Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why I wrote The Singapore Decalogue?

My first collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue: Episodes in the Life of a Foreign Talent (Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2012) was released in November this year at the Singapore Writers Festival. The book was supported by the National Arts Council Singapore under the Arts Creation Fund grant.
In this collection of short stories, I have tried to create vignettes of life in Singapore. This is my tribute to this city state, which has built its social capital with great wisdom, civic sense, and quotidian practicality.
Like many modern metros, the Lion City is compact, with people of various ethnicity and nationalities living side by side. Though they live mostly secluded, private lives, there are times when their paths cross. This civic commingling of people can be harmonious or chaotic, depending on the circumstances.
In these stories, I have tried to portray the hopes and frustrations of a few interconnected characters (that was truer for the earlier draft when the characters were varied). The bustling metropolis attracts all kinds of people who want to make a life here. What happens to their dreams? What kind of struggles do they go through? Do they feel alienated? What do they love about the city? And so on.
Through the panoply of characters, mainly built around a main character, Asif Basheer, an aspiring poet from India, I have woven together a web of stories that throw light on various contemporary themes. The initial aspiration, following in the footsteps of Tolstoy and the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (especially his film cycle, The Decalogue), was to explore themes based on the Ten Commandments, but I finally transformed the idea. I was anxious, even afraid, that the stories might come across as too moralistic or formulaic if I went down that route. Nevertheless, my moral concerns about making choices in life still shaped and informed the stories in The Singapore Decalogue.
As I have said elsewhere, more than a writer I am an inspired reader. In terms of actual inspiration behind the stories in this collection, there were many influences—both from life that I have seen from close quarters and from books that I have read over the years. So, in these stories, besides expressing my appreciation of the city and its people, I have also tried to pay my debt to many of my favourite writers and their works that I have benefitted from. The first story, that introduces the main character, is my homage to Fyodor Dostoevsky. In fact, the story begins in the same way as the master’s novel, Crime and Punishment. His protagonist, Raskolnikov, a conflicted and aspiring intellectual, finds a modern day reflection in my main character, Asif Basheer. As the stories unfold, we become privy to Asif’s trials and tribulations and see life in Singapore through his life’s prism. We meet characters who interact with Asif or come into his life. In the earlier version, Asif’s story culminates in a bizarre incident in Boat Quay—Singapore’s commercial heart but that has changed in the final version.
In the original version, the last story summed up the aspects of Asif’s life in epistolary form and it was meant to be my tribute to Gustave Flaubert who wrote some of the most beautiful and passionate letters that I have ever read. In my view, this completed an arch—the first story and the last—as both Dostoevsky and Flaubert were contemporaries in 19th century Europe, and died one year apart (1880 and 1881 respectively). This was how I had tried to connect the past with the present. No matter how times change, people and their hopes and sufferings remain the same. Besides these two great writers, there are stories in the collection that are inspired by the styles of my other favourite writers—James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Hanif Kureishi. Initially, my model was Joyce’s Dubliners in which he tried a naturalistic depiction of the Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. A lot changed from the initial idea but that was what I had in my first draft.
A note of explanation here: by dropping big names (Joyce, Hemingway, et al.) I don’t claim any greatness for myself (how could I?). That would be preposterous and arrogant of me (some have already charged me of being a snob because I don’t like most of the books that are being published today, especially fiction—so I don’t want to aggravate matters here). I am doing that because I want to acknowledge my debt and put on record that I drew inspiration from their works, and that I feel a sense of kinship with them (as many reader would feel towards their favorite writers).
The first draft of The Singapore Decalogue was ready in 2011 and as I started working on the book with my publisher and my editor, the contours of the collection began to change. The publishers had liked the opening story, Crime and Punishment, so much that they wanted to have Asif Basheer, the main protagonist, as the lead in each story. That was not my plan.  This meant that I had to drop almost half the stories from the collection and write new ones. I needed some time to do that. By that time, I was also working on my non-fiction book, The Resurgence of Satyam, and had started work on a screenplay. So, there was a hiatus between the first batch of stories that I wrote in 2010-2011 and the later stories that went into the collection. They were written after July 2012.
I still like some of the stories that were dropped from the first draft. Who knows? They might go into The Singapore Decalogue 2.
Copies of The Singapore Decalogue are available at Kinokuniya, Singapore for purchasing and at all branches of National Library Singapore (NLB) for borrowing. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tokyo Not Cancelled

