Thursday, December 18, 2008

the last chapter

Another short extract, this one from the end of the fourth chapter, Mr Hall, and the end of the book. I wrote this part on a cold January morning in 2006 in my room in a flat in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, and then set down my pen with relief at having reached the end. The last line, with its mix of flippancy and nostalgia, seemed to sum up the mood of the book. I felt then, and some readers have pointed this out, that the open-ended ending suggested a sequel. But there remains an element of unwillingness at having to revisit the same characters again. I had started writing the book seven months earlier in my old room in our old house (now demolished) in Shillong, the same room where I first hesitantly put pen to paper as a 15-year-old schoolboy. If I had known then that it would take me another 15 years to get to the end of my first publishable novel I doubt I would have persisted. But even after I had completed that first draft it took nearly two more years for the book to see the light of day. It’s now been just over a year since the book came out, and about the same time for the blog. I stay alone now in another part of Delhi, but when I sometimes pass by that Lajpat Nagar flat I shared with two friends from Shillong I can see potted plants on the balcony along with a few Tibetan prayer flags, and I think maybe there’s someone inside that flat reading Jet City Woman and chuckling at its descriptions of the Tibetan colony at Majnu ka Tila.

A week later, in the third week of May, I was back at the domestic terminal at 8 in the morning to catch my flight to Guwahati. I was leaving, more or less for good. In the taxi on the way to the airport the sardar driver had been playing Punjabi folk tunes, and they had made me think of Ajmer Singh and his Canada plans. Everyone who could, seemed to be planning to leave this country. Temperatures were up now in the high forties in Delhi, and India was on the brink of going to war against Pakistan—it was a good time to get out of the capital. In the taxi to the airport I looked at the city where I had spent five years—I had arrived in May of 1997 on the North-East Express—and felt the first pangs of homesickness. I knew I would miss Delhi, miss the harshness and loudness of it, the very things that had unsettled me upon my arrival. I entered the departure terminal, checked in—a suitcase and two duffel bags—and waited in the passenger’s lounge having a coffee. The other passengers were an odd mix of sleepy and alert characters at this early hour.

It had been easier to dismantle my life in Delhi than I had thought. My meagre possessions—bed, mattress, table, chair, rack—I left with Bashan, along with the keys to my motorcycle. The rest of our co-owned stuff—the television, music system, cooler, fridge, utensils—was now his. I would send him my share of the rent until he found a roommate or a single accommodation or, as he hoped, until Sonam agreed to move in. When I finally told him about my restaurant plans he looked hurt at being let in so late, but later congratulated me and wished me the best and said even if he were in with me he couldn’t leave right then. He called me as I stood in the security check queue—he’d just got back from work—and I spoke to him, and to Sonam. I would be coming back in a month or two for purchasing the restaurant equipment, I told him. There was an entrepreneur’s loan I had to apply for in Shillong before that. We also made plans to meet in Shillong for Christmas later that year, me and Rebecca and Bashan and Sonam, all of us at my new restaurant, wouldn’t that be great, yes that would be great. “
All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now,” were those lines from Tangled up in Blue.

I went through security and waited on my feet in the stuffy boarding area listening to the unclear flight announcements. None of the glamour of air travel here; in a country with a population like ours it felt like an upscale railway waiting room. It was all part of a country on the move; the new economy airlines, the call centres, the malls. But it would all seem unreal after I got off the plane at Guwahati and the taxi took me up the winding road to Shillong, with views of wet, green-blanketed hills rolling away into the distance. Did cities matter less the further you got away from them? I called home from a phone booth and told them I would be taking a taxi straight to Shillong from the airport, and I called Rebecca. The last day at the office had ended badly. They refused to clear my legitimate dues, not a very large sum, on flimsy grounds, and finally I flung my resignation letter at my boss and stormed out. Screw them, I had thought, I didn’t need them anymore. I was going home to my woman. Saxena the photographer, the old warhorse of the company, also picked up a fight with our boss over the issue of my dues, and quit to join a new magazine, getting a hefty pay-raise for his experience. ‘You opened my eyes yaar,’ he had told me over the phone the night before I left. ‘No loyalty left anymore in this world. Let’s see what that
chutiya will do without me now.’

The boarding call for my flight finally came. Naina’s Esteem I had fixed up and sent to Guwahati the previous day by train. Samir, my old roommate from Indra Vihar, would collect it for me and hold it till I could come down from Shillong. There was a short ride over the tarmac on the passenger bus to the flight. Going up the boarding steps I tried to spot the restaurant on the second level of the terminal. The ghost of Naina and me. I took my window seat, and then an old couple, they looked Gujarati, occupied the seats beside me. As the fatigued airhostesses went through the safety drill I looked out at the hangars and planes and tractors pulling luggage trolleys. Some distance away stood the private jets—Gulfstreams and Cessnas—looking sleek and unbothered amidst the general busyness of the airport. Did Maurice Gautier own a jet? Our plane taxied towards the runway and then waited for take-off clearance with its engines throbbing.

Was I leaving Delhi defeated, like so many other young people from the north-east? In a way, yes, but I couldn’t see myself making a life here, making a career out of journalism. A different future awaited me now. With a woman who loved me. The plane started on its take-off run and gathered speed. Rebecca, the restaurant, family, friends—these were the only things I had that I could hold on to. The plane took off and climbed at a 45˚ angle up into the sky and I looked out as Delhi opened up below us, bright and distinct in the morning sun—goodbye, ancient city. There was something else I had to do too. Wait. Wait for that call. Wait for her to turn up someday. I would keep her car ready for her. Where do you want to go? Sohra? Dawki? Ranikor? Nartiang? Mairang? ‘
Remember all those places with the charming names you used to talk about?’ The roads and cars and stacks of housing complexes shrunk in size as we climbed into a clear blue sky. Maybe she would walk into my restaurant one day, just like that, unannounced. Maybe I would call it Windermere. I would ask the cook to set out what she liked—steamed rice, and pork with bamboo shoots and garlic and Naga chillies—and then I would make her a drink at the bar. Not a pink gin, but a martini. With gin, not vodka, and stirred, not shaken. She liked Tanqueray with dry vermouth. That would be a problem in Shillong. I would have to remember to get a bottle of each the next time I came to Delhi.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

chapter 2: chang town

A short excerpt from chapter 2 of Jet City Woman:

I passed New Camp and stopped by the pavement that ran along the more deprived section of Chang town. The sweet-sour smell of chang—a fermented drink made by boiling barley, millet and rice—hung in the air. It was a smell I associated with rice beer in the villages of the north-east, an aroma not unlike that of champagne. Life from within the cramped houses had spilled out onto the pavement: charpoys, water buckets, chairs, children playing, women talking. I bought a packet of cigarettes from one of the tiny soft-drinks stalls on the pavement, and looked around as Naina stood by the bike. A young Tibetan couple, a group of monks in red robes and sneakers, two white women in shorts carrying backpacks—there was no sign of the Delhi Police PCR gypsys that patrolled the area at night.

We went through a gate and down a lane into New Camp. It was getting late, and most of the establishments were shut. Along the narrow main street, groups of well-dressed wiry young men and women and stout middle-aged men were playing carrom under hanging light shades. They shot us hostile stares as I drove slowly past. I turned into one of the alleys that led off the main street; it was dark, and we could smell cooking and hear music and family noises from within the buildings on either side. Beyond where the buildings ended were the black waters of the Yamuna.

