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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Desi Mario Puzo… And the Indian Godfather…

As I wait in the lobby of a posh Boston hotel, a short, medium built man clad in black casual slacks and polo shirt, with ruffled hair, looking very relaxed and rested walks up to me and introduces himself as Vikram Chandra. It is indeed delightful to meet this person who seems very modest and unpretentious, considering the amount of press and media attention he has been getting lately, thanks to the rumored million-dollar contract for his latest book “Sacred Games”.
I could not but resist starting off my interview with Chandra by asking the “big” question -- Was there a bidding war for “Sacred Games” and how much truth is there to the rumored million-dollar contract that he signed?
“I am not allowed to say contractually, but it was more money than I had ever seen before, so it made me very happy,” he says. “You sit in your office and write for years and years and years and at that point I was very happy with my life the way it was, writing literary novels and books and finding a readership. When I was writing this (Sacred Games) and even when I was finished, I expected the same kind of response when I sent off the manuscript to my agent. Suddenly all this excitement started happening in New York. Both Melanie (his wife) and I were sitting at home getting these phone calls and it was all really strange. It was all unexpected and surreal to me as to anybody else. We were happy and thunderstruck and surprised,” says Chandra with a smile.
“When you send out a 900 page novel full of Hindi and Marathi, you don’t think that this is the kind of reaction you would get, at all. I knew it would get published but was expecting a “normal” kind of publication for a literary writer,” he adds.
And why does he believe that this novel got the reception it did? “Maybe this time the novel plays with a lot of perverts and upturns, a lot of things that generally belongs in what people call “genre fiction” with detective stories and police mysteries, etc. In many ways I think that this book is an anti-thriller, and an anti-detective story also. This could have been one of the reasons that the publishers liked this book so much, says Chandra, “and that they thought that for this book they could find a larger audience than they could find for a work of literary fiction.”
His Roots
Vikram Chandra was born in New Delhi in 1961, to Navin Chandra, a Corporate Executive and Kamna Chandra, a writer of plays and films in Hindi. The oldest of three children, he was influenced by his mother. “I was a very dreamy kid who lived very much inside my head, with a huge imagination. I used to make up stories in my mind. Sometimes there would be installment stories that would continue from day to day with the same characters and so forth,” says Chandra.
“Since my mother is a writer, all three of us, my two younger sisters and I, grew up seeing her at the kitchen table writing plays for Doordarshan and AIR then later when we moved to Bombay she started doing films.” It just seemed natural to him to write down the stories that were brewing in his head.
A voracious reader, Chandra spent his summer holidays growing up, consuming novels and literature, borrowing books from lending libraries until he ran out of money and had to beg for more. Besides racy thrillers like James Hadley Chase, he also encountered the work of American modernists and the works of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. “Once I started reading them, I realized they were doing things to me that I didn’t understand,” he says in an interview with Bonnie Azab Powell at the University of Berkeley, “Reading The Great Gatsby at age 15 in India, I knew nothing – I had no context for it, social or symbolic – and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful.”
At the young age of 11 his first story got published in the school magazine. “A friend of mine saw a science fiction story I had written, he encouraged me to submit it to the school magazine and it got published.” says this Isaac Asimov fan. “It felt really great, the cricket captain and those who would not have noticed you otherwise suddenly knew who you were. It was very pleasing. I have been doing it ever since,” says Chandra who realized quite young that it was hard to make a decent living as a writer.
“It seemed very hard, when I was growing up, to imagine yourself as a writer because of the fact that I had seen the check my mother got. For an hour-long play she would get Rs.25 or so in those days. It is still very hard, very few people make a living from writing fiction,” says Chandra whose undergraduate degree was in English but with a concentration in creative writing. “After I finished my BA at Pomona College in California, the question then arose, how are you going to make a living? So then I went to film school at Columbia University thinking I can at least get a job.”
