There was a time when Arun Shourie would write and invariably an avalanche-like situation would erupt in the country’s establishment, both political as well as academic. In his typical fact-based analysis, with a tinge of humour and sarcasm, and often Urdu and Hindi couplets, he would be a single-man army taking on a cabal of all sorts, often exposing them mercilessly. But that was a while ago.
He is old now. Seventy-eight years, as he often reminds during the conversation. And he now writes on death. Yes, the title of his latest book is Preparing for Death. His last few books include Two Saints and Does He know a Mother’s Heart?
Is there a pattern? Is he himself preparing for a death, as he advocates his readers to not treat it as a taboo subject and instead take clues from the lives of great men like Gautam Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Ramana Maharshi and Mahatma Gandhi to ensure that we face our ends with equanimity? Or am I reading too much into it?
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Shourie says matter-of-factly as he adds that his last book was on my wife’s “bizarre” court case, Anita Gets Bail. He then reminds how his very first book, Hinduism: Essence & Consequences (1982), was religious in nature. Shourie, however, concedes, “But, yes, there’s no denying that I am getting old. I am 78 now and in a very crowded departure lounge that is fast getting depleted, with my friends and relatives leaving this world, one after another.”
Shourie then tells about his meditative life: “I do meditation for 45 minutes. I do pranayam for 20 minutes. I do asanas for another 45 minutes. In meditation, I focus on the sound of silence with a blank mind.” He adds, “I hope this training will help me in the last moment – when I am wrecked by pain, I can take my attention away from that and focus on the sound of silence in the blank mind.”
The following is an edited excerpt of a freewheeling interview with Arun Shourie on his new book, his life in Pune, and, of course, his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the author was admitted in a hospital recently.
Q. Your book once again vindicates that death is a great leveller.
A. Yes, it is. Everyone dies, big or small. Even a pure personality like Buddha found himself suffering because of age-related physical constraints. Like every 80-year-old person, he found difficulties in doing as basic a thing as walking. Even in his own life, he faced several hardships, such as calumny, conspiracies by close associates, with one woman even falsely claiming to be impregnated by him. In Mahatma Gandhi’s case, he was assassinated. All these difficulties can be turned into teachers for our lives and help improve our concept of the self.
Q. You talk in detail about Buddha’s life and struggles. What explains your fascination for him?
A. He was one of the greatest teachers of mankind. All Indic traditions have focused on inner directed search. Buddha and his followers have gone deeper into analysing the mind. In that sense, it’s a great heritage. Other traditions became outward-oriented, with an excessive focus on rituals. Even in Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism became obsessed with rituals. Rituals were originally made for helping our mind focus on the ultimate reality through idols and mantras. But over time, rituals became all in all. So, all reformers in our traditions have repeatedly reminded us not to waste our time on external rituals and instead go inward. Buddha’s life is a constant reminder of that.
Q. Ramakrishna too is analysed deeply, here and in one of the previous books, Two Saints. Tell us about the relevance of Ramakrishna.
A. Ramakrishna had a great gift of conveying the most esoteric things with small parables. His humility and detachment were remarkable. Even when he was just a small priest in a temple, his fame reached far beyond Calcutta and, in fact, he could reverse the trend of conversion in Bengal at that time. At that time, Christianity was associated with a dominant power, many people were getting attracted towards it. If you read Max Mueller’s letters to his wife, they seem to suggest that they had found a key in the form of Keshav Chandra Sen, leader of the Brahmo Samaj, in converting India. But Keshav himself fell under the spell of Ramakrishna. Similarly, our own practices like idol worship were looked down upon at that time, but this simple man’s devotion to the image of Mother Kali reversed that phenomenon. Similarly, in the case of sannyasins, they were all factionalised and had turned into warring camps. It was Ramakrishna who brought about reconciliation among them by telling them to rise above their little tribalism.
Q. Ramakrishna refused to ask Mother Kali to cure him of his cancer and yet he was often found requesting doctors to do so. Why?
