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.

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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.