Short Review: Unlikely Hero by Nandita Puri


At the start of her book, Nandita Puri has published an endearing picture of her husband and her son, Ishaan, playing with each other. The photographed is captioned "For Ishaan: A legacy you will cherish". Sadly, however, the author chooses to ignore Om Puri's cinematic legacy focusing on his personal life instead. And what could've made for a riveting read is just a collection of anecdotes and incidents from Om Puri's personal life which has been full of hardships and tribulations. 

Om Puri found his bearings at his birthplace Ambala,  where we are informed that Puri had no clue about his actual date of birth, was the youngest child of his parents, didn't go to school and had briefly contracted smallpox. Financial constraints meant that he had to do odd jobs (washing utensils at a dhaba being one of them) and move to Patiala to finish his higher studies. It was there that Puri experienced his first brush with cinema. Soon, stints at the National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) followed. Om Puri went unnoticed in his first six films until Aakrosh happened followed by Ardh Satya.

In between all of this, there was Om Puri the womaniser and philanderer. To be fair, his biographer wife Nandita has boldly written about the actor’s womanising ways (his affair with Santi, the domestic help, his crush on actresses Seema Sawhni and Rohini Hattangadi and his failed first marriage to a woman named Mala). At one level, all these might seem like salacious bits of gossip which were included to sell the book. However, these incidents help to demonstrate how a successful, good-looking young man from a small town can get carried away by attention and glamour. But that's not what makes this a mediocre book. 

An actor as accomplished as Om Puri surely deserves a biography where his body of work is analysed thoroughly. How does he straddle the worlds of popular and 'offbeat' cinema with such ease? Why aren't movies,  which evoke the anger of Ardh Satya or the humour of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, not made any more? What did he make of his brush with television? Does he enjoy doing Western cinema? And what makes him do movies as horrible as Singh Is KingVictoria No. 203 and King of Bollywood?

Instead, what does the reader get in this book? A short overview by Om of his favorite films and a 'Tips To Aspiring Actors' manual at the end. Clearly, Nandita Puri could've written a much better biography of her talented husband. Sadly, she chooses not to.

Did this for Businessworld Online

P.S. Part-2 of Niall Ferguson's session at Jaipur will be uploaded once my current crop of assignments is over. Also, expect a super exclusive piece about Sidin Vadukut and his debut novel Dork. But for now, I'm busy reading Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring An Iranian Love Story. As always, review will be posted once it's published in print


Jaipur Diaries 3: Niall Ferguson on The Ascent of Money (Part 1)


I’ve always thought of Niall Ferguson as an economist and, like many others, have stereotyped him as one: an intense looking Harvard professor wearing thick-rimmed spectacles always talking about numbers, policies, currencies, growth rates, cartels, oligarchies, fiscal deficits, stimulus packages…you get the drift.

But I was wrong on both counts. Firstly, Niall is not an economist; he is a historian who specialises in financial as well as the history of colonialism. Secondly, he is extremely good-looking and one of the wittiest speakers I’ve ever heard. He is the author of 13 books including the much-acclaimed Pity of War, Empire and The War of the World. But at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Niall spoke about his latest work The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Read on.

While introducing his book, Niall said that a few issues which he examines, among others things, the globalisation of the current financial system. Niall said that the international financial system is a part of “everyone’s lives”. “It’s a story of where this thing came from: Planet Finance; this giant, extraordinarily complex system which will affect your life, that will give and take our money, whether you like it or not!” quipped Niall. But who we blame, asks moderator Omair Ahmad. “Not me!” replies Niall, amidst peals of laughter from the audience. According to Niall, it’s easy to come up with simplistic explanations for a crisis of this magnitude. “For a time, there was a fashion to blame Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve. Then, we decided to blame Goldman Sachs and its rebranding as a giant vampire squid was one of the remarkable phenomena of the past year. In some ways, it resembles those Russian trials of the late 19th century when the jury would refuse to convict a murderer because, as the Russian Tsar said, we are all guilty” added the Harvard professor. “In some ways, we all are complicit – at least in the Western world – because the financial crisis couldn't have happened if it hadn’t been for the reckless behaviour of millions and millions of house loans that run up debts in excess of anything you’ve ever seen!” Niall exclaimed.

