“I think I’m reflected in bits in several characters” – Rehana Munir

Rehana Munir ran a bookshop in Bombay in the mid 2000s, a few years after graduating with top honours in English literature from St. Xavier’s College. An independent writer on culture and lifestyle, she has a weekly humour column in HT Brunch, and a cinema column in Arts Illustrated magazine. She is also an occasional copywriter. Rehana lives in Bombay among food-obsessed family and friends. She is a local expert on migraines, 1990s nostalgia and Old Monk. We wrote about her debut novel Paper Moon here and had a little chat over her book and writings.

 

What is the most satisfying part of writing ‘Paper Moon’ for you?

The sense of having translated an actual experience into a work of fiction. Of crafting Fiza’s coming-of-age story out of my memories, but more importantly, my imagination.

 

What does it feel like when you finally finish writing a book?

An overpowering urge to share it with the world! At least that was how it was with my debut novel.

 

How much of yourself is in the characters you write about?

From personality traits to philosophical leanings, I think I’m reflected in bits in several characters. But more than them being literary stand-ins for me, I think I’m in dialogue with them.

 

Did you read all the books and authors who find a mention in ‘Paper Moon’?

One of the pleasures of writing the book was to squeeze in my favourite authors and their works. But there are way too many references, and not all of them appeal to me. They were names that suited the narrative.

 

How much research and travel did Paper Moon take?

A lot of time travel, since the book takes place in the early 2000s. I did visit some of the haunts that the book mentions, but mostly to check up on a name or a detail. A few of the pillars of the book still hold up my life in Bombay. As for the bits in London and Edinburgh, they too were etched in my mind but needed some research for reasons of accuracy.

 

How does it feel to have gone from a reader to bookstore owner to an award-winning author? 

Very fortunate. (Though, unlike Fiza in the book, I ran a bookshop but did not own it. It belonged to a friend of my father’s.) There’s so much to learn. As a bookseller, I largely interacted with book distributors. As a writer, I’m learning about the publishing industry. Paper Moon seems like such a quaint world in the era of digital marketing.

 

Who is your first reader?

My two sisters, Kausar and Mariam.

 

Did you have a “When I become a writer, I will…” list?

Not really, but one thing comes to mind, now that you’ve asked the question: Not to write prescriptive lists for other writers.

 

Is there going to be a second part to ‘Paper Moon’?

I have been asked this question on a few occasions, which is very encouraging. It’s certainly an exciting idea, a sequel. Or maybe even a prequel.

 

What is the best criticism that you received for ‘Paper Moon’?

One reader likened my book to a jazz progression. I found that analogy to be very satisfying, especially since the book borrows its name from a jazz song.

 

Do you feel pressure that your next book must be better than ‘Paper Moon’, especially after all the love that it’s been receiving?

I’m currently savouring the appreciation from readers. If anything, it’s encouraging me while I work on my next.

 

What are you reading currently?

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran Khan. I read it a couple of months ago but I’m already drawn back to it. It’s a deeply thoughtful exploration of a city’s troubled history, through a personal lens. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is next on my list. I love the energy and optimism in her writing.

 

Thank You for the Paper Moon, Rehana

Dear Rehana

I must confess I have never done this earlier. I have been in love with many books and have let them wreak havoc within my little heart. I have written about those books or spoken about them endlessly with friends. I have even wished to hold those authors in a warm, grateful embrace. But, whatever I am about to do is something I have never done before.

Ever since Aakansha wrote about this dramatic reading of your book, Abhishek has been wanting us to meet with you and talk to you. But of course, we wanted to read the book before we could do that. Yet, somehow we kept delaying it, thanks to mundane life. This Sunday morning, I was still waking up, when Abhishek said he wanted to read out something to me. Usually, these requests to read out end up being the latest political controversies from the morning news or half-satirical half-witty statements from a hopeless twitter banter. I mumbled a half-hearted yes and to my surprise, he was reading something about a July afternoon, train, lending library, Kipling, Marlowe, missing a heartbeat and some more. That did wake me up and I was asked to guess the name of the book. Somehow, I knew it was Paper Moon. But everything he read out was just too dreamy and it felt right to listen to it with eyes closed. I guess I was getting myself ported to that monsoon day in Bombay but in reality, I had dozed off. When I woke up, my weekend chores were hanging above my head and Paper Moon had to wait for another day.

