Local (a novel)
- Name: jaideep varma
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Thursday, August 25, 2005
I could only do that in October 2000, when I began work on it full-time. The first draft took 9 months, but there were many subsequent drafts after that, till 2004.
It's a story about a man who voluntarily decides to live on a local train in Mumbai. He works in a multinational ad agency at night and thus leads two dramatically opposite lives. Setting a story in the advertising world (or at least part of it) is anathema in the publishing world, and with its contemporary “rock and roll” tone, not exactly brimming with the exotica that contemporary Indian fiction is so sadly full of (which is another, pretty significant, story).
I was lucky therefore that G. Sampath of Indialog (New Delhi) liked it and took on the manuscript for publication. Local was officially released on May 30, 2005 at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Mumbai.
I have also attached a few reviews below, basically for my own record.
LOCAL - an overview
Twenty-eight-year-old Akash is a new entrant to the city of Mumbai in mid-1996. He has come from Madras after a severe personal setback, to start life anew.
To rid himself of a number of problems – financial, physical and (primarily) emotional, he finds a solution that somehow addresses all of them together. He decides to live within the city’s most chaotic, most indispensable institution – the local train.
He plunges himself into his career during the day, but finds the nights giving him a conflicting perspective. During the day, he helps create artificial wants (in a multinational advertising agency) but at night, unconsciously dismantles his own desires (in the train). Globalisation and consumerism are his preoccupations during the day, exactly the opposite in the night. This gradual tussle between an aggressive corporate life and a deliberately passive inner life results in an involuntary transformation within him.
Akash’s story is the main narrative in the book, which is punctuated by stand-alone vignettes about people he meets, most of whom are going through some kind of emotional crisis (but away from his gaze).
This format (which can also be seen as stand-alone short stories punctuating a novel; metaphorically acting as stations in a railway journey), besides innovatively contributing to character development, ultimately fleshes out the big picture of the book.
Monday, August 22, 2005
Publisher's page on Local is here.
Excerpts from the book
On NDTV here.
On Carvezine here.
One of the shorts in the book, is reproduced in full on Motif Magazine. It works here as a stand-alone short story.
My view on Indian publishing here, for whatever it's worth.
And this is why I was eventually convinced that writing about any of this is a complete waste of time.
Local is available at most major bookstores in the country, and hopefully the not-so-major ones too.
It will almost certainly be available at The Corner Bookstores all around the country. Many of them are in Baristas in major cities. Mumbai also has one at Prithvi Theatre, Delhi one at the Habitat Centre.
Strand Bookstall, as usual, offers the best price on it. It can be ordered online from India or abroad here.
Granth bookstore offers a discount and free home delivery (with cash on delivery) anywhere in Mumbai.It can also be ordered from Indialog's website here.
Biblio offers a good deal if you're ordering from out of India.If you have any problem with availability, please email me at email@example.com (Feedback is also invited here)
The best coverage Local has got, so far. For Rediff.com A review cum feature.
The man who lived on a train
by Lindsay Pereira
I decided to read Jaideep Varma's debut novel Local on, well, a Mumbai local. It seemed like a logical thing to do, considering the story lent itself to such an option. I managed to complete it over five trips, somewhere along the Borivali-Churchgate line. And then, when I had finished, I looked around and realised he was right.
The cacophony outside sometimes makes the chaos inside you more bearable.
Akash Bhasin, the protagonist of Local, has had enough. His wife has left him, his parents aren't interested, his siblings live abroad and, as if life didn't feel sufficiently inane, he works as a copywriter. From the emptiness within, he has to dig deep and convince people to buy more toothpaste. At 28, he wants out. A familiar feeling, you would think. It is his solution, however, that's rather unfamiliar. What Akash decides to do is give up all sense of direction and opt, instead, for the rootless, consistent rocking of a train.
So, when he's finished with his day of product pitching, client servicing, corporate jargon and office intrigue, he surrenders himself, as it were, 'to the rocking homelessness....' of Mumbai's Western Railway. Going back and forth across 59.82 kilometres, he begins to find himself.