“Countries like Britain, Ireland, the United States, Spain and Iceland achieved unprecedented levels of indebtedness – and in a relatively short timeframe. So, I think before anyone says ‘it’s all the fault of Greenspan or Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs CEO) or some ruthless investment banker, I think one has to step back and realise that, the financial system is a highly complex one and involves decisions by millions of individual actions” explained Niall.  He adds that he went to Michigan in the United States to study the subprime mortgage crisis and found the process “fascinating”. “It’s absolutely fascinating to get inside the process whereby, a relatively low-income American family takes on an amount of debt that everybody knows is unsustainable” said Ferguson. In his assessment, “ignorance” was the cause of the subprime crisis. 
“Ignorance of financial history and elementary things like interest rates.  We (need to) educate people who really matter in this stuff. And our courses on economics and finance, at close suspection, turn out to be really bad” lamented the Harvard professor. Niall added people who worked on Wall Street and were closely involved in the financial system knew “very little” about financial history. “That’s why they find it so hard to imagine that a great depression might happen to them.”

“Most people who are operating based on their personal experience did not know much about financial crises before the early 1980’s. And they had no idea that, in 2007, they were close to as big a crisis as 1929”. And that, Niall said, was the main reason for him to write The Ascent of Money.
Omair went on to suggest that money is a way of educating people as it attaches a value to something (in this case, a stock) and helps a prospective buyer judge the stock based on the value. So isn’t the financial market screwed up in educating us, in a manner of speaking enquired Omair.

“I would put it slightly differently. It’s the process (of buying and selling) which is educational. The money is a relationship between buyer and seller, between a creditor and a debtor.  The earliest money, which dates back to 4500 years in the form of clay tablets – the size of credit cards – states that X promises to pay Y, the bearer, a specified amount on a certain commodity on a certain date. He (X) crystalises that relationship that transcends time and space because you can settle the debt hundreds of miles away from where you are. So, the money really is just a relationship between the debtor and creditor. Even today, the money that you carry around with you or that you imagine is in your bank – it’s not there!” gasped Niall. “That’s called fractional reserve banking – a 17th century Swedish invention – which means that when you deposit money in the bank, they take that money and lend it to somebody else. Don’t be fooled; if we wanted all the money at once, banking systems around the world would crash; that’s something that investors at the British bank, Northern Rock discovered not so long ago” Niall quipped.

According to Niall, prices are just signals which “express value”. “But these prices, in a free market, are only arrived at by our collective expectations of what something is worth right now and what it’ll be worth in future” Niall went on to explain that as human beings, our collective mood-swings help determine the value of a commodity in future. “Human psychology, which is very volatile, is magnified when we act collectively and financial markets reflect them; they reflect that there’s been this extraordinary switch from greed to fear. The same people who worked in investment banks and hedge funds in late 2006 and early 2007, bet with me that there will never be another recession in the United States.  So, the relationships which money crystalises are as volatile as the ones we forge in our emotional lives” added Niall.

Veering the discussion towards an Indian context, Omair remarked that since India’s political and economic cisterns remain fragile; we may not be able to afford these mood-swings. What does Niall makes of this? The Harvard professor replied “India’s experience over the last twenty years has been fascinating because unlike many Commonwealth countries, India’s economic miracles – and I think we can call it an economic miracle – have been based not on trade or on foreign direct investment or on globalisation. India’s growth has been primarily a result of a significant increase in savings and investment within India itself. Also, a growth of demand for domestic goods in India; that means India is much less exposed to crises of globalisation than China is where trade has played a much larger role in generating growth.  India has run a modest current account deficit while China has the enormous and ever-growing surplus. In some ways, India hasn’t attempted to grow as fast as China; it’s a little bit like the story of the tortoise and the hare”.

Niall added that China’s reform process started in 1978 which is why it’s economy is now three-and-a-half times larger than India and, by 2021, that figure will go up to four-and-a-half. In essence, India isn’t running as fast as it should be.

This is part 1 of what is a really long recording. Due to time constraints (and long hours of transcribing), part 2 will go up either tonight or tomorrow. Do comment on what you thought of this post. Hope you enjoyed reading this and the other Jaipur diaries as well. 