‘Is this the place?’ Naina said as I stopped at the end of the alley under a lighted signboard. Hotel Shangri-La. She had zipped up her track jacket and gathered up her hair with a hairband.
‘Yes, this is it.’
But Shangri-La would be closing shortly, a man with a drooping moustache told us at the reception, and there was no beer or any alcohol available.
‘So that’s it then,’ Naina said as I drove back towards the main street.
‘We’re not giving up so easy,’ I said. ‘Or do you want to get back to the party? Karma’s got wine.’
‘Screw the party. I can have wine later.’

I found her recklessness attractive. We tried a few more places without any luck, before coming across one that was half-open, at a dank end of the main street. The teenaged boy inside said we could get cold beer. Naina lit a cigarette under the signboard with the faded words Dolma Restaurant while I locked my bike. Make sure you score, Bashan had said, but what I really wanted was more to drink. Every man—and woman—an island; the drink assuaged the pain.

We crept in past the half-shut folding grille; windows with dirty frosted glass panes and a door with peeling red paint led into a room with eight four-seater tables and a modified 500cc Enfield motorcycle. The muscular teenaged boy in jeans and biker boots slouched at a table at the far corner, watching an NBA game on a portable television set placed on the counter. The place was empty. Why was it still open?

We took a table near the front door, and I sat with my back against the wall so I could see the front and back entrances. There was another door directly opposite to me, facing Naina’s back, and beside it was the motorcycle—a massive purple machine with curved handlebars and a leather seat with studs and fringes. I looked at my watch: fifteen to eleven; twelve would be a good time to leave.

‘This place can be creepy, don’t you think?’ Naina said.
‘I know. That’s what makes it interesting. Could be something out of Greeneland.’
‘Greenland?’ Her eyebrows knotted. I could see she wore no makeup.
‘Greene–land. G-R-E-E-N-E. There was a British novelist called Graham Greene who wrote about places like these, shabby, seedy, on the edge.’
‘Might have heard of him,’ she said with a shrug. ‘I hardly read books. But I love magazines.’
‘Magazines? You mean like India Today, Outlook, that sort of stuff?’
‘No, not those magazines, no. Vogue, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar. Fashion magazines.’
‘Oh, I see.’ I had a vision of her barsati decorated with ads from those magazines. Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton.
‘What? You don’t think they’re good magazines?’
‘No, I didn’t say that. They’re good magazines. I’ve seen some of them.’

‘They teach me a lot,’ she said solemnly, unzipping her track jacket. The mud-coloured singlet beneath showed me her collarbones, the swell of her bra-less breasts. Strange, to have landed here from the party, with someone like her. The Tibetan boy finally sauntered over to us, and I asked him for two bottles of cold beer, and a plate of chilli beef, or rather chilli buff(alo)—we were still in Delhi.

Friday, August 15, 2008

vande mataram

Sixty one years after India became an independent country, an Indian finally wins an individual gold at the summer Olympics. While excitable news anchors try to get an unflappable Abhinav Bindra to show some excitement, and state governments and corporate groups announce cash awards for him, Bindra's achievement has inspired our nation's people, both in terms of creative expression and enthusiasm for the particular sport in question.

While the Kashmir valley and Jammu continue to burn, and the liberal news media bemoans this assault on the very idea of a secular India, something happening in far-off Assam attracts no attention. A group of people have taken exception to an agitation against the presence of Bangladeshi nationals in Assam. The former can count on the support of none other than CM Tarun Gogoi. Gogoi of course belongs to the Congress, which has over the years turned a blind eye to the increasing number of Bangladeshis sneaking into Assam in return for their votes (to be fair, even the AGP didn't do much about it after coming to power on the strength of that issue). According to Gogoi, there are just a "handful" of Bangladeshis in Assam; clearly, the people who called this bandh are secular-minded Assamese like our CM Gogoi himself, and certainly not people from a neighbouring country. So while the Congress shows its secular/patriotic credentials in internationally-sensitive J&K, who gives a damn if Assam is slowly taken over by the Bangladeshis? Going back to J&K: the people of Ladakh are a peaceable and patriotic lot, which is why no one gives a damn about them, too. It's always been about the Kashmir valley, and now Jammu. Which just goes to show that in India, nobody will listen to you unless you create a tamasha.

Bhagyajeet Bhuyan did a review of my book in The Pioneer on 06/07/08. Called "Margin and the Centre", the review is helped by the fact that Bhuyan has been through the whole DU-north Delhi/professional life-south Delhi thing. He says it is a "commendable effort by the writer to bridge the gap between the North-East and the rest of the country. The fact that the writer himself is from the North-East adds credibility to the narrative." The review, like older webpages on The Pioneer's website, is unfortunately missing online.

Here's my two cents on the north-east in Delhi (link unavailable now) in the current "chinky" issue of Time Out Delhi.

Monday, June 30, 2008

back from ladakh

The expected reviews in The Pioneer and the Biblio this month haven't appeared, yet. Hopefully next month (or next issue, in case of the latter publication). In the meantime here's a review of Patrick French's Naipaul biography i did for a Pakistani paper, The News on Sunday (scroll down the link to read the whole review). I've been described as "an Indian novelist", something that made me feel, well, international!

The first royalty cheque from my publishers arrived a few days ago. I hadn't kept track of the many "debit-to-royalty" copies i'd procured from them, so after that was deducted my modest royalties shrunk further. Anyway, all one can do is keep on writing.

I got back to Delhi a fortnight ago from a 10 day trip to Himachal and Ladakh. The stark beauty of that frontier region is something otherworldly. We did the "cannonball run" from Manali to Leh squeezed into a Scorpio taxi for 20 hours. We crossed the (supposed) highest motorable pass in the world by motorcycle and reached the village of Hunder in the Nubra valley, where you can see two humped Bactrian camels, a remnant of the old caravan routes that passed through the area. There wasn't enough time in the end for Pangong Tso and Lamayuru and Tso Moriri: they'll have to wait for another time. There was thick cloud cover as we flew into Delhi airport; the plane that had seen better days rattled and shook, and then we landed in a heavy drizzle. It seemed the monsoon had just arrived (though there seems to be no sign of that now!).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

seven months later, or, what do i write about?

A blog post after 8 weeks. When my book had just come out i would post with some regularity. There seemed to be many things happening around the book. Now the blog seems to have fallen quiet. What do i write about? The book has made its way into the world and found a life of its own. I really don't have much to do with it now.

There were two reviews of Jet City Woman "back home" in April. One was in a column called "Delhi Dialogue" that Arunabh Borgohain does for the monthly Assamese magazine Jibon, published from Guwahati. The other was the already mentioned review by Patricia Mukhim in The Shillong Times. Both had nice things to say about the book. I hope it leads to more sales. Speaking of which, my publishers say the book should go into its second print run soon. However its June, and i'm still waiting for my royalty cheque from them. So much for being a debut author. This month should see reviews in The Pioneer and Biblio.

Apart from the reviews, random comments about Jet City Woman from unknown people on orkut and facebook, in my mail, and on my blog always come as a pleasant surprise. Its almost as if, seven months down the line, the book has grown up and walked away and can do without me now. Some of these comments come from people who have blogs too, like this one, and this one.

What do i write about? When it comes to writing, in general, i find that what works is waiting till there's something you want to say. If there's nothing you have to say, keep quiet. I will post again later this month though. So keep visiting.

