Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is there a ‘winning formula’ for writing a novel?

Book Review

Singh, Soumitra. 2014. The Child Of Misfortune. Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd. New Delhi. Pages: 327. Price: `350/-

There is a belief that more people bought Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History Of Time than read it. For although the good professor tried to simplify the mysteries of the universe as much as he could, there is so much science embedded in the subject that it is difficult for the ordinary reader to follow. Did the readers of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) read it through without skipping pages? Had the book become so popular because of the controversies it created?

Catch-22’ has become a catchphrase so much so, it is possible many people do not remember that it is a book title. How many of those who bought the book, which is hailed as a ‘classic bestseller’, were able to read through Captain Yossarian’s adventures? Those who read it through probably include literary geeks interested in writing itself. In his preface to the 1994 special edition Joseph Heller confesses that initially it ‘won no prizes and was not on any bestseller list’. Reviewing it in The New Yorker, Mitchell Goodman tore into it, saying ‘… what remains is a debris of sour jokes …’ and, [Heller] ‘wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it.’ But a year after its publication something strange seems to have happened.

In Tipping Point Malcom Gladwell tells the story of the shoe brand ‘Hush Puppies’. The brand was all but dead by 1994 and its makers were about to phase it out, when it suddenly perked up. A few New York kids who wore the shoes to the clubs and bars in downtown Manhattan set the trend. Why did they wear them? They wore them because no one else wore them. Something similar happened to Catch-22. The book sold 300,000 copies in 1963 and the publishers had to go to the press eleven times in all in that year.     

The moot question is, ‘is there a ‘winning formula’ that makes a novel or other literary work a success? It is difficult to answer the question. But even the most popular of writers were tempted to repeat a winning formula they stumbled upon. For example, thematically, Geoffrey Archer’s novels Kane and Abel (1979) and The Fourth Estate (1996) have many similarities, although their plots and settings were quite different. Novelists like P. G. Wodehouse, Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace replicated winning formulae of their earlier novels many times over. The same practice may be seen in the publication of non-fiction books too. Spurred by the success of Is Paris Burning (1965), Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins published two more books in the same vein, history told in an easy to read, casual style: O Jerusalem (1972) and Freedom at Midnight (1975).

A favourite theme of novelists from the 2000s is terrorism. The Child Of Misfortune deals with terrorism in its early stages, but moves on to internet hacking, drug running and money laundering. The whole plot is set with chess as a substrate with the two protagonists playing their moves and counter moves as in a chess game. However, dabbling in too many subjects makes the novel muddled and complex.

The novel centres on three schoolmates Amar Singh Rathore, Jonah Michel and Maansi Agarwal. Amar the son of a ruling politician and Jonah an orphan French expatriate have a running feud throughout their lives, playing moves and countermoves as in a chess match and with Jonah often besting Amar. Maansi who ends up as a journalist with The Times Of India, is in love with Amar. Jonah lures Amar to Ladakh, where he murders a Buddhist monk resulting in Buddhist–Muslim riots. The Al-Qaeda steps in to destabilise Kashmir assisted by Indian Mujahideen volunteers. There are quite a few terror groups operating in Kashmir, but Indian Mujahideen? The plot meanders from Ladakh to Srinagar to Seoul to London with Jonah playing advanced chess moves and Amar and Maansi who has by now expressed her love for him, following. In Seoul they pick up an ace internet hacker, Kang, who joins the plot. He can, not only hack into any computer and website in the world to steal data, but can photographically trace the movements of the villains on his laptop. It is as if the whole world is wired, something the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four did for sound!

The novel abounds in ‘computer typos’ like her for hair and principal for principle. What is dividistic? Did the author mean divisive? Surely, those who have the runs cannot go for jogging! Does a ‘grassroots example’ mean every day or commonplace example? Is a ‘debate opposition team’ an opposing team in a debating competition? What is ‘second-kinds’? After a time one gives up noting errors in language, grammar and syntax. The novel could do with editing and thorough rewriting.  

Isn’t it a given that a novelist should not name existing political parties in the interest of strict political neutrality? 

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at

Friday, May 09, 2014

Blogadda Interview

Following the award of Blogadda’s best political blog of the year (Win14) to VOXINDICA Blogadda interviewed me. Here is the transcript of the interview:

Q: From where did your interest in Politics generate?

A: As a college student, I used to assist my father who was a ‘newspaperman’. In those days, the dominant themes of newspapers were politics, followed by sports and culture. For youngsters like me there was another attraction, of course: ‘wanted columns’. I could have probably followed in my father’s footsteps, but circumstances determined I choose another career. But the urge to write was there; it never dried up. A few years after I could find a firm foothold in the chosen profession, I tried my hand at writing and began submitting pieces to newspapers, but the pressures of work had a limiting effect. Writing remained at a hobby level.

