Imagine for a moment.
You are a hotshot editor of India’s biggest news magazine. You write fabulous journalistic stories. Captains of industry know you. You blueprint and organize global conferences, inviting the world’s most powerful and the most glamorous.
At work, your colleagues, accomplished journalists in their own right, envy you. You have a corner office. A chauffer drives you to your office everyday and a retinue of assistants, secretaries and peons is always at your disposal.
Then you become the consulting editor to one of India’s topmost dailies. You keep hobnobbing with the rich and the powerful. You keep organizing big brand conferences and conclaves.
Can you chuck all that to live a life of literary “sanyasi”, in far off Goa?
But journalist and writer Sudeep Chakravarti did.
This is how it happened (based on what he told us at the Indian Writers’ Festival in Singapore on June 6)
Tin Drum, Tin Fish
One day Sudeep had a tiff in the office. In anger, he wrote a piece. A piece of heartfelt fiction--5,000 words, dripping with humour and insight but wrapped in darkness. Then he sent it across to the most powerful publisher in the country—David Davidar of Penguin India.
“Do you like it? If you do, I will go on. Else, I will forget about it.”
David said he liked it. Sudeep got drunk that night.
Then a writing frenzy overtook him. For six weeks, he wrote and wrote, whenever and wherever he could—in the car, at the airport, in the toilet, during lunch break, morning, day, night. For six weeks. A novel was born. It was called Tin Fish. He was hailed as India’s J D Salinger! That was in 2005.
How could Sudeep do it? What is so special about him?
“We are all story-tellers,” he emphasizes. “I am very fond of saying this. We are all story-tellers. Don’t hold writers in too much esteem. We (writers) are not much different from you (readers). Only some of us get lucky to get published.”
But to get there, Sudeep left everything behind, all big brands—Mayo, St. Stephens, Asian Wall Street Journal, India Today, The Hindustan Times. To be a writer. To see his name on the spine of a pink paperback. To fill his soul with joy. And it took him 42 years to get there. 42 years of life.
How does he feel post-transplantation, in his new home in Goa? He wrote in a piece in The Outlook magazine:
Work is good these days. I’ve had friends tell me I’m nuts to walk from a job and profile in Delhi and traipse to Goa and lessness. Then I’ve had them say they would kill to do it. Funny, I’ve felt similar ambivalence.
After 25 years in the NCR, 14 months ago I put my family on a plane and drove from our condominium in Gurgaon to a hillside place in Panjim overlooking the Mandovi River. We had checked out for the foreseeable future: A decade, I figured. Visits? Once a year, kicking and screaming.
If I can do it at the age of 42, so can you, he sort of hinted to all participants. There were many—probably more than fifty. Most of them were young—in their 20s and 30s. Some parents had brought their precocious boys and girls (school kids) to get them coached to be the next Arundhati Roys and Aravind Adigas.
For some time, he dwelled on the question why do we write. He narrated an incident about O V Vijyan. Vijyan said that we write because writing refines us. That’s a great line, I agree.
Sudeep is fond of reading the opening sentences of novels. I also read the first paragraph of a novel to decide whether it interests me. Great technique! He read the opening lines from authors such Ray Bradbury, Amitav Ghosh, J G Ballard, Hemigway, and Jung Chang, among others. Personally, I did not like them all. I love how Naipaul opens his books. Sudeep was very critical of Amitav’s opening lines in the novel, A Glass Palace.
Mr. Naipaul’s Cat
Many participants had anguished stories to share during the workshop. One journalist complained that she could not write—‘I keep worrying about my sentences’, she said. Another complained that she got stuck while writing her stories, didn’t know how to move on, where to end, etc. Sudeep handled them with his trade mark humour.
During the workshop, Sudeep avoided talking about the basics of literature. This workshop is not Literature 101, he warned us all. We will try to deconstruct the process of writing, he promised us.
And he kept the promise. By the end of the workshop, many had their own version of a story titled Mr. Naipaul’s Cat. At the end of the workshop, Sudeep proposed to bring out a souvenir of contributions by workshop participants. It might sound insensitive, but by the way people imagined Mr Naipaul’s Cat, it would seem the souvenir would not be a sexy read. Sorry to say that but that's just my personal opinion.
Name dropping, agents and advice
Sudeep has a great talent for name dropping but he does it with a self-deprecating humour. What can you say to that?
He also said that his agent, from a boutique UK agency, has been affected by the recession. So, this talented writer is looking for an agent now. Any agents reading this?
Here’s Sudeep’s advice for wannabe writers, in distilled brevity:
• We are all story-tellers
• A story won’t happen unless you are full of the story
• Be absolutely brutal about your work
• Respect good editing counsel
• Know the mechanics of publishing
• Write, write and write
‘The East India Writing Company’
Here’s more on Sudeep’s past and upcoming work:
Penguin published his best-selling first novel, Tin Fish, in 2005, which was described by some critics as India’s Catcher in the Rye. In late 2008 Penguin published his second novel, Once Upon a Time in Aparanta, a darkly satirical work that questions assumptions of a self-professed paradise. The work is set in Goa.
In January 2008 Penguin/Viking published his Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, a best-selling, critically fêted work of narrative non-fiction about India’s proliferating but little-understood Maoist rebellion. It was published in the US by Viking in December 2008, and was selected by amazon.com as a Top-10 pick in Politics & History. The updated paperback edition was issued in April 2009.
His works have been published in anthologies (The Fiction Collection, Penguin, 2007; Recess, Penguin 2008) and literary magazines such as Wespennest.
Sudeep is at present researching two works of non-fiction. One continues to explore the world of leftwing extremism in India. The other, Highway 39, is set in Northeastern India, a volatile region. As with Red Sun, both works will explore issues of alienation and resentment in the churn of an aspiring India, a range that extends from conflict arising out of issues of identity, to social and economic displacement.
Alongside, Sudeep is engaged in completing a novel, The Avenue of Kings, the second in the Tin Fish trilogy; a collection of short stories; and a travelogue.
A former career journalist, Sudeep has worked at major global and Indian publication houses, including The Asian Wall Street Journal; the India Today Group, where he was Executive Editor, and Director of the India Today Conclave; and Hindustan Times, as Consultant Editor. He was most recently Editor-at-large for Rolling Stone, and helped to launch the magazine’s India edition. He continues to write for major print and online publications, and think-tanks.
He has edited numerous special volumes (among them, a 3-volume India Today Millennium Series); a book, The Other India (Books Today, 2000); and co-edited The Peace Dividend: Progress for India and South Asia (Lotus Roli, 2004).
Sudeep is a professional member of the World Future Society, Washington D.C., and alumnus of the BMW-Herbert Quandt Foundation’s Indo-German Leaders’ Forum. He is a trustee of ‘Save Our Seas—Goa’, a not-for-profit he helped co-found with fellow scuba diving enthusiasts. Sudeep also plans to support literary work and literary engagement in India and South Asia through a recently-formed initiative, ‘The East India Writing Company’.