A random photo. Fish market, Market No.1, C.R. Park, New Delhi. When people come to know where i stay (not in the fish market, but in Block A of C.R. Park), they almost always ask, "You must be eating a lot of fish?" The answer is, i don't.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

in which i become a reviewer

If you can't beat them, join them. After reviewing my reviewers, i've gone and become a reviewer myself (link unavailable temporarily). The book in question is Kunal Basu's The Japanese Wife, which The Pioneer asked me to review.

I've also done another piece for the southern edition of the Indian Express (the New Indian Express), after the Maiden in Mumbai piece in February. This one was about a short trip to Arunachal while i was home a few weeks ago.

However, it would have been nice to see some editorial discretion at these two national papers. In the review, for instance, my "Of the Japanese wife herself we cannot figure anything out; she remains a faraway and invisible presence whose actions we cannot account for. Whatever potential there was in the story, Basu has failed to bring it out." has been changed to, "Of the Japanese wife, she has an invisible presence whose actions we cannot account for. Whatever potential there was in the story, Kunal Basu has failed to bring it out."

Then in the Arunachal piece, the original "The Alto’s wheels were now skidding all over the ice and snow covered road." has been changed to, "The Alto’s wheels were skidding over snow covered road." Very, very clumsy, and unnecessary. There are a few more such instances in both articles.

The Shillong Times carried a review of Jet City Woman by the well-known writer/activist Patricia Mukhim this Sunday, the 6th. It seems the book has been described as an entertaining read, and the author praised for his insight into the "northeastern psyche"! The review doesn't seem to be available online; will try and put it up if i can get my hands on the paper itself.

Jet City Woman has been out for about six months now, which is not really that long for a book. Somehow it all seems to have happened a long time ago. Sometimes i find it hard to believe that i've actually written a book. Maybe the long wait before i got published has something to do with it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

links and photos

Back to Delhi, back to work. After a fortnight's leave it's hard to shake off the holiday mood. Jet City Woman seems to be something of a minor local curiosity in Guwahati and Shillong.

Here's a link to something on the Rupa & Co. site about the world book fair (my face looks curiously distorted in the photo). I recently did a piece on the writing of Jet City Woman for the Oxford Bookstore website. I also did a piece on the Iron Maiden show in Mumbai last month for the southern edition of the Indian Express. They said they'll pay me Rs.3 per word for it, so that should reimburse half of the flight ticket expenses for Mumbai.

Here are a few recent pix from Shillong, Arunachal, and Assam. How i wish i was still back there.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

back to where it all began

Here are two photos from the Rupa & Co. stall at the recently concluded 18th New Delhi World Book Fair. The 'launch' itself was a short informal affair, with Mr Natwar Singh kindly doing the honours. There's a short video clip i'll be putting up in another post. I remember going to meet an editor at the last book fair, in February 2006, with a floppy disk that had my just finished manuscript in the form of a pdf file. After waiting seven months, i was told they wouldn't be publishing it. Having the launch at this book fair was thus satisfying. My publishers say they might have "a proper book launch" at a later date; considering that the book's been around for more than three months now, if they do it they should do it soon.

Here's a photo from an article on Jet City Woman and its author by Vanita Chitkara in the new daily newspaper Metro Now, in the issue dated 12.02.08, in the 'City' section. The newspaper content isn't available online though. And the photo in the paper was black and white. I came across that issue of the paper at the saloon today evening and showed the story to my barber, who seemed suitably impressed. The photo was taken outside the Tibetan refugee colony at Majnu ka Tila, a place mentioned in my book. The seediness i remember from 10 years back has disappeared, and the place looks prosperous and stable now, but maybe the seediness wasn't there in the first place, maybe it was just my imagination. As for the photo (courtesy Atul from Metro Now), to paraphrase Purno Sangma, our former Lok Sabha speaker from the Garo Hills, "I like my drinks, my readers know it, and my face shows it"!

I'm off to Shillong, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh this weekend on a fortnight's leave. So the next post might in all likelihood be next month. Or i just might update from Shillong. Time to go see what the narrator of my book is doing with his restaurant there.

I recently wrote a piece on the Iron Maiden concert for The New Indian Express (the Indian Express in south India). The editor says it'll appear on the 17th of this month, in the Sunday edition of the paper.

Monday, February 4, 2008

come one, come all

My publishers have finally decided to formally launch Jet City Woman, three months after it was let loose on an unsuspecting public. It's so far sold about a thousand copies out of its first print run of two thousand copies. And with a bit of help from you it should go into a second print run.

The launch will be a short affair: 4p.m. on Wednesday the 6th of February 2008 at the Rupa & Co. stall during the 18th New Delhi World Book Fair. Come in through Entry Gate No.5 at Pragati Maidan and head for Stall No. 95-114 in Hall No.1F. The book will be "released" by K. Natwar Singh, the "eminent politician and diplomat". Somehow he seems suited to releasing this book. Please turn up at the launch: you might see yourself in the next day's papers!

The prolific blogger Jai Arjun Singh has reviewed JCW in the January issue of the Business Standard's Gateway magazine (not available online). Amitabha Bagchi mentions it in the latest issue of Time Out Delhi (the January 25 - February 7 'books issue'); register at to see it. And The Asian Age's p.age literary supplement dated 3 February has a Q&A with me for the Bibliofile section where i mention various books to show how well read i am. Example: Q. Who is your favourite literary character? A. Mr Jones, the conman and drifter from Graham Greene's The Comedians.

My enthusiasm for Iron Maiden meant that i missed out on a great chance for some further self-promotion. NDTV Metronation had a shoot on 1st February for a programme on 'first-time novelists' (almost like a caste or tribe, that term); I had to give it a miss because i had to be in Mumbai that evening watching Bruce Dickinson and Co. open their 2008 world tour. Of course, there were many in Mumbai who had other things on their mind than a heavy metal concert. The Metronation correspondent, Shruti Arora, has said she'll inform me when the programme goes on air.

Monday, January 21, 2008

stale news, or cult classic?

I thought no reviewer could outdo the Hindustan Times' Elizabeth Kuruvilla, but someone actually has. Here’s Sonya Dutta Choudhury’s one column hatchet job on my book in the latest issue of India Today. She just doesn’t like the book. The review is all about her rarefied scorn for it. “Definitely not a book I would read,” she sniffs. Her reason for not liking it? As far as I could tell from the review, it’s for one reason alone: my “stereotyped images of ‘chinks’ on bikes in search of beef and beer,” which “fails to capture the tragic splendour of the beautiful land (the north-east) and its people”.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that it’s primarily about a woman and the city of Delhi. The narrator’s life at Delhi University and his trips back home to Shillong form the backdrop to that story. I’ve had a lot of people tell me how much they’ve liked reading about places like Indra Vihar and Laitumkhrah in a novel, places they know well but haven’t come across in fiction till now. I’ve written about what I’ve seen honestly. I know what i'm writing about; Dutta Choudhury appears to have no clue about the same though.

In accusing me of stereotyping, she does the worst kind of stereotyping herself: my title’s 'Saikia', so therefore I must write about the “tragic splendour” of the north-east, even if I’m writing a book about a woman and the city of Delhi. I’ve grown up in the north-east, and I know its people well, but I don’t know what Dutta Choudhury is talking about when she mentions its “tragic splendour”. Her whole idea of the north-east seem to have been formed from stray newspaper reports about the region in newspapers in the metros.

