Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Book Launch That Almost Happened

The news of the Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee being awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award brought back some memories.

In December 2009, Chai, Chai had just been published and I was in the middle of promoting the book in various cities. I had already done Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune, while Delhi -- the final city on my itinerary -- remained to be covered. As for Calcutta, I was still in two minds whether to have a reading there -- one reason being I was yet to find a local celebrity who could read from the book.

Books launches can be a pain for a first-time writer. If the book happens to be doing well, the bookstore will gladly give you space for the launch, while the publisher will pay for the cookies and the coffee and make sure that a few dozen copies are available at the store during the function, but the onus of finding a celebrity to launch the book or read from it lies squarely on the author. Things change when the writer becomes a celebrity, but there could be several long years standing in between the first book and that book.

I had a tough time finding celebrities in cities alien to me. For Mumbai, a friend had suggested the name of a particular theatre actor, known for his powerful personality and voice. "If I put in a word, he will definitely do it for you. Consider it done, brother!" my friend assured me. I jumped with joy: the theatre actor, who played a key role in a path-breaking TV serial in the late eighties, was my hero once upon a time. Every boy in my class idolised him, and now the same man was going to read from my book -- unbelievable!

I dialled the number of my idol and had a brief chat with him. He was extremely warm and courteous. He said he liked the idea of Chai, Chai and asked me to courier a copy, which I promptly did. Ten days later, he called. "Bishwanath, I would like to do it for you," he said very politely, "but you know, I get paid for lending my voice. Usually it is Rs. 50,000 for 30 seconds. I hope you understand."

I instantly lost interest in him and wanted him to hang up so that I could make calls to arrange for another celebrity. But he wouldn't let go of the phone: he spoke to me for 45 minutes, lamenting how theatre artists of today are not as dedicated and well-read as those from his generation. Forty-five minutes! -- he had wasted voice-time worth Rs. 45 lakh on me. And yet he did not want to spend 10 minutes reading from my book.

Eventually, it all worked out well. But as far as Calcutta was concerned, I still couldn't think of a celebrity.

"Why don't we try for Soumitra Chatterjee?" my wife asked.

"Why should he bother reading from my book? He is too big," I protested.

"What's the harm in trying," the wife, always optimistic, retorted. She went on to assign a friend to speak to Mr. Chatterjee and work on him into agreeing to read from the book. The friend called back, ecstatic, saying that Mr. Chatterjee was open to the idea but did not want to commit without having a word with the author.

I became very nervous. Soumitra Chatterjee, a household name in Bengal and the favourite actor of Satyajit Ray -- why should he bother reading from the debut book of a writer he does not even know remotely? The very thought of sitting next to him embarrassed me deeply and I abandoned the idea, much to the irritation of my wife and her friend.

"Let's try other options," I told her. On the advice of my own friends in Calcutta, I sent text messages to Moon Moon Sen, who never replied, and to singer-director-actor Anjan Dutt, who instantly called back asking, "Why do you want to speak to me?"

Now I am a huge fan of Anjan Dutt: he is a nostalgia specialist whose songs have made me understand Bengalis better, and nothing could have worked better for Chai, Chai in Calcutta than him reading out passages from it. But he seemed too busy to commit on the date I had in mind. Each time I called him, he would say he was trying his best to be free on that day. After four or five calls to him I gave up the idea of going to Calcutta.

"Not all is lost," the wife said, "You can still call Soumitra Chatterjee."

I finally listened to her and called Soumitra Chatterjee's mobile number. The conversation went exactly like this:

"Am I speaking to Mr. Chatterjee?"


"Good morning, sir. I am so-and-so who has written a book called Chai, Chai. I am launching the book in Calcutta on such-and-such date, and I would like you to read from it."

"OK, fine," he tamely agreed. "You mark the passages you want me to read."

I was surprised as well as thrilled -- more surprised than thrilled. I mean, how can Soumitra Chatterjee agree so readily?

"Are you sure, sir?" I asked. "I was hoping that you read the book and choose the passages yourself. Can I please send the book to you?"

"OK, send it," he replied lifelessly.

"Great, sir. Can I have your postal address, please?"

"OK, fine. Note it down then. But did you by any chance want to speak to Soumitra Chatterjee?"

"Er, yes."