Interlude: A Review of Amitava Kumar's latest book, Evidence of Suspicion


Taking a break from filing a Jaipur diary today. Have typed too much in the past week so I think I'm taking it easy today. In the meanwhile, here's my review of Amitava Kumar's Evidence of Suspicion which appeared in today's Business Standard.

Amitava Kumar’s latest book truly lives up to its title. And I don’t mean this in a negative way. On the contrary, it is remarkable that a work of non-fiction on a subject like terrorism — one which evokes extreme reactions, views, opinions and images — can be written in a manner where the writer has ensured that these elements do not impinge on the narrative. Indeed, Kumar performs a riveting yet erudite examination of a very complex phenomenon using a very methodical approach.

Essentially, Evidence of Suspicion examines the social and moral consequences of the war on terror through the prisms of literature, art and journalistic reportage. Kumar’s approach is a slightly dangerous one because — such is the nature of these prisms — he could easily have been lured into using just one angle. Instead, his methodical approach is what saves him, and what ultimately emerges is an even, structured narrative.

The book starts with Kumar meeting Iqbal Haspatel, a retired working-class man who was falsely arrested in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case and brutally tortured by the police. Kumar’s narration of the journey to Haspatel’s house, the story of his arrest and torture and his subsequent release is an example of journalistic writing of a quality rarely seen these days.

Using the example of Hemant Lakhani, an FBI informant standing trial for selling fake missiles, Kumar presents a powerful argument on how US authorities used a person’s habits, personality traits and behavioural patterns to build a case against him. This is one striking feature of this book. There are two more: Kumar’s interaction with numerous American artists who examine terrorism through their works, and his analysis of the “literature of 9/11”, which is a module Kumar taught at Vassar College in New York state.

The artists suggest that, since they are not bound by an “argumentative logic”, they can therefore express themselves more freely than, say, journalists, who are bound by editorial conventions. In fact, one of the artists, Donna Golden, created a documentary which mixed radio voices and TV images to tell a story that was devoid of editorial commentary. Nevertheless, it seems that some of that argumentative logic has found its way into literature on and about the 9/11 attacks — an area in which Kumar’s own academic interests feed into this book.

This bespectacled professor of English analyses contemporary literature, detainee logs, newspaper reports and the US 9/11 commission report, among other things, to give a 360-degree perspective on the war on terror. At the risk of blasphemy, Kumar says he considers Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist better than John Updike’s Terrorist. Reason? The absence of a dialogue with the “Other”, as Kumar puts it.

About the 9/11 commission report, he exposes its duplicitous nature by questioning America’s silence about its role in supporting Afghan jihadis even as it held up Al Qaeda as the prime accused. Kumar’s analysis is best exemplified by an Arundhati Roy quote: “Bin Laden has the distinction of being created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI.” Only towards the end of Evidence of Suspicion does Kumar bring in an element of poignancy. Nowhere is this reflected better than in his account of his travels in Kashmir and Punjab — where he is reminded of Srinagar while reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul and meeting with Tabassum Guru, wife of the main accused in the 2001 Parliament attack case. For a book which is self-professedly a “report”,  such poignancy might seem out of place, but perhaps it is Kumar’s background as a literature professor which ensures that such literary touches blend in with the reportage.

Overall, Evidence of Suspicion is an important book, and not just because it deals with a subject like terrorism. The book is important because it proves that no matter how passionately one may feel about terrorism, it is entirely possible to distance oneself from one’s own emotions while writing about it. Kumar is able to combine painstaking research, taut pacing and thought-provoking analysis to produce an outstanding work of non-fiction.

Postscript: The only, slight cause for disappointment is that, at the Delhi launch of the book, Kumar was in conversation with Lawrence Wright, author of an acclaimed book on Al Qaeda and the lead-up to 9/11, The Looming Tower. The attendee should be forgiven for having expected a discussion on terrorism. Instead, what transpired was a discussion and reading of the contents of Kumar’s book, much of which this reviewer had already read.

Jaipur Diaries 2: Decoding Diana; Tina Brown talks to Vir Sanghvi


This was a session I was really keen on attending because, just before the literature festival, I had read Tina’s biography of Princess Diana, The Diana Chronicles, and wanted to talk to her about it during the event. Alas, that never happened because Tina was, literally, mobbed by the media. I do plan to send her the questions over email but before that happens, l’ll write about the session at Jaipur which was about the book.