 

I didn’t let it wait for too long though. It sounded too good to be left alone. So, I picked it up on Monday after office and began once again from the same July afternoon. That’s when I realized you are this wicked magician who works marvellously with words. Sigh! Trust me when I say, the rest of my Monday evening in an already summer-like Bangalore was feeling like a monsoon night. I couldn’t tell if the breeze under my neck was for real or because of Paper Moon.

During the initial chapters, every time you mentioned an author or a book, or a bookish reference, I tried to keep a note. I tried to keep up with you completely unaware of what a laborious task that was going to be. I remember counting until fifteen such references just in the first chapter. While I was still trying to wrap my head around how you managed to do it, the next realization hit me. Not only did you do this with books, but you also did the same with art, music, food, drinks, eateries and even hangout spots. I could have forgiven you if you did this just with Bombay, but no, you had to talk about Goa, London and even Edinburgh.

 

The next time someone looks for a recommendation for a book, art, music, food, or drink, I’ll give them a copy of Paper Moon.

 

And what’s with the Khan obsession? Generally, I would have complained if the writer didn’t take enough effort to veil the real-life public figures because many times they disrupt the flow of the story. But, you made him blend so well into the narration that I was smiling every time he appeared. I loved almost all the characters you created for this story, even the Australian family and the fact that your characters, their relationships, their emotions- all of it felt very real. Nowhere did I sense a pretence irrespective of how dreamy the whole book was. My only problem with the book was that even though Fiza had her own set of troubles, somewhere it felt like the bookstore just happened too easily for her or even the launch of the new store for that matter. Nevertheless, take it with a pinch of salt, because I guess I might actually be jealous of Fiza Khalid.

After finishing the book, I logged into Goodreads to rate it. I just wanted to be sure if I was the only one who was swept off my feet or if there were others. So, I skimmed through the reviews and I was having a moment of truth. The reviews reminded me of the Tamil movie Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (or in Telugu, Em Maaya Chesavae). For a long time, I hated the movie solely because every other person (be it a friend, family, or stranger) I met during the time, told me how it was exactly their own story. The reviews for Paper Moon looked the same and finally, I am making my peace with Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaya fanatics because I now know how it feels. I know it sounds silly, but I couldn’t hold my joy when I found out Fiza’s paper moon and I share the same birthday. It felt so personal. Also what bibliophile hasn’t dreamt of owning a bookstore/cafe someday or even experiencing a drool-worthy geeky-romance as Fiza? I so wanted the book to go on, but even when it ended, the excitement stayed. I hope someday you write a second part to Paper Moon. I am aching to know what happens to Fiza, Iqbal, and even Noor.

 

Thank you for the Paper Moon, Rehana. That was a brilliant brilliant debut. I can’t wait to read your next, but until then, I am going to reread Paper Moon, every time I need a refill of refreshment.

 

Love
Jeeva

 

 

What If Ram Were a Startup Founder? Prachi Garg’s Book Answers

Reinterpretation of mythology or mythological fiction isn’t my favourite genre. In my opinion, many of these are an attempt at fan fiction and most of them do fail terribly. I talked about it here. So, when I picked up Prachi Garg’s Startup Secrets from the Ramayana, I was reluctant. Nevertheless, I was intrigued because the blurb said it is the story of Ram’s struggle of setting up his business empire from scratch in fourteen years. Prachi, who is also the founder of ghoomophiro.com has authored a few books in the genre of business fiction including the ‘Super’ series. So obviously she seems to know her trade well enough to put my anxiety to ease from the beginning.

