Next Big Thing: Wilbur Sargunaraj


If you’re one of those who troll the Internet looking for mindless entertainment, you probably know who Wilbur Sargunaraj is. If not, log on to YouTube and search for this 32-year-old, US-based Tamilian, whose satirical videos and tutorials on marriage, blogging, talking in German, ordering burgers, and cricket are becoming quite a rage. His Love Marriage video, by far the most popular, has already been viewed by over 2.5 lakh enthusiasts and is getting downloaded as a ringtone for mobiles too. Another hit is Blog Song, which has been creating quite a buzz in the blog community.

But what makes Sargunaraj — looking out of sorts in corporate attire while singing and dancing and beating, literally, drums in one of his videos — such a hit? He knows that he lacks singing and dancing skills. But the manner in which he combines this knowledge, complete with bawdy lyrics and catchy tunes, produces a heady concoction.
Sargunaraj’s motto, in his own words, is quite simple: “Making the common, extraordinary”.

In Love Marriage he does just that. He’s prancing around with villagers, moving around in a humble bullock cart, singing a song where he’s requesting his parents to let him have a, well, love marriage. He may describe his style of singing as “vocal chanting” and though he’s anything but a singer, his music videos are bound to make you laugh.

Sargunaraj has been doing standup comedy in the US for a while now, but only recently decided to venture into music videos. “I always wanted to be an actor,” he confesses. But instead of waiting for an opportunity to come his way, he created one himself. “I wrote songs and through my music videos, I was able to sing, dance, play drums... just like an actor.” He calls himself a “pure entertainer” and going by his online fans’ comments he is a hit. Hailed as a “global superstar and a visionary” by one fan, another follower remarks that “Wilbur inspires me....” What other plans does Sargunaraj have? For the moment, he says, he plans to release more videos, before concentrating on another album, which, he says, will release later this year. “I’d love to do a world tour so that all my fans have a chance to sing and dance along”. That apart, he also wants to host a travel show. “God willing, movies will happen soon”, he adds. That can wait, after all, he’s already dealing with being the Internet’s newest sensation.

(Did this for the Sunday Business Standard. Also, this piece was inspired by Aishwarya's blogpost so a big thank you to her as well!)

Aatish Taseer on 'TheTemplegoers'


As some readers of this blog might recall, a few months ago I had blogged about Aatish Taseer's debut novel The Templegoers as being one of the most anticipated books of 2010. I'm quite pleased to inform you that the wait for the book was absolutely worth it; Templegoers  is one of the most stunning books I've read in recent months. And although the story is set in contemporary Delhi, it really echoes the contradictions that urban India and its residents are afflicted with. I won't divulge much about the novel for I don't intend to ruin your reading experience; instead here's an email interview I did with it's talented author Aatish Taseer.

 1) Apart from Delhi, you've lived in London, America and in a boarding school in southern India. Did your stay and experiences in these different places ever obliterate your Delhi years? Or did they make you think of the city from a different perspective?

No, they intensified my memories of Delhi. And I suppose living in those other places, feeling in some ways cold to the things that in India would have been my inspiration, made me realize where my real material and subjects lay. But it would be churlish of me to ignore the fact that I had lived with a kind of blindness in Delhi—on a basic level, to dirt, poverty, to human relations, in which there was often an element of casual violence; on other levels, to culture, language, and aspects of high civilization that had been all around me in India as I grew up, but that I had not had any means to assess or regard. Living in the West did not give me those means, but watching them regard not only their own civilization but that of other places as well, forced me to look at my own place in new ways; Delhi, and India too.

2) What would you attribute the political undercurrents in The Templegoers too? Your education, your brief career as a journalist, your parentage or your mother's own career as a political journalist?

A question like this from someone living in India surprises me. India is full of politics. You can’t take a pee in India, without the wall your peeing against being festooned in political slogans. Every lunching lady, taxi driver, gym trainer and heiress has a political opinion, especially in Delhi. As for The Temple-goers, it is less concerned with politics than with the question of what an Indian regeneration is to mean? Is it going to be some bland dystopia growing from a third-rate borrowed culture? Amazing Thailand so Incredible India? Or is it going to be a thing of substance? Is it going to produce an architect in Orissa who might one day build a modern legislative assembly in Bhubaneshwar, taking, for instance, as his model the marvelous shape of the notched amalka that towers over all its temples? Might we have modern apartment buildings that have a shade of our medieval river-fronts? Could it mean that India might lead the world in Indic scholarship? Might it produce institutes of Classical studies equal to our IITs? Will it lead to new ideas about our history? Will we start to create an environment that is more welcoming of the man coming up? Or will he continually be forced to shed his attachments to his language, dress, religion and customs in order to be acceptable to our shabby modern culture? These are not frills; they are the life-blood of any rising power that is to be more than tyranny. And for India to have a new and deeper sense of her past is essential, especially the Sanskritic past, which extends our cultural reach deep into Asia. So far it is not clear what the new energy that has entered India will amount to. But what is clear is that if we go quietly, the way of malls and blue glass, with all the shoddiness and imitation implicit in taking such a road, this ‘Indian renaissance’ would be a very disappointing thing.