Moderated by the venerable Vir Sanghvi, ‘The Diana Chronicles’ session was – quite obviously – a discussion about the book. It was published in 2007 and is a fascinating account of, not just Diana’s life, but also of the Royal family and of British society through the 80’s and 90’s. Meticulously researched and written with a trademark irreverence and panache, The Diana Chronicles is a revelation of just how complex the late Princess was.

But the question to be asked is ‘Why Diana?’ and that’s exactly how Vir Sanghvi started the discussion.

“The Diana story is one of the most compelling that one would ever have read. Beauty, vulnerability, fragility, ambition, loved, rejected, royalty, monarchy…is it death, is it murder? I mean, come on, there is every single element you could possibly imagine (in her life). So it’s just too interesting for it not to be re-examined”.  But was she worried that she was writing her book after all the principal characters – Diana’s secretaries, security officers etc – had written their versions?

“One of the things I’ve learnt as an editor is that, just when everybody’s had their say is when you don’t know anything at all; because so much information is recycled and rewritten thanks to journalism and so much garbage gets written. And there’s always more to find if you go back, re-interview everybody and those who’ve never talked before. So, I think it’s these big stories which get so much coverage that need to be re-examined.”

In India, Diana is seen as a tragic figure who married a man who just wanted an heir and was having an affair with his mistress. But the Diana in Tina’s book comes across as a much more complicated person.
“Well if Diana were to be canonised soon after her death, she’d be far less interesting than the vain, mysterious, scheming yet tender-hearted, yet very sexual. She was a very empathetic girl; there was no question about it. Her desire to help people was absolutely authentic; her connection to people was authentic. She could look in a crowd and identify a person who was lonely or sad and connect to him on a one-to-one basis; that was absolutely real. But on the other side, she was also very troubled and that’s what made her appealing.”

A startling revelation of the book was that Diana had an affair with Barry Mannakee, her protection officer, quite early on in the marriage. “Yes, she did. And it was quite early on in the marriage; within one and a half years of it.”

Talking about Charles, Tina said that he did get married in “good faith” but that his “heart belonged to Camilla and, from Diana’s point of view that was something she couldn’t take.” So is that the reason why Diana had so many lovers? Could she have been faithful to Charles if he had resisted Camilla? “I think that Diana was a highly starved and a very needy woman and it’s possible that no one husband could have ever been reassuring enough for Diana” she said. “Diana tended to stalk them (her lovers) while she was involved with them to the point that she drove them away. She would call them a 100-times-a-day, demand constant reassurance and men got really freaked out by this” added Tina. “She freaked out Gulu Lalvani, who was one of her lovers later in life, because she couldn’t stop calling him, going to his house, checking on him all the time. And she did the same with Hasnat Khan; calling him a 100-times-a-day in the middle of his operations. So there was this tremendous insecurity and it’s possible that no man could’ve been enough for her” Tina added that had Diana married a man who was “tender and re-assuring, it’s possible that she would’ve settled down.  But she married into the chilliest family in the world. She was looking for an elder woman to be a mother figure because her own mother had left her when she was six and who did she find? The Queen of England, who wasn’t the kind of mother-in-law you could say ‘let’s have a cup of tea and talk about the problems.’ She was quite aloof in a sense. So there was this massive insecurity which only made her very much worse.”

Diana’s choice of Gulu Lalvani and Hasnat Khan – both Asian men – is intriguing. “I think Diana wanted to be with someone who was outside the Royal family. She felt, at that point, that because she had alienated the Royal family, most of the people she might have been involved with from the outside world (Englishmen), believed she was from there (the Royal family).  And although the Royal family doesn’t have the same powers it feels it does and you are the sort of person Diana wants to be involved with, you just don’t want to alienate the Royal family” said Tina and added “the celebrity she hung out with wouldn’t give her the neediness. So, in a way for her, the Asian men provided her with a new culture to explore; also the kind of men who were more willing to respond to her without the anxiety an Englishmen would”. Her choice of Lalvani was understandable – a playboy, rich and a member of Anabelle’s – but Hasnat Khan seemed to be an odd choice.

