Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Three is company: Shobha De, Mukul Deva, and Meenakshi Reddy

A candid report from the tenth India Se Literary Salon 2011

If anyone had any doubt about Shobha De’s popularity in Singapore, India Se’s 10th literary salon put it to rest for ever on 26 March. It was a Saturday afternoon and people voted with their feet—they preferred Shobha over siesta and thronged to the Singapore Recreation Club to enjoy her wit and benefit from her insights. Of course there were other attractions too. Indian thriller writer Mukul Deva was to unveil his latest novel, Tanzeem, and young writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan was to spice up the afternoon with her reading.

A gushing fan christened Shobha as the Sophia Loren of the East. In her welcome address, India Se’s CEO and editor-in-chief Shobha Tsering Bhalla said that every country is blessed with only one Shobha De, and she likened India’s Shobha De to USA’s Arianna Huffington (of The Huffington Post). What she meant was that Shobha De was not just a name—she signifies a tiger woman who is a combination of timeless beauty and ageless mind, and is the master of a fertile imagination with a killer attitude.

Shobha Bhalla shared with her readers how India Se’s literary salons had started in 2007 when such events were scarce in Singapore celebrating Indian writing and Indian writers. She regretted that writers Advaita Kala and Chetan Bhagat could not make it to the conference—Kala had lost her passport and Bhagat was already booked for the day. Shobha promised her readers that a writing workshop would soon be held with Bhagat holding a masterclass for the wannabe writers (I’m tempted to ask: Aur kitne Bhagats? India ke liye ek kaafi nahi hai kya?).

Unveiling of Tanzeem

Dr. T C A Raghavan, Indian High Commissioner to Singapore, unveiled Tanzeem—Mukul Deva’s fourth and last novel in his bestselling terrorism series. The high commissioner expressed his appreciation for Indian writing in English and said how it had been crucial for raising India’s profile in the world.

Mukul, an ex-army officer, is known as the Tom Clancy of India. He is India’s first military thriller writer. He shared with the audience how his publishers, HarperCollins India, were skeptical about the success of a military thriller in the Indian market. But with his first novel’s success, he proved them wrong. Lashkar was sold out in about 35 days in India and has since gone into several reprints. After Lashkar’s success, the going became easier for Mukul. He handed over one novel each year to his publisher, that turned out to be bestsellers. “In that sense, I created a new market segment of military thrillers in India,” Mukul said.

“Lashkar happened because I was disturbed after the bomb blasts in Saojini Nagar market in Delhi,” Mukul said, going into the antecedents of his terrorism series. “Newspapers give such incidents their own spin. To bring out the truth, I could either write big boring scholarly books or I could explain terrorism through novels. I chose the medium of novels to expose terrorism.”

Writing in her blood

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, the twenty something author of two novels, You are Here (Penguin) and Confessions of A Listmaniac (Scholastic), spoke about her blog, The Compulsive Confessor and how she had started her writing journey. Both her parents are writers so they understood when she wanted to become a writer too, she said. She couldn’t find her types of books on the bookshelves so she turned to writing those books for herself and for people of her age—and a changing India welcomed her books and she found a readership. Just like Shobha De and Mukul Deva, she too was not spared an epithet—a member of the audience called her India’s Sophie Kinsella. So it goes.

Reddy read two passages from her new novel, You are Here. The audience was clearly amused as one could hear giggles coming from the ranks of the audience.

Break the cage of age

Shobha De’s message to her readers was straightforward: break the cage of age. “We all need to be liberated from this cage,” she said. She was referring to ageism that she deals with in her book, Shobha at Sixty, which has gone on to become a huge success, beyond Shobha’s own expectations.

When Shobha had walked into the conference room, there were gasps from the members of the audience. And there was pin-drop silence—in appreciation—when Shobha read from her upcoming novel, Sethji. With this novel, Shobha had tried her hand at fiction after 15 years but from what she read, it was clear that she had improved on her craft.

Is Sethji’s character based on real life politician, asked a reader. Yes, it is, Shobha said, but thankfully, that monster is now dead.

“Guts and fearlessness are two main strengths of a writer,” she quipped in response to another question. And for a woman like herself, who is often pilloried from many corners, success is the best protection, she said.

A version of this report appeared in India Se magazine (May 2011 issue). You can read the report here.

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