The tale opens with a scene of Ram standing at the brink of victory against Ravan and flashes back into his struggle of fourteen years. Prachi’s Ram doesn’t carry a quiver full of arrows but business strategies and solutions for any business-related problem. Yet, he loses his business empire and is forced to move out of Ayodhya to start fresh along with his closest aide Sita and loving brother Lakshman. So, the lessons start from there. As the tale progresses, you will also meet many characters from Ramayana, when the trio work hard to establish a collaborative business Platform, called Kutumb, In Chitrakoot, that functions as a co-working space for small and large scale entrepreneurs. Then arrives Shurpanakha, followed by Ravan and his company HeadHunters from Lanka who pursues an aggressive business strategy to establish a monopoly over the Indian market. So the tale goes.

For those readers, who are familiar with the tale of Ramayana, it will be interesting to note how Prachi has picked a handful of characters and events from this epic and has successfully woven into a business fiction. I understand it isn’t as simple as a mythological fiction, to tell a tale with the same sequence of events but in a business language. I for one was constantly curious to know how each character has been recreated and how Prachi fit them into a modern-day business world. I liked Prachi’s diligence on how she tried to bring some of the finest details of the epic like the golden deer that lures Sita, the Nine-Sister’s alliance, Hanuman bringing the entire tech-hub because he couldn’t find the correct router. While some of these reinterpretations might come-across like force-fit, a lot of them do bring a smile.

There are occasional slip-ups in the plot which is barely noticeable, thanks to Prachi’s skillful narration. The best part of the book for me is the end of every chapter, where Prachi summarizes the learning from those episodes. In only 126 pages, Prachi covers a lot of ground from ‘The Value of Disruption’ to ‘Financial Stability’. The choice of language is simple and spiced up in moderation with business jargon, which makes it an easy read even for beginners.

 

I must also warn the readers to not expect a thorough reinterpretation of Ramayana in Prachi’s book, especially those readers who have studied Ramayana extensively. I would say read this because it is a fun read with some insightful secrets for the startup-enthusiasts.

Book Review – Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey

This happened in 2015. I had a bad day and I wanted to take my mind off things. So, I walked into a movie hall, looked at the list of movies displayed on the ticket counter, and picked the next show which was just about to begin. I had no clue about whose movie it was or how good the reviews were. I had only learned the name of the movie a few minutes back while paying for the ticket. When the lights went off and the first dialogue played, I was super joyed because the voice from the movie told me that my day was going to get better from there. It was Tom Hanks’ voice and the movie was Bridge of Spies. Such happenstances are a rarity but when they happen they wash off all the blues and fill your days with a refreshing air of goodness. Imagine chancing upon a book the same way.

 

I had no idea that The Mysterious ailment of Rupi Baskey was the debut novel of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar who also authored the famous The Adivasi will not dance. I also did not know that Hansda won the Yuva Puraskar for the book. Strangely enough, I didn’t even remember adding the book to my library. I was travelling and I badly needed some sleep. As horrendous as it might sound, I had picked the book so I could fall asleep quickly. I know how unforgivable it is, but I have been using books as sleeping pills lately, except this book wouldn’t let me sleep. I was tired and my eyes were begging to be shut. Yet, I kept peeping through half-shut eyes and still read. When I dozed off due to exhaustion, I woke up and tried to stay alert to continue reading. That riveting was the tale of Rupi Baskey or should I say Kadamdihi.

 

The book possesses you right from the first line because Hansda didn’t bother to take his readers through a long winding road to introduce his protagonist. She is right there on the opening sentence, squatting in the middle of a rice field to deliver her first child. Rupi arrives in Kadamdihi, a Santhali Village as a new bride and her husband Sido is one of those educated Santhali men working as a teacher in Nitra. The book follows the life of Rupi Baskey from the time she arrives in Kadamdihi and also some of the others whose lives are intertwined with hers.