“Hasnat Khan for her was the ultimate person. As a doctor, he was a good listener, patient; Diana was inspired by his selflessness. Khan, in turn, loved the fact that Diana wanted to be associated with humanitarian causes and was quite proud of her. And that was the best thing about him” Tina said it was “rather tragic” that they broke up because “he was the best thing to ever happen to her”. “But then, like so many good things that happened to Diana, she drove them away. Also, it was very demeaning for a man to be the boyfriend of Diana; pictures in the papers, can’t lead a life without being hassled. Hasnat couldn’t take it and very few people can” claimed Tina.

But did Hasnat like her, asked Vir

“Yes, I think he loved her very much and perhaps loved her more truly than anybody did” said Tina. “But he also had his career and wanted to be a real, professional doctor and did not want to be Diana’s boyfriend. When I met her in July 1997 in New York, she said ‘everybody thinks I’m the most glamorous woman in the world but for me, it’s so hard to get a man in my life to put up with the celebrity status that I have and it makes me very lonely’”.

Tina added that Diana “dreaded” the following month because her children, William and Harry, were going to their summer retreat at Balmoral and that she would feel very “lonely”.
On the subject of Dodi Al-Fayed, Tina said that Diana was with Dodi because of the protection he offered her. “Diana kept referring to him and said that ‘he has all the toys’. By toys, she meant all the accoutrements of glamour, wealth and protection.”

Contrary to what Mohammed Al-Fayed said, her love affair with Dodi was very short and one which she embraced when she was very “vulnerable” according to Tina. “Dodi for her was a great blessing and at the time he invited her to the south of France, she was at her most vulnerable; it was a very tough time for her because she had to deal with the fact that Prince Charles had thrown a 50th birthday party for Camilla Parker-Bowles at their former marital home in Highgrove. And that really, really upset her”.
Tina added that when she met Diana in New York, Diana was “obsessed” with the fact that she didn’t lose Charles to Camilla but that Camilla had had him. “Here was this woman who had always been there (in Charles’ life) and this is what irked her most.”

Tina said that while Dodi might have been a “sweet” fellow he was, essentially, “stupid”. But, Vir asked, did 
Diana seriously contemplate a future with Dodi? “She may have considered that as a many-solution option for her; slap in the face of the Royal family, the only person who could take them head on, slap in the face for Hasnat Khan. He (Dodi) was a good option in a sense but ultimately, it was only romance which would’ve helped”.

However, in the same breath, Tina also talks about Diana’s “other side”: as a professional who took her role very seriously. “She was a terrific executive and her secretarial staff loved her because she was decisive and organised. She did what she set out to do, never ever let anybody down, super committed and performed when she was asked to do it. And, she connected with people in a very real way. Dodi, on the other hand, never showed up anywhere on time. His staff said he functioned on ‘Dodi time’ which was nine hours later. He would drop into a restaurant any time he felt like it; Diana wouldn’t have been able to stand that.  So many, many reasons why the relationship would’ve ended soon”.

So there was a certain tension between the humanitarian Diana and the one who was on a yacht in the south of France?

“Well, that’s what made her interesting. Diana’s need for love and attention always interfered with her good side and that was the problem. Her marriage was so loveless that she had to keep looking for validation outside it. What she never got tired of was the attention so, in a way, the press became her lovers. She would treat celebrity coverage to believe that she was somebody of worth. And that’s a disaster because it (press coverage) was all fickle and invasive. In the end, she became very distraught, fragile and frightened”

But why would any man who married Diana want to leave her for someone like Camilla? Tina said that Charles’s marriage to Diana was “agony from the beginning”. She added “Here was a man raised as being the centre of attention; from the day he was born he had flunkies, courtiers and sycophants dancing around him. I mean, he would make a serious comment and people would roar with laughter and you’d think ‘that wasn’t particularly funny’. But how would he ever know? And then he marries Diana who he is enchanted by at first; this nice little, lovely girl whom he loves very much. But very quickly, it turned to rage and it began on their very first trip (a tour of Wales).  They were walking on a path and split up – Diana goes to the left and Charles to the right. Everybody on Diana’s side screamed, shouted and waved; people on the side were cold and seemed to be saying ‘we got him!’. By the time they finished their walkabout, he was in a rage”.