A. In his mind, it wasn’t a dichotomy. And his mood—like the mood of most Bengalis (laughs)—would often swing. But as far as asking Mother to cure him of his illness, he said he couldn’t do that. He said he had already received a great gift from her, that was, his spiritual insight. So, he couldn’t ask for a profane thing like looking after his body. But with physicians, he had no such constraints. He would sometimes scold them; he would call one Dr Sarkar a “villain”, at other times, he would urge them to cure the pain in his throat. He would do all this with his child-like innocence.
Q. You mention in the book Gandhi and his premonitions regarding death. And yet, he was also seen making future plans, such as a visit to Pakistan or Wardha. How do you explain this?
A. That’s why I would not read too much into his premonitions regarding death, but the devotees of Gandhi would say he had a premonition. I had met a remarkable person called Manibhai Desai who was doing constructive work in a village near Pune. He told me how he went to surrender to Gandhi after being involved in violent activities in 1942. He wanted to become Gandhi’s follower. The Mahatma told him not to rush. Instead, he gave him four vows and told him to think about it for a year. “If you are prepared to follow these four vows even after a year, then come back,” Gandhi said. While they were talking, Gandhi realised that he had to go to a meeting 15 minutes later and wanted to sleep before that. Exactly 15 minutes later, Gandhi woke up and resumed the conversation before going for the meeting. The young Desai asked Gandhi how he could get up in 15 minutes. To this, Gandhi said that it was a very important indication: “When I start losing control over my sleep, then I would know that I am close to my death.” And towards the end of his life, Gandhi started saying that he was getting irritable, losing control over sleep, etc. Yet, these could also be due to the situation he was in. After all, he was torn by India’s catastrophic Partition, Hindu-Muslim violence, et al. He felt that his entire experiment had failed.
Q. You also mention that Gandhi believed in the idea of honourable death. In 1944, he asked his followers not to medically treat Kasturba.
A. Gandhi always had immense faith in “Ram naam”. For any disease he would tell people to recite “Ram naam”. This was to the extent that one of his children was near death and he refused to give him medicine and instead wanted everyone to recite “Ram naam”. But in the case of Kasturba, one of the reasons why I mentioned the penicillin injection issue is because it’s a preview of how death has been so medicalised these days. I saw a survey that said that in the US and Europe, one third of medical expenditure during a lifetime is actually spent in the last three months of a person’s life.
I remember when my mother had a brain haemorrhage and the doctor told me on the fifth day in the ICU that her condition won’t improve. He asked me to decide if we should terminate the medicine, after which she would die in 2-3 hours. I immediately told the doctor to go ahead and, only after giving my consent, I rang up my brother and sister to come to the hospital.
Q. Vinoba Bhave called Gandhi’s death “a perfect end”. Why?
A. He believed that you should be engaged in doing work till death knocks at your door. And that’s how Gandhi died. Just before going for the prayer meeting, he had a meeting with Sardar Patel discussing his differences with Nehru and trying to find a way out. Ironically, however, Vinoba himself withdrew from public work systematically over many years. And then he died. But he died voluntarily. He died the Santhara death.
Q. You have always admired Gandhi despite knowing his weaknesses, especially dealing with Muslim leaders during the Khilafat movement and after. Why?
A. As far as Gandhi being used by the Mohammed brothers during the Khilafat movement is concerned, one needs to look at the explanation of Ramchandra Gandhi, his grandson. Ramchandra Gandhi said that, just after the Mahatma came back from South Africa, he realised that the British would try to divide the national movement along three fault lines: Harijans and caste Hindus, Hindus and Muslims, and state princes and the rest of India. His endeavours through his life have been to not let the British exploit these fault lines. So, I don’t think one can fault him there.
I, as a very small person, however, find his explanations to be constrained by his fundamental belief in God—for instance, with regard to human suffering. If everything happens with God’s will, then why did He give Hitler free will to kill 6 million Jews? Even Jews would ask questions and Gandhi’s answers to them were very inadequate. For me, either God doesn’t know what is happening here, or he is unable to alter it, or is not suffused with compassion.
Q. Also, we often make the mistake of judging a person from contemporary parameters…
A. Absolutely. For instance, if Gandhi used the word “Negro”, he is called racist today. But the fact is that was the conventional word even in the 1960s. Even when I went to the US to study, that’s how the blacks were called then. Arundhati (Roy) and others will see that as racism.
