wares outside the Victoria Memorial a long time ago—when the rail fare from Jaunpur, the town in Uttar Pradesh where he had migrated from, was seventeen rupees and a meal could be had for ten annas. And now the doorman at Trincas was telling me that he had come from Bihar when Usha Uthup was still the crowd-puller at the restaurant.

Men like these expected me to do back-calculation on the basis of nuggets their memory could serve. But how was I to know which year a cotton vest cost Rs 1.25? As I prodded them for more clues about how long was a long time ago, I realised that these people have been living in Calcutta, doing the same thing they are still doing, from the time I was born—even before.

They are still around, so are the places. Except the escalation in the cost of living and biological aging, very little change seemed to have taken place in their lives and, by extension, in the parts of the city they were serving. This also meant I still had a chance to make up for not having grown up in Calcutta.

At the same time I could not think of relocating to Calcutta, mainly for the fear that its charm may begin to wear off once I had become a resident. Surely there must be other ways of knowing a city where I could not be born but would like to die—someday—to eventually mix with the soil that had given me my surname?

So that night, even as the age of the singer had remained undetermined, I became determined to write this book. That way I could return to Calcutta soon—and return more often.

By the time I hailed a taxi from outside Trincas, my mind had already begun working on a synopsis—even though I had barely finished researching a book about Chennai I had signed a contract for and was a long away from delivering the manuscript. Looking at one city as a subject had given me the courage to look at another. In a way, I was going to follow the footprints of the East India Company—first in Chennai, then Calcutta.

Interview with Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times

What made you do this book?

ImageAs a political journalist and writer I have always been drawn to successful political leaders who took decisions despite all opposition and not because of certain considerations. Without endorsing their position – even their seemingly authoritarian ways – there is need to understand the psyche and making of such personalities. Early in my career I was drawn to conflict reporting and when Hindu nationalistic politics came on the centre stage in the 1980s, I gravitated to its pursuit. Modi was a subject who fits the bill on both counts. It only helped that I had known him in his formative years.

Do you think Modi is one of the most charismatic/ controversial politicians in post-Babri India?

Without doubt, in post-Babri India, Modi is the most polarising political leader. Almost everyone has an opinion on him. His importance is more important because he does not have a political pedigree and no single patron like several of his peers. Modi is at the position where he is by sheer grit, astute positioning and remarkable leveraging of fault lines in his political fraternity. Modi’s preeminent position is also because of the ruthless manner in which he channelized the sentiment of hatred for his personal and political benefit.

Considering the subject alternated between hate and adulation, did you have to do the balancing act all through?

During the conceptualisation stage of the biography, I decided that the book would not be an essay or an opinion piece on Modi. Once I decided to distinguish between analysis of news, events and actions of Modi from my opinion on them, it became very easy to maintain the right balance between hatred and adulation – the two most important emotions that Modi generates. There are times when my opinion does reflect on my analysis, but this is rare and only when the situation makes it unavoidable.

What are the challenges in doing a book of this kind in terms of the lack of ‘enough’ history to back up a protagonist like Modi?

The biggest challenge was that this was a biography of a living leader who was still a participant in the making of future histories and that I did not want to write a hagiography, yet wanted access to him. The other challenge was to ensure that the research and writing did not get inundated in the post-2002 hatred that Modi generated while simultaneously making sure that I did not get swayed by sycophantic viewpoints that abound his personal terrain. I was also confronted by the fact that several facets of his persona are shrouded in matters that are sub judice and that most events pertaining to his life are too recent – even continuing – to take a reasoned historical look.

You are an expert on Right wing politics; do you think Modi has somewhere redefined the idioms considering he is seen more through the prism of development?

With the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Hindu nationalist forces played out their trump card. Its leaders argued that the Ayodhya agitation was not for a temple per se and instead to invert the prevailing understanding of the idea of secularism. But the BJP came to power only after compromising on key ideological issues and on its principal ideological mascot. Modi has revered this trend – albeit so far in a restricted sense, but also raising the spectre of doing so at a much wider, maybe even at an all-India scale. Modi revived the lost aggression of the Hindutva idea and has been steadfast in being unapologetic about it. Despite speculation he has made it evident that his availability is strictly on an ‘as-is-where-is basis’.

What was most riveting thing about Modi when you met him for the several interviews and what was that one thing that sets him apart from the others?

The most riveting characteristic of Modi is that he exudes power to hide certain obvious weaknesses. Like any emperor who owes his position to the awe he evokes and not the love that he generates, insecurity drives many of his actions – some of which he may later repent. But Modi is extremely methodical and disciplined. He is also a great seeker of information. He uses every tit-bit of information, so much so that many of his assertions after our meetings reflected some of what had been talked about. Unlike most political leaders, Modi is unabashed about everything. Be it his politics of hate, his fondness for a lavish wardrobe, fancy accessories or even his disdain for views that are contradictory to his. There is no wavering in his conviction that only his way is the correct one.

Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times will be released on May 1st 2013.