Going by her logic, with the title that she has, she should be writing about the “tragic splendour” of Nandigram and Kolkata’s Barabazar market instead of writing admiring profiles of German and Scottish CEOs (notice the complete absence of criticism in those articles). Does the problem lie therein I wonder? Dutta Choudhury’s last review for India Today was of Timeri N. Murari’s The Small House (published by Penguin India): after that, after the meetings with German and Scottish CEOs, India Today gives her an unknown writer’s slim first novel that’s been published by a very ‘Indian’ publishing house. She can’t say anything to India Today, so she takes out her spleen on the book. Just a theory! Whatever her views about my book, her evident inability to imaginatively enter the book’s terrain is a massive failure on her part as a reviewer.

Amitabha Bagchi, who teaches computer science at IIT Delhi, and is the author of the campus novel Above Average, recently reviewed my book for the tehelka website. He thinks it may in time go on to attain “cult status”! Though I found the review a bit muddled at places (again, someone focusing on the “north-east” instead of telling readers what he thought of, say, Naina’s character), and Bagchi too has some of the usual gripes (“…his prose does not rise to the challenge and his storytelling is clunky.”), he has at least made an honest attempt to understand Jet City Woman.

At one point Bagchi’s review says, “There are several radical possibilities inherent in a novel about an immigrant group coming from the periphery of the Indian imagination to the centre of the Indian nation. Saikia has staked a claim to these possibilities by being an early mover.” This had me wondering … maybe a couple of decades from now some university will have a Department or School of NEIWE (North-East Indian Writing in English) … maybe a professor there will say to the students in his classroom, “Ankush Saikia’s Jet City Woman was one of the pioneering works in the field of NEIWE. He was someone ahead of his time, but sadly we can only speculate about what he could have written after his first novel. Disheartened by the extremely negative reviews of his book in the Hindustan Times and India Today, and by anonymous comments on his blog accusing him of being a third-rate writer running a self-obsessed and narcissistic blog, he tragically ended his life by jumping into the tigers’ enclosure at Guwahati Zoo.” Amen.

Whatever my reviewers might say, I have the satisfaction of knowing that the book is selling well, as well as a first novel can be expected to do in India. It seems to be doing especially well at Bangalore’s Crossword outlets, for some reason. So, at the end of the day, any review might well be better than no review, and for that I am grateful to Sonya Dutta Choudhury/India Today and Elizabeth Kuruvilla/Hindustan Times. Thank you!

The book launch is on for the 6th of February at 4 p.m. at the Rupa & Co. stall during the Delhi World Book Fair. We’re looking for a ‘chief guest’, so if you’re someone important, please feel free to volunteer your services!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

iron maiden, pork, st edmunds

This post touches on three significant things in my unnamed narrator’s life: Iron Maiden, pork, and St Edmunds.

iron maiden When we were students at St Edmunds School, Shillong, one of our main interests as pimply teenagers was rock music. In those pre-liberalization, pre-internet, pre-MTV, and pre-cellphone days, the only way to broaden our horizons was to trawl small cassette shops in the city’s Police Bazar and Bara Bazar areas for pirated cassettes (on labels like CD4, Michael, and Peacock) that came from Nepal and the Far East. Many bands and many albums were unearthed this way (with one purchased cassette being borrowed by 10 others), but one band and one singer stood tall above the rest: Iron Maiden, and their vocalist Bruce ‘air raid siren’ Dickinson, who many in our school worshipped.

They never ever graced our small town, but now, they'll be playing in India for the second time in two years. If all goes well I’ll be at the show on February 1st in Mumbai with a few old school friends. Maiden are starting their 2008 Somewhere Back In Time tour from Mumbai, and will be flying in in style: on a customized Boeing 757 that will carry the band, the crew, and the equipment, and that will be piloted by Dickinson himself (who is a trained commercial pilot). Now that’s doing it your own way! The plane is currently in service with the charter airline Astraeus, and has been officially christened by the band as "Ed Force Once" (after the band's mascot Eddie).

Like Scorpions last month, Maiden may be coming 20 years too late, but it’s just in time for fans like us: one last chance to be a schoolboy again! More will follow on this great band. And i'm sure my narrator will take a break from running his restaurant in Shillong to go see them.

pork My narrator buys his pork from the Laitumkhrah market when in Shillong and from a shop in Green Park when in Delhi. And likes to make it with bamboo shoots, garlic, and naga chillies. Here’s the ridiculously simple recipe. But you need to care about what you’re cooking: that’s how it’ll taste good.

1 kilo fresh pork (preferably from the pig’s thighs) with a good amount of fat
a fistful of crushed garlic
10-15 ground green chillies or 1-2 ground naga chillies (it’s supposed to make you sweat!)
a bowlful of bamboo shoots (best if it’s the grated type which has been kept a few months)
salt to taste

Heat a karhai, add the pork (cut into medium-sized pieces) and cook over a medium flame, stirring from time to time. The meat will change colour and water will start coming out from it: add the salt then and keep stirring. As the water starts drying up and the oil starts coming out from the fat (that’s why you need the fat), add the garlic, and then after say 5–10 minutes add the chillies, stirring frequently. Cook this way till the meat is almost done, then add the bamboo shoots and cook for about 5–10 minutes more.

It’s important to keep stirring frequently otherwise the garlic and chillies and bamboo shoots get stuck to the bottom of the pan. Serve hot with rice, moong dal boiled with salt and a bit of haldi, and a salad with lemon squeezed into it. Personally, more than the meat, I like the oil with the pieces of garlic and bamboo shoot in it: it’s divine with rice. It’ll taste better the next morning, and try having for breakfast a bowl of rice with the pork and a fried egg, and a cup of tea.

st edmunds My narrator and me are both products of St Edmunds School and College, Shillong. Here are some photos of the college campus (photos courtesy Soumyadip C’s cuttingthechai blog).

The road between the college library and third field.

The college library.

My economics major classroom.

You might be a member of Gen X, Y, or Z (or even A,B, or C), but I’m a member of Gen O! Read all about it here. This appeared in The Asian Age’s Delhi supplement, the Delhi Age, on January 8, and the newspaper article has a photo of me (taken at the IHC programme last month) and a quote from me beside it. Having worked as a sub-editor at one point in my meandering life, seeing myself in a layout was a moment of acute post-post-modernist irony about content and the nature of its dissemination. There, I can write stuff like that too!

2007 was a year of obituaries: Shakti Bhatt, Tejeshwar Singh, and now Ashok Saikia. A friend of my father’s from Delhi’s Ramjas College, he made possible my first job in Delhi in 1999. Like Shakti and TS, he went too early.

This to be confirmed: my publishers will finally be having a small book-launch for Jet City Woman at the New Delhi World Book Fair in Pragati Maidan on 6th February at 4pm. We’re still looking for someone who’ll ‘release’ the book. Those of you who can, do try and make it, along with your friends, relatives, and pets. Will confirm the time and date soon.

P.S. If you'd like to watch Maiden in Mumbai, you can get your tickets here.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

"sex, drugs, rock AND roll"!!

Here’s what The Hindu’s Literary Review section has to say about Jet City Woman. Someone I know who has a book coming out this year messaged me today morning, “U shld thnk them fr givng ur plot away…” Personally, I’m beginning to feel it’s impossible to expect people to READ the book before writing about it: “He’s not left much of a chance because she announces that she is off abroad. Years later she meets him again.” Huh? The mystery woman Naina goes off to Mumbai for a while, and then after she comes back to Delhi my unnamed narrator meets her on and off. Then she goes off to London, and my narrator returns to Shillong. If she comes back to India and meets my narrator again, well, that’s a possibility I was thinking I could explore in a sequel!