It is an intriguing concept. And one that is strangely incongruous with the man who came up with it. Jaideep Varma is calm and composed. His eyes twinkle through his glasses. He examines me, smiles a lot, then offers me a glass of apple juice. In the soft lighting of his cosy apartment, he appears benign. In a word, everything Akash Bhasin is not.
"I used to travel by train to my workplace in the early to mid-90s," Varma tells me, still smiling. "If I managed a place to sit, I found those 45 minutes to be my most restful time of the day. Maybe it was the rocking motion, or just a strange energy, but it relaxed me. At some point, intrigued, I began playing with the idea of a story about a man who seeks this feeling to such an extent that he decides to live on a train."
After a point, I begin to see where Akash Bhasin is coming from. Time spent on the train is, by definition of its fluidity, calming.
As the novel progresses, Akash moves constantly between hectic motion by day and impassive silence by night. It leads him, and the reader, to a number of interesting insights. Apart from Varma's ability to carry the story -- which I believe he does remarkably well -- it is the format of the narrative that appeals to me. Interspersed with Akash's tale are smaller chronicles about other people who drop in on his life, on the train and off it.
There's his colleague Bibek, an ambitious romantic who can't come to terms with his ambition. There's Sabina, the attractive executive who plays games both corporate and personal. Neha, struggling to come to terms with a cheating husband. Subhash, a pot-bellied taxi driver trying to make it as a model while juggling a wife and mistress. The list is long -- drunken doctors, lecturers-turned-tramps, country bumpkins, insecure professionals. Switching between first and third person, Varma gives them all voices. They may be strangers on a train, but they all have stories. And it is these people who become the novel's stars.
Around me, on yet another crowded train, I try and trace other stories. Stories that last only as long as their creators do, in the space between stations.
"It was an attempt to capture the lived-in experience of Mumbai," says Varma, when I ask about what he hoped his novel would say. "I wanted to do this without resorting to exotica, romanticism or nostalgia, and without high drama or depictions of the city's underbelly -- just plain everyday people we run into every day."
It is an ambitious task. He captures the delusions that ad executives labour under, the ruthlessness of commerce, mood swings of exhausted commuters, and the spirit of cooperation that drives Mumbai while sucking its citizens into a vortex they know they cannot escape. Akash talks about how everyone standing on a train is propped up by fellow travellers, adding, 'In a sense, that seemed to be the story of this city.' The only thing that doesn't sit well here -- at least for me -- is Akash's occasional meandering into rock journalism, citing biographical details about bands and artistes he likes listening to.
"It always surprised and dismayed me that our contemporary voice has never been adequately expressed through Indian writing in English," says Varma. "When I came to Mumbai, I found it astonishing that the city, with all its diverse and magnificent colours, found little expression in our writing, films or music." When I point out that there is more cynicism than hope in Local, he disagrees. "I think it is more real than cynical. Unless you mean how the ad industry is depicted, which is Akash's point-of-view."
Varma was born in Kolkata but grew up in Chandigarh and Pune. After working in Chennai for a while, he moved to Mumbai 15 years ago to work in advertising. He quit in 2000 to write fulltime. Initial reactions to his novel have been good. Despite little media coverage, it is set for a second print run after a mere four months.
First Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. Then, Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram. Soon, Vikram Chandra's novel about the city's underworld. Varma thinks there ought to be a lot more. "Given what a remarkably diverse city Mumbai is, it hasn't got an iota of literature it should ordinarily have inspired by now." He also has strong views on a host of other topics, such as media's racist attitude towards Indian writers in English. "If our own media isn't going to give us reviews (even if uncomplimentary) because they see us as losers who couldn't get published abroad, who else will? Writing is hard as it is; fighting these odds, much harder."
When questioned about what he wants to do next, he says, "Telling stories is the single-point agenda of my life. If I cannot make a living writing fiction, I will pursue other media." He's still not sure though. "I am at the crossroads," he laughs, "which is strange coming from a 38-year old."