Q. You have a huge admiration for Vinoba, but his ideas often sounded too simplistic…
A. See, Vinoba and Gandhi’s ideas may seem very different from today’s worldview but it would be difficult to sit in judgement on them and we should see what we can learn from them. For instance, this consumerist, fossil fuel-dependent, energy-intensive society will lead to climate disasters. And this was something Gandhi was saying almost a century ago but, at that time, the idea seemed very primitive. Today, they seem so modern. Look at how khadi has now become a cool fabric. Also, the idea of localised production and consumption so that we spend less on transportation, fuel. Khadi, for Gandhi, was also a particular way of thinking about life and economy.
Q. PM Modi visited you when you were hospitalised in a Pune hospital. How was the meeting?
A. It was very nice of him to take the trouble to come but I didn’t read anything more into that. We had good moments and we tried to make each other laugh. In the end, I told him that by coming he had upped my market cap. To this, the PM laughed and said, “Bhaiyya, tumhara market cap to ucha hi hai!”
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BOOKS TO LOOK OUT FOR THIS WEEK
Raj & Norah: A True Story of Love Lost and Found in World War II
Peter R. Kohli and Shaina Kohli Russo
When World War II broke out, Rajendra Kohli was studying chemistry at a college in England but soon he decided to join the army. After he was severely injured and sent to Naples for treatment where he met Norah Elizabeth Eggleton, a nurse with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. It was love at first sight, and in each other’s company, they forgot the devastation that surrounded them. Later, Raj was sent to London, Norah was posted to a hospital in Rome. Would they ever see each other again? This book is a thrilling account of love found, lost and reclaimed in the midst of war and how they battle against their circumstances.
India Today; India Tomorrow: Where we are headed and how we will get there
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda
India was marching ahead to become a significant power on the world stage. But then Covid-19 struck, leaving the country reeling under its catastrophic impact. While it gives the pandemic a good fight, India mustn’t lose vision of the future that its leadership had envisaged for it. How indeed does the India of tomorrow look like? And how do we get there, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic? This book offers a navigation plan from India today to India tomorrow in the voices of the very people holding the reigns to the future. India has an arduous road ahead of it. What it needs to do is to not lose sight of the goalpost and have a strategic approach.
Dwandv: The Battle for the Gate
The book, Dwandv: The Battle for the Gate, by Dinkar Goswami, is a compelling story of an American yogini Gerua set upon a challenging odyssey in the Himalayas. Chosen to find a secret gateway for humanity’s survival, she escapes treachery, hardship and loss as she races against time. Dotted with elements of history, yoga, technology and the cosmos, the powerful new book was recently launched. Written against the backdrop of misuse of the mightiest cosmic powers, called siddhi, and longing for absolute attainment of the rare Vital Knowledge, ‘Dwandv’ is built upon three mysterious revelations: a prophecy, a warning and a condition.
Mint Your Money: An Easy Manual to Unlocking Your Wealth-Creating Potential
A global economic slump, a shocking pandemic and a teetering job market underline, more powerfully than ever, the need to smartly manage your finances. In this personal finance guide, seasoned value investor Pranjal Kamra discusses focused and practical ways of not just managing but growing your money. Whether you’ve just started working or are already retired, whether you’re raking in money or barely getting by, you can (and need to) secure your financial future. With a firm focus on empowering the individuals, Pranjal demystifies investment, debt, tax and insurance, showing you how to make it all work for you. Intelligent and intelligible, this book is tailored to Indian needs and the finance environment so you can successfully grow your hard-earned money.
Leadership lessons from a pandemic
It is no secret that businesses went through a hard time during the unprecedented crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. But as the vaccines bring hope in 2021 and companies begin to regain their balance, there is much to learn from what top industry leaders did to stay afloat during the lockdown and handle the challenge. With inspiring case studies outlining the importance of lessons like rising above self-interest during a global crisis and being open to failures, Disha Chhabra has put together Inflection Point, a book which has won high praise from several leading members of the corporate world and which can serve as a guiding light for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow.
In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, the author spoke of what motivated her to write the book and how the process unfolded. Excerpts:
Q: What led you to write Inflection Point during the pandemic?