I have a sneaking feeling some people don’t see the book as being serious and literary enough. How I wish they’d look beyond the whole sex, drugs, and ‘northeastern-ness’ thing and see the book for what I meant it to be: a story of a woman, and of a city. And "rock AND roll" makes me think of Elvis and Chuck Berry. However, to their credit, The Hindu also calls it “an honest novel”. The paper also mentioned my book in a story on debut writers, only they have it as “Jet Set Woman”! It’s not that I think my book is so good it’s beyond criticism: criticise, by all means, but do it intelligently for god’s sake. This is a first novel that took a lot of time and effort, so I wish a review of it would mention more than just the storyline. More than the reviewers, it’s the lay reader who leaves a comment on this blog or on my orkut profile that makes me feel that the book is worth something. Today’s Literary Review section also has a piece on Anjum Hasan from Shillong, who has a book of poetry and now a novel set in that town.

I’ve recently set up an orkut profile to go along with this blog. Interestingly, when you type in ‘ankush saikia’ on orkut there are 3 profiles by that name: one is yours truly, the other is an Assamese software engineer in Bangalore, and the third is someone from Benin who has a woman’s picture on his profile. Graham Greene wrote in his autobiography about the curious case of a 'Graham Greene' who travelled through Assam and Nagaland in the 1950s, was arrested by the police there, and let off when he identified himself as the novelist himself. I wonder if there’s someone in a small west African country at this moment passing himself off as the author of Jet City Woman!!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

shoddy book reviewing, or, reviewing the reviewers

Neena De reviewed my book in The Assam Tribune on 7 December, and Elizabeth Kuruvilla followed suit in the Hindustan Times on 23 December.

While I’d like to thank both newspapers for giving some space to a first-time novelist, I’d like to point out something about the reviews. Both reviews are uncannily similar: they breathlessly describe the story like a schoolchild writing a prĂ©cis about a book, then make a cursory stab at a big idea (the book is by someone from the north-east, so how could they resist “Alienation”?!), and finally end on a patronising note. De says, “If the author tightens up his style or finds a better editor, his next book will be one to look forward to.” And Kuruvilla says, “Saikia’s novel falters because of his amateurish writing style. If only publishers would realise that they should be in the race to produce the most number of good books, not just the most number of books.”

Pankaj Mishra said somewhere that to review and criticise effectively, you need to have done some good writing of your own too. It’s something I doubt Ms De and Ms Kuruvilla have paid heed to. If you’ve read both reviews, you’ll see that De and Kuruvilla are the ones who need to shape up their prose, what with De’s pedestrian turn of phrase: “He went to Delhi to study. Presumably his parents had high hopes when they sent him there.” and Kuruvilla’s convoluted sentences: “Would he be admitting to failure if, like his college friends, he went back to Shillong, a place where he does not have to try to fit in, to a girl who may not be exciting like Naina, but at least is comforting in her familiarity.”

I think both reviewers opened the book looking for the Big Themes and Universal Significance that Literature is supposed to have: I can almost hear them saying as they went through the book, “Drinking, cooking pork, having sex, no interest in working—what is this? This is not Literature!” I am sorry to have disappointed them.

A review of a novel is meant to be something more than just a recounting of the book’s plot. What has the author set out to do? In what context can you place his work? Matters like these seem beyond my two esteemed reviewers. They also display a curious lack of interest in the real workings of the novel: what did they think of the main characters, the settings in Delhi and Shillong, the way the plot unfolds? I would have thought it worth their while to put in a word about these things.

I hope they take my criticism in the same spirit that I took theirs!

Something that the editor in me spotted: the HT newspaper review has em-dashes used both with spaces and without spaces. Being consistent is a basic editing skill, but maybe it’s something beneath the august notice of reviewer and/or sub-editor in this case.

If she had read the book a bit more carefully, Kuruvilla would have realised that Naina DOES NOT fall “into the arms of an Afghan coke dealer”: on page 121 and page 184, Naina and Karim respectively clear up the narrator’s doubts as to whether the two of them had slept together.

De spends a lot of time analysing why my narrator behaves the way he does: she doesn’t seem to notice that the narrator is himself aware of these things, and that he ends up doing things against his judgement—so there’s nothing new she brings to the book.

Book reviewing is a skilled art. It certainly doesn’t mean reproducing the plot of a novel in about a hundred words and adding a lofty pronouncement at the end. Both De and Kuruvilla have a long way to go before they can call themselves reviewers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

saikia is cryptic

Here's what The Hindu had to say about the Young Writers programme on the 14th at the India Habitat Centre.

The Asian Age did a story on it too, but for some reason the link to that isn't working, so here's a scan of the story someone sent me (click to enlarge).

Tejeshwar Singh passed away on 15 December. For many people he remains synonymous with Sage Publications (India). My first job in publishing was at Sage India. Mr Singh ("TS" to all of us who worked there) was an old-school publisher who as Sage India's MD built it up into one of India's most respected academic publishers. He had an imposing presence, and the one image I keep seeing is of him sitting behind his massive desk, a pencil held at a crook in his hand as he worked on a book's flap matter, his spectacles low on his nose, and a cigarette burning on the ashtray beside him. Here's an obituary on TS, and another. I had recently sent him a copy of my novel through a common acquaintance at work; I wonder if he had got around to reading it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

14 minutes of fame

As mentioned earlier, I was at the India Habitat Centre on the evening of Friday, December 14th as a participant at the Young Writers programme that was part of the ongoing Delhi International Arts Festival. It was also my birthday that day. I turned 32, an age some of you might find too advanced for me to be considered as a young writer! Anyway, the other two participants, Amandeep Sandhu (Sepia Leaves) and Advaita Kala (Almost Single), are around that age too, so I guess that’s ok.

So there were the three of us, and Shrabani Basu, author of Spy Princess, and Nafisa Ali up on the dias in the Stein Auditorium for nearly two hours. I hadn’t prepared a talk, so I fumbled up there, the reading we had to do went better (I read from pp.47–51 of my book), and I managed to get a few laughs during the Q&A round at the end. Surprisingly, I was told my performance was pretty good.

Thanks to all the people who turned up, especially my friends and relatives—and as for those of you who didn’t turn up, I expect you to do so next time, though I have no idea where or when that may be! Here’s the Indian Express’s story on the programme. Anuj Bahri, who some of you might remember from an earlier post of mine, later took a small group of us up to the Habitat Centre bar on the sixth floor for drinks after the event. The perks of being an author you see. The actual birthday party was a get-together at a friend’s place on Saturday night; they told me I would have to do a reading for them too, but thankfully I was spared!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Shillong and northeast India, and who might have thought of it as this otherworldly place after reading my Scorpions post, here’s a reminder that the simmering frustration and resentment found all over today’s India is present in my part of the country too. The events described in the linked article took place in Guwahati, just 100 kilometres from Shillong, 18 days before the Scorpions’ concert. The rally in Guwahati, the concert in Shillong: two different worlds.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

rock you like a hurricane

On page 101 of my novel my “unnamed narrator” (who everyone wrongly assumes is me) is driving around Shillong at night with his friends. It is drizzling, the streets are deserted, and they are drinking beer and listening to the Scorpions. I have lost touch with my unnamed narrator ever since I was done with the novel, but I am sure he was at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong’s Polo Ground on the evening of December 12th, to catch the German rock band’s first concert of their 2008 world tour.

A whole generation that grew up in Shillong has fond memories of the Scorpions’ music, especially as the soundtrack to many a drinking session; songs like Always Somewhere, Holiday, No One Like You, Still Loving You and In Trance made many a beer taste better, made many a drive more memorable. They may have come to Shillong 20 years too late, but from what my friends who were there told me, they more than made up for it.