I think about that statement long after I have left his apartment. For a 38-year old, he's still made a very promising start.
Link here. (may need to click on link twice, if the first window does not give relevent page)
Or here. (again, may need to click twice)
The man who lived on a train
First time author Jaideep Varma's book Local is a must read for every Mumbaiker
When I first came to India, in the fall of 2003, I was introduced to a young writer named Jaideep Varma, who I was told had a book-in-progress to show me. I met the author, an earnest and pleasant, energetic man, took the manuscript, and promised to read it on the road. At the time I was working through Independence Day, Richard Ford's Pulitzer Prize winning novel (not to be confused with the movie of the same name). But a funny thing happened along the way. Perhaps it was in Jaipur, or Delhi, or Bangalore, but one night, alone in my hotel room, I laid down Independence Day and picked up Local, and (much to my surprise) couldn't put it down.
Local is the story of a twenty-eight year old advertising executive named Akash who, after surviving a painful divorce, moves to Bombay and lives on the train (rather than pay outrageous Bombay rent for a flat). Following Akash through his days at work and nights in the city, Varma spins a complex tale of Akash's growing disillusionment with the fast-paced, highly competitive global/corporate workplace. At the same time, he skillfully interweaves narratives about the lives of people-both ordinary and extraordinary-that Akash meets on the train.
This is no ordinary novel. Probably no city in the world is more torn by the cross-currents of globalization in conflict with culture and tradition than Bombay. Where else could you find a university professor turned "professional defecator," a taxi driver aspiring to be an actor, or any of the other assorted loonies, hopefuls, and social climbers Akash meets; whether they be poor people from the countryside sucked through the turbines of Bombay's economic engines, or the wealthy, aggressive young executives hatching Machiavellian plots to vault over one another and up the corporate ladder? Within this magnificent setting Varma locates a wonderful, personal, and moving tale of Akash's transformation, one that will both amuse readers with his razor-sharp insights into the ironies of the business world, and pain them with his poignant observations about life in one of the world's most intriguing (and difficult) cities.
It will be tempting for critics to pigeon-hole Local as just another facet in Bombay's literary diamond. But though it is set in Bombay, it is not merely a Bombay story. Who of us has not been hurt in love, disillusioned at work, shocked by injustice, or pained with insight into the suffering of others? This is a book that should be read with interest by people everywhere-for at its heart it is a compelling story of the human experience. The only thing "local" about it is the title.
(Melvin Sterne teaches creative writing at Florida State University. He visits India often, is currently researching a forthcoming novel.)
Link here. (with all the other stuff they rated)
Review by Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta
Mumbai’s train system is its lifeline, and I’ve always wondered why no Bombay novel has tried to zoom in on it. Jaideep Varma’s Local does. It begins with a map of the Western Railway local train line that tells us that stuff of legend, the distance from Churchgate to Virar, is 59.82 km.
The central protagonist of this Mumbai novel is living a schizophrenic life: his day job is in a multinational ad agency, while his nights are spent, quite literally, on the trains.
But this could be a metaphor for the lives led by the rest of us in this city, too; and it is also a metaphor for the two faces of this harsh, glittering city.
A city that throbs with dreams and desire, but also with a dark force that sucks the energy out of its inhabitants as they return homewards every day. Two planes of existence, almost ontologically different.
Not an easy project. How does Varma’s prose measure up? Not too badly at all.
Let me start with a couple of things that don’t work: he is a talented writer on music (we used to enjoy his essays on music in the now sadly defunct Gentleman), but the passages about music don’t quite work here.
Nor, really, do the train segments move out of the sphere of observant, humane journalism. Some skilful editing could have tightened up these sections.
But the parts that I like best are those that tell of the inside story of advertising, that little seen, little known space where our dreams are fashioned for us.
Varma writes affectingly of the aspirations and intrigues of the men and women who inhabit that space, and of the importance of looking beyond it at the real world outside. Local is evidence of a promising new voice in the city.
The journey of life, literally
Review by Prerana Trehan
The sharp contrasts between the glamour of advertising and the grime of local trains bring into focus the character of a city that doesn’t care.