 

Hansda calls his protagonist the strongest woman in Kadamdihi but you will realize that all of Kadamdihi or at least the women whom Hansda speak of in the book are no less stronger. The characters of Putki, Della, Younger Somai-Budhi are representations of women who are indeed strong of their own accord. Even the ones who crossed over to the dark side, like Gurbari, Dulari, and Naikay’s wife, display indomitable strength and conviction. As for the men in Kadamdihi, while Somai and Khorda are likeable, most men in Kadamdihi seem powerless as a puppet, in front of the dahnis. That way the dahnis rule, both in Kadamdihi and in the book.

 

It’s interesting to note that Hansda is a medical officer by profession and his debut novel is woven over the fabric of dahni-bidya or black magic. The world that he paints through his descriptions of dahni-bidya, is scary and exciting at the same time. I wonder if he drew his inspiration from the many patients with mysterious ailments he might have met during his career as a medical doctor. But, on the other hand, he introduces you to a faith that is more intense, unpolished, and very real nevertheless. The rolling eyes, women bathing naked under the moonlight, the food enchantment etc. might remind you of similar faiths across India and will only add on to your curiosity. At one point in the story, Hansda through Dulari almost justifies black magic as a weapon that women use to protect themselves. She explains how she did not have a choice and how she had to do what she did to reclaim what was rightfully hers.

 

When Hansda is not enchanting with the story of the dahinis, he is busy enlightening his readers with tidbits of information about this wildly beautiful state of Jharkhand. He sings to you, songs about the kadam trees and stories of how various gushtis came into existence. He explains how the villages are named after trees that are found in abundance, how each paaris have their own story of how they came into being, how marriage within one’s village is looked down upon and more. He also talks about Sarna religion that the Santhals follow and the caste discrimination in these villages. Above all, he introduces his readers to the political affairs of Jharkhand from the time Jaipal Singh founded the Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938 which demanded a separate state for Adivasis in Chota Nagpur area to the times of All Jharkhand Student Union under Besra. Hansda like most of us sounds disappointed with the political leaders of the state and tell us how these political leaders rode on the sacrifices of many young Adivasis who were hoping for a homeland for themselves.

 

For a book with such a compelling story with a lot of intriguing information, there is one challenge in reading it. Although the book is written in English, Hansda didn’t shy away from using a lot of native tongue during his storytelling. He doesn’t use the English equivalents even when they are available and many a time doesn’t even bother to explain what the word means. He instead expects the reader to understand from the context which we do most of the time. I learnt dahni-bidya means dark magic, dhai-budhi means midwife and more. Having to assume the meanings of these words has its own shortcomings apart from the fact that it slows down the reader, but I wouldn’t hold it against him. If English can find its way into the conversations made in the native tongue and that too in a very generous proportion, why can’t we make do with native words in an English narration? I would say I am rather grateful to Hansda for having introduced me to this new language which only makes me more curious about it.  

 

So, if you are looking for an engaging read or wanting to get off a reading block, go find Rupi and read all about her mysterious ailment.

 

Andrew Sean Greer’s Less

Where do I begin? If I only I could give form to the feeling that has been gushing within me, you would know how overwhelming an experience it was. But as usual, I didn’t know where to begin and I kept waiting for the words to find their way out of the whirlpool of emotions.  A month has gone by since then. So, maybe I should just begin by telling you how I never have had a great run with award-winning books. Continue reading “Andrew Sean Greer’s Less”

Chit-Chat on Bofors and Rafale

Ten years. That is how long Chitra Subramaniam worked on the Bofors scandal, from Geneva in Switzerland. She was 29 and pregnant when she began her investigation. She continued to follow the paper trail and money trail to their end, even after the Hindu fired her. Her husband sponsored her entire investigation and she did some ground-breaking work in bringing out all the dirt and setting some heightened standards for investigative journalism. The Bofors scandal led to the change of certain Swiss laws.