A: In April 2020, I was perplexed by how the pandemic was changing our lives and habits. The way we lived, ate, worked, played was all altered. The resulting lockdowns of countries had brought national economies to a standstill. Salary and job cuts are happening throughout the world. ‘Lives versus livelihood’ was a constant debate. No one living in these times has experienced a crisis that can be remotely equated to this one, and things were still unfolding.
Covid-19 had also impacted every sphere of the corporate world. I was curious about the different challenges leaders across industries were facing, how they were thinking and organizing themselves through this. Which of these challenges were common and which of these were unique? Which leadership and business lessons from this crisis will be taught as crisis management case studies in B-schools? Which of these lessons will be permanent armours for future leaders? And does the learning differ depending on which side of the revenue curve a company finds itself? Does leadership need to be reactive? All of this led me to think about Inflection Point during this period.
Q: How was the process of interviewing such a varied group of leaders? Any favourite instances which stand out?
A: It was quite a humbling experience, to be honest. I had imagined it difficult to get a spot on their calendars. In times when your servers are crashing or your inventory is stuck, where would you find the motivation to talk to an author? But nevertheless, I found people very approachable. When they learnt that my intention behind writing the book was to capture their leadership lessons for a wider audience, they made themselves available for all my research. And the best part was that they were extremely candid in these conversations. I felt they shared their hearts out.
While all the interviews were extremely engaging and taught me so much, I would say interviewing Anil Rajput, Sr Vice President, Corporate Affairs, ITC, was very special. A person of his stature, with more than four decades of experience, was extremely down-to-earth, honest and willing to share anecdotes from this crisis and comparing it with the other crises that ITC has seen during its long existence.
Q: Were there any challenges you faced while working on this book?
A: A book is a long journey and there are times when one feels like giving up. I had to deal with my own challenges. While working from home, with no house help for a long time, finding the time to do this was sometimes a challenge. I spent many nights on the manuscript and mornings at work. What kept me going was a constant reminder of why I wanted people to read such a book. When I saw what potential the book had, in terms of leadership lessons for a lifetime, it kept me going.
Q: What are the biggest lessons that a reader can take away from the accounts in the book?
A: The leadership in this crisis was all about the human spirit and leading with compassion. As one of the leaders said, “When crises like these happen, one does not think of top and bottom lines.”
Q: Is there a particular business leader—whether a part of this book or not—who has been an inspiration for you, personally?
A: Leaders who inspire me personally are those who stand by their people, build businesses for the greater good and also have a passion for bringing social change through their work. Being a corporate professional for more than 14 years now, I have had the opportunity to meet many such leaders who became my mentors, idols and coaches. Some taught me the hard skills at work and others led by compassion. One learns so much through the journey of these individuals. In that sense, it is hard and unfair to pick one name.
HOW PANCHAM PUSHED LOUIZ BANKS INTO BOLLYWOOD
Music maestro R.D. Burman played a key role in kickstarting the Bollywood journey of Louiz Banks, who later became the godfather of Indian jazz.
From the comfort of Blue Fox in Calcutta, to the country’s commercial capital by the Arabian Sea, the journey was a huge leap into the unknown. Bombay was a much bigger city and leaving a steady job overnight always carries a certain sense of insecurity. Louiz was lucky in two aspects. First, Ganga, his sister, had a rented flat in Nirmala Colony, Bombay where he could put up. And second, there was R.D. Burman’s assurance that the doors of his studio would always be open for him. However, the sudden closure of a life of contentment in Calcutta marked for Louiz a fresh beginning to something promising. Unlike most beginners, it was not a tale of an incognito struggling to get a toehold there. Just a day after he moved to Bombay, he landed straight in the recording room of Film Centre. The scopes and premises of music-making in Bombay differed vastly from what it was in Park Street. Louiz had had just a week’s experience when he had come there a year before, but at the time he had no clue he would be resuming his career there so soon.
Louiz had hardly any idea of the mammoth dimension of Hindi films and film music in the psyche of average Indians. One wonders whether cinema is an extension of Indian psyche or the other way round. Every average Indian has felt, at a certain point in their adolescent years, that they would like to be part of the dreams ferried in celluloid. They glorify the struggle that they see in their heroes of the screen and pass away their youth in vicarious wish-fulfilment. The victory of the hero over all odds assumes such a pyrrhic proportion to the countless fans that they can afford to smile even in the direst inadequacies of life.