An angst-ridden protagonist fighting a multitude of demons, both personal and professional, in an unforgiving metropolis can’t make a pretty picture. Well, he doesn’t. At least not in Jaideep Varma’s Local. And yet there is something oddly compelling about 28-year-old Akash Bhasin, an advertising executive in a top Mumbai agency who, in an attempt to put his past– which culminates in the break-up of his marriage– behind him, opts "to surrender completely to the rocking homelessness" of a life lived on a local train.
In less esoteric terms that means he dumps his luggage at a friend’s place, goes to office like your average executive-next-door in the mornings and spends his nights sitting in a Mumbai local, travelling back and forth between stations.
Not exactly anyone’s idea of a comfortable life but then Akash is not looking for comfort but to "still the movement within". Something that the constant movement without achieves.
What begins as the story of Akash’s attempt to as he says, "get out of familiar surroundings and start afresh, surrounded by strangers who carried no baggage about me", morphs gradually into the story of the city in which he lives, or, more accurately, struggles to survive. Nor is the struggle his alone, but is the story of each inhabitant of the city.
Travelling on locals gives Akash a first-hand insight into the most physical of these struggles– commuters striving to get into and out of trains every day with the near-desperation that also marks their efforts to survive in a city that simply doesn’t care.
A city where a suicide on a railway line is nothing more than an "inconvenience" for the passengers in a hurry to reach their destination. And the train that moves soon after the suicide, is an apt metaphor for a city that doesn’t stop, no matter what.
Juxtaposed against this callousness of the city is the unexpected and entirely unforced humanism that holds it together. In a telling moment, Akash observes: "Everyone standing on this train was propped up by his fellow travellers, involuntarily. In a sense, that seemed to be the story of this city."
The plot is as thin as Kate Moss, but then telling a good story was, perhaps, not on Varma’s agenda anyway. He has, instead, strung together vignettes of ordinary lives in Mumbai.
What emerges is less a story and more a portrait of a city grappling with alienation, loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, successes and failures. With its tireless and often maddening, attention to detail, Local is certainly not a rivetting page-turner. But what it lacks in seductive charms, it more than makes up for with its strikingly accurate insights into human behaviour and situations as it meanders slowly through the lives of a medley of characters.
Alternating between first and third person narratives, the novel moves in a non-linear time frame and devotes entire chapters on peripheral characters. The premise of the story– rich in possibilities– does seem to get bogged down in minutiae and repetition as the novel moves towards its denouement.
However, the witty and confident style scores over substance and holds interest. Ultimately, the book is easy to read, its neurosis easy to relate to.
No link available.
Strangers on the train of life
by Jai Arjun Singh
During the day, Akash works as a copywriter in an ad agency, LCM, in Mumbai. For the nights he's worked out an atypical living arrangement for himself : he sleeps on the trains on the Western Line. It's cheaper than renting an apartment and not so bad if you can cope with shady characters and irregular sleep patterns (trains must be switched in the middle of the night: "walking on the overbridge connecting the platforms," he says, "I had the tangible sense of moving from yesterday to tomorrow").
Jaideep Varma's Local is a provocative account of life in a bustling metropolis, as well as an entertaining peek at the insanity of the advertising industry. The writing is occassionally uneven, it could have been edited better but it's very readable on the whole, with a structure that mirrors the experience of travelling on a train, stopping at some stations, bypassing others. Though the main story is Akash's, we also get short chapters on some of the people whose lives intersect his - friends, colleagues, a persistent wannabe model who turns out to be a loon. These vignettes illustrate how the pace of modern life leaves us with little time or energy to understand the people we live and work with on a daily basis.
At Varma's book reading in Delhi - a mercifully small, dignified affair - he spoke with feeling about the lack of literature that deals with contemporary Indian life in a no-frills way. Local, free as it is from the trappings of exoticisation and posturing (still one of the banes of Indian writing in English), helps fill that gap.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Review by Tripti Vyas
When you begin reading Jaideep Varma’s first novel Local, you are tempted to wisecrack, like Bibek, the novel’s best etched out character, that “One had so little time…he was damned if he was going to devote time to reading second and third rate fiction when first rate fiction, all published in the West, was accessible every day of his life.”