While at Columbia, Chandra found the subject for his first novel, and then decided that he had to just confront it and write it and see what happens. The autobiography of Colonel James “Sikander” Skinner, a legendary 19th century soldier born of an Indian mother and a British father, inspired Chandra’s first novel. He spent several years working on this book, which was written while completing an MA from John Hopkins University and an MFA from the University of Houston.
Vikram Chandra is the author of three books and a screenplay. His first book Red Earth and Pouring Rain received high acclaim from many. Described as “the history of India converted into the brilliant disorder of a kaleidoscope”, this debut novel was received very well. The Atlantic Monthly called it “adroitly written, constantly interesting, lyrical, fantastic, brutal, and, at bottom, serious. Mr. Chandra can make a lightning bolt look like a Roman candle—but that bolt strikes.”
His second book, a collection of Short Stories, “Love and Longing in Bombay” won the Best Book award of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Eurasia region, which included a 10,000 pound cash prize. This collection comprising five short stories/novellas titled Dharma, Shakti, Karma, Artha and Shanthi, beat “The God of Small Things”, the Booker Prize winning novel by Arundhati Roy, which was judged runner up in the same category.
Chandra then went on to co-write a screenplay for “Mission Kashmir” along with Suketu Mehta (Journalist and Author), Vidhu Vinod Chopra (well-known Bollywood director) and Abhijat Joshi (of Lage Raho Munnabhai fame). He then spent seven years on his latest book released in January 2007, “Sacred Games”. It was no surprise that this book has been receiving rave reviews and accolades, and was allocated a whopping $300,000 marketing budget.
Chandra finds it hard to point out the favorite of his three works. “Now when I look at my first novel it feels like it was written by somebody else. It was a different you, you know. I think I am still very much inside this novel. It takes a while to get your head out of the world that you build for yourself inside and live in it for a long time.”
All of them have been extraordinarily rewarding to Chandra, “I think the interesting thing about writing fiction is that very soon you realize that books and stories have a very long life in the world. You know the initial reception the reviews, good or bad, are only a temporary and a minor bump in the road. For instance, I still get e-mails from people who are reading “Red Earth” for the first time and are passionately engaged with it still. I think that is the wonderful thing about fiction, is that it goes very far from, where you wrote it and stories find their way to very distant parts of the world and then people make it their own.
The Genesis of the Indian “Godfather”
Chandra’s family is very closely connected to the film industry and the effect of the underworld was very close to home, “I knew people who were getting threatened who were shot at and who were wounded. My brother-in-law who is a film maker got one of these calls and he refused to pay up and suddenly there were armed guards, men with guns all around his house and his kids were growing up in a world where people with automatic weapons were just part of the landscape. At that point I was very angry, I am still angry. I always thought of people on that side of the law as “Rakshas”. Whenever people do something that you don’t like to think that you would do, you tend to make them “other” and the scary thing is they turn out to be people just like yourself,” says Chandra to whom the most terrifying thing is that often violence or unfairness is perpetrated by ordinary people. “That’s the paradox about us human beings, we are capable of all these things at the same time.”
Sacred Games was published in India well before it was published in the US, because it was clashing with some other major US publications. Chandra says he got e-mails back from people telling him that they usually never read these heavy 900 page literary novels but they picked it up because of the character Ganesh Gaitonde and such… “Which is great for me,” he says, “I don’t much trust the categories of literary fiction and genre fiction, I think it does more harm than good”
Sacred Games has a glossary filled with Hindi and Marathi words, many of them words that no mother would want their children to be exposed to. This use of “Bombay English,” more appropriately “underworld English,” and the use of very “colorful language” has been a topic of discussion for many reviewers and critics, however Chandra defends his writing with keen logic, “My intent while writing this book was to use the English that is actually used in India and spoken in India on a regular basis. So if I was sitting in a bar with a friend and telling these stories to him/her I would use that kind of English and you would assume the knowledge. That’s what I did.”