So deep and probing is the reach of Hindi films in the sensibility of youth, that Bombay itself seems to be the gateway of dreams for the legions. Music is, in fact, the bedrock of Hindi films. There are thousands of technicians, like tunesmiths, whose works get relayed from one hand to the other. Finally, they take the shape of a glittering music piece. Hindi films are eloquent not just with dialogues but also with songs. So, when a wayward youth jostles through the screaming, vulgar train passengers on his way back home, a Kishore Kumar song keeps him absorbed in his own world. Or when an adolescent eyes his lady love while walking under her balcony, he sings another tune. Happiness in the family is ushered in with a song, a beggar sings out the pangs of his life, friends swear their companionship with a song, a loner rambles fostering a song in his heart and a song begins to float when hope resurfaces. Film songs are like the essential breath, the ultimate raconteur of dreams and despair, an identity of Indianness and a parallel lifeline of one’s being.
From the auspices of jazz music into this elaborate paraphernalia of music-making in the Hindi film industry, it was a massive paradigm shift for Louiz. The hysteria and frenzy associated with Hindi film songs can never be matched with any other genre of music. The process of music-making was elaborate. The songs were meant for the billions. On the contrary, jazz was always the music of the elite, food for the reflective and knowledgeable. It was primarily live improvised music, a marked departure from the recorded music of Hindi film songs. While jazz music is born on stage, recorded music is the finished product of many brains working together and the culmination of a lengthy procedure. Jazz is open to impromptu music, whereas Hindi film songs are a straitjacketed field of notes and bars—every single note is too sacrosanct for musicians to take any liberty. While jazz is the combined effort of primarily four or five minds, Hindi film music is the combination of hundreds where a pianist is just a small cog of a vast wheel. So, when Louiz chose to leave the seat of the bandleader and fit himself in one of the hundreds of musicians, it was undoubtedly a metamorphosis of his career. Taking a leave from the cloistered music circle, he jumped into the bandwagon of popular music. He welcomed another change in his life, a change of which he was not certain.
Jazz musicians were lucrative properties among the music directors for they could write and understand staff notations. Hindi movies had offered the scope for earning their bread and butter to quite a few jazz players. Jazz had not exactly been a domain known for minting money. Louiz followed the illustrious footsteps of the legendary jazz trumpeter Chic Chocolate who was a nightclub music performer and had been inducted to the Hindi film industry. Chic Chocolate, introduced by music director C. Ramchandra in Hindi film songs, was hailed to be one of the pioneers of bringing elements of jazz to Bollywood songs. Many other jazz musicians had since had sporadic stints in Hindi film industry. Louiz’s connection with Hindi films turned out to be an abiding one, and one that would cover a significant phase of his life.
Hindi film songs are woven out of interconnected notes in a well-thought-out pattern conceived by music directors and their arrangers. Individual players hardly have any freedom in that preconceived pattern. Moreover, a jazz standard runs for any length of time, whereas, the span of a film song barely crosses a duration of five to six minutes until, somewhat of a maverick and genius, R.D. Burman broke all the barriers. Like an iconoclast, he set his own parameters and definition of music-making in Hindi films. He not only composed songs of unusually longer lengths, but he was also instrumental in bringing many changes to the traditional concepts of Hindi film music. Other composers at the time were pretty complacent and did not cross beyond the known peripheries in order to pander to the popular taste. But Burman was ever experimental and set new dimensions in music for listeners. For him, music-making was an extension of his own aesthetics. He was more of an apostate, a free-thinking spirit looking to set new grounds for the future. From the innovative use of western instruments to various experimentations with sound, only R.D. Burman could break the set parameters with his free-thinking spirit and zest to explore the unknown. R.D was a jazz enthusiast. Introduced to this genre of music by his friend and musician Kersi Lord, he was largely influenced by the jazz greats and had tried to experiment with the tenets of jazz in his compositions. His team of musicians were key to implementing these experimental thoughts and ideas. When he had listened to Louiz’s music in Blue Fox, he had spotted a quintessential member in his armoury. There were pianists galore in the Bombay film industry but Burman had discovered a rare spark in the talent of Louiz. He could foresee an untapped potential in the young man’s piano-playing. The feel, the technique of playing chords and the instinct to sound different from the rest marked Louiz apart. On top of this, his jazz background helped him play in a manner which had never been witnessed before in anyone else’s technique. It was no wonder when Burman welcomed him the day Louiz decided to close the Calcutta chapter of his life. For Louiz, as he always believed himself to be one of the choicest recipients of divine intervention, it was another beginning. He found his ‘godfather’, R.D. Burman.
