Jaipur Diary: Short Note On The Litfest


- Recently attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and I have to say it wasn't as fun as it was last time round. That doesn't mean the festival was bad; it's just that this year it was insanely crowded and I hadn't heard of or read the works of most of the speakers. Also, I didn't interview anybody this time round. However, what I did was attend a lot of sessions so that I can blog about what was discussed as opposed to posting one Q&A after another (as it is, the blog has too many of them). 

 - So anyway, that apart, I seriously think Sanjoy Roy & Co. should move the festival out of Diggi Palace. As scenic and traditional as it may be, it simply cannot accomodate the hordes of people who come there.  And going by the popularity of the event, it's size will only increase in the years to come.  

 -  Felt slightly bad for the organisers because a lot of the speakers, authors and invitees were stuck in Delhi and/or in their respective cities due to the dense fog and visa-related issues. Which meant that a lot of the sessions had to be rescheduled (especially on the first two days) and a lot of speakers had to double up as moderators of other sessions.

- By far, the most popular speaker at the festival was - not surprisinly - Chetan Bhagat who was mobbed by schoolkids and fans and was the subject of much discussion amongst presswallahs, delegates and every second attendee. That some not-so-nice things were said about him is another matter, but it was quite evident that most people were envious of the life he led. Even the session which he moderated had to be moved out of the Durbar Hall to the front lawns. And this, when he wasn't even discussing a page of his works!

- However, the showstealers for me were Vikram Chandra, Niall Ferguson, Lawrence Wright, Tenzin Tsundue (whose session had to be scheduled keeping in mind his court appearances!) , Geoff Dyer, Alexander McCall Smith and Tunku Varadarajan. Can't describe how brilliant they were. You just had to be there to understand what I'm talking about. Suffice to say that it was these gentlemen which made the trip paisa vasool

Will start blogging about the sessions as soon as I've filed my freelance assignments in the next few days.  

P.S. Overheard at the festival: Two very popular authors discussing the finer nuances of masturbation. And that Chetan Bhagat's 'Teen Deviyan' session should've been renamed  'murder by Anjum Hasan' :)

'So when are you going to write your novel?'*


If there's one question which has been asked of me ever since I became a book reviewer, this is it. And by everyone I know. Friends, relatives, well-wishers, journalists, parents and absolute random people who I might have met at some of those boring book launches. 

Which brings me to the point about reviewing and book writing: why do most people assume that, if you're a book reviewer, you're also an aspiring writer? 

Perhaps it's got to do with the fact that some book reviewers in India are authors and vice-versa. Or maybe - and this is just a guess - there's this perceived notion that book reviewing enables to you to meet publishers, writers, critics who then help in cutting short the excruciatingly long process of  getting published. 

But ask any published writer of repute and he or she will tell you that book writing is an extremely arduous, ambitious, mind-numbing, finger-breaking, brain-frying process.  From what I've heard over the past one year, it seems getting a hair transplant or undergoing plastic surgery seem less painful (unless of course you do a Michael Jackson and change the way you look every alternate day). And this is just the writing process I'm talking about. Getting published is a different ball-game altogether. 

I won't drone on about the how's and why's of writing and publishing any more except to state both require the patience of a saint, mind space, lots of time and that brilliant, Stephen Hawking-invented component without which no book would ever get published: a story (a calm Shivraj Patil look on your face whenever there's some major issue in the manuscript will count as bonus).

As for me, I don't think I have very many of the elements listed above. And also, I'm very happy with book-reviewing. Most satisfying activity it is. 

*Disclaimer: This blog post is not meant to discourage/dissuade/demoralise/kill the aspirations of any aspiring writer. It is purely an exercise in random self-indulgence and to keep the craft of writing alive in the blogger. Please write/don't write at your own risk.

In Conversation with Soumya Bhattacharya


Earlier last week, I met up with journalist-writer Soumya Bhattacharya for a short chat about his book All That You Can't Leave Behind - a short collection of his essays on how life in India revolves around cricket. Soumya's debut novel, If I Could Tell You, about a father's letters to his daughter, was also published in the same week.

In the opening essay of your book, you wrote that cities remind you of cricket grounds. Why do you think so?

