Journalist Nandita Puri, 42, last made a splash with her biography of husband Om Puri. Her latest book Two Worlds is a heady cocktail of pre-independence India, modern Mumbai and Bollywood. She talks to Yamini Deenadayalan about her new book. Edited excerpts:
Why did you think of a story that spans two historically separate yet similar generations?
Twenty years ago, a British friend told me she went through past life regression therapy. She discovered that she had been in love with an East India Company officer in her previous life who was set to leave for England. Their romance ended tragically when she slipped and fell off a cliff. I don’t know if you can take all this seriously but it provided me a way to explore imperial India. And what better way to make it contemporary than to introduce Mumbai and Bollywood, a world I know well.
One of your main characters begins as a journalist in the 1990s. How different was it to be a female journalist in the 1990s and today?
In those days, there was a strong gender bias. Bachi Karkaria and her peers had to struggle much more than the women today to get to where they are. Today, editors sometimes prefer to send women when men can’t do the job as well. It’s also so much more glamorous now and has changed for the better.
To misquote CLR James, what does AR Rahman mean to those who only Rahman know?
What are the biggest problems in Bollywood journalism today?
Bollywood journalism is about PR and pimping. Of course, stars have glamorous personal lives everyone wants to know about, but now that has become the core of film reportage. Occasionally, you hear about an actor doing a good job. There is a very sleazy side to it. They raise a person to the sky and when the PR companies are off the payroll, they hit back. The media is on a high now but eventually it will get exhausted.
How does your new book, Breaking News, that revolves around entertainment journalism, explore this “high”?
I am going to talk about the reality of the media and paid news in a very tongue-in-cheek way. I’ve done a lot of research but it has to be a fun story.
You’ve written screenplays for Bollywood, which is more glamorous than publishing. What inspires you to write books?
I write because I enjoy it. Once in a while I do a script as it brings in the money. With a screenplay, you can have a fantastic story idea but you sit with the director, the actor and by the end of it, it looks completely different. With my last screenplay, I felt like they had ripped my baby. A book on the other hand is your own.
What is the downside of the publishing industry?
Writing is the slowest profession in the world. There is nothing like writer’s block, just writer’s exhaustion. You need to give yourself a break. It is a private activity and shouldn’t become a public performance. This time, I made sure I only had a book launch at Jaipur and avoided the big cities. Why do I need to talk about my book when I have written it? Just go read it if you are interested.
After the last over
Adman Shehan Karunatilaka wrote arch 395 pp; 499 cricket musings at 5 am every day. At the end, he had a debut novel. And he stopped watching cricket, finds Poorva Rajaram
SHEHAN KARUNATILAKA, 35, a debutant Sri Lankan novelist, is a self-confessed casual cricket fan who had no long-cherished ambitions to be a novelist. This makes his debut novel Chinaman, the first-person narrative of a manic alcoholic retired sports journalist, WG Karunasena, improbably potent and toothsome. Karunatilaka left Colombo to do a BA in English literature in New Zealand and returned only to be denied his dream of playing in a band since he had to take up advertising to earn a living. Karunatilaka, who currently holds an advertising day job in Singapore, wrote this novel over one and half years between 5 am and 8 am. The book began as short stories and cricket anecdotes that slowly took the shape of a longer work. He then shopped around for an international or South Asian publisher and received no response. Chinaman has the advantageous make-up of an outspoken book. It didn’t suit an international market intent on scooping up simpering accounts of cultural exceptionalism. Sri Lanka is immanent to the novel and the only handholding explanations made about the country come through distilled critique: “Men with briefcases from Scandinavia are attempting to succeed where bombs and guns have failed.”
Chinaman was finally published in Sri Lanka where it won the 2009 Gratiaen Prize. Like a Hollywood movie in pre-liberalisation India, it has surfaced here two years late. Karunatilaka was pleasantly surprised by reactions to his book in Sri Lanka. “People were very nice about it even though I explicitly named many famous people,” he says.
Lankan cricket and its accompanying ethos. “Cricket is what I used to bond with my father and brother about. I once watched my uncles getting into a fight and only later realised they were fighting about cricket,” he says. Ethnographically stalking his uncles gave Karunatilaka a fertile vantage point into cricket: old men.
Chinaman initially got no response from global publishers. It didn’t suit a market intent on cultural exceptionalism
WG was originally a side character, but when Karunatilaka sat down to write, WG’s caustic and despondent voice took over the book. WG and his alcohol-marinated liver are feverishly obsessed with a half-Tamil left-arm spinner called Pradeep Mathew who played in the 1980s. WG believes that Mathew is Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer.
Chinaman is episodically written in temporally fitful headlined sub- sections that span WG’s miscommunication with his wife and son, adventures with his scientist best friend and sidekick Ari Byrd, past professional failures, alcoholism and Pradeep Mathew — the spectre at the centre of the book. WG’s unfailingly cantankerous antics enters Chinaman into a truly quixotic plane. Deathly personal vendettas and intense male melancholia make whole decades come alive.
Karunatilaka successfully dives beyond cricket to slip in its cheerless cultural and political machinations. He forthrightly identifies the problem: “The 80s in Sri Lankan cricket were pretty crap. If you were Tamil or Muslim you had a harder time getting into the national team.” He says it is no coincidence that the book extends from the 1980s to 1999, because that was the height of his cricket watching, which then tapered and finally stopped after he finished this book in 2009. Chinaman is a reminder that cricket, in its pre-saturation and IPL days, threw up many things mania-worthy. With a long, cumbersome World Cup looming, here is something to fight enveloping cricket ennui with. At the very least, like Chinaman’s author, you’ll have something to do during ad breaks.