It wasn’t that there were no scandals before that, but Bofors came at a time when the country was looking up to Rajiv Gandhi with great hope after having lived through a cynical age during his mother’s government. Rajiv was portrayed as a clean person. So, when she held the papers that connected him to the scandal, Chitra said she was shaking. After her extended period of work, a box load of documents arrived in India for investigation. Although no one knows what happened of those documents, the Rafale deal has stirred up the public attention again. Everyone had almost forgotten about Bofors until somebody compared the Rafale deal to that of the Bofors.

According to Chitra, there is corruption in every deal including the Rafale. Yet she considers the Bofors and Rafale deal as chalk and cheese. In Bofors, for the first time, the prime minister of India was personally involved and stood accused of corruption. The Rafale, on the other hand, is not clear if politicians were involved. There sure are a lot of unanswered questions including the involvement of the Reliance group, but this story must be built piece by piece and not jumped to conclusions without following the conventional rules of journalism. She also insisted that the audience should read the works of Abhijit Iyer Mitra who probably knows the most about the Rafale scandal.

Chitra said the VP Singh government rode on the Bofors scandal but did nothing about it. And nothing is stopping the current government in doing anything about. However, the politicians are like ‘all scorpions stuck in a bottle’. They have together turned a lot of our institutions corrupt. They can’t moralize each other.

Chitra laughed when asked if the European countries are as clean as they are portrayed by the corruption index. She took the examples of Sweden, France and Italy to establish how the European countries are rather more corrupt.

Chidanand Rajghatta, the current Foreign Editor and U.S Bureau Chief of The Times of India, who was moderating the discussion with Chitra brought up an important point about how Indians are not ready to pay for news and expect it to be available for free. He thought that this hunt for free or cheaper news is causing financial constraints on the media houses which probably is the reason why they don’t dive deep to bring out the truth. But, Chitra said that the media houses have enough money when they want to have them and that cannot be the reason. She said people here indulge in a lot of gossips. Everyone thinks they know everything and everyone has an opinion about everything. People no longer follow the two-source theory of journalism. They write something because it all online now and can be edited later if needed. She also said that these media houses are constantly under pressure especially if the establishment is family-run. But they should be careful because social media has become the new watchdog. An eternal optimist that she is, Chitra reiterated that the media must continue to question and do their job.

Imran Khan: In the Hot Seat

The recent political change in Pakistan has been a hot topic of discussion at the Bangalore Literature Festival. Farzana Shaik was in conversation with Max Rodenbeck and the discussion was more about the current economic crisis of Pakistan, Imran,’s promise for a new Pakistan, and his leadership as such.

According to Farzana, although the current outlook is great for Pakistan, Imran’s stance in various socio-political issues is not encouraging. It’s rather disturbing. Earlier, his party had strongly opposed the provincial laws for women empowerment. Imran himself had said that supporting those legislations which protect women from domestic violence and abuse would mean breaking the family set up in Pakistan. Imran has also been extremely silent on what his government intends to do with the terrorism sponsored from Pakistani borders, the Jihadi movements or even the greylisting of Pakistan for economic assistance, thanks to its inaction.

Given that Imran is strongly backed by the army, one cannot expect too much of a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Also since the military had a tough time when their blue-eyed boy Nawaz Sheriff turned rogue, they are going to have a closer watch over Imran. Going by the past record, there is a chronic circularity about the individuals who became the Prime Ministers of Pakistan. So there might be no room for bigger changes especially since the constitutional clauses that were used against Nawaz are still very much in place.

Imran promised 5million in homes and 10 million in jobs during his campaign. But it is going to be extremely difficult thanks to the debts. One cannot deny that there is popular support for Imran in Pakistan. His political discourse does chime with a lot of people in Pakistan. However, the by-polls indicate how the Pakistanis are already disenchanted with his party even in areas which were considered his strongholds.

Its been three months since he came to power but he still conducts himself like an opposition leader. His politics is not distinguishable from container politics and he still continues the vindictive politics. He hasn’t evolved into a statesman, as one would expect of him.

Speaking of Imran’s approach towards India, Farzana says supporters of Imran might point out that he was open towards India. Imran even said that if India took one step forward, Pakistan would take two. However, historically, any government that had an independent policy towards India always paid the price for it. Farzana also insisted that the Indian government should not stick to the ‘no talk until terrorism ends’ policy but continue the diplomatic talks with Pakistan.

