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.

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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.

‘SPEAKING OF ADS…’ by Kenny Deori Basumatary

Kenny Deori Basumatary

I sat on one of the footpaths in Mindspace, a BPO hub in Mumbai, looked up at the sleek buildings and thought to myself: if things don’t work out, I’ll have to look for a job here. This was in December 2007, when I had just moved to Mumbai, intending to leave my mark on this world through the frivolous pursuit of working in films.

 I told myself that I would go for a hundred auditions. If I didn’t get a single job out of those 100, then I would look for something more mundane. Like a regular office job. What a dreadful thought.

 So I started going to auditions. The first one I went to was for a dance film. The venue was a pretty large hall, with tea and snacks laid out for the hopeful, hungry masses of struggling actors. (I’m exaggerating). I was pretty impressed – wow, they give you food as well – nice! That good feeling didn’t last too long as I soon asked someone whether all auditions were like this and they said of course not.

 I didn’t get the role that I auditioned for there. In fact, as far as I know, the film hasn’t even been made yet, a fairly common occurrence as there lie many, many a slip between the cup and the lip when it comes to getting films made.

 Most auditions are for TV ads, so after that rare debut of a film audition, I started auditioning for ads. Fortunately, I didn’t have to toil through a hundred rejections before my first selection: a Godrej Washing Machine ad.

 According to the audition script, as far as I can remember, I was to play an actor receiving an award, walk on stage and wave at the cheering crowd, then yank the award out of the presenter’s hands and blow air kisses. I did a decent job of it – the casting director chuckled.

 An old Hero Honda catchphrase used to be – fill it, forget it. My policy for auditions is similar – do it, forget it. There’s no point daydreaming about what you’ll do with the money you get for this ad, because getting selected or not selected is completely out of your hands, unless, of course, you’re related to or good buddies with somebody in the production house or you know the right kind of dirty politics to play – wish I knew that.

 So I was pleasantly surprised and highly thrilled when I got the call that I’d been selected for the ad. Yahoo! My first acting job in Mumbai! Which cliché should I use – over the moon, on cloud nine?

 I was summoned at 8 am, and I dutifully arrived on time after a little confusion regarding the location of the location, and soon realised I was the only bloke there apart from the carpenters and electricians. Half an hour later, people started arriving; we had breakfast, and were then assigned to respective vanity vans. I shared mine with two other actors – Dr Sharad Nayampally and Nikhil Ratnaparkhi, whom you’ll easily recognise from several ads and also as Ali Zafar’s cameraman inTere Bin Laden.

 Wow, I thought, as I sat in the comfort of the air-conditioned van, actors are pampered, eh. My addendum to that thought now is: more than they deserve. Nikhil was called to shoot after a while, so I spent most of my time talking to Dr Nayampally.

 

Chocolate_Guitar_Momos

The hours went by. 10 am, 11, 12. They still hadn’t called us. Lunchtime. We ate heartily. Wow, lots of food – I was happy again. The afternoon went by. 2 pm, 3, 4. They still hadn’t called us.

 Anupam Kher has said, as an actor, you’re not paid to act – you’re paid to wait. Wait for the set to be readied, wait for the lights to be put in place, wait for the camera to be placed, etc., etc. Most regular folk would probably be bored to tears by the actual experience of shooting.

 At around 6 pm or so, we were finally taken to the set. Remember, I had been called at 8 am. So for nearly 9 or 10 hours, I’d been doing nothing but sitting on my arse and getting fat.

 Now, remember the part I’d auditioned for – the actor receiving the award? Well, it turned out that I’d been selected all right, but not for that. I was simply gonna be a passenger on a plane where Preity Zinta’s life-size cutout would be. No action, no dialogue, nothing. I was to just sit down in a dummy business class seat doing nothing but reading an in-flight magazine. All the doing would be done by the air hostess and Nikhil, who was playing Preity’s secretary. Talk about comedowns.

 As for being seen in the ad, well, between me and the camera were the following obstructions: one more passenger, the air hostess, Nikhil, Preity Zinta’s cutout, and the tiny aircraft window. And it was all over within 20 minutes or so. After about 10 hours of waiting. But that’s how shooting life is. No complaints.

 I stopped watching TV in 2004, so I don’t have one. As a result, I never got to see the ad, but I suspect that my appearance in it was limited to my left trouser thigh.

 Epilogue: I’ve managed to get quite a decent amount of acting work so far. My first decent-sized film role is in Dibakar Banerjee’s political thriller Shanghai, to be released next Republic Day.