We can all find reasons to not read this book. For it’s neither a Saul Bellow nor John Grisham. For that matter it is not Salman Rushdie or Amitava Ghosh either. But that is precisely the reason why it needs to be read.
A peek into the world’s most public private space – the Mumbai local train, the novel gives the reader an experience of the “rocking homelessness” that Mumbai offers.
The narrator, Akash Bhasin, an advertising copywriter, leads a schizophrenic existence, as he spends his days coming up with smart lines to sell goods to neo cons, and by night lives in the local train shuttling incessantly between Churchgate and Virar. In his comings and goings we experience Mumbai in all its colours and odours.
Mumbai, the city of first world interiors and third world exteriors unfolds itself bit by bit. Akash’s observations, comments and experiences form the main narrative of the novel. This is interspersed with vignettes of many troubled lives. It would be difficult to forget the drunken Mr Shenoy who lives as a paying guest so that he can pay off the housing loan for a flat he has bought for the woman he loves, who in turn, he learns, is using it to ply the oldest trade in the world. The crumbling marriage of Akash and Rati, two friends plotting to seduce each other’s husbands to gain the upper hand in their married lives, the balding, pot bellied Subhash, who sincerely believes he is model-material – all become a part of the Mumbai experience. These people in the book are its biggest strength.
About 60 lakh people travel on Mumbai’s local trains every day. Which means there are that many stories yet to be told. Like Mumbai city, Local is flawed, the writing is uneven and the editing erratic, but in it you find Mumbai as you and I experience it.
Book Review by Sonali Krishna
The paradox of one's dual existence; straddling between two contrasting world is what Jaideep Varma's `Local' throws light upon. Varma, an advertising professional has attempted to give an perspective on the journey of 28-year-old Akash, a copywriter who straddles between two contrasting worlds; a multinational ad agency and his nighttime home, i.e the local train.The book is a narrative journey and has been approached in a very radical manner to bring out the dichotomy of an individual's professional and personal space.
Akash, (the protagonist) an advertising professional, working for a top notch agency, of this Mumbai-centric novel, decides to live his life in a state of complete homelessness renouncing himself to the Mumbai locals. So, while during the day he performs the role of an ambitious young advertising professional, who is dealing with the late entry into the profession; the nights transport him to an arena which make him realize the unmasked face of people of Mumbai, all vying for the basic essentials of life.
What has been interestingly brought out is the fact that the protagonist during the day concentrated on accentuating wants for people, aiding them to desire things they often do not need. On the other hand, the latter part of his day is spent sub-consciously transcending his own desires of life; tangible or the intangible.
Varma has also brought out the different stand-alone vignettes of the advertising world. Be it the agency culture, the pitch process, the readying of a campaign, the trials with clients, budgets, creative characters or the inside politics. So, overall the book offers a sneak peek at the world of advertising, which one knows very little about.
Some of the things that the book falls short of is that its rather slow paced, and not very tightly edited. Secondly, although Varma writes passionately about the aspirations of people in the advertising fraternity, the real meat of the book really emerges at the fag end of the book. Also, the connections that Varma was trying to sew between the two worlds at some parts do not seem to make a smooth transition.
But overall, the `Local' is definitely a novel concept of dealing with a number of issues. It definitely is an interesting and entertaining read for the advertising fraternity.
Hard to catch
Local by Jaideep Varma.
Indialog. Rs. 250. Pages 357
Review by Harbans Singh
FOR those interested in English writings of Indian authors, Jaideep Varma’s maiden novel, Local, is a welcome addition. It reflects the new and confident face that modern India has acquired in recent years and, therefore, it need not be judged by the need to encourage English writing in India.
The novel is rather a dispassionate account of the life in Mumbai, the local train and an ad agency. The characters and situations have been countenanced in the same impersonal manner as the life is lived there and yet they stir the heart and provoke the mind.
