You Know You’re A Novelist When…

As we prepare ourselves for the launch of Preeti’s new book, ”The One You Cannot Have,” we asked her what it was like, to be a novelist. Here’s her witty response:

You know you are a novelist when…

1. You fight with your spouse over something that your imaginary characters said.

2. You look at everything that happens to you, from the perspective of whether it would make a good story.

3. You hate the ring of telephone because–damn, it interrupted this brilliant plot you were constructing inside your head.

4. You login into amazon.in and look at best-selling titles thrice a day.

5. You know all the names that appear regularly on the Nielsen list and you can reel them off even in your sleep.

6. You want to know how many books a person has written, how many copies it has sold and who has published it rather than being impressed that the person has written a book.

7. You ponder for hours to name your characters.

8. Editors and publishers are not only your friends, but they are the only ones on speed-dial on your phone.

9. You go into hibernation mode and do not socialize, pick up calls or even talk to people, because you are working on a book, and you think it is normal.

10. You walk into a book store and cannot resist clicking a picture of your books.

           – By Preeti Shenoy, author of ‘The Secret Wishlist’ and ‘The One You Cannot Have’

Interview with Radhika Nathan, author of ‘The Mute Anklet’

Uma Brooke, an Englishman’s daughter brought up under the care of the Maharajah of Madurai is deeply attached to India; so she finds herself embroiled in a personal conflict when the good Maharajah is keen on her alliance with Captain Ashton Trevelyan of the British army. ‘The Mute Anklet’ is the story of this young couple in a time of political intrigue, set in an era of grand historical events in British India.

front_mute ankletWhat prompted you to write The Mute Anklet? Do describe the journey for us.

Reading and writing have always been great stress busters for me. I had a few plots that were bouncing around in my head.  Because of the period it’s set in, this novel seemed like the one I’d have most fun writing. In retrospect, I may have gone slightly overboard describing the buildings, food, clothing etc. It was quite entertaining to make up a heroine with strong opinions and a hero who didn’t care about any of them. I had my shares of disasters too – I lost an earlier draft to a hard disk crash. For a while I didn’t feel like picking it up again. I wrote the book in a haphazard fashion – whenever I wanted to, on any chapter I felt like. This made it difficult to take it to the finish line.

Your book explores a historically tumultuous period in India, when Tipu Sultan was waging a ferocious battle. What made you choose this instant in time?

This story happens during an intriguing moment in Indian history before the Raj, before the Kiplingesque world view, before the idea of India and independence the way we see it today. Across the world we have events playing out in the wake of the American revolutionary war.

You see the complexity and diversity of this country jump out at you when you study this period. The novel explores identity and relationships, albeit at a superficial level, and it seemed like a good idea to set it at this time.

The Mute Anklet masterfully studies the fast changing relationship between an opinionated Uma Brooke and an aloof Captain Trevelyan. Did you have a blueprint for your characters and their development from the outset? Or did the characters grow of their accord as you wrote?

I had a blueprint. I knew at the outset I was going to make my heroine borderline headstrong and the hero an indifferent rake. I also knew at the outset, they’d change as the story progressed. However, the final version is a lot more elaborate than what I had envisioned in the beginning.

The title is intriguing. Could you tell us more about it?

I struggled quite a bit for an appropriate title. Until the book went to print I agonized about it. I must admit the title is sort of an inside joke. There is of course the epic of the anklet, ‘Chilapathikaram’  that deals with fidelity and judgment where the object – The Anklet – plays an important part. So I figured the name would suit a novel that deals with similar themes.

 

And So It Happened.

This, dear reader, is the story of my book.

Not the story of what happens in my book, obviously. For that you’ll have to buy a copy and read it (and preferably write me a fan mail because that’d be awesome). No. This is the story of my writing a story and that story’s journey to becoming a book that’s actually published and all that. Yeah. Read up.

‘Thank you for the mail, but I will not be taking on anymore projects for some time now,’ I typed and reluctantly hit the send button. It was January 2012; I was pregnant and working long hours on the laptop was a constant reason for the husband and parents to shake their heads in disapproval. Mom shoved newspaper articles under my nose about how laptop radiation was bad for the unborn baby, and husband was a little short of making me swear against it. So grudgingly I agreed to stop working for awhile. But then, what could a very pregnant, internet addict do in a small town anyway, I asked. To this, the very supportive husband answered, ‘Well, the girl can write the story she always wanted to.’ Well played darling, I thought, and opened a word document. And then I wrote.

After the first few chapters, I re-read my story and saw two problems. 1.) It wasn’t going where I thought it would go; it was like the story had a mind of its own, and 2.) It was awfully raw; it needed a lot of editing. To 1, I just said ‘Oh well’, forgot about the rough plot I had in mind and wrote whatever the story told me to write. And for 2, I prayed hard to the Editing Gods, and began writing in a way that I hoped would be less chaotic for an editor.