 (Kenny Deori Basumatary is an actor, and his debut work of fiction, Chocolate_Guitar_Momos, has been published by Westland/Tranquebar.) 

‘EVERY COPYWRITER HAS A BOOK INSIDE…’ by Indu Balachandran

Indu Balachandran

Almost every copywriter in any advertising agency will tell you “there’s definitely a Book inside me…” Only it seems like very few actually prise that book out. (One possible reason: there’s always, but always, a super-urgent, serious-panic, life’s No.1-priority, ad campaign to get out of the way first.)

When you think about it, there’s no better training ground than Advertising to help one write a book that should be a potential best-seller.  Advertising trains us writers to first find a clear, compelling Idea around  what we wish to say.  Advertising teaches us never to bore our readers, to stay fresh and engaging.  Advertising hones us to look for human insights; and build the characters in the story around some universal truths.

This creative urge to ‘do it my way some day’ with all the training advertising provides, is true of ad film-makers too. After honing their craft at story-telling, usually within just thirty seconds – in which they aim to establish the scenario, characters, plot, dialogue, song, a twist in the end – ad film makers long for the unbridled space of a two and half hour feature film to say a good story with all the time it demands. And we’ve seen great examples of this happening, like ad film maker Rajkumar Hirani and his Munna Bhai films.  And of course there’s the sure-fire hit-film-maker-come-ad-man, R Balki, who debuted with Cheeni Kum.

Perhaps not many know that Salman Rushdie and Joseph Heller began life as copywriters. Salman Rushdie worked part time at Ogilvy to help pay bills, while writing his first novel, and is famous for his one-liner for cream-cakes: ‘Naughty. But nice.’ Joseph Heller worked on ad promos for TIME while plotting his bestseller Catch-22.

From our own crop of desi-Mad Men of the 70s, prominent personalities who’ve written books include Alyque Padamsee (A Double Life); Ram Sehgal (9 Secrets of Advertising), Ivan Arthur & Kurien Mathews (Brands Under Fire).  The prolific Anita Nair (Ladies Coupe, Mistress) was once a copywriter too. More recently we’ve seen the most insightful collection of observations on life, by Santosh Desai (Mother Pious Lady), once a celebrated ad man with McCann.

Don't Go Away, We'll Be Right Back: The Oops and Downs of Advertising

In the circle of advertising copywriters that I know, Cauvery Madhavan, a copywriter from JWT probably first got us all thinking: I too will definitely write my Book one day! This was following her two instant bestsellers, Paddy Indian and The Uncoupling.  Since then other friends of mine, Anuja Chauhan, Swapan Seth, Sunil Gupta (all ex-JWT copywriters) have written their witty, engaging, fast-selling books too.

And then there’s the ultimate copywriter-turned-bookwriter, James Patterson , the international best selling author. Once a junior copywriter at JWT New York, he has written an astonishing seventy-one novels in the last thirty-three years. His thrillers constantly hit the best-selling charts, and he sells more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. Plus, he holds the record for the New York Times highest bestselling hardcover fiction titles by a single author: a total of sixty-three. Which incidentally, is also a Guinness World Record!

Call it inspiration. Or call it by its more primeval expression: envy. Nothing like a pang of good old jealousy to make one run right off to do something about that book that’s just waiting to get out.

(Indu Balachandran , former Executive Creative Director and VP, JWT Chennai  is the author of the newly released Don’t Go Away, We’ll Be Right Back: The Oops & Downs of Advertising.)

 

WRITING by Bishwanath Ghosh

Bishwanath Ghosh

Writing, to me, is a lot like having a bath on a freezing winter morning in a geyser-less bathroom. Since the water spewed by the shower is bone-chilling, you rarely have the courage to stand under it straight after getting into the bathroom.

You have foreplay with the water first: you show your palms to it and slowly wet your arms. If courage still shows no signs of showing up, you raise one foot under the shower and then the other. If courage is still elusive, you put your head under the shower and wet your hair. It is only when you are left with no more choices or are running horribly out of time that you finally decide to take the fusillade of chilling water on your chest. The torture lasts for a few seconds but after that you can spend hours soaping yourself under the shower.

Something similar happens to me when I get back home every night and switch on the laptop in order to write. I stare at the blank screen for a while and if nothing comes to my mind, I get up to fix a drink. It would have been easier if I had a Man Friday who served me a drink, but that would not have served the purpose. The idea is to let your thoughts ferment while you go about finding a glass and getting some water from the kitchen to pour into the whiskey.