Excerpt from the book ‘Louiz Banks: A Symphony of Love’ (published by Rupa Publications)
A refreshing approach to the topic of spirituality
The young find that they have confused ‘pleasures’ with ‘happiness’ and ‘comfort’ with ‘inner peace’. This line sure hit home. In a world where we are conditioned that “independence” can be achieved a certain way, people often lose track of what actually gives them true happiness and inner peace.
Published by Rupa Publications, author Aditya Nath’s Awaken Your Soulprint is an eye-opener that explores the subject of “spirituality” and “soulful living” with an absolutely unbiased and unique perspective. The book provides straightforward and clear advice on the importance of discovering your inner self and how you can carve a ‘spiritual’ path for yourself to find your inner self or what he describes as a ‘soulprint’.
Actually, the first chapter’s title, “Don’t sell your Ferrari to be a monk” caught my attention and after reading that chapter, I could not stop flipping the pages. This book is refreshing in its approach to the topic of spirituality. It does not equate ‘spirituality’ with giving-up-worldly-possessions. In fact, it enunciates on how our “material” and our “spiritual” worlds go hand in hand. I cannot agree more with this opinion—when we have created a space for our loved ones in this world and shared a lifetime of memories and joy with them, it is but fair and right to be able to enjoy the material possessions that we have earned via grit and hard work.
Overall, I like the simplicity in which all the concepts and guidelines to achieve a higher existence are explained. This book for me is an easy guide that is helping me on my path to understanding and discovering true happiness and success.
For me, every page resonated wisdom, depth and clarity. I would recommend it to anyone who is searching to create a balance between their inner self and the world around them; to those who have already found the balance and to those who are completely new to this concept of spirituality. Read it, ruminate on it and read it again…
I ENSURED PADMINI IS EQUAL TO VIJAY AS A DETECTIVE: AUTHOR GIRIDHARAN
RBI officer and author R. Giridharan spoke about the research and fieldwork behind his debut book ‘Right Under our Nose’, choosing a tier-2 city as the backdrop and a male and a female detective teaming up as equals to nab the murderer.
Q. What influenced you to write ‘Right Under our Nose’? What sort of research went into it?
A. It is a Howdunnit and Whodunnit novel. I believe any reader will wonder about the manner in which murders are committed. I strongly believe that Indian murder mysteries don’t offer the Howdunnit thrill as say an Agatha Christie novel would. ‘Right Under our Nose’ (published by Rupa Publications) is an attempt to rectify that undesirable piece of history. It is also probably the only story where a male and a female detective pair up as equals. It is set up in a tier-2 Indian city Nagpur. I wanted to popularise my two pet themes: imagination can trump technology any day and the answer to every question is right under our nose but we look everywhere else.
This book involved a lot of research and fieldwork. I spent three days with a snake charmer. I visited many morgues to see dead bodies. I spoke to many toxicologists and read up books on toxicology. Doing fieldwork required: travelling to different places, availability of key people and getting them to talk.
Q. How did your job help you in shaping up and adding nuances to the book?
A. I get to meet a lot of people during the office work and interactions keep happening. They become the bread and butter for descriptions. Various mannerisms of different characters can be gleaned from office interactions. Descriptiona of events also become more realistic as you are describing the events as they actually happen. I admit that the plot has nothing to do with the office or job. My job took me to Manegaonkar, the man who tirelessly typed and re-typed various versions of my manuscript as I wrote by hand. Dr Anjali Goel, the bank’s designated medical consultant, helped me with a lot of medical details which is a crucial element in the story. I commentate on All India Radio. I have covered Test Matches, ODI’s, T-20s, and World Cup matches as well. On television, I come as an expert panellist. I also give voice-overs for advertisements and short promos. I was always a sports lover but had limitations as an athlete. I was an umpire (state level) for a decade before donning the commentator’s hat. The mateship in these assignments inspires me to write as most of the people in these fields are creative and risk-takers.