The first pieces I tried my hand at were not political articles, but what in the Indian newspaper parlance are called ‘middles’. The idea of the pieces is to rib human foibles and tickle the funny bone. Emery Kelen and Art Buchwald were masters of the genre also known as ‘loose sally’. The genre is probably less read than political opinion pieces, but writing them involved a lot of creativity. It appears, today space is at a premium and you rarely come across a loose sally that has the quaint Kelen or Buchwald quality.

They were probably an inspiration, but the inspiration was rather limited to the format. My early pieces, which were in the loose sally format, though, had politics as an underlying theme. The editors of The City Tab, a Bengaluru tabloid which published them gently reminded me to move away from politics as it was not essentially a political paper. In that phase, I have also contributed a piece or two to The Indian Express. For a time I edited a house magazine for a local chapter of the Indian Junior Chamber (then known simply as JC or Jaycees). I titled it Credo and it was a hit.

The answer to your first question has probably become too long, but I must mention about the next phase of my writing, which too had nothing to do with politics at all. I came back to writing after I quit a regular job. This time I was into academic writing. I wrote in various disciplines including sociology; literature and language teaching; management and marketing. I have also for a time edited AIDS-Bridge, a magazine for HIV-AIDS professionals. It was a science magazine, published by a reputed pharmaceutical company for medical doctors, paramedics and counselling staff.

Finally, although a major part of VOXINDICA’s content is political, there are other subjects in it including creative pieces and book reviews.

Q: Presently, how would you summarize the political condition of India on the whole?

A: Today politics is at its lowest ebb. The independence struggle attracted the cream of our society. People joined the struggle with an altruistic motive. For them, politics was a noble pursuit. For leaders in the post-independent India, power has become an end in itself. The high ideals of the freedom fighters have evaporated.

Q: What is it that inspired you to start a blog with politics as its backbone?

A: If there is a monumental failure of the Indian polity – it includes the political class, the intelligentsia and the media – it is its inability to bring about national unity, forge a national spirit and inculcate a national pride. It is a misfortune of this nation that even sixty years after independence, we still think of ourselves as belonging to a caste, creed or linguistic group and not as Indians.

A nation that does not have pride in its ancestry and achievements will be doomed to fall. During their 250-year rule, the British did their best not just to downplay the splendour and grandeur of our civilisation, but to ridicule it and negate it. The achievements of our ancient civilisation were portrayed as external imports. The Aryan Invasion Theory was invented and all achievements are credited to it. Only negatives – social ills – were credited to us.

First the Brits and then the left-liberal social thinkers who came to dominate opinion-making bodies were/are responsible for this. Other nations have recognized the greatness of our civilisation, but it cannot be whispered here in India. There is a concerted effort to transpose a fabricated construct called the composite culture. All this is to placate one section of our people who vote en bloc. In the end, it is down to vote banks and electoral politics; the pursuit of power. Nothing else matters! VOXINDICA is a small attempt to correct the imbalance. See Why VOXINDICA and FirstPersonSingular: ‘Thank You!’ (The latter was a thanks-giving piece written after winning the Blog Adda award.)

Q: You have been blogging for almost a decade now. Tell us your whole experience and let us know 5 things about blogging that are most beneficial according to you.

A: I am aware of my limitations as a blogger. For one, I cannot compete with the mainstream print medium. Therefore, I have to be choosy about what I write. Then, I remember my father’s advice to writers: ‘read more; write less and write only when the urge to write is overwhelming’. 

There would be no point in writing about a subject that is thrashed threadbare in yesterday's newspapers. Your readers would be interested in what you write only if you have something new to tell them. So I research and try to find evidence that supports my viewpoint to present it to the reader in an angle he hasn't already viewed elsewhere. 

As an example, please see my articles on the subject of ‘freedom of expression. I critiqued both the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ and court judgements in the M. F. Hussain case. When I researched the subject, I've found a similar case that was adjudged by the Austrian courts and which went up to the European Council of Human Rights.

While on the subject of ‘freedom of expression’, I haven’t seen any other writer point out that while the American First Amendment strengthened freedom of speech the first amendment to the Indian Constitution did the opposite: placed limitations on the ‘freedom of speech’. The amendment was piloted by Jawaharlal Nehru just eighteen months after the Constitution was adopted.

Similarly, while researching on some subject for an article I was writing for a newspaper, I thought I would look up to find out, which article in the Constitution enabled the institution of the Planning Commission. To my surprise, I found that it is not there in the Constitution at all. It is another of Jawaharlal Nehru’s quirky imports from the erstwhile Soviet Union, along with its Five Year Plans. Has anybody in the mainstream media mentioned that the Planning Commission is an extra-constitutional body? I don’t mean to say that I am the first person to discover the fact, but just that nobody mentioned it earlier. If Jawaharlal Nehru himself instituted an extra-constitutional body that diminished the stature of the Union Finance Minister, can anyone blame the present political leaders for instituting the office of the Chairperson of the UPA and the NAC?