Once I return to the computer with my glass and if inspiration still refuses to strike, I take two sips and try writing a sentence. That’s the test. If the first sentence is spontaneously followed by another and yet another, you are on. If not, you have to think all over again. And in order to think all over again, you try not to think for a while and look up the list of friends online on gmail.

"Chai Chai"

At one in the night, there are not many friends online, but those who are there are your kind: people kept up by an unexplained restlessness. They are drawn to the night like moths to the flame. It is only in the night that you talk to yourself: the rest of the day you are talking to others. And when two people talking to themselves talk to each other, you get sufficiently warmed up to stand directly under the chilling shower. By then, the alcohol would also have had its desired effect. Sentences start flowing.

I am sure the result would be the same, maybe even better, if one started writing at the crack of dawn, after a good night’s sleep, instead of midnight. Sentences will come to you if you summon them with sincerity: you don’t need help in the form of alcohol or online friends. But can’t help it. Just like you have a style of writing, you also have a way of writing. We are slaves of habit.

Also, in order to write, you need to think. What can make you think more than the silence of the night, the stimulation provided by alcohol and the solace offered by the invisible arms of an online friend?

(Bishwanath Ghosh is the author of the bestselling Chai, Chai: Travels in Places where You Stop but Never Get Off, recently translated into Marathi. His forthcoming title is Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began, a biography of Chennai, to be published by Tranquebar.)

ON MARRIAGE by Urmilla Deshpande

Urmilla Deshpande

Now here’s something I can talk about from a place of wisdom and experience. If, that is, you agree that this experience made me wise. I’ve been married for two decades, so I have no use for this particular wisdom, and I’m passing it along for someone who might need it. I could give a lot of advice on this subject. But, at this moment, with the limited attention span of most of you out there, with the flurries of distractions to distract you, with– okay, okay, here’s my advice on marriage: Don’t.

Now before you get all hot and bothered, try read the next bit: Not immediately.
So if I still have your attention, here’s what I am getting at. I am not going to talk here about my anti marriage-as-an-institution stance, as I hear the indignant cries of,  ‘You’ve been married so long, what gives you the right… ‘ etc. (I’d answer that being married so long gives me the insight, but not now.)And I am not going to talk about sex and related flora and fauna. ‘What?’ I hear, ‘Where’s the fun in that then?’ Yes, no fun. But bear with me. What I am proposing is, that when two of you find each other, when you are sure you want to spend the rest of your blissful days together staring into each others’ eyes and doing the laundry together and, and, and, consider this:  Maybe, just maybe, if you stayed in that ‘you and I against the world’ cocoon for a bit longer, by delaying the marriage aspect of the relationship, it may last a bit longer. Why? Because, once you tie the knot, or exchange the ring, or take the vows, or circle the fire, or walk between the pews, or spit three times at the ghost, or, as I did, sign on three copies of the perforated government paper in front of three witnesses and a crow, then your relationship is fair game for the world.Friends. From both sides, dreaded parents-in-law, most distant of cousins several times removed, old aunts, great, grand, great-grand, and all manner of aunts and uncles. Neighbours. Grocery store clerks. Banks. The state. The church, temple, or mosque, and the deity or entity who rules it, and the mediums who convey their messages and rules to the newlyweds. Everyone, and I mean everyone, owns the relationship.

Seriously, I just think, if couples held on to their couplehood for a bit, if they gave their relationship time to grow and expand, if they kept everyone– the mothers and fathers and sisters, the government and god– out of it, I think they give themselves a better chance at succeeding in the long run. I think couples should marry after their first child is in kindergarten. I mean, imagine all the heartache and frustration which could be saved if the two of you didn’t have to listen to advice and instructions and follow random rules and be party to atrocious restrictions and if you were free to just be a couple. Imagine how much more confident and stronger and capable of saying ‘No!’ you would be as individuals and as a couple to meddlesome and well-meaning outsiders.

A Pack of Lies

I think a lot of the problems and resentments in a marriage come from external pressure in the early days. I think these resentments grow and grow like slow tumours. I think they are responsible for many many unhappynesses. I think delaying the legitimising and sanctifying of the relationship may just help.

I also know, from personal experience, that nobody learns from the mistakes of others. And although I say all this, I have very little doubt that societal, parental and religious pressures are far greater than common sense and instinct. Still, worth a try, what do you say?
Anyone there? Hmm. Guess you’re all off to buy rings and call wedding planners and such. Ever thought about having a big party at your twentieth anniversary instead? I’ll save that for another post…

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