We (I was accompanied by my wife) reached Tokyo in the afternoon of November 24. We were very tired as we had to leave house around 3am to catch the 6am Delta flight. Not only we were tired, we were very hungry too. We had a quick sandwich at Starbucks before we boarded the flight. I could hardly sleep on the plane as I am always tempted to watch movies on a flight and I always have a backlog of movies that I wish to watch.

Just two days before the flight to Tokyo I had watched almost an hour of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel en route to Bangkok and had loved it completely (especially the humour in the film). So, during the flight to Tokyo, I first watched that movie (from where I had left it off) and I don't regret it. Perhaps it was the best film of this year for me. Many Indians, including myself, dislike India for its crowd, squalor and poverty, and the film sort of showed me how to see the same situation in a different light ("In India, life is not a right," says one character. "It's a privilege."). That is the beauty of the film.If you haven't watched it, you must. There is a lot of good humour in the film. I thought it was a well-written movie.

Coming from Singapore, almost any airport in the world will disappoint me--in terms of ease of movement, layout and sheer opulence. Narita was no different. Anyway, the immigration process was very smooth and after collecting our bags, we boarded the Narita Express (NEX) to our hotel in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku is one of those little districts in Tokyo where high life and low life come together in a confluence. Our hotel was a short walk away from the station (the world's busiest railway junction, says the guide book). After checking into our hotel, we rested for a while in the room--even for a four-star hotel, the room was very small: a double bed, a desk, and one chair. There wasn't any cupboard in the room. And there was a narrow space between the bed and the wall, narrow enough to put a suitcase down. Freshly pressed robes waited for us. There was TV which had only Japanese channels on it: I found one channel where a man was furiously talking about some products. The shower room was even smaller but the snazzy toilet seat more than compensated for it. It had some amazing functions and I wonder why hasn’t the world (or, at least Singapore) adopted technologically advanced Japanese toilets? Think of it: today we carry so much advanced smartphones but when it comes to toilets, we have not evolved much. It is a shame.

After a while, we hit the streets. It was evening and it was very cold, and we admired our cleverness that we had packed enough winter clothing to brave the Tokyo weather. The streets around Shinjuku had a quaintness to them—small, narrow streets, with small, little shops and lots of neon signs and locals, mostly youngsters, pounding them in groups. My wife thought we were back in the 70s. Despite the cold, it seemed there was enough cheerfulness in the atmosphere and it didn't seem like a country that had been stuck in economic stagnation for decades now.  The traffic was slow and there didn't seem to be a mad rush for anything (or was it because it was a Saturday?), and many people rode bicycles on the streets. Even the taxis looked of an old vintage but they were all in good condition. The whole atmosphere reminded me of a Dev Anand film shot in the 1970s or 80s. My wife was right about the feel of the district.

Next to our hotel and across the street there were plenty of vending machines. That's where I first saw vending machines that dispensed cigarettes. Also, every now and then, one would find a Family Mart or a Seven Eleven store to buy items of daily and frequent use, including food items, water and fat, comic magazines that were sealed to prevent thumbing by browsing-happy readers.

The streets were packed with noodle bars and restaurants (the signs were sometimes vertically displayed, implying different restaurants at different levels of a building) and global fast food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC were easy to find. We also spotted a Yoshinoya outlet but it looked so different from what I had seen in Singapore that I decided not to enter it. There didn't even seem to be a menu at the counter.

Across the Shinjuku station, there was Takashimaya, the shopping complex of the same-name that we have on Orchard Road in Singapore. That's where we planned to spend the evening. On the way to the mall, we came across beautiful Christmas decorations. We saw people taking pictures around the decorations.