What I meant was that, for someone who is so obsessed by the game and who's so engrossed in it. what strikes you most when you take the name of a city is its cricket ground. You identify the city to its cricket ground first and then to other things. For instance, London would mean Lord's and Sydney would mean the SCG rather than the opera house. That's what I meant.

Do you think that T20 cricket will be the most defining sport of the next decade, despite the fact that it has competition from faster sports like football and Formula 1?

I don't know and I don't think anyone really knows. It's really early to tell; you can date it back to 2007 and India winning the T20 World Cup.  After which the Indian administration woke up and the BCCI, being the greedy pigs that they are,  woke up to the fact that 'oh! there's a helluva lot of money in this'. Immediately, the IPL was born; which did phenomenally well in the first season and not-so-well in the second one. Soon after, there was the IPL Champions League nonsense, which I think was fundamentally flawed in its conception - was a huge, huge flop. So, while at the moment it does seem that a three-hour-20-over-a-side-slam-bang extravaganza is quite popular, three years is nothing in the life of a sport/game. Hence, I think it's far too early for any of us to be able to tell.

The problem with T20 is that it attracts new converts (to cricket) who are looking for a nice, sexy way to spend three hours. Two or three years from now, the novelty having worn off, they might go to a Karan Johar movie or they might want to watch Dr. Zhivago at home which is longer and probably more fulfilling. That is when we will know whether T20 is the future. It looks like the future now because of it's phenomenal popularity. Test cricket has been around for 120 years and football for god knows how many years. So whether T20 will acquire the kind of following Test cricket and football have, is too early to say. 

In the book, you justify the numerous references to matches between India and Australia. Do you think this rivalry has replaced the sort hysteria and hype associated with the Ashes or an India-Pakistan game?

No longer, I think, because no longer is Australia the number one side But at the time it was number one and everyone was yapping at Australia's dreams, there was a huge gulf between Australia and the rest of the cricket-playing nations. I'd say from the beginning of that 2001 series going right up to (the time) when India beat Australia in 2008. It was the most potent rivalry in the contemporary game - the marquee show. And I say this despite the fact that England won the Ashes in 2005 after which there was a huge resurgence of cricket in England. Even then, that series was a one-off. There is nothing in the contemporary game like  an India-Australia match where, every time India played Australia, both teams raised the standard of the game so high, that they'd look each other in the eye to see who'd blink first. Hence, I say it was the marquee show. 

At one point in time, after the India-Pakistan peace process resumed, there was this be-nice-to-each-other feeling which crept into an India-Pakistan match/series because of which, a lot of the needle that people look for vanished..

But look, India and Pakistan have such complicated histories and we hardly have that history with Australia, although, things have happened on the field which can hardly be called sport (like the whole Symonds-Harbhajan fiasco). 

You write in your book that cricket is a symbol of popular Indian culture but isn't it also true that its popularity has overshadowed other sports as well?

Of course, I completely agree. Look at someone like Abhinav Bindra, Pankaj Advani and Vijender Singh and ask about the kind of following they have. It is to do with this whole hysteria about cricket. 

And most sports administrators blame the media for giving cricket undue attention. How much do you agree with that statement?

It's very to hard to tell for the media that 'okay we'll give our readers more of billiards and less of cricket and we'll try and change things. ' Readers start howling in two months. On occasions, we do panel feedback from readers and they say things like a Sri Lanka-Pakistan match should have been given more prominence. So do you try and keep your readers happy which is what you should do putting out a newspaper? But a lot of the times, readers are confused. However, one does get an inkling of what a reader wants. Eventually, you're caught in a trap of your own making; whether you should give shooting more importance than cricket.

In another of your essays, you write about cricketers coming from small-towns or lesser known places. Virender Sehwag, MS Dhoni, for instance. So it would be fair to say that cricket has shed its elitist tag?

Of course and that's the point.  And there's a theory that young people in the big cities have too many distractions and therefore, they don't have the hunger that their counterparts in B-towns have which is what propels these guys to the top. I don't know how true this is but (just to give an example) look at Bombay. Once the crucible of Indian cricket, how many players does it have in the team today?