Q. What made you decide upon keeping Nagpur as a backdrop and incorporating characters from all over the country in your novel?
A. I wanted to write about a tier-2 Indian city. Most Indian books are either about metropolitan Mumbai and Delhi, small hamlets, picturesque hill stations or even IT hubs like Bengaluru so tier-2 cities are neglected. The choice was between Nagpur and Jaipur, but I chose Nagpur probably because it was slightly bigger and more cosmopolitan than Jaipur. I brought characters from all over the country which is more realistic of Nagpur. I didn’t want to get into the trap of regionalism and the pan Indian feel is entirely different, it is like our sports teams.
Q. How enjoyable was it to flesh out a murderer who is always one step ahead of Vijay and Padmini?
A. It was both enjoyable and challenging. I had to make the antagonist powerful. The antagonist must be envied, feared, loathed, and hated. People should get ghoulish because of antagonist’s eventual defeat. The character was deadly, diabolical, ruthless, cocky, and in your face. A never say die antagonist, who seems too slippery, kept the readers engaged till the end. The antagonist helped Vijay and Padmini shine even more. It was someone like ‘Jackal’ in the day of the Jackal.
Q. Did creating romance as a sub-plot help in making ‘Right Under our Nose’ more engaging? What was the reason behind adding a dose of romance in your work?
A. It is not a necessity but certainly adds zing and zest to the story. A romantic plot moving alongside the main plot is spicy. It also gives more depth to the characters. After all, a detective is also a human being so the human aspect of the character comes out better with romantic involvement as romance has its own twists, turns, and tests. It also helps readers to identify with the characters a bit more. In this novel, I ensured Padmini is equal to Vijay as a detective and has as much space as him. I also wanted to show the positive side of romance at risk where each partner motivates the other and also acts as an ideal foil.
Q. What do you hope readers take away from this book?
A. I hope they appreciated these things:
1. A howdunit and whodunit in a typical Indian context can rival foreign ones.
2. I plan to write a sequel so I hope they liked the characters.
3. They got to discover some enlightening things about snake training, snake venom and more
4. The fact that all answers lie ‘right under your nose’
5. Imagination can trump big bucks and technology
Q. In your opinion what is the reason behind the enduring appeal of the murder mystery novels?
A. Such novels challenge the readers’ intellect and imagination. There is also a context between the detective and the murderer. Unexpected twists and turns keep the reader engrossed and murder mysteries often involve a complex web of human relationships. So, it has everything that an individual wants.
AN EMPOWERING POST-ME TOO NOVEL ABOUT WOMEN SPEAKING UP
With the Sharma women’s haunting family saga, presented in her new book, ‘Civil Lines’, author Radhika Swarup sends out a message of hope and empowerment to women who dream of a brighter, safer future.
Radhika Swarup’s Civil Lines brings together several topical issues and sends out an important message in the wake of the MeToo movement.
When Maya and Siya Sharma start the monthly magazine The Satirist out of their crumbling residence in Civil Lines, they not only resurrect their late mother’s dream but also unearth a secret which lay at the core of their relationship with each other. With the Sharma women’s haunting family saga, presented in her new book, Civil Lines, Radhika Swarup sends out a message of hope and empowerment to women who dream of a brighter, safer future.
In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, the author discusses her new book and what inspired it. Excerpts:
Q: Civil Lines presents a powerful and uplifting story in the post-MeToo era. What led you to broach that subject in the book?
A: I had been thinking for some time of writing about a family haunted by their mother’s trauma, but the precise contours of the story weren’t clear to me. Then the Me Too saga began to unfold in 2016. Suddenly people were talking more about these issues, and everything fell into place; a bereft Rupa Sharma, a decaying house, a diffident Maya, an isolated Siya.