Even though the mall was sprawling, the layout of the stores seemed to be a bit confusing or maybe it needed many more trips to get used to it and find our way around with ease. We had spent nearly half an hour inside the mall and as we entered an elevator to go to the fifth floor, we had a taste of the famous Japanese earthquake. The elevator shook, the lights sputtered off and the doors forestalled. Luckily, we were not between two floors so all of us rushed out of the lift.

The mall's staff sprung into action: all elevators and escalators were jammed up, and they showed the shoppers the exits. I wanted to see Kinokuniya the bookstore but my wife didn't want to hang around anymore so we followed a bunch of locals who took the staircase down. Somehow we managed to get out of the building. Outside, people were milling round on the streets as if nothing had happened. We went to a Starbucks which was very crowded, (and it seems young people in Tokyo love hanging out in Starbucks) and ordered a cappuccino. We collected our drink and sat outside and as we began to sip it, we realized we had been given the wrong drink. But the cinnamon-flavoured tea tasted nice in the cold and we carried on, dropping any idea to complain to the café’s staff.

We had our dinner at McDonald's--we got some burgers and we had to ask for ketchup. It was really self-service in there as we had to clear the table after we had eaten--everyone was doing that in the restaurant. Japanese shops seemed to get along fine with minimal staff and we saw it everywhere. They could hardly speak English but communication was not a problem. Gestures and pictures supplemented pidgin English.

I slept at night wishing for our safety. There weren’t any more tremors that night.

The next morning we set for Odaiba, a reclaimed island next to the Tokyo Bay. The train ride across the Rainbow Bridge offered amazing vistas. We had to change three lines but the train rides were comfortable and the trains ran on time, exactly as I was told. Tokyo has one of the best metro systems in the world. They have about 16 lines in operation.

We entered one of the shopping malls in Odaiba and by the time we were done with our shopping it was dark outside. We had our lunch inside the mall--we ate the delicious beef bowls at Yoshinoya, and I put a check on my list. 

After coming back to our hotel room, we went out again. I had to see the original Kinokuniya in Tokyo and finally after asking a couple of helpful Japanese staff at Takashimaya, I was able to step inside the 6 story building that housed Kinokuniya. The annex (building) was old and the elevator didn't work. It was ten minutes before closing time and we had to use the escalators. I finally managed to reach the English language section of the bookstore which was on the 6th storey. Just for fun I asked them if they my books. They didn't have them. I bought a novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, for the sake of memory, and they kindly draped my copy with a cover. Nice gesture!

That night we had our dinner at KFC and the portions (true for both the pieces of chicken and fries) were really small. But the taste was fine.

The next morning we left Tokyo for the United States. The journey from the hotel to the Narita airport turned into our biggest adventure in Japan, and what was meant to be a 90 minutes journey turned into a 3 hour long rush. That is something I have to tell you when we meet (remember to ask me), and not write about it here. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I bankrupted myself while writing Maximum City: Suketu Mehta

New York-based writer Suketu Mehta is one of my favourite writers. I became a fan of his writing (he also loves Hemingway and Naipaul like I do) when I read his autobiographical account of his experiences in Mumbai (where he was born and partly raised before his diamond trading merchant family moved to New York), Maximum City. The book was published in 2004 and I read it shortly after I moved to Singapore. I loved the book because it was not a chore to read; it was like watching a Bombay film. Why was it an easy read? Mehta explains in an interview:

"... the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences."

Unlike many contemporary writers who are in a hurry to churn book after book, Suketu is a patient writer. He took seven years to research and write Maximum City. What I did not know though is that he had bankrupted himself while doing this book. This happened to him even though he had an advance from the publishers. In this interview with NDTV (Power of One), he reveals that he incurred a considerable amount of debt by the time he was done with the book. "When I finished my book, I was 40,000 dollars in debt," he tells NDTV's Srinivasan Jain.

How many writers will take this kind of risk?