On Sachin Tendulkar, while it is true that he is one of the greatest players of the game, some uncomfortable questions have been asked about him. For instance, I read someone's facebook status recently where the person said 'why doesn't anyone ask him about the shot he played in Chennai against Pakistan and why he played it.' And 'why didn't he win the match against Australia after scoring 175. Are we being inhuman in our expectations or are we being too objective in our analysis?

I think no one is above scrutiny or judgment in the game and no one should be. But there are two things at play here. One, whatever Tendulkar does is never enough for us and that is true; we always want a bit more.  At the same time - and this is bound to happen to someone who has been playing for so long - Tendulkar has completely changed his approach to the game over the past five years.  Its happened for many reasons but it has happened. So I think people do tend to feel nostalgic or seem to want back the Tendulkar they saw 15 years ago.  So we want him to be the savage and brutal Tendulkar of 1998, demolishing the attack all the time which he is no longer for a variety of reasons. So a lot of the dissatisfaction stems from that.

Coming to your writing style, do you follow any particular cricket writer or do you write about cricket from a fan's perspective? 

No, I don't see myself as a cricket writer. I am not a cricket writer. Nor is this book, a book on cricket. I've written two books and numerous essays about cricket. This is a book about cricket or about India seen through cricket. I've not done match reports or interviews and I'm not a cricket writer in the remote sense of the term.  In terms of reading, yes, I do read a lot and Nick Hornby's writings have been a great influence, which again were about obsession, London and football.  HG Bissinger's Friday Night Lights would be another. 

Lastly, what has been your most memorable cricket moment from a fan's perspective?

Very hard to tell since there are so many of them. Perhaps, being in Australia when India won the Adelaide match. Even the Sydney Test where Tendulkar scored 241. So was the Multan test in Pakistan when Sehwag scored a triple hundred. Eden Gardens 2001 and World Cup '83 have to be there.

And your worst ones?

The first one came quite early when I was a small boy. It was when India were bowled out for 42 against England. Again, too many instances because we only started winning in this century. Before that, we either held out for valiant draws or we got walloped all the time!  

On Dilip D Souza's Roadrunner


In 2009, two travelogues - Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India by William Dalrymple and My Friend The Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume - came in for high praise from a lot of quarters. Although both of them explored different themes, the one common thread between them was the beauty of their prose - sweeping, engaging, descriptive and engrossing. Of these, Dilip D'Souza'sRoadrunner succeeds in only being descriptive. I'm not even trying to compare Roadrunner with either William's or Sadanand's books but just trying to underline a few features which were missing from Roadrunner. But that isn't to state that D'Souza's American sojourn falls flat on its face. Instead, it offers very interesting insights into American culture and asks some though-provoking questions 

D'Souza, who spent a decade in America before returning to India in 1992, goes on this road trip primarily to understand the idea of patriotism in a country which has been divided along several lines ever since 9/11. This road trip - or "quest"- according to D'Souza, is also to see the changes which have taken place in America since the 80's. It is also a quest to look beyond stereotypical constructions of the average American citizen.  Ultimately, while most of the questions thrown up by D'Souza's observations and commentary are slightly cliched, they assume a different meaning when looked at with an American perspective 

For instance, How would an Indian audience react if an American were to sing Vande Mataram in a Mumbai restaurant? Should Indian Muslims proves their patriotism by singing this one song? Why do some Americans go Asalaam-Waleikum whenever they see a brown-skinned man? These are just a few of the many questions that the book throws up.

But just when you think that this travelogue would be a riveting read, the book starts to disappoint; even though D'Souza uses conversation as a narrative tool. 

It is an excruciatingly slow read and you'll probably find yourself yawning after a 100 odd pages. Statistical figures and movie song lyrics are interspersed with the prose to validate arguments but they're really not needed. D'Souza's prose maybe slow but it is descriptive enough for the reader to do without lyrics from Lage Raho Munnabhai. More often than not, D'Souza goes into a ramble about his American journey and you start wondering why the editors of the book never bothered to cut out the flab. Roadrunner is a little over 300 pages but its languid pace and poorly edited prose make it seem like a 600-page magnum opus which refuses to end. 

Despite Dilip D'Souza's descriptive writing and quirky observations, Roadrunner is a promising book but one that fails to keep the reader engaged. Yes, D'Souza possesses an observant eye, has a very descriptive writing style and even tries to be conversational but sadly, it just doesn't work.