Anushree Majumdar, the correspondent from the Indian Express who did a story on me last month, was in Shillong for the concert too. Maybe she even bumped into my narrator at the JN Stadium. I was in office in Delhi, working at the fag end of a 6-month-long project; a friend called me from the venue while the Scorpions were playing their Bad Boys Running Wild. I was at the same venue in December 2004 for the Firehouse concert; that show was great, but it seems this one was even better. I wish I could have been there.

I was at the India Habitat Centre on Friday evening for the Young Writers programme that was part of the ongoing Delhi International Arts Festival; will put up a post about that in a day or two.

Anjum Hasan, whom I mentioned in my last post, has a sister called Daisy Hasan whose first novel The To-Let House will be published early next year by Tara Books from Chennai. Like Anjum’s novel, Daisy’s novel is set in Shillong too. Daisy, who came across my blog while googling her sister’s book, sent me a link to a review of Anjum’s poetry collection Street on the Hill that was published in 2006 by the Sahitya Akademi. There are three poems on that page, and I really liked what I read, especially the one called Mawlai: it took me back to the solitary pursuit of reading in Shillong when I was young, to the ever-changing clouds in a blue sky and the wind coming through the pine trees on a hillside. Here’s wishing Anjum and Daisy all the best for their novels.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

jet city woman reaches shillong

Trying to fit too much into 24 hours can be tiring. On Friday, after a long and busy day at the office, I had to take my motorcycle through the evening rush hour traffic from Panchsheel Park to Connaught Place for the book launch of Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in my Head, published by Penguin–Zubaan. Parking your two-wheeler in CP’s inner circle is a thing of the past: now you have to drive into a dusty grotto of a parking lot beside the entrance to Pallika Bazar. The launch was held at The Attic, a small artsy place somewhere inside Regal Building. It has walls daubed with what seems like cowdung, along with spotlights and speakers for performances. There were about thirty people present; I knew only a few, like Anita Roy of the feminist publishers Zubaan: Anita was at Dorling Kindersley earlier, which is where I work now.

Anjum Hasan started out by reading an excerpt from her novel, which is set in Shillong: it turned out to be about a character called Aman Moondy who listens to Pink Floyd and is trying to get into the civil services. Anjum may have spent nearly a decade in Bangalore, but listening to her talk there was the unmistakable Loreto Convent/Pinemount School twang from Shillong. Later there was a discussion between her and Siddhartha Deb, with Deb asking her about things like identity and otherness and that small town called Shillong. I had to leave halfway through the discussion to get back to Panchsheel Park to attend a year-end office party. There was nobody else from Shillong there at The Attic. I hope Anjum’s book does well. The office party was fun.

The unnamed narrator of my novel while wandering through Delhi with the mystery woman Naina would have seen sights like these:

“She? Fast flour mein.”

Holy Spirit: Give your drink that divine touch.

Do turn up at the Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre at 7 p.m. on the 14th of December 2007; i’ll be there as a last-minute addition to a ‘Young Writers’ programme which is part of the Delhi International Arts Festival. There should be drinks (i’ll have to confirm this), and you can watch me giving my first ‘talk’. The 14 th is also my birthday, so i’d be very pleased to see you there, and so will my publishers and the organisers.

In other news: Jet City Woman has at last reached bookstores in Shillong, the other main setting in the book after Delhi. The book was listed in the new releases section of The Pioneer last-to-last Sunday, and of the Business Standard last Saturday. The first review appeared last Friday in the Assam Tribune, which is published from Guwahati. For some reason the books section isn’t listed on their website, so I’ve asked a cousin from Guwahati to send me a copy of the paper. The Hindustan Times and the India Today group’s new newspaper Mail Today are supposed to carry a review of the book one of these Sundays. A review in Tehelka also looks likely. Keep watching this space to see what the critics have to say about the book.

Managed to catch Khoya Khoya Chand on Sunday evening at a nearby PVR, then came home and watched Capote on Star Movies. Both movies are about men who took the written word with the utmost seriousness, both are set in the 1950s–1960s, and both are about the pain of transforming life into art. And in both movies the female lead (Nikhat, and Harper Lee, respectively) comes off looking better than the selfish male writer. So should you watch Khoya Khoya Chand, or Capote? That's up to you, but you should read the novel written by this male writer. Jet City Woman it’s called. The review of the former movie is interesting for the strong reactions the reviewer manages to get from his readers: go through the discussion board and you’ll get the idea.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

odds and ends

This blog is 25 days and eight (nine counting this one) posts and 262 views old. I’ve had to delete a line from my last post after someone close to me told me it could offend people and make me seem arrogant, I’ve had to publish an addendum to post no. four, and I’ve had to correct a factual error that an alert reader pointed out in a stern comment. I had thought blogging would be easier than this! I think I should try to refrain from making smart comments that might offend people, and that I should double-check all facts, like a good ex-journalist. Something like this maybe:

A little bit more about Jet City Woman:

Size: 7.75 by 5.1 inches

Spine size: 12.5 mm

Pages: 191

Weight: close to 200 grams

Typeface: a variant of the Garamond family

ISBN number: 978-81-291-1278-1

Editor at Rupa & Co.: Richa Burman

Cover design by Aditya Pande, a south Delhi-based graphic designer

Typeset by a firm in Nehru Place, New Delhi

Printed by a firm in Noida, Uttar Pradesh

Price: Rs 195

It’s been more than a month since the book’s come out, but a few copies finally crawled into Guwahati only a few days ago. As far as I know it hasn’t yet reached Shillong, the place where I grew up and studied and have my oldest friends. Two factors behind this: there has generally been a very small market for books in northeast India (bookstores in Guwahati and Shillong mainly), and publishers aren’t too keen in going out of their way to promote books in that part of the country. A chicken and egg question really, and I can’t do anything to change it, but the most disappointing thing for me has been having to keep telling friends in Shillong that the book is on its way, on its way, on its way …

Sunday, December 2, 2007

jet city woman in khan market

I was in Khan Market the other day and did a bit of investigating. My book is in the three big bookshops there: Bahrisons, Faqirchand, and Full Circle. They’ve all sold a couple of copies, and there have been enquiries from people, which is not bad for a first-time novel from a relatively unknown writer. The north-eastern angle to the thing must be creating some curiosity.

At Full Circle one the salesgirls turned out to be an Assamese. She got up from her seat to talk to me when I mentioned I was the author of Jet City Woman. “For your next book,” she advised me, “try and write about north-east India, about Assam, like Indira Goswami for example. A lot of people, especially foreigners, ask about the north-east.” I’ll keep that in mind. Though of course I think I should write on anything I please. The last thing I want is to be typecast as a “north-eastern writer” or, even worse, a “north-east expert”!

I left my Dorling Kindersley visiting card (Ankush Saikia, Editor, it says) at Bahrisons, and later got a mail and a call from Anuj Bahri. Mr Bahri is a man who wears many hats: bookseller, publisher, and literary agent. Indian publishing is growing, and here’s a man who’s on the move. There’s a Delhi International Arts Festival happening during the middle of December, and Mr Bahri’s invited me to take part in a discussion on contemporary Indian writing. I might even have to do a reading from my book. The programme details haven’t been finalised yet; will put them up here when they are. The photos you see of the poster and the book are at Bahrisons.