3) The standard question one usually asks fiction writers is 'how much of the protagonist is the writer' but, in this case, I'd like to ask how much of the protagonist-narrator is NOT Aatish Taseer considering you've given him your name and set parts of the story near your residence? Also, did you lend him your name so that it enables the reader to put a face to it?

The narrator of The Temple-goers, for all his superficial resemblance to me, is a fictional character with little basis in reality. That he carries the name of ‘Aatish Taseer’ is part of a theme of blurred authorship that runs right through the book. But I don’t wish to give too much away.

4) It seems that one of your characters, Aakash, is a slight contradiction to today's world where some people, after gaining material wealth, have distanced themselves from being religious. Did you deliberately keep Aakash religious and was it attempt on your part to make a statement?

This is plain nonsense. Do a little experiment and find out where the majority of funding for religious organizations and our richer temples comes from and you will know that gaining material wealth in India has nothing to do with losing one’s religious feeling. What you’re talking about is a breed of deracinated Indian of English education, who has lost more than his religion; he has usually lost his language and culture too. That person, though certainly powerful, still constitutes a tiny minority. In any event, none of this concerns Aakash as he is neither rich nor yet rootless.

5) Aakash is a character which has many shades and layers and I get the impression that it must've taken you a long time to create him. Is that so? And if it is, do describe what the process was like?

This is hard to describe as most of it happens during the writing. But yes, Aakash had a sweeter, more vulnerable twin in an unpublished story I wrote, now three years ago. When I developed that character for the novel, darker elements crept in. They had perhaps always been there.

6) Sanyogita, the writer's girlfriend, seems to be a slightly passive element in his life; in the sense that she doesn't express very strong feelings at crucial points. Was it easy for you to keep Sanyogita at a periphery given that you have also been in a relationship in the past?

She is not a passive character. She looms over the story. And her silences, her withdrawal, are always there in background. She is the natural recipient of our sympathies. But yes, the narrator’s rejection of her is like the rejection of his world in Delhi. And once again, my having had a relationship (or two) has nothing to do with the novel’s narrator!

7) How easy or difficult did you find the task of incorporating real-life incidents such as bomb blasts and murder cases into a work of fiction? 

Yes, but in the novel, they are not really the bomb blasts or the murders themselves; they are their reproduction in the media. From the outset, it is that that the book is concerned with. So the murder in a sense is of absolutely no importance. It is why Megha seems not so much to die as to disappear.

8) A recent trend that has been noticed in contemporary fiction writing - at least in India - is the caricaturisation (for want of a better word) of real-life characters. Why is this so? As a writer, does caricaturisation make it easier/difficult for you to construct your characters?

I don’t really understand this question. Do you mean the emergence of a kind of novel, usually a set of short stories, that feels like it has been commissioned in London or New York by a woman with bleached blonde hair and an upper-west side accent, who says, ‘Yes, let’s have those gay NRI short stories from Mum-BAI.’ Or: ‘We could use a Vietnamese immigrant on our list. Let’s send it through the creative writing school machine and publish next spring’? I think I know what you mean. I despise that kind of fiction. It is the elevator music of literature. And we, in India, who need real writing, cannot afford that voiceless drivel.

9) Just like in your last book, Stranger To History, your debut novel has a very strong element of religion in it. What is it about religion that you make it such an integral part of your work? And will this feature in your future books as well?

I’m interested in religion only when it enters areas beyond faith. In the case of Hindusim, I’m drawn to it for the ways in which it makes sacred the topography of India. I think it gives many Indians their deepest idea of India, the land. And if not misused, it is a very gentle, beautiful idea, neither sectarian nor nationalistic, but actually built into a love for the natural world, for the contours of this country. It is a very easy idea to possess, and I think many Indians carry it in their heads effortlessly. One has only to turn to the epics to see what an incredible celebration they are of the landscape and seasons of India. Just the number of trees named and identified is enough to make one’s heart jump up. And so, you see, when one strays so far out of the sphere of faith, it becomes very difficult to answer your question in terms of ‘religion.’ I think it is important in India to make an intellectual shift, by which we are able to see our works of scripture as also works of literature; Sanskrit, as not merely a liturgical language, but also a literary one; and our temples, as not just places of worship, but as objects of beauty. That is real secularism, not the bogus government variety.