Chandra says he wasn’t even aware of how much he was doing this, until he finished the manuscript and went through it again. “It’s been an interesting thing, it’s been out in England also for almost six months. I think just like we Indians when we read books by western authors, there are certain specific words there that we expect to be interpreting, which we don’t really understand, but by context we get it and we figure it out as we go on with the book. I think that an American reader or any other reader from outside of the country will also do this,” says Chandra. He smilingly adds, “In fact some of the slang that is used is so particular to Bombay and sometimes the underworld that sometimes even a reader from Chennai would have the same problem.”
On Fiction Writing and Research…
Chandra believes that as a fiction writer one can use the word research, but at least initially, they don’t know what they are looking for. “It’s very hard to quantify how much of the seven years I spent on the novel was research versus writing since I was doing it all simultaneously. Every time I was in Bombay walking the streets and meeting people, that also fit into the book,” says Chandra who had been thinking of this area of the underworld and crime for a very long time.
“As someone who grew up in Bombay during the 80’s and the 90’s you couldn’t help but see it thrust in your face. When I first started to think about seriously working on this as a project, I knew a couple of policemen and friends who I had spoken with from my earlier book where a key character from Sacred Games, Sartaj Singh first appeared. Then I thought about asking them to introduce me specifically to other people who might know something more about this. All kinds of people – policemen, journalists, astrologists, social workers, at first it was very random,” explains Chandra.
His intent was to go and sit with somebody and to get them to talk about their lives in general. Along with all these people he got to meet those on the other side of the law as well. “It has been a big talking point for this book, this question of research and specifically, “Oh! so you really met bad people!” I completely understand why because that was part of my curiosity at the beginning,” he says. “And then later on in the writing of the book I had very specific questions about how is a particular thing done, how do you move money from here to there, then I would try to find people who could answer these questions,” says Chandra who finds it strange that a lot of emphasis is laid on research, especially with Sacred Games.
“For a fiction writer it does not really matter where you get your information. As a reader, I don’t really care if you spent years doing research or you saw it all on TV and then you wrote a really good story. As long as it comes alive on the page, that’s what really matters,” says Chandra who believes that the writers work really begins when you start to imagine the characters and the landscape and then you make that exist on paper in a way that the reader can completely engage in it.
Chandra is a very disciplined writer, “I work quite regularly, once I have started something I like to work six days a week during the semesters and whatever days I am not teaching, generally in the mornings from about 8 am till lunchtime.” He thinks that one has to treat writing like a job, “because if you wait for inspiration then you’re dead. Even if that day there is nothing sort of happening then just sitting there and forcing oneself to think about it, at least gets the gears moving perhaps the next day something else will occur.”
Because of the way the semesters are set up he spent about 7 months in the US and 5 months in India while writing this book, “I still go twice a year, during the long summer holidays and during the winter break,” says Chandra who sometimes leaves for Bombay on the last day of his class. “The first time I met my wife I left for India a few days after that on sabbatical for eight months but since then I have been going back and forth and she travels with me.”
“Writing is hard work,” says Chandra, “Fiction writing can be really tough, and sometimes in the middle you question the virtue of what you are doing, you are not sure it is worth anything, you are too close to it to see it and those days you just tell yourself at least you have to go through to the end. It can be really a tough job, especially because you are doing it alone for the most part and the future seems really uncertain, you don’t know where it is going to go. It sounds strange because people think you just sit at a desk all day long. But it is actually really physically exhausting.”
His favorite part of the writing process is the editing of the second or the third draft because by then all the heavy lifting is done, all the blocks are in place and the writer is just polishing and making sure that it all just holds together. Chandra says that for writers that really becomes the best time, “The other thing is you’ve already seen yourself write the words “The End” which is a very pleasing thing because sometimes you have been writing for a very long time,” which in Chandra’s case has always been several years.
While screenplay writing is a totally different ball game it has got its own challenges, “What is nice about writing fiction is that you have such complete control over your craft and you are completely responsible for what goes in. Film, from day one is a collaborative art; you are working with dozens sometimes hundreds of people, which has all the excitement of collaboration. Sometimes you write a very simple theme and the actor takes it and does amazing things with it and then you are very happy. There is other times when you think it should go one way and the director may think it should go another way and then you are really frustrated,” says Chandra who loved doing it because it was a different thing and it took him out of his field and how he thinks, but he is quick to say it’s not something he would want to do regularly.