I read somewhere recently that rents in Khan Market have gone up by 100% from one year to the next, and that it’s now India’s costliest (and the world’s 24th costliest) retail location. That reminded me of something Khushwant Singh (who stays across the road in Sujan Singh Park) mentioned, about Khan Market in the old days having book-lending shops and cycle-repair shops. That seems to belong to a slower and more graceful era, a time when black & white photographs of Connaught Place would show maybe five people and a solitary car. On that note, I’m waiting to watch Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand, a story set in Mumbai’s film industry of the 1950s, a time when our nation was very young. One of Mishra’s earlier films was the interesting Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi with the even more interesting Chitrangada Singh. Khoya Khoya Chand releases this Friday, the 7th.

I received an invite today in my e-mail from Jeet Thayil for a book launch-cum-discussion on the 7th of December. It’s a first novel titled Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hasan, someone from my part of the world. She’ll be having a discussion with Siddhartha Deb, who’s written two novels set in north-east India, The Point of Return and Surface. I’ve never been to this sort of an event before, but I might for this one. Will put up a post about it if I do go. Khoya Khoya Chand will in that case have to wait a day.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

in memory of Shakti Bhatt

I wrote this piece for a blog set up in memory of the late editor and writer Shakti Bhatt.

Shakti Bhatt, Jet City Woman

By Ankush Saikia

My first novel
Jet City Woman has just been published by Rupa & Co. It’s a short novel set in Delhi and northeast India. The last page has this acknowledgement: “The author would like to acknowledge his debt to Shakti Bhatt (1980–2007) for her role in the editing of this book and in the conceptualisation of its cover design.”

I met Shakti Bhatt in March of 2006. I had finished writing my first novel and was submitting the manuscript to publishing houses. One of them was the newly set up Random House India, where Shakti worked as an editor. The RHI office was on the third floor of the World Trade Tower in the Hotel Intercontinental Complex on Barakhamba Lane, near Connaught Place. The day I visited, I found that the main road had been blocked and narrowed in places due to the Metro Rail project, and the side street was under a thick layer of dust. The receptionist at RHI pressed a button by her desk to open the locked glass door—I entered and asked for someone from editorial. The receptionist called up Shakti, who came and led me in; we sat at a table where we had a short talk and I handed over the floppy which had the manuscript as a PDF file. A wasp hovered outside one of the office windows in the mid-day sun, cars and buses moved on the flyover outside the building, and two young men walked along it carrying the decorative light stands used in wedding baraats. She struck me as someone very different from the other editors I had met so far.

That first meeting was brief. I heard from Shakti a few weeks later: she said she liked the book and was pushing for it to get accepted, but that she might have to drop it as RHI was looking at just a few books that year, with a focus on non-fiction. I waited for responses from other publishers, and those weren’t encouraging. Then I heard from Shakti again: she said that my book might get accepted after all. A short while after that she left RHI—she later told me that not being given a free hand had gotten to her. The months passed. I still hadn’t found a publisher. Then in October 2006 there was a mail from Shakti from the Frankfurt Book Fair asking me to mail her a PDF of my manuscript. She was planning to set up an imprint with one of the largest book distribution companies in India, she said, and was looking for manuscripts.

We met about a month later, in a coffee bar in her beloved Khan Market. The imprint was to be called Bracket Books, and she wanted
Jet City Woman to be the first book it published. I sensed an ambition and drive in her, along with a sharp intelligence. We started work on the editing: she had me cut out a lot of flab from the book, and got two new scenes added. There were some issues to be ironed out with the distribution company over the contract, so that took some time. By March this year the editing was over, the contract was being drafted, and she had got two options done for the cover by a graphic designer; one of those became the final cover.

I spoke to her for the last time on the evening of 3oth March. I remember it was a Friday. She suggested we meet the following Monday at the designer’s studio as there were a few more ideas for the cover she wanted to discuss. That Monday morning I got a call from a mutual friend telling me that Shakti had, suddenly and tragically, passed away on the night of the 31st. I thought it was a sick April Fool’s joke at first. It took a couple of days for the news to really sink in. Shakti’s husband Jeet had already flown down to Bangalore by then.

Whenever I think of Shakti I remember her in one of the coffee bars in Khan Market, sipping her coffee and looking around through her sunglasses as she talked about ways to market Bracket Books, a stylish and elegant woman with a very down-to-earth sense of humour. She was a genuinely nice person, and bought a touch of the glamour and sophistication of the media scene in New York (where she had worked for a while, and had first met Jeet) to Delhi’s growing but still staid and dusty publishing world. I went over a couple of times to Jeet and her flat in Defence Colony, and also met them socially. I found them to be very open and friendly people. By nature I am something of a closed book; I regret now that I didn’t make an effort to know her better.

Shakti was the first person from publishing to take my novel seriously and to say that it was good (and that it also needed quite a bit of work). Unless you’re an unpublished author met with rejections everywhere for a manuscript you know is worth enough to be published and read, unless you’re in that desperate state and start questioning your own worth as a writer, you’ll never know what it feels like to find a person who believes in your book. For that I shall remain eternally grateful to you Shakti. May your soul rest in peace.

The Bracket Books venture was put on hold indefinitely after Shakti passed away. A friend helped me find a new publisher, and a couple of months down the line
Jet City Woman has finally been published. How I wish Shakti was here to see the book.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Girl Who Refused To Be Defined!!

The first place where I spotted my book was a small bookstore called Eureka! (ph. no.: 011-26461092) at the Alaknanda local shopping complex (opposite the Don Bosco School). It’s primarily a children’s bookstore, but the collection for grown-ups is one of the most eclectic and interesting I’ve seen anywhere in Delhi. And all the more impressive for being spread over just a few shelves. The owner M. Venkatesh also edits and publishes a magazine for 8-to-13 year olds called Heek. Drop in if you like to read and are passing through the area. It’s between the Pizza Hut outlet and Qureshi’s Chicken and Kabab’s. Venkatesh has sold his first few copies of Jet City Woman, but has ordered more copies, so you should be able to pick up a copy. I’ve left a poster sent to me by the publishers at the bookshop. ‘The girl who refused to be defined, just like the city of Delhi…’ it says. Hopefully it leads to more interest among people.

The first place I saw the poster for my book put up was at The Bookworm (ph. no.: 011-233222260) in Connaught Place, another bookshop with a very nice collection. I was in CP on an errand one morning and stopped by The Bookworm to see if they had the book. They'd received the book the previous evening and were just about to put it on display. The owner pointed out the poster to me, pasted on the glass door. I just wish they had put the poster higher up on the door. I missed it completely when I entered the store. The Bookworm is at B-29 Connaught Place. Here's a photo of the poster, which is basically the book cover illustration with some added text. The photo was taken with a Sony Ericsson K550i phone that has a 2 megapixel camera.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

‘so what is the book all about?’

“So what is the book all about?” is the question about the book I dread the most. (The second being, “Is this the story of your life?” The answer to that is: NO!) I feel incapable of putting the novel into one or two sentences. But if it’s something that has to be done for publicity’s sake, maybe a line from the book’s back cover will do: ‘Spanning five years, and alternating between northeast India and New Delhi, this is a story of love and loss, of lives adrift in a mega city, and of the lesser-known side of urban India.’

I would prefer to talk about how this novel came into being. Sometime in 2001, when I was working as a sub-editor at a news website based in Delhi, I was sent by the chief editor to cover an art exhibition at a hotel. Mine was a desk job, but there was a shortage of reporters, so I was asked to go for the exhibition: a lightweight story basically. At around the same time an Afghan was arrested in the city for supplying cocaine: it was quite a big story for a while.