10) Will there always be an element of autobiography in your books? Will you ever be able to detach the Aatish Taseer from a work of fiction or will you always be present in some form?

No autobiography here, Aayush. That narrator is not me. And there have been many like him in the past, ‘Marcel’ of In Search of Lost Time and ‘Manto saab’ to name only a few. 

11) Lastly, The Templegoers comes nearly a year after your first book Stranger To History  was released. How would you describe your journey from Stranger to Templegoers over the past year? 

Quiet. The only life-altering addition has been Sanskrit, with its exquisite grammar and razor-thin views into the classical world of India.

(A shortened version of this appears in the Business Standard. Also, an earlier interview with Aatish is here)

On my bookshelf...


....are a lot of books that I've bought and received over the last few weeks. Thanks to the book fair, the Jaipur litfest and my current job as a book reviewer, I've managed to collect quite a number of books; some of which I will probably start reading in another lifetime. Here's a quick list

1) Berlin by Antony Beevor: This was a book which I bought accidentally and, to a certain extent, unintentionally. I went to the World Book Fair in Delhi looking for Beevor's much-acclaimed work Stalingrad and his latest book D-Day and while I did spot both the books on weekdays, they were sold out over the weekend. In fact, the only Antony Beevor book which remained untouched was Berlin, which is a narrative account of the people who were caught during the final collapse of the Third Reich. A blurb at the back of the book states that Berlin is "even better" than Stalingrad (although the Book Fair stalls indicated otherwise). Haven't started reading it yet but, given the amount of praise I've heard about Beevor, I will probably read it soon

2) A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Food Writing edited by Nilanjana Roy: A few months before I actually bought this book (in Jaipur), I had just finished reading the hugely enjoyable Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi and realised that there weren't very many Indian memoirs written about food. I did a quick Google search to prove myself wrong, and the only other book which showed in the results section was A Matter of Taste. Initially, I was a bit hesitant to buy a copy since I'd read a read an unkind review of it on the net. But, given the authenticity and accuracy of internet reviews,  I decided to buy a copy anyway. And I'm glad I did. Because even though a lot of essays are extracted from books, the range of memoirs they capture (for want of a better phrase) are fantastic. There's Behram 'Busybee' Contractor reminisces about eating chapatis with his morning tea. Rohinton Mistry writes an endearing account of a Parsi family's tryst with chicken. Suketu Mehta's extracted essay from his terrific book Maximum City is a terrific and horrific account of the sacrificing of a goat by Mumbai's "black collar workers". Other writers whose works feature in the book include Salman Rushdie, Raj Kamal Jha, Radhika Jha, Mukul Kesavan and Vir Sanghvi. I hope Nilanjana does a sequel to this book - it's been almost six years since this one came out and it's high time we got to read another one.

3) The Picador Book of Indian Cricket edited by Ramchandra Guha:  Bought this one from the book fair as well. For anybody interested in the history, personalities, quirks and the evolution of the game, this one is a must read. Not only because it's edited by Ram Guha but because of the range and quality of the essays in the book. While the contributors to this anthology are formidable writers themselves, it is Guha's superb skills as editor which stand out. His ability to choose from top quality cricket writing and his reasons to choose them  give the book its intellectual tone and character. I haven't read the whole book but a few outstanding essays include the ones on Sachin Tendulkar, Malcolm Marshall, Waqar Younis and Brian Lara from the personalities section. There's a wonderful piece in the initial part of the book which traces the origin of Test cricket and a few pieces on the food at cricket grounds which I'm looking forward to read.

4) Broken News by Amrita Tripathi: A new chick-lit novel by the CNN-IBN journalist, the book is a satirical take on the TV news business and office culture in India. Broken News is the story of a not-so-young TV journalist and anchor (NOT Amrita) who battles craziness, chaos on a daily basis as part of her job. She's almost had a nervous breakdown, a horrible breakup and after eight years on the job, has become quite cynical of her profession. In between, she also plays mentor to a newbie hack who's just graduated from a J-school. If you are an aspiring TV journo with idealistic dreams of anchoring on the second day of your job (like yours truly was not too long ago) then this is just the sort of book you should read. Not only will it kill some of that idealism, but it'll also give you an insight into the chaotic world called 'behind-the-scenes'. I'm already 50-odd pages down and am enjoying the book very much. There are a few glitches (lots of commas) but barring that this book's a fun read. Grab a copy ASAP

5) A Corner Of A Foreign Field by Ramchandra Guha: There was a time in my life when I thought of historians as 'bloody boring'. Part of this thought process should be attributed to a rather ordinary school life where if you admitted you liked history, you were immediately labelled 'weird' (and in some cases unceremoniously thrown out of your peer group) Ram Guha's book was released exactly at that point and I kick myself for not buying/reading it then. This 500 page tome isn't really a 'cricket book'; it's a book which looks at India's socio-political tapestry from the prism of cricket. In fact, it wouldn't be wrong to say this is a book is more profound than Guha's most acclaimed work till date - India After Gandhi for it blends all of Guha's profiles; cricket writer, historian, biographer, anthropologist and political commentator. Again, I haven't started reading the book yet (yes, I know I suck but blame it on the profession please) but I doubt I'll be able to put it down once I do. 