Another thing about film is that from the ground up it’s a business that has to be concerned with money, emphasizes Chandra, “you can make up things with your imagination, I can write that a thousand elephants came over the bridge and flower it up with words, but if I say that to a producer from the first second he is thinking, OK how much is that going to cost me per day, I have to feed the whole lot. It’s very bound by practical reality and sometimes unpredictable practical reality.”
Movies, Music and Reading…
What really gets Vikram Chandra’s creative juices flowing is reading a lot, listening to music and watching movies. “What you are doing in a sense is feeding the imagination and sometimes by itself a solution will pop into place. You can’t just compel it to come, I guess that’s just the truth you know there is no forcing it,” says Chandra who enjoys listening to music when he writes. “Melanie is also a writer, when we first moved in together, we tried to share a study and it didn’t quite work out at all, because she likes absolute silence when she writes.” A lot of music he listens to is instrumental, Indian instrumental or jazz fusion like John McLaughlin and also Hindi film music.
“I am an omnivorous movie watcher,” admits Chandra, “I can pretty much watch anything… really from all parts of the world, including a lot of trash,” he says adding that it’s interesting thinking about what popular culture really does and what values it is sort of embedding in itself.
Chandra when he was getting towards the end of his book, was very hyper aware of the story he was reading and found himself editing the words on the page, this is the reason he has not read very much fiction recently, “I am very behind on my reading and I have been playing catch-up now.”
“I like to read everything. I am halfway through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest book “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” and I am just blown away by it,” he says. “I have been reading quite a bit of non-fiction as well. There is book that is quite provocative called “Radical Evolution” that I just finished reading. It examines the current state of the art of several technologies like bioengineering, nanotechnology and information technology and tries to surmise what will happen in the near future. It’s not science fiction several hundred years away but right now. The authors argument is that very radical things will happen. It is provocative and frightening and exciting all at the same time.”
He admires Salman Rushdie, Premchand, Victorian writers like P.D. James, Conan Doyle and some of Edgar Allan Poe’s earlier works. An interesting book he read recently by an Indian American was a book by Ghalib Dhalla titled “An Ode to Lata.”
Popularity of Indian American Fiction
Why has contemporary Indian American fiction become more popular than ever? Vikram Chandra thinks one of the reasons might be that after 60 years of independence there have been about three generations of Indians now who have grown up speaking English in the schoolyard and now they feel free to experiment with the language to twist it and to do things with it.
“And then I guess the other thing is that there is a lot to write about. What I like about Indian writing is the variety of things that people are doing and the variety of techniques they are using. There is no one school in terms of method or ideology, so I think it is a very healthy period,” says Chandra who is also very glad to see is that there is more and more popular fiction also, which used to be a big gap. There was a lot of literary fiction going on in the early period, but now there is a lot more published in terms of love stories and chick-lit and detective stories and Chandra finds that exciting, “You need all kinds of stuff to make for a healthy mix.”
Whats Next
“I am giving myself a holiday. I have marked it on my calendar. I am trying to be a consumer, read as much as I can, watch a lot of movies and television and listen to music,” says Chandra who adds “What happens is once your wheels start turning it is hard to get away from it. It’s a wonderful job to have but it is not like just being at an office, it stays with you 24 hours of the day. So I think if I can avoid this for a little while, it feels like a holiday. It’s like when you are a kid during the long summer holidays, you can read whatever you like and there are no exams coming.”
Chandra calls himself “a kind of a geek.” He says he likes technology. While attending graduate school, he was doing a business on the side, doing some computer programming and software and hardware consulting.
“While I was writing Sacred Games, I used Microsoft Project to keep track of characters and the storyline, etc. I was surprised that there was no software for this niche. Maybe that can be my next project and I can build fiction writing software,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Is this where he is going to make his next million, only time can tell!!!

This article by Visi Tilak was published in the magazine, "The Indian American."

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