The exhibition and the drug dealer came together in my mind in the form of a short story, which I wrote in three days and sent off to the literary section of It was called Jet City Woman—no deep thought behind the title, just the name of an old song I happened to hear on FM radio. The short story had three main characters who went on to form the basis for my novel: the unnamed ‘reluctant journalist’ from Shillong, the mysterious female TV reporter Naina, and the Afghan cocaine dealer Karim. The story was put up on the tehelka homepage, I received quite a few mails from people telling me how good the story was, and I thought that I had, overnight, turned into a ‘writer’ who could now write a novel. I was wrong of course. It took me five more years. In that time there were three more jobs, and three attempts at writing a novel that had to be abandoned halfway.

Getting the book accepted, edited, and then published took me another year-and-a-half. But that is another story. The strongest feeling when I held the first copy of the book was one of relief: relief that it was finally out in the market, and that I could start working on another book.

P.S. Question about the book I dread the most no.3: “Who is Naina based on?”!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

he's so soft-spoken you have to...

Here’s the article from today’s edition of the Indian Express: it appeared in the Delhi Newsline section.

City Blues

Anushree Majumdar

He’s so soft-spoken that you have to strain to hear him. But Ankush Saikia is worth listening to, for the 31-year-old has come out with his first novel Jet City Woman (Rupa, Rs 195), a pacy narrative that weaves splendidly through Delhi and the Northeast (of India), a relatively virgin territory in Indian English.

Jet City Woman, named after a Queensryche song, is about a reluctant journalist from Shillong, a mystery woman called Naina and an Afghan drug dealer. It is also about people who are, in one way or the other, lost in Delhi. “I was trying to write a contemporary book on people who were likely to fall through the cracks in most mainstream narratives,” says Saikia.

Much like the protagonist, Saikia had left the languorous green of Shillong for the urban oddities of Delhi, jangled the keyboard as a journalist at India Today, and before becoming an editor at Dorling Kindersley. Along the way, sometime in 2001, Jet City Woman began as a short story but, over five years, turned into a novel spread over 190-odd pages. But Saikia denies autobiographical overtones, saying only the places are real, not the people. Some of the characters, he says, sprang from books and newspaper articles that he had read. “I read about this Afghan coke dealer called Naqibullah who was caught in Delhi last year and that was how the character Karim emerged. Naina, on the other hand, is vaguely like Lara in Dr Zhivago,” he says.

Now Saikia, who was short-listed for the Outlook/Picador-India Non-fiction Writing Award in 2005, is gearing up to put together a collection of short stories and a travel book. But it isn’t easy, he says, with a regular job. “The hardest thing is the simplest: to sit at your desk everyday and write. You need time, to experience life, especially its knocks, which become commoner as you grow older, and most importantly to develop a coherent view of the world and its ways,” says Saikia, too solemn for a thirty-something.

I don't like the first line and the last line. They make me seem like a quiet humourless bore. And two minor quibbles: the Afghan in question was first arrested in 2001, i remember mentioning this (he died under suspicious circumstances in Delhi's Tihar jail earlier this year), and they didn't mention my blog (i've asked for it to be inserted in the article on the Express site, but that doesn't seem to have happened as yet). But overall a nice story. I can only hope that a lot of people went out looking for Jet City Woman today. The photo of me along with the article was taken by Tashi, who appeared in my last post.

Addendum: This post wasn't meant in any way to be a criticism of the Indian Express or the people who worked on this story. The Express gave my book it's first two press mentions and i'm grateful for that. I should have explained that what a reporter writes and what appears under his or her byline can be very different things, courtesy the copy desk. I should know, I was a sub-editor before moving on to publishing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

close encounters of the express kind

Tuesday, 13 November. 6 p.m. I'm sitting in a small restaurant-cum-bar somewhere in south Delhi drinking a glass of cold Castle beer and smoking a Wills Navy Cut cigarette as I wait for the staff writer from the Indian Express to show up. It’s a pretty affordable place, which is why we’ve chosen to meet here. She’s caught in traffic at ITO, she’s told me from the auto she’s travelling by, and will be late for our 6 p.m. meeting.

So I smoke my cigarette and drink my beer and wait, the debutante novelist waiting for the moment of his first interview. The place is empty except for two young couples playing the mating game—one couple at the bar and one couple at one of the tables. The boys try to look cool and nonchalant as they calculate their chances, while the girls are getting giggly on their beer, teenagers who have to be home by 10 p.m. maybe. “He played such a game with me yaar,” the girl at the table tells the boy. “And I let him!” A while later she says, “Are you looking for maximum fun or just fun?” “What do you mean by maximum fun?” the earnest-looking boy asks. “I don’t know,” the girl says, slowly and coyly. Two formally dressed south Indian men walk in and order beer and spring rolls. They look like serious drinkers. In the market outside people and cars move about in the evening haze.

The staff writer shows up around 6.30 p.m., by which time i’m done with my first bottle of beer. We move to the upper floor, which is quieter at this time of the evening. Her name is Anushree Majumdar, she’s from Kolkata, has been in Delhi for about five years now, but hates the place. A couple of months earlier I had figured in one of her stories, about four young writers from Delhi who were awaiting the publication of their first book. She tells me i’m the first one she’s followed up from that story. We order beer and mushrooms and talk. She has a notepad on which she scribbles very fast. She likes some parts of my book very much, but thinks some other parts are pretty bad. She points out the flaws in my book, and I think I surprise her by agreeing wholeheartedly with her. “But you’re not even defending your book!” she says. Nobody sees the flaws in a first book as keenly as the writer himself with the benefit of hindsight. We’re done in about an hour. The photographer didn’t come because of the light, she tells me—night shots and all that. Though I did think I would have looked pretty hip with a glass of beer in my hand and a cigarette dangling from my lips: a portrait of the artist as a dissolute young man.

The photographer comes over to the office I work in in Panchsheel Community Centre the next evening. I take a break from working on an illustrated dictionary and go down to the reception. His name is Tashi Tobgyal, he’s a Tibetan from Darjeeling, and he’s been at the Express for a year-and-a-half. The light is starting to fade, so we go up to the terrace of the building, where he asks me pose and takes a number of shots. “Won’t you just need one for the story?” I ask him. “Well, we’ll have a stock,” he says. “We can use it if you become famous.” One of the office support staff looks on bemused as I gaze out at the grey sky over the ragged buildings of Shahpur Jat behind our building, trying to look thoughtful. Then I’m asked to relax and smile. We’re done in about 20 minutes. Tashi asks about my book, and is very interested when I tell him that parts of it are set in Majnu ka Tila. Later, he plugs his laptop in at the reception, transfers the photos from his camera, and sends them to his office via a wireless internet data card. The results of all this should hopefully be out in tomorrow’s edition of the Indian Express, in the Delhi city supplement section. Of course, my “piece” will be out before the Express one.

For a man who doesn’t particularly like to talk or smile, I think I stood up to my first interview pretty well. “Don’t be this honest in your next interview,” Anushree had said to me. I don’t know whether to take her advice or not. The picture you see is of Tashi, taking a photograph of me on the third-floor terrace of the Dorling Kindersley office, where i work.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

my book is out, finally

My first novel has just been published by Rupa & Co. It’s called Jet City Woman. The title comes from a song of the same name by a band called Queensryche, best known for their 1988 album Operation: Mindcrime. My novel comes to just under 200 pages, and is priced at Rs. 195. The ISBN number, if you require it, is 978-81-291-1278-1.