This happens when Sabina discovers her spurned and probably diminished self, when Neha makes a desperate but vain attempt to get even with her husband or when Subhash is baffled by the improbable reality that according to his count his son has been in the womb for 10 months.
Through the character of Akash Bhasin, we witness these characters fighting their own demons and, in this unequal battle, often succumbing to the pressure. There are people who are scared of the impending burnout and then there are those who find meaning in life by reliving glory that is irrelevant to present.
Once in a while the fragility of the characters surfaces without warning, as when the protagonist breaks down on his inability to reach out to the real or imaginary presence of Rati on the adjoining platform, or when Akash teams up with Subhash to reunite a mother with her young children.
The characters that fill the pages are as varied as the people boarding and getting off the local train, and, just as one comes to know them only in transience so are the people with whom Akash works. This aspect of the novel is both its strength and weakness.
There are too many of them and though we do not come to know them intimately, they do leave an impression on the reader. But then, perhaps, this is what actually happens in the urban life as well as in a local train, where everything is seen, but in passing. Like the Doppler effect, just as one is left contemplating the state of mind of Sabina, one finds that Bibek has already left to find out where the deleted e-mails go.
Though the novel is fairly fast paced and brings out the metropolitan character, a shorter version could have been more effective. From the loneliness, stress of marital adjustments, cutthroat competition and jealousies of the professionals, old, unwanted people to the alienated and Subhashs of this world, everything is there. Many evoke sympathy and, at times, one feels as if by some quirk of fate, one has landed on a platform from where all one can do is watch the train speed away from the other platform.
The end comes abruptly and looks out of tune with the hitherto dispassionate character of Akash; and the acknowledgements are as long the acceptance speeches at the Oscars before an upper limit was placed on these.
Saturday, August 20, 2005
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves,
And we travel, next, to find ourselves”
With this quote from Pico Iyer’s Why We Tavel, Local, Jaideep Varma’s first novel, embarks on an unusual sojourn, which springs out of the most mundane tasks of human existence – a ride in the local train. But the banal ends here, as the train is not a means to reach home, it is actually where home is.
Akash Bhasin, the novel’s protagonist is a copywriter, who works in a multinational ad agency in Mumbai. He decides to live in the local train, where he goes “home” to sleep every night. This is a voluntary exercise, induced by a will to “…surrender completely to the rocking homelessness…”. His strange detachment from his work, his broken marriage, his love of music, and the mad rush of the agency life make up the fragments of his suburban life.
A spellbinding story of an incredible lifestyle.
Friday, August 19, 2005
No link available.
A book review by Vahishta Mistry
Local is Jaideep Varma’s story of Akash Bhasin, divorcee, struggling advertising copywriter, urban adventurer. To add to his litany of woes (or to get away from it all) Akash decides to stop renting a house and start living on the train. Yes, the suburban Western Line train. He still has his day job, but he just gets on a train in the evening and rides the rails till next morning.
The book is a journey too, in some sense. The main narrative is punctuated by a series of short stories that flesh it out and add depth to each of the characters. Almost every single major character (and some minor ones) are given their own two-to- three-page short story – most of which have a twist (or at least a squirm) at the end.
Varma’s style needs polishing. It doesn’t grate on the nerves – it is in fact, quite a pleasant read – but you’re occasionally jolted out of rhythm by a dissonant word or phrase that sticks out at an odd angle, as though it has been worked into the paragraph at an odd angle, to make things more “literary”.
Apart from that, the book is quite entertaining. It’s not high literature and does not aspire to be. The little anecdotes and incidents tied in with the ad world that are interspersed through the book will definitely make you chuckle, especially you’re an ad student or know how an ad agency works.
Bottomline: If you like Indian authors who write in English, you might want to give Jaideep Varma’s debut effort a try.