A slightly different version of this piece appears in this week's Open magazine

In Conversation with Madhav Mathur


25-year-old Madhav Mathur is the quintessential urban Indian male of today:  a young, successful, well-paid banker living in Singapore. But there's more to Mathur than his day job; he owns a film production company (Bad Alliteration Films), like to paint, has - in his own words - "messed around" with acting and theater. What's more, his debut novel, Diary Of An Unreasonable Man, will soon be adapted into a movie by Anurag Kashyap (Dev D, Gulaal and Black Friday). Dressed sharply in a black blazer, purple shirt and black trousers he seems slightly nervous I catch up with him at the Penguin Books India office for a quick chat about his book.
What was the genesis of this book?
I think it's a slow burn I have lived with all through my life. The themes I have explored - greed, materalism, corruption - are not new. People have spoken about them, but I think my take on them is new. I've tried to address these problems that I've had for a very long time and lived with them for a very long time. There was no incident which said "write this now". I have always thought about these things and decided to put them down when I left for Singapore.
How much of Madhav Mathur is in the protagonist, Pranav Kumar?
Quite a bit. I would say there's a good overlap. He's definitely more unreasonable than me and likes to take the bull by the horns; he's got convictions and lives them out. I am a bit of a panzie when I compare myself to him because I can't do the things he does. And, in a way, Penguin and Anurag (Kashyap) saved me from doing those things because had I been as unpublished and as beaten down as this guy, I would like to think that I would have mustered up the guts to do something crazy. 

Don't you think the theme you have explored - 'well-paid executive quits job to explore passion' - is becoming clichéd?
Well, I just wrote about what my experience should be. I think there are a lot of people who hate what they are doing, are discontent or sick of their jobs. And these people want to see a change not just in their lives but in the lives of the people around them. That's a common sentiment so I think you will continue to see books like this since there is some element of truth in it. 

The Diary Of An Unreasonable Man
The Diary Of An Unreasonable Man
In terms of a film, did you start visualising the book while you were writing it?
I did think it would make for a good film sometime when I started writing it, which is why I approached Anurag. But I did not add elements to make the story more 'filmy'. Some of the feedback I have got is that the description is sometimes overdone; where you look at things and share that detail of painting a picture. I can't help but write like that because I have to communicate to that level of detail. And since I make short films and feature films myself, I would like to communicate to that level of detail.

You call this The Diary Of An Unreasonable Man but its written in prose format rather than diary entries. Was that deliberate?
We were toying with a lot of titles initially. Why we thought of this is because it is a personal thing being shared even though it's not written as a diary. The diary is there basically to illustrate that its personal thoughts being put out there.

How did you approach Anurag Kashyap and what transpired between the both of you?
I saw No Smoking in Singapore and I thought it was quite brilliant. 

You seem to be one of the rare people who liked No Smoking. It got pretty bad reviews…
Yes, it got trashed everywhere and even Anurag said the critics didn't like it. But I had my own reasons for liking the movie. I thought here's a filmmaker who has the guts to do something he believes in without bothering much about the conventions and norms of Indian cinema. I thought, since he likes to break some rules in his style and I'm trying to break some in my own way, it might be a nice fit to try and reach out to the guy to see if there's some synergy. And I'd reached out to him through his blog. I'd submitted a short film for a film competition which he also liked. We started talking after that, one thing led to another, I met him in Mumbai, he liked the raw manuscript and he almost immediately agreed to make it into a film.

How much of the book will be made into a film since the world of a novel is larger than that of a movie?
True. I will be a part of the scriptwriting process so I think that'll be decided at a later stage.

You've lived in Singapore which, in many ways, is a symbol of capitalistic success. What is your take on the greed, commercialism, materialism, etc. which accompany capitalistic success?
I would say that I am upset about certain things and it comes across in my writings in a very direct way. One of the things my protagonist complains about is how certain things become the be all and end all of people's lives. So yes, I do agree with that.
Tell us something about your next book...does it revolve around the same theme?
I wouldn't say so, no. It's a fictional take about fanaticism and fascism set in the future. I'm going to take a look at it from fresh eyes.

A slightly different version of this interview appears on the Businessworld website