I saw how someone like Rupa, articulate, proud and assertive, could have allowed her life to be contained in a house that crumbled around her. Writing the novel so long after the defining event of the book had taken place also allowed me to delve into the long-reaching and lasting damage a ‘casual’ overture can have and to show how perpetrators can continue to paint themselves as victims.
When I began to write the book though, I knew I couldn’t leave the house in disrepair or the sisters estranged. They all felt like such a metaphor for a truncated way of life and for a country that has endured—and overcome—so much that I knew the book had to have a hopeful ending. The recent court ruling acquitting journalist Priya Ramani bears out my belief in this justice.
Q: From crafting the central characters to dealing with tough subjects like sexual harassment and trauma, what sort of emotional investment did the book require from you as an author?
A: Writing the book was a form of catharsis. I’ve always found writing to be a release, and as I saw the MeToo movement unfurl across the world from 2016 onwards, I was angered not only by the universality of the powerful abusing the weak but also disheartened by the apparent lack of any real or lasting solutions. There was some performative outrage, but there were always so many apologists for the perpetrators, and so many people who cast aspersions on the victims. When it came to writing Civil Lines though, the fates of my protagonists were largely in my hands, which was empowering. I say largely as my characters didn’t always behave as I first conceived. Tasha-di, for instance, initially rationalises the abuse her best friend suffers, but understanding her viewpoint was important for my writing journey too. It was useful for me to see that someone I disagreed with so fundamentally was essentially good and well-intentioned.
Q: Why did you choose to set the novel in Delhi? What is the significance of a decaying house in Civil Lines?
A: The genesis of the novel lies not so much in Delhi but in a Delhi house I visited some years ago. It was in a sad state of disrepair and a powerful feeling of melancholy pervaded its walls. It got me thinking about what could possibly have led its owners to allow it to decay so badly, and I’m not talking about not being houseproud, but about allowing damp and dirt to flourish in a home, and about allowing peeling plaster and exposed wires to assert control. I kept thinking of the house long after I had left it, and I kept wondering about the fortunes of its inhabitants, who appeared to me to have simply lost hope in life.
And, of course, in a rapidly changing and modernising India, a neighbourhood called Civil Lines remains a constant in most cities. It is synonymous with inherited privilege, and equally, with a sort of irreversible decay. I was interested in exploring the idea of an old house, of imagining an old way of life still being lived as the world changed around it, and as the Sharma women came into the frame, I became consumed with the idea of the house decaying as Rupa Sharma’s life disintegrated. The name of the area—Civil Lines—also felt poignant against the backdrop of the type of journalism the sisters were trying to espouse.
Q: Does The Satirist as a motif indicate the need for honest and fearless reporting and writing in the world today?
A: Honest and fearless journalism is always needed, and as you note, The Satirist attempts to shine a light on stories that are often overlooked. The truth is that we have all become a little tribal and a little more thin-skinned of late. Social media hasn’t helped as it has allowed the shrillest to be handed a megaphone. Having said that, I see debate and dissent flourishing across the world, as they must. This holds true for the proudest democracies and for the more authoritarian parts of the world, and in that I see some promising torchbearers for The Satirist.
Q: What would you like the reader to take back from Civil Lines? Would you say fiction is an effective tool of driving home an important message?
A: I fervently believe that fiction allows people to inhabit another’s skin, and in so doing, allows them to understand another’s perspective. That empathy is so often lacking in today’s partisan discourse, but I took great heart when my debut novel, Where the River Parts, which looked at Partition, was read and appreciated by people across the political divide.
I hope for the same fate for Civil Lines, and in that vein, I hope for it to be read not only as a woman’s novel but as a deeply human one. I hope that people who wouldn’t normally be able to understand the compulsions of a Rupa Sharma—the feudal matriarchs, the fathers of sons, the school child with their life stretching out before them and, yes, the powerful man—are able to walk a little in her shoes and feel for what her life was.
Q: What are you writing next?
A: I’ve been writing a series of linked short stories about the neighbourhood I grew up in in Delhi. I’ve been unable to visit India for over a year due to the pandemic, and so my mind has invariably been occupied by thoughts of family and home. It is a love letter of sorts to the Delhi of my childhood.
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