For someone whose duties include interviewing people, be it a doctor or a bureaucrat or a writer or even a police constable, it was a welcome break and a change to sit back and give interviews -- all thanks to Chai, Chai. This is one interview I can take the liberty of reproducing here because it was not given to a newspaper or a news agency but to the in-house publication of a company. Since you might not get to read it online, I would like you to read it here:
We know that the inspiration for Chai, Chai came about when you found yourself standing on the platform at Itarsi, waiting to change trains, and you wondered what the smallsville beyond the station yard was like. How did you take it from there?
The thought that struck me at Itarsi – what all might be lying beyond the station yard – was very momentary. I forgot all about it as soon as the train moved and came back to Chennai. Those days I was writing a Sunday coumn for the New Indian Express and was also doing a lot of travel pieces. Till then the travel pieces we carried were rarely written in the first person. The column too had a large following. I got fan mails from a wide spectrum of people, from a prisoner in the Chennai jail to a sitting judge of a Kerala court! That’s when Tranquebar (there was only Westland then, Tranquebar was yet to be born) wanted me to do a travel book. They wanted something different. For many months I did not know what I should do in order to be different. Finally, on a subsequent trip to Kanpur during Diwali holidays, the Itarsi idea returned to me. I looked up the railway timetable (my father reads it as a pastime: that gives him the vicarious pleasure of travelling) and discovered from the map that that the busiest junctions in India are actually very small towns about which we know nothing. So I thought, why not go to these places. I am so glad the publishers found the idea to be different enough.
So you didn't have difficulty finding a publisher…
On the contrary. I remember the evening Saeed Mirza had come to Chennai for the launch of his book Ammi. I think this was February 2008. Tranquebar had been just launched and Mirza’s book was the first to be published under this new imprint. Gautam Padmanabhan, the CEO of Westland, introduced me to Mirza saying, “He is also going to be a Tranquebar author soon.” I felt proud as well as ashamed. Ashamed because I had not written a word yet, even though I was done with most of the travelling. Of course I paid a huge price for the procrastination because my mother, who I was so eager should see my first book, died just eight days before it came off the press. But I also believe that the words have to come to you; you can’t go to them. What people call procrastination, I would call it fermentation.
Reviews of Chai, Chai have been either laudatory or plain negative. How's that?
There are only two ‘plain negative’ reviews, that too, very strangely, from magazines belonging to the same publishing house. Fortunately, for me, such reviews are in sheer minority. Chai, Chai is a very Indian book, written by an Indian. You should have travelled by trains and spent some time in small towns in order to appreciate the book. Which is why most of the reviews are laudatory. But if you are one of those who finds ultimate romance in small-town France or Switzerland, or who totally identifies with a Western writer’s non-stop cribbing about the heat and dust and corruption in India, then Chai, Chai may not be your cup of tea. One review that was part laudatory and part negative said the book had been “dumbed down” for the Western audience! Excuse me? I live in south India, most of my readers are in south India. I can’t presume they will all understand those dialogues in Hindi, can I?
Were you surprised when your book went into repritns so soon after publication?
Yes and no. Yes, because writing a book, just like making a movie, is a gamble. You never know what is going to work and what is not. Your sole companion is your conviction. You can only hope for the best. But in the end, only 265 people might actually end up buying your book. That fear is always there. But given the subject, a part of me was also confident. Chai, Chai is a book in which everyone gets to see a bit of himself or herself in it. As I said, it is a very Indian book: there is no scope for either borrowing the lines or the setting from the Western books you admire. It talks about the real India, live and kicking and, at times, not-so-kicking.
Is there going to be another book?
Many more. Immediately next in line is a portait of Chennai, the city where I have been living for nine years now.
What will it treat with? Travel again?
You can call it travel if you want to. In order to write about a place, you need to retain the traveller’s eye even if you are a resident. Nine years is a long time to understand a place well, and short enough not to become blind to it. All I can say is it will be a first-of-its-kind book about Chennai, about which people up north know so little, except that it is inhabited by Madrasis who eat only idli and dosa and who are conservative and God-fearing. How many know that Chennai is India’s first modern city? While the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal were still under construction, the British were already building Fort St. George in Madras. Calcutta and Bombay weren’t even born then while Delhi was still very much the Mughal capital. The book will pull the curtain of notions from over the face of Chennai.