In an interview with Karan Mahajan, Mehta revealed his method of working in Mumbai: he would hang out with his book's characters until 3 am and would write down everything between 3am and 6am:
"I wrote as I reported [in Bombay]. So I would meet, say, a gangster, I’d go hang out with him, then I’d go to the beer bars and meet Mona Lisa [an alias for the bar girl in Maximum City], and then I’d come back home at 3 a.m. From 3 to 6 a.m. I would just write. It was the easiest writing I ever did. It was all in my head and I needed to get it out in real time. So I wrote these long sections—it was great. I was on speed or something, not literally. Better than speed"

In the same interview, Mehta says he also loves to cook his own meals and loves to take an afternoon nap--very much my kind of guy (but I can't have naps; I am in office in the afternoons).

Suketu currently lives in a Manhattan apartment and teaches journalsim (narrative nonfiction) at New York University. In the NDTV interview, he says that he has been working on a book about the New York City immigrant experience. The current reality is that every two in three New Yorkers are immigrants, he says, and he wants to tell the story of the city from that point of view.

India books a big mistake

Mehta is skeptical about the recent crop of India books--big books that try to define the phenomenon of a changing India within a few hundred pages. "All big books that have recently come out about India are a big mistake," he says. Why? Because it is insane to try to capture such a vast country within a book. However, he says Aakash Kapur has done a relatively better job in India Becoming where he follows a set of characters.

Mehta is also an admirer of Katherine Boo's book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. "I was filled with envy when I read Kat Boo's book," he says. "She has done exactly the right thing with the book ... and I am amazed that she could do it without (understanding) the language".

Mehta then talks about Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, an American journalist who writes on the marginalized members of society (adolescents living in poverty, prostitutes, women in prison) and mentions her seminal book, Random Family (2003). "Her book was inspiration for our books," he says, "mine and Kate Boo's."

When Jain asks him if he likes any nonfiction books done in India, he mentions Following Fish by Samant Subramaniam.

How 9/11 changed writing

At one point of the interview, Mehta says that "more students now want to do narrative nonfiction than fiction" in the context of his journalism classes."9/11 had a lot to do with it," he says. "After 9/11 we realised what kind of fictional image could be created that could compete with this image of two giant airliners
slamming into two giant towers and the whole world changing as a result." Fact had become stranger than fiction and fiction could not compete with it--or was confused to deal with it for a while.

However, he says that now, some American novels are dealing with the 9/11 tragedy. He mentions Netherland by Joseph O'Neil as a good example.

On Social Media

Mehta is on Twitter but he rarely tweets. "I have only tweeted 7 times," he claims. Even though there are very few writers on twitter (Salman Rushdie is there), some have made good use of it. "Teju Cole has taken the form and made it literary," says Mehta about the writer of Open City. He likens the twitter form to the form of Haiku.

Mehta is not worried about the future of books or writing. "Storytelling is a basic human need," he says. "It will always be there, only the forms of delivery will change." How reassuring!

Fellow New Yorker Salman Rushdie is a friend and Mehta says he likes his memoir, Joseph Anton, and he is aware that some have not liked it and some complain of his artistic decline after the fatwa was imposed on him. Mehta has a very simple explanation for all the Salman-bashing: "People hate Salman because he gets a lot of chicks around him."

Apart from the New York book, Mehta is also working on a new translation of Gandhi's autobiography. This is what he told Karan Mahajan in an earlier interview:

"Once, I was telling my father how I think The Story of My Experiments with Truth is really not well written, how it’s long-winded, even if the material is certainly fascinating. My father said, “But it’s really beautifully written. It’s really elegant and concise.” I said, “We’re not talking about the same book.” He said, “Which one are you talking about? I’m talking about the original, in Gujarati.” Then we compared the Aatmakatha with the English version. This book was written in the salad days of the century and it was translated by two of his political secretaries—Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal—who were very good political secretaries but not necessarily good writers in English. Gandhiji did look over the translation and corrected it, but, you know, he had a few other things on his mind, like leading a country to independence!"
More power to your pen Mr. Mehta and may you get to take a lot of afternoon naps!