Strangely, mom and dad weren’t complaining either. The long-hours-on-laptop were crushing my soul and hurting my health when it was for work. But now that I was writing a novel, it was okay, because apparently I was fostering creativity in my baby. For two months I wrote like a woman possessed and then, just like that, I was done. The process of writing the story had been unexpectedly simple.

Completing the story felt good. I mean, having brilliant plot ideas or starting a potential literary masterpiece is nothing if they are abandoned. But finishing something that you are happy with – that has to be some sort of an accomplishment, right? So I was euphoric, and secretly feeling superior to most people because hey, I’d written a book!

But it wasn’t a book yet, was it? It was just a story and not another soul had read it yet. Mainly because I didn’t let anyone – you see, it was my metaphorical baby and all that, and I loved the story to bits, but letting someone read it seemed a bit intimidating. What if they didn’t like it? What if they did? What if they gave me expectations? I didn’t want to expect anything because I’d heard horror stories about the publishing industry in India. You know, how they tell you, ‘No one’s going to entertain you if you don’t have the right connections.’ Or that ‘They only publish their relatives and friends, even if the work is terrible.’ And oh, the best one – ‘You want to be published? Do you have money to offer?’ Scary, I know.

Then, almost a week after I had finished writing, I suddenly decided to try my luck. What’s the worst that could happen, I asked myself and geared up. Westland was the obvious choice because – Immortals of Meluha, obviously. I was in love with the Shiva Trilogy, like everyone else. So I sent sample chapters and a rough synopsis to Westland and voila, within two weeks they told me that they loved it and wanted the entire manuscript. I sat for five hours straight and edited the entire story. Er, I mean manuscript.

Then I sent it off and promptly started to day-dream about my name on those jazzy bestsellers-of-the-decade lists.

Then I got a mail from Westland. My book was going to be published, after all.

It took a day to sink in. Everything had fallen into place. Within the next few days the author contract arrived, and the editing process started. It felt bizarre. I had barely overcome the giddy feeling when suddenly the back blurb needed to be written, proofs had to be done and the cover design had to be finalized. Quickly, the release date arrived.

I had not announced the news on social media though. For some reason, I felt uncharacteristically modest. It wasn’t until the book in all its brilliant-cover-page-design glory was showcased on the Westland website, that I finally shared my news.

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‘My book is up for pre-order. Overwhelming. Can’t wait to trace a finger over my name on the book cover. It will be orgasmic, yes?’ – I tweeted.

It was re-tweeted like a hundred times. I shared the link on Facebook and was overwhelmed by the response. This was new territory. This was, in the truest sense, awesome.

You will find that my book tells you how courage is a prerequisite for an Army wife, how strength is her biggest weapon. And in a very filmy fashion, courage is what saw me through those scary stories about publishing, and write my first mail. It was strength that fuelled me. And well, it happened. It sure is a happy save-the-day ending, but the struggle to reach there is what makes me who I am. Courage, like you’ll read in Soldier & Spice: An Army Wife’s Life, is what counts.

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.

The Darling Books of May

So what’s cooking this month at Westland/Tranquebar? Grab your seats at a banquet of infinite variety laid out by Prema Srinivasan in the Pure Vegetarian Cookbook. Like the best books on cuisine, this one doesn’t just dish up a boring list of recipes, but examines the ethos behind each inviting offering.

And here’s another view from the kitchen. Apparently, it’s a man’s place! Jugaad chef Samar Halarnkar’s comes with rare culinary advice in The Married Man’s Guide to Creative Cooking,  directed at men only. There goes another female bastion.

More lessons—of a different kind—from Certified Speaking Professional Scott Friedman, the author of several innovative writings on business efficiency. Best of all, his Celebrate proves, point by point, that happiness at the workplace has an exponential effect on the bottomline.

Sometimes, 13 is not an unlucky number. Demonstrating that is Baker’s Dozen, an anthology of shorts by both new and established writers, brought out in a joint effort by Elle India and Westland-Tranquebar.

Soumya Bhattacharya’s next, with If I Could Tell You, which comes in tender compelling prose that conveys a father’s rendering of his own life to his daughter.

We’ve also got four new books by Deepak Dalal (all Silverfish-Westland releases): fun and useful reading for your children and—probably—you.

In Beauty Unleashed: A Comprehensive Guide to the Perfect Skin and Hair, international skin and hair care expert Dr Dinyar Workingboxwalla brings you comprehensive information on what to look for in grooming products, on how many of these can be found in your kitchen, and how to maintain the looks of a model. A sample passage is available in the May issue of our newsletter, Tranquebar Times.

And three generations come together to make up A Sense for Spice, Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s lively description of what goes on in a Konkan kitchen, and what the diaspora has taken from it. Look for the interview with her in Tranquebar Times!

Multi-faceted writer, Adil Jussawala, has written Duckbill’s wonderful Right Kind of Dog, poems for young adults illustrated by Westland’s design chief, Gunjan Ahlawat, and you can find another interesting interview on Page 11, where Asha Nehemiah, author of Staying on My Toes Happily, elaborates on the joys of writing for children.

Celebrations are in order!

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.