In my various pieces on the Gujarat riots of 2002, on how the Gulmarg Society seize came to a head where there was no turning back, on the Naroda Patiya case judgement et al., I have brought to light details which were not discussed elsewhere in the mainstream media.

In my latest piece, I have panned Congress party’s 2014 election manifesto. I felt it my duty to point out to my readers that for a party that boasts of a 125 year history, terrorism was no issue at all!  

Q: What are three important changes that you wish to see in India's political scenario at the earliest?

A: The Constituent Assembly which was responsible for writing the Constitution envisaged reservations and Article 370 as temporary measures. Similarly very few people today remember that ‘Uniform Civil Code’ is a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution. Addressing these issues will go a long way in fostering national integration. The UCC is unfortunately viewed as a religious issue, but bringing it about will be in the interest of gender equality.

Minimum government; maximum governance. The government should exit business and focus on administering. The polity should work for the eradication of corruption and crony capitalism. Parliamentary oversight committees should be appointed to monitor the performance of industries.  

Most important, we must find ways and means to do away with dynastic rule in politics. A family (the definition of HUF as clarified by the Supreme Court should be the unit for this) should not have more than one member at a time in public office. And limit the tenure of public office. No person should be allowed to more than two terms in public office.     

Q: Tell our readers 5 things that they can do on a personal level to improvise the present situation in India.

A: Take politics seriously; don’t fail to vote. Vote for the right candidate.

Don’t tolerate corruption in public life.

Demand accountability from governments and government servants. It is your right. Remember Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum that you are not dependent on a business or government; on the other hand, they depend on you. They exist to serve you. Government servants are paid to serve you. They are your servants.

Express your views as vigorously and often as possible. Writing letters to newspapers is not enough. Even the most liberal newspapers screen them and publish them only if they suit their political philosophy. Organise local committees to voice public opinion.

The only way we can make the media accountable is by withdrawing patronage. Social media has done much to tame wayward, self-centred commerce-oriented media.

Q: For all the wrongs happening in the nation, the blame is conveniently put on the politicians. Is this right? What are your thoughts on this?

A: The politicians are only a part – although a major part – of the problem. It is the society that throws up the politicians. There is truth in the adage that a ‘people get a government they deserve’.

It is for the society to reform itself. There must be an overhaul of our education system.

Q: Do you agree that Social Media would be able to play an important role in the change that India requires since it gives freedom of speech a whole new meaning?

A: The social media plays an important role in bringing social transformation. I have written about it: Are Sonia & Rahul more venerable than Sita &Saraswathi?

Q: Do you think newspapers and other media channels are becoming biased, vehicles for advertising, etc. forgoing their main duty of providing credible news? What is your take on this?

A: Absolutely. This is VOXINDICA’s raison d’etre!

Q: What is the funniest thing or comment you have heard about politics and from whom?

A: The left hemisphere of the brain helps us to think logically and the right brain about the artistic/emotional parts of our thinking. I have heard this quip about the leftists/communists: ‘For the leftists there is nothing right in the left and nothing left in the right!’

Q: Do you agree that blogging as an important communication tool should be used more effectively by the political parties? Not many politicians are willing to come out and talk to the common people. What do you have to say about this? 

A: No. I don’t want the blogosphere to become the propaganda arm of political parties. Let blogs and bloggers be!

Q: What other genres do you like to experiment writing about?

A: I have experimented in the following genres: biographies, book reviews and creative fiction. There is an indexed list of posts on the left of my blog. At the moment I am writing two non-fiction books, one educational and another, a biography.

Q: What according to you is the future of politics based blogging in India?

A: There will be politics based blogging as long as there are politics! J

Q: You won the Best Blog Award for the Politics Category by BlogAdda at WIN. How did you and your loved ones react to this?

A: It was a very happy and proud moment to win the award. I have written about it, as I have mentioned above.

Q: What new and special can we expect from your blog in the near future?

A: I strive to bring novelty in every post of mine.

Hey, this is for us. We would love to have your feedback about BlogAdda.

Q. How would you rate BlogAdda in terms of design, usability and features?

A: It is quite reader-friendly and informative. It’s a great idea to bring bloggers in various categories from across the country onto a common platform where they can interact and improve their work.

Q. We are not sure if you know that lists all blogs that update every hour. What other features will make you visit BlogAdda often?

A: Yes. I have seen that.

Q. Any other suggestions/feedback/criticism or something good about BlogAdda? 

A:  You may consider publishing a compilation of articles from various blogs.  

Q. Your feedback on the interviews we had till now, your interview and the format of questions. We would love to have your suggestions on it and do let us know if you would like us to interview any particular blogger(s). We do not promise we will interview them, but will surely consider! :)

A: I have read some of the interviews you have published and quite like them. They are not only informative but educative.