Among the many other things that were discussed at this session were the infamous “tampon transcripts”, Prince Harry’s paternity issue (Charles is understood to have said “I didn’t know what she was doing at the time!”), Camilla’s mistressy ways and Diana’s sexual inabilities. But I guess those are bits of salacious gossip that we’ve heard a lot about in the past and were injected into the session to add some spice to it . What really emerges out of the book and this session is that Diana was a very complicated person and that she remains an enigma till today.

Until next time, Ciao!

(Note: The statements which are not attributed to Tina Brown are either comment by me or by Vir Sanghvi, unless otherwise specified. The same statements have been rephrased and rewritten for this blogpost and every attempt has been to report them without diluting their meaning or accuracy.)

Jaipur Diary 1: Vikram Chandra on 'Sacred Games', writing and the anti-thriller


(This session was on the morning of the third day and, if my memory serves me right, I was quite tired the previous day after running between sessions and meeting a lot of people. As a result, I woke up late the next morning and missed a good portion of Vikram Chandra’s session. Below, I’ve reproduced whatever little I heard and it turns out that I didn’t miss a great deal. Or so I’d like to think. Also, apologies if the post reads like a news report; my role was that of a listener and what you see below is a listener’s extra-long summary of sorts)

One of the highlights of the literature festival this year was Vikram Chandra, author of the highly-acclaimed magnum opus, The Sacred Games.  The theme of his conversation with journalist Shoma Chaudhury was ‘The art of the anti-thriller’ where Vikram explains why Sacred Games shouldn’t be categorised as a thriller. But then, once you have Vikram Chandra on stage, how can he not talk about stuff other than Sacred Games? So, that apart, the soft-spoken writer also spoke about the intelligence and pickiness of a reader.
Slipping into his role as a creative writing professor, Vikram talks about a growing number of US scholars who’re researching romance novels. “We tend to think of audiences for romance novels as mostly women. And women who are, not exactly, intellectual and are looking for easy pleasures. But nobody’s actually ever investigated this.” Vikram then mentions scholar Pamela Regis’ A Natural History Of The Romance Novels and says that “there isn’t one romance novel. There are hundreds of sub-genres in a romance novel and readers are very picky about the novel they want to read.” Vikram again uses the example of the study on romance novels to say something, which sounded slightly unusual. “A lot of the times, readers start reading the end of the novel first.” But why would anyone do that? “What they (the people who were asked) said was that it enabled a reader to enjoy how the writer had handled the elements of the (writing) form.  Which is, in a way, a very clinical way of reading; 2000 years ago an Indian aesthetician said that it’s better to do this (read from the end) because when you do it, you’re not concerned with what happens next, but you’re receiving a much more exalted pleasure”.

And how did he start using the phrase “anti-thriller” for Sacred Games? “I started using this phrase while talking to my publishers. They were very excited (about the crime aspect) and I had to tell them ‘look it’s not exactly a thrilling book’.  There is a bomb, there’s a good guy and a bad guy but it breaks every rule of the conventional thriller”.

Vikram then goes on to talk about conventional narratives and forms and says that there is a limit to which you can “pervert” a form. His point is best illustrated in an example he cites from the book: “In the book, there’s a moment when Ganesh Gaitonde the gangster is going to make a movie which will star his actress-girlfriend… and the Bombay screenwriter tells him is ‘Sir, what the audience wants is a hatke movie but not too hatke!’” (Notice the use of convention in Vikram’s quote: hatke, the actress-girlfriend and Bombay screenwriter. Even the gangster’s surname is Maharashtrian a reminder of the underworld’s origins). “So, that tension between what you want the story to be and what the writer is doing with it, is a very a fruitful tension for the writer to play with.”

It’s at this point of time during the session that I’ve abandoned the faintest of thoughts of roaming around Diggi Palace, meeting up with people and peeping into other sessions.