"I am not Soumitra Chatterjee. I am his son Saugato Chatterjee."

"I am so sorry, sir, I am really sorry. I actually meant to speak to your father."

The voice on the other end fell silent. I could sense the hurt. The awkwardness made it easier for me to hang up.

Two days later, I spoke to the legend himself. This time, it was a lively voice that greeted me, and he did not ask me to mark passages but instead asked to be excused -- that's what you expect of a real celebrity.

"I am so sorry, I am going to be in Nagpur on that day," the Soumitra Chatterjee told me.

"But I would still like you to read the book. Can I please send it to you?"

"By all means," the legend replied. "Here's my address, note it down."

To tell you the truth, I don't quite remember whether I actually sent a copy of Chai, Chai to Soumitra Chatterjee. But I distinctly remember telling myself, "Fuck it, enough of launches. Now get down to working on your next book." And so I opened a fresh word document and wrote the first few paras of Tamarind City.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Blogger Interviewed

Blogadda interviews the man behind Ganga Mail:

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

I started blogging in October 2005. Some of the people who read me in the New Sunday Express suggested that I should start a blog. At the time I wasn’t very sure what a blog was – I only had a vague idea – and wondered if sane people ever blogged. They then showed me some of the popular blogs and I told myself: ‘I too have things to say – things I can’t always say in the paper – so why don’t I start a blog of my own?’

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

I try to blog about things that matter to people; and very often, it is the smallest of things that matter the most. If I were to write about a trip to Switzerland, people may like it and say nice things, but if I were to describe a visit to my hometown after several years, it would instantly strike a chord because most working people invariably leave their hometowns behind. The idea is to strike a chord. When they read me, they should wonder, "How is he able to read our thoughts so accurately!" That’s the truest reward for a writer.

Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?

Occasionally, yes. Usually I sleep over such entries, which is easy because most of my posts are written post-midnight. I revisit them the night after and if they are worth it, I try to salvage them. Or else I click on the ‘delete’ button. Deletion of drafts is more frequent now, because these days I am very conscious about what I write – maybe because I am now older, married, a published writer and hold a fairly respectable position in a highly respected newspaper, and know far more people than I ever knew. This was not the case in the initial years, when I expressed my thoughts with utmost honesty without an invisible force trying to restrain me. Maybe I should go back to my old ways, because Ganga Mail earned a distinct identity because of the honesty.

Q: Why did you name your blog as 'On The Ganga Mail'? Explain us your thought process while deciding the name.

The blog, incidentally, was called 'Thought Process' when I started it. I was not very happy with the title, but at the same time I wasn’t quite sure if people were going to read my blog so I did not bother changing it. In 2004, I had spent two months in Uttar Pradesh covering the Lok Sabha elections, and during that period I happened to spend considerable time on the banks of the Ganga – Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad. It struck me how the Ganga was symbolic of a train, originating from Gangotri and terminating at the Bay of Bengal – when the train starts its journey, the coaches are almost empty and clean but as it travels further down the Hindi heartland, it gets crowded and dirty. And so I wrote a travel piece, headlined 'On The Ganga Mail', likening the Ganga to a long-distance train. I fell in love with the headline (I had myself given it) and adopted it for the blog once I grew weary of 'Thought Process'. After all, I grew up by the Ganga – that’s my truest identity.

Q: We have seen you craft many short yet beautiful poems on your blog. What inspires you to write a poem instead of a post? Which poem of yours do you like the most and why?

Those poems were written mainly to impress certain women I knew back then (let me hasten to add that I was a bachelor at the time). I can’t say for sure if those women were impressed, but yes, I was myself quite impressed with some of the poems I wrote, especially Dream.

Q: Tamarind City, based on Chennai, is your next book expected to hit the stands in April. The day you completed writing this book was also the day you completed 11 years in the city. Tell us more about this book. Sum up your stay of 11 years in Chennai.

There are several books and travelogues about Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta but practically none about Chennai, which happens to be older than the other three cities. Chennai was born in 1640, Calcutta only in 1690 – Delhi was still a medieval city back then, known by the name of Shahjahanabad, while Bombay was only a group of Portuguese-controlled islands. So I thought it was about time that someone cleared the fog of ignorance shrouding Chennai and presented the city, in the form of a book, to readers across the country, and perhaps the world. As for my stay of 11 years in the city, all I can say is that whatever little standing I enjoy as a writer today is because of Chennai. It has let me be.