A Pitch for Love by Kartik Kompella

It’s been a while since I read a light-hearted fiction. My bookshelf is laden heavily with serious subjects that I used to feel embarrassed when someone wanted to borrow a lighter read. So, when I picked ‘A Pitch for Love’, it was a welcome change, especially after letting myself drown in Franz Kafka for a week. Just as I began to read, I knew I should thank the author for two things. One, the book wasn’t Mahabharata retold from Adhiratha’s point of view or Ramayana rewritten in Sumitra’s perspective. Two, the language, which used to be one of the important reasons I prefer not to read the so-called best-selling contemporary Indian authors.

Karthik Kompella has been a successful non-fiction author and editor with five books to his credits. ‘A Pitch for Love’ is his seventh book and debut in fiction. The book is a tale of office romance but Kartik’s female protagonist, Prachi, is no ‘damsel in distress’. She is the kind of career woman every girl aspires to be. She is smart, independent, and wildly successful. She reigns as the advertising queen. Drona, the male protagonist, on the other hand, reminded me of Vijay Devarakonda, the new prince of romance. On one hand, Drona is reckless and carefree and on another, he is sensitive and responsible. Either way, Kartik makes him look adorable.

Drona and Prachi, literally meet by an accident and, Drona gets employed by Prachi. The rest of the story is about whether these two found their way to each other’s heart. Before they get there, they had to deal with a lot of rivalries, office politics, and setbacks. And then there are Janaki, Ganapathi, Hizmout and others who remind you of the different kind of people you meet at any workplace. Since the story unfolds in the unconventional world of advertising, you get a sneak peek into how pitches are conceived and won amidst cutthroat competition. The chapters where Drona and Prachi work to win a tough client or deal with an extraordinary situation are quite creative and exciting. The book is also full of wittiness in conversations making it a ‘peppy’ read.

The author is also founder of a Brand consulting agency and that should explain the frequent mentions of brand names like Verna, Enfield, Jimmy Choos, Diesel Jeans etc. in the first few chapters. It was indeed distracting, but this problem seemed to have fixed itself in the later chapters and Kartik lets you ease into the story. One other thing, which I could have preferred otherwise, is the too much detailing of how a character looks, especially the female ones. While it might build the interest initially, it also becomes a drag after a while. Irrespective of all that, the book is a page-turner and the author successfully will convince you of Drona’s charm that you almost forgive him for all his amorous conquests.  Although a good part of the story happens inside the office premises, the events that happen beyond the office are the truly romantic ones. Prachi unwinding with her friend from past, Prachi’s dates with David, Drona’s adventure with Parvathi, Janaki’s time with Drona etc., and last but not the least, the Guy Fawkes day celebration etc. make a delightful read. So, if you are looking for an unconventional read in romance, ‘A Pitch for Love’ is a good choice.

Dear Zomato

I am a loyalist as a customer. My brand of toothpaste has not changed in all these thirty years. I might have occasionally tried other ones, but I duly return to my favourite brand. Spending more than 9 years in my first job did teach me that nobody is indispensable, yet I tend to believe that I matter as a customer. I also know that the vendor who sells me vegetables, charges relatively more than the other ones around, yet I find it difficult to move on from her. Continue reading “Dear Zomato”

Social Business – The new kind of capitalism

 “As a human, to have a job is a wrong idea. Human beings are not born to work for anyone. Human being is a complete person. Human being is a creative person. The moment one enters a job, that is the end of creativity. Job doesn’t need creativity because its driven by instructions”, remarked Professor Mohammad Yunus while addressing a gathering at the Bangalore International Centre on June 30, 2018. The Nobel laureate who was in the city owing to the 8th Social Business Day was speaking about the concept of Social Business and a world of three Zeros- Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon emissions. Continue reading “Social Business – The new kind of capitalism”