Shoma then asks Vikram about the construction of Ganesh Gaitonde’s character; a man who’s story is based on the story of Chota Rajan. “When I started writing the book, what I knew of the underworld and the cops, was pretty much what I’d seen in the movies like everybody else. And since I felt fear and my family was being threatened, I was very ready to believe that these guys were monsters. The truly terrifying thing for me was to discover during the writing of this book, that these people are not monsters. They are people like us and want to have a narrative and chronological sense to their lives”

Vikram added, “Ganesh Gaitonde starts out as a sceptic and an atheist but becomes religious along the way. So my attempt was to create a human being, who is clearly a monster, does completely unspeakable things but (I had) to give you a sense of his universe and to make him believe in the living emotion and the inferiority of this complicated person”.

Vikram then said what, I think, are the most profound words ever uttered by an author on the Diggi Palace front lawns (in jest, of course). “After I’d finished the first draft of the book, I showed it to my wife who, after reading it for two full days said ‘I hate you for making me like this guy’ and I felt very pleased about that!”

So how much can he (or any writer) experiment with conventional forms given that the reader has a certain expectation from a book?  And did he have to avoid taking risks with Sacred Games keeping the reader’s expectation in mind? Vikram’s reply is lucid, humorous and frank. “I’m not saying I have great integrity or anything but I just did what I wanted to. I have no hopes of producing a massive fan following and so my imagined audience is actually very small. Hence, there are some readers who will read it and feel sympathetic towards it. So anything that happens above and beyond that is kind of incidental. So all the structures of the book that are in place are actually things that I did want to do. For instance, towards the end of the book in a thriller where you had a big climactic gunfight, I wanted very hard to not give the reader that. There is a climax but not that. And the Guruji actually tells Ganesh Gaitonde that when you write a big story you have to have a big explosion in the end. Hence, I didn’t want to do that big explosion and I didn’t do it”.

Vikram added that when he saw the shape Sacred Games was taking – that it was being produced for the marketplace – worried him and he told his publisher not to market it like a thriller or a detective story because “a reader who comes with that expectation only, is going to be very angry.” He said “And I did get a couple of very angry responses.”
Considering the fact that he’s an academician do the mechanics of his job interfere in his writing sensibilities? Is there a conflict between the two, asks Shoma? “It’s not exactly a conflict and despite the way I’m talking about structure and genre expectation, I hope you don’t believe that when I’m sitting down in front of my computer, I will be constructing something according to these rules. That will be completely paralysing. What leads you forward (while writing) are the characters, the story and the conflicts you’re building. It’s only much later in the process – maybe in the sixth or seventh draft – when you start working on larger structures and ideas.” Introspecting on the question and talking about it in broader terms, Vikram said “The tension between technique and freedom is something that all artists – even athletes – also experience. If you ever try to learn a sport, I think you’ll notice that, when you first start learning, you’re actually quite worse at doing that thing. And it’s only then that you suddenly become aware of technique. So what happens is you are taught technique, you’re taught analytical methods of thinking about what you’re trying to do but, over the years, by practicing it again and again, you achieve what athletes call a state-of-flow. And in that flow state, there is no separation between technique and the freedom – it becomes the same thing. And that’s when everything starts coming together. For me, it’s a kind of riyaaz; a daily practice in the material that I work with and learn something new about it”

Sharing his personal experiences while researching his magnum opus, Vikram said that it was “very easy” to meet gangsters “especially in Bombay”. But the task of meeting people was done in “a very random way; going into all directions possible”.  “Among that was the experience of meeting people on the other side of the legal line (gangsters). And that was very interesting since the bigger guys are sometimes easier to get hold of and get into a conversation with. The top guys act like corporate heads – they have a PR line they use to communicate and they think that you’re from the media. They want to tell a story that’ll extend their public persona. It’s the little guys – the casualties of the war – who are much harder to get.

And were there any jittery, tense moments during the research? “There were one or two moments when the situation got unpredictable. Like this one time where I had to go and meet this hitman in Colaba, Bombay and he led us to one of his watching bases because he felt safe around it. Also, he wasn’t very happy about it (the meeting) and was very aggressive unlike the other people. At that moment, I was wondering what was going on and where it would go. So both of us (Vikram and his companion) asked him two questions after which we said ‘Thank You sir’ and got up to leave!”

Vikram spoke a bit more about writing the book but by this time, my recorder’s battery died and my attention span started to reduce. Hence, a small portion of the session cannot be blogged about. Nevertheless, I think I managed to capture the essence of it and needless to say, the session was a mind-blowing one. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed listening to it.