Q: You are currently working as the Deputy Editor at The Hindu. Did you ever think of becoming an author earlier, when you were starting your career with journalism? What thoughts triggered Chai, Chai, your debut book?

I always wanted to be a journalist because of the power it gives you to reach out to the masses. Also as a journalist, you can walk in just about anywhere – from the local police station to a minister’s house. Even if they want to throw you out, they will do so very politely. I also wanted to be a writer – Khushwant Singh was my hero back then! – but that was more of a dream which I wasn’t sure would ever come true. For a long time, I was only a reporter, a political reporter. Only after I moved from Delhi to Chennai in 2001 that I realised, thanks to the reader response, that a good and engaging piece of writing is all that counts – doesn’t matter whether you are writing about politics or hospitals or travel. And so I started working on my craft. In 2006, I was approached by the publishers, who wanted me to do a travel book that was different. That’s how the idea of Chai, Chai was born.

Q: As a Deputy Editor, there might have been times when you wanted to publish some stories, but could not. What are the reasons editors have to face such situations? What did you do, when you were in such or similar situations?

There has never been a situation when I wrote something or wanted to write something that was not considered publication-worthy. As a responsible newspaperman, I have a fair idea what is publication-worthy and what is not.

Q: Travelling seems to be something very close to your heart. So far, which trips have been your most cherished ones and what memories did you collect from them? Are travelling and discovering places therapeutic for you?

If you don’t travel, you continue to live in a well. Having said that, let me also add that mere globe-trotting does not make you the most enlightened person on earth. You may go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower but if you don’t mingle with Parisians and visit the cafes – like Hemingway or Henry Miller did – all the money you’ve spent on the trip has gone waste and you will continue to live in the well. Travelling is not about sightseeing, but knowing and understanding the people. People define a place, after all, and not monuments. Sri Lanka does not have an Eiffel Tower, but the cheerful nature of its people – typical islanders – in the face of a prolonged strife is a monument by itself. I shall never forget the trips I made to Sri Lanka in 2004 and 2005. Meeting new people is not just therapeutic, it is an education.

Q: We also notice your great interest in Hindi movies and songs. Which is the era that you like the most, when it comes to watching movies? What do you find lacking in “today’s cinema”, and what do you enjoy the most about it? Share some of your favorite movies and songs.

Songs and movies from the 1970’s and 80’s work best for me, and that’s because I grew up in that era. But I have nothing against today’s cinema. They make pretty good movies, some of which I watch. But as far as film music goes, I would say the 70’s and 80’s was the golden era – their songs are not counted as oldies but as classics, be it Hindi or Tamil. The songs of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman are food for my soul – they make me feel happy that I am alive.

Q: Ganga Mail was born out of loneliness – the unmarried man that you were in 2005 said this. Ganga Mail made you write some posts that were honest and free of the fear of being judged and also made you learn the art of finding a story from an experience. Tell us how Ganga Mail has helped you evolve as a person and what did it teach you? Does your family follow your blog?

Ganga Mail records my life from the age of thirty-five, when I started blogging. It has served as my personal diary, my companion, my conscience-keeper, my spokesman, my confession box. It made me accountable to myself – considering that whatever I wrote was in public domain. That’s how the evolution began – as a person and a writer – because Ganga Mail became a tool for introspection. You don’t grow unless you introspect. Yes, my family – whatever the word stands for – follows my blog.

Q: You created a character named Shivani in 2009 on your blog. What was the purpose behind sharing her fictional story? Was her story inspired by a real character or a situation that you experienced or observed?

Shivani is based on a real person. One evening I happened to be chatting – online – with someone I’d known socially for a long time. This was in February 2009, as far as I can recall. During the course of our conversation, she asked me (I forget the context): "But how well do you know me?" I told her that I knew her well enough to write a lengthy piece on her. The fact is that I hardly knew her, but it wasn’t difficult at all to imagine the story of a woman her age – she was nearly forty then. All married Indian women who are forty have nearly the same story. They would have spent their entire lives being a dutiful daughter, a dutiful wife and a dutiful mother. It’s only when they reach the age of forty or so – when the children are grown up – that they finally get time to introspect and look back at their lives. The Shivani blog sought to capture that introspection, and that is why it struck a chord with readers, including my friend who kept wondering how I knew her so well.

