Journalist Binoo K John, 53, has set his debut novel The Last Song of Savio de Souza in the fictional Kerala town of Puram where ladies carry ‘Louis Vettam’ handbags and nuns sneakily smoke cigarettes. A family saga unfolds even as Christianity, Islam and science compete for the best miracles. Singer Savio de Souza’s life feels like a preparation for his last song on the fated tsunami morning of 26 December 2004. John spoke to Yamini Deenadayalan about our obsession with miracles and why there’s no sex in Indian writing.
Was it hard to switch from non-fiction to fiction?
You need confidence to confront a market as lethargic and cynical as the Indian book – reading one. English-speaking Indians only talk about books, they don’t buy them. Indian novels sell 2,000 copies on average but the novelists use this to get into Page 3 and a trip to Bhutan for a lit fest. I also hope to get into Page 3!
The book has a cauldron of faiths competing with each other — why are you so fascinated with miracles?
My fascination with the faith business emanates from Kerala. I wanted to attempt to map faith and its link to humans. What draws us to miracles so mightily? Kerala may be the most literate state but evangelists and godmen survive and grow there. Amma is as big as Sathya Sai Baba. Christian, Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism thrive; Marxism, Maoism, everything mingles there. The novel is a cry for the return of rational thinking. Hence the juxtaposition with the rocket centre [in the novel] — India’s space dream started there. If the novel works, it will be because this magical, mad, mantra and Mao-spewing place will amaze readers.
You paint a sordid, lecherous picture of the Indian male. Why does all the sex revolve around violation and power?
I tried to subvert the way sex is used in Indian writing in English (if at all there is any sex!). Most of the English novel writing is done by moral brahminical matrons who have a vice-like grip on the publishing industry and disallow any sex. I was daring them. Fiction has origins in truth and most incidents in the novel, however surreal, are based on real incidents. Including the monkey elixir [a potion that enhances virility]. I wanted to revive the family saga.
Look at Manju Kapur, Ira Pande and all. They are my friends but so many novels now have mother- daughter type of titles. Indian writing is confined to the South Delhi living room and one journey to California. You rarely find a Muslim character. Regional writers are more rooted to the reality of India. The real India is forgotten amidst moral family fables. Sex is mushy or absent.
Yamini Deendayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.
Meet Paul the Octopus
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s fun memoir will teach you how to spend your billions, says Mahesh Murthy
IIMAGINE THAT one gives a lot of leeway when reviewing memoirs — after all, people with remarkworthy lives don’t necessarily have a fine turn of the phrase. And that’s certainly the case with Paul Allen’s Idea Man. Nobel-winning stuff it is not — but the first half is a fun story about the early, mad days of the information revolution. Followed by a second half that seems to be more about how to lose a billion dollars or so every year or so — but more on that later. If you have ever used a PC in your life then this book — or at least the first half — gives you a peek into the madness and hard work that went on behind it all.
Going by the memoir, there have been also two fundamental parts to Allen’s life: Before Billionairehood and After Billionairehood. The real charm is in the first half. This is the rags-to-riches bit in which a middleclass nerd with a liking for gadgets and guitars finds a kindred spirit in an uppermiddle- class nerd called Bill Gates and in which they work dementedly to then luck into the huge firm Microsoft is today. Allen comes off as a nerd with a focus on the now — that great line of code, that great Hendrix guitar lick, that hellacious bug, pulling an allnighter and then running off to watch a NASA rocket take off. Gates comes off as someone with foresight — and the greed — something that Allen sorely lacks. So it’s Bill who negotiates the 50- 50 partnership to 60-40 with a puzzled but accepting Allen and then to 64-36 with an again puzzled but hey-I’mokay- with-it Allen. You get the feeling Microsoft wouldn’t have been as hated as it is today without Gates at the helm. You get the feeling that with Allen at the helm Microsoft would have been very soft — and very micro.
The second part is in some ways about Allen retreating to childhood. There’s him with “Ooh, I love Hendrix,” so let me buy his guitar, and his rights and, heck while I am at it, build a huge centimillion dollar museum to him”. Or with “Oh, I can shoot some baskets, so let me spend $500 million on the Portland Trailblazers basketball team. And hundreds of millions on a football team. And be known as the good guy who kept the team in Seattle.” Allen likes to be liked.
But, Allen also does venture capital (disclosure: one of my investees was funded by Vulcan. Thanks for the money, Paul, but it went down) and interactive content (more disclosure: I’d helped launch those Starwave brands —and they didn’t go far either). Paul the Octopus has his hands in many pocketbooks, but all his own. He funds biomedical research on brain mapping, he funds Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane, he buys land in Africa, yada yada. This could have been the charming or visionary part but doesn’t seem like more than a boy buying every toy in sight. But, hey, given Gates’ recent write off of $1 billion trying to eradicate disease, maybe Allen knows it’s better to just have fun.
My verdict? On form: chatty with a streak of honesty — if you ignore the “I had a brilliant idea” riffs. On content: tear out the first half, read it carefully. Throw away the rest. Or keep it for when you don’t know what to do with the $20 billion in your bank.
Murthy is the founder of digital brand management firm Pinstorm and founder of venture capital firm Seedfund.
Find him on Twitter @maheshmurthy