That's it for now. Back to work and to do some reading. 

P.S. For all you Ram Guha fans, grab a copy of the latest Caravan magazine; he's written a cover story tracing the history of the Congress Party. Also, read the wonderful interview he gave to Chandrahas Choudhury about India After Gandhi

Good, trashy, popular and a word about Blaft


(Did a piece on the increasing number of pulp fiction novels in India for today's Business Standard and a short profile on the uber-cool publishing house from Chennai, Blaft)

The just-concluded Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai saw the launch of Surender Mohan Pathak’s latest pulp fiction novel, Daylight Robbery, in English translation. Pathak’s novels were all originally written in Hindi, and have only recently been translated into English to reach a wider audience.
Pathak’s books aren’t alone when it comes to translations from Indian languages to English in this genre. Random House India has also jumped onto the translation bandwagon and will soon produce, for example, translated volumes of Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi’s Jasoosi Duniya series.

Is it paradoxical that vernacular pulp fiction is being rediscovered at the same time as Indian literary writing in English is growing popular?

Literary critic (and Business Standard columnist) Nilanjana S Roy does not think so. She says, “It’s just a sign that we do have a wide readership in India which reads in English, and which is looking for a variety of reading that hasn’t been provided by Indian literary fiction in English.” According to her, the response to pulp fiction has been good because “this is what has been missing from the IWE [Indian writing in English] scene — good, trashy, popular writing”.

Thomas Abraham, MD of Hachette India (the local arm of a global publisher), has a different take. “Not that one suggests the other,” he says, referring to vernacular pulp and literary fiction, “but most definitely the evolution of the commercial genres in India has been exceedingly slow. I’ve always maintained that the maturity of a market is to be judged more by its commercial writing segments than its literary ones. There certainly has been a feeling of ‘difference’ between literary and commercial, which over the years have been wrongly seen as ‘high-brow’ versus ‘low-brow’, and this has affected not merely commercial fiction but other segments like children’s writing.”

Does this spurt of translated pulp fiction indicate a lack of original pulp writing in English in India? Karthika V K, editor-in-chief of HarperCollins India, thinks so. She explains, “It’s true that in the past writing pulp seemed almost taboo, but now that barrier is crumbling. When the whole world is reading [Alexander] McCall Smith [author of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series] and falling in love, I don’t suppose the Indian reader/writer could be far behind.”

Pulp writer Pathak reasons that “writing whodunits is a very specialised job. One has to have the knack for writing whodunits, which cannot come overnight.” Another reason Pathak offers is that most Indian authors in English write with a “Western readership” in mind. He adds that the lack of “competition” from original pulp fiction written in English will only lead to a growth in translated pulp fiction.

The numbers are beginning to tell — and in some cases the balance appears to be tilting away from literary fiction and towards pulp fiction. HarperCollins’s Karthika says that “Our top lit fiction title may sell 10,000 copies, as opposed to, say, 20,000 of a chick-lit title.” Even The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction has sold a reasonable 7,000 copies so far, according to its publisher.

Are we, then, finally shedding the snobbery associated with literary fiction to embrace an “earthier” form? Abraham thinks so. “This [snob value] was the case historically, though the lines are blurring — much like the great divide between Bollywood and the art cinema of the 1970s and ’80s.” Roy, on the other hand, gives Chetan Bhagat credit for making the writing of popular fiction a “respectable occupation”, and hopes that someday soon the “lurid murder mysteries of the Hindi heartland” will find their way into English writing. If the trend continues, that day won’t be far away.

Blaft off! A short note about Blaft

When Rakesh Khanna decided to start his publishing house, Blaft, he didn’t need to go hunting for authors to publish. Surender Mohan Pathak’s racy pulp fiction was already published; all Khanna needed was someone to translate Pathak’s books into English. “It seemed the obvious thing to do,” Khanna says, “and what was peculiar was that here was an author with a 2.5 million readership in Hindi and nobody thought of translating his work!”

Started three years ago by Rakesh, his wife Rashmi and business partner Kaveri, this Chennai-based publisher has created quite a buzz with Hindi and Tamil pulp fiction novels. The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction was a sleeper hit. 

Forthcoming from Blaft are volume two of the Tamil pulp fiction anthology and also, according to the Blaft website, kitchen appliances, designer underwear and encyclopaedias.