Q: What is your series – 'Life in a Metro' – in the national daily, The Hindu, all about? What kind of stories do you share there? How long have you been writing this column?

It was a slice-of-life column I wrote for nearly 10 months. I stopped it last week, in spite of the popularity it seemed to have attained in a short span, simply because I did not have the time. Column-writing is a full-time commitment, which you can’t afford when you have pressing demands at work or when you’ve signed contracts to write more books.

Q: There are dozens of people who loathe the way Indian journalism has turned out to be. Being in this profession, what are your thoughts on the way the industry operates? What are the strong and weak points of this industry, according to you?

Journalism is no longer the same ever since television turned 24/7. Today, much of what you see or read is sensationalism and not journalism.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

No, I don’t promote my blog.

Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?

Writing a post can be enervating. Once you have finished saying what you wanted to say, you just want to move on. Which is why, even though I value the comments and cherish them, I find the thought of revisiting the subject by way of replying to comments too tiring. This may not be the right thing to do, though, and ideally I should acknowledge every comment I receive.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

The fact that you get published instantly. Also, blogging can be a good net practice for real writing – I mean writing books. It helps you practice your strokes, build your stamina and evolve a style of your own. Moreover, reaction of the readers tells you whether you are headed in the right direction. If your posts are readable, your books are most likely going to be readable too – provided you don’t get carried away too much by the praise your posts receive.

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

Some of the blogs are really, really good — there are people who make me wish I could write like them. Unfortunately, of late, I have hardly been looking up people’s blog, mainly due to paucity of time. But every now and then, I read Diptakirti’s Calcutta Chromosome and Desi Babu’s Peanut Express. I identify with their style of writing – simple yet profound.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Write from your heart – and soon you will evolve a style of your own.

Q: Do you earn revenue through your blog? How does one go about it?

I am yet to earn money from my blog. It’s been three years since I put ads on the blog, but the revenue is yet to cross the 100-dollar mark (you get paid once your earnings cross 100 dollars). Last time I checked the figure was still hovering around 60 dollars. Yes, once I did get paid 150 dollars for placing the link of a US-based website on the sidebar. I bought a tennis racquet with that money. Subsequently, I got similar offers from a few other websites, but it is no fun meddling with your template for small sums.

Q: According to you, what is the future of Blogging?

I think Twitter has done some damage to the blog. In the sense that – to give you an example – earlier you read Amitabh Bachchan’s blogs, but now you follow his tweets. But the damage is limited. There will always be a readership for good writing, and more and more bloggers – the ones that write well – will find their works being published in print.

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

Color: Black, white.

Movie: The Departed.

TV Show: I don’t watch TV.

Book: Tropic of Cancer.

Time of Day: Post-midnight.

Your Zodiac Sign: Capricorn

Thank you Bishwanath for taking us through this journey. Every stopover in this journey taught us something. We are sure our readers felt the same as well.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Return Of Ganga Mail

Does anybody even miss my posts?

I guess not. Just as I simply do not have the time or feel weary to write new posts, I am sure erstwhile readers of this blog would also have grown weary of checking for updates. As long as they remember me, good enough.

I can't even recall the last time I wrote a post because I wanted to write a post. Perhaps a year ago? This is not to say that I have nothing to write about any longer. In fact, to the contrary. I have so much to say these days -- on the same subjects I've always written about -- just that I find it too intimidating to transform those thoughts into 1000-word pieces. I find myself devoid of the time and energy. Have I grown old?

But all this while that I was away from the blog, I've been zealously pursuing my interests -- the ones listed on my Blogger profile -- just that I didn't feel compelled to write about them. I either thought "Why should people be interested?" or "What will people say?" But considering that Ganga Mail has remained in business because it always thumbed its nose at these questions, I should be less tight-arsed about expressing my thoughts. Not every piece needs to be perfect -- as long as it is truthful and honest.

So, ladies and gentlemen, this post marks the return of Ganga Mail. The thoughts will flow, as ever, irrespective of what you think of them. The Ganga, after all, has no choice but to flow -- the choice is yours, whether to call it polluted or to bathe in it in order to seek salvation.