Monday, August 15, 2005
1. Why did you feel the need to write a novel? What did you hope it would say?
It always surprised and dismayed me that our contemporary voice has never been adequately expressed through Indian Writing in English (IWE). English, August had excited me in the late-eighties, and a non-fiction 3-page prose piece by Vijay Nambisan in Debonair 1989. Vertigo – Ashok Banker and Ravan & Eddie to some extent. Not much else. All the meaningful writing within the Indian context for me seemed to come from NRIs (Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth etc) and somehow despite their obviously superior craft and well-tuned sensibility, their work never seemed to capture this time and space the way I experienced it. After I came to Mumbai in 1990, I found it astonishing that this city, with all its diverse and magnificent colours, found very little expression in our writing and films (and music, for that matter).
I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the way this dissatisfaction led me to this idea and the book. It was an attempt to capture the lived-in experience of Mumbai, without resorting to exotica, romanticism or nostalgia, and without high drama or underbelly depictions – just plain everyday people whom we run into every single day.
I wanted to write something that I would find entertaining and absorbing, and in a sense, fill that space (as per my perceptions). That it would very likely strike a chord in others around me was a distant hope, but never the guiding reason to do this book.
I suppose I wanted to write a book that was not pulp, or highbrow, just something that spoke in a recognizable way (to Indians, whom this book is very obviously for) about how it is to be alive in this time and space.
Also, I’ve always been more interested in ideas and stories rather than pure writing. So, the medium is always flexible for me. Here, what made me decide to attempt this as a novel is the format that I stumbled upon – of short stories punctuating the main narrative. It was exciting because it allowed me to expand the canvas enormously and also gave me the opportunity to experiment within a certain space (that particular short story). When I finally realized the format was working, it made the whole thing worthwhile for me. So, it has kind of surprised me that not too many reviewers have paid attention to that, not enough to specifically mention it.
2. Where did the idea of someone living on a train come from?
I used to travel by train in the early to mid-nineties to my workplace (first Churchgate, then VT from Andheri). If I got a place to sit (which is very possible, if you plan things right by observing train timings, going early, etc), I found those 45 minutes (twice- going and coming), to be my most restful time of the day, of the week. Maybe it was the rocking motion, or just a strange energy in the train, but it relaxed me, melted away all the stress. At some point, it began to intrigue me and I began to play with the idea for a story (I was trying to write short stories those days) about a man who seeks this feeling all the time on the train to such an extent that he decides to live there for it. Eventually, the possibilities seemed too large for a short story, hence a novel.
3. There is more cynicism than hope in Local. Would you agree? If you do, was that a conscious attempt?
I think it’s more real than cynical. Unless you’re referring to how the ad industry is depicted, but that, you must keep in mind is from Akash’s point-of-view. He is going through something specific at that particular moment of his life, and this is how he sees the world at this point. There is a lot of humour (hopefully, it’s not just me who thinks so!) and all that hopefully makes it an amused view, rather than a bitter, cynical view.
The end of the book, I think, is quite hopeful rather than cynical. No, there was no conscious attempt towards anything. I let Akash find his voice, keeping in mind that he was an advertising copywriter and not a university professor. The story found its own trajectory, which at times surprised me.
4. What have initial reactions to Local been like? Has anyone from the advertising fraternity reacted in any manner?
The book is getting into its second print run after just 4 months, despite practically no coverage in the national media. It has done well wherever people have got to know through reviews in the local press – Chandigarh, Delhi (very little coverage as yet), Bangalore and of course Mumbai, so far. Mumbai, it’s also moved on positive word-of-mouth, which is gratifying. I have no delusions about the fact that that is more because of the subject than the quality of the book per se, at this point anyway. Which further proves what I’ve been saying about readers looking to read more contemporary stories.
Equally gratifying is the fact that not a single review thus far has been completely negative. All of them (even a highly dishonest review by Ashok Banker in HT Delhi) ultimately recommended the book in varying degrees, so I guess I cannot complain.
Friends in the ad community have been very positive but haven’t had a lot of other feedback from there. I suspect people who are gung-ho about being in the ad business will dislike the book.
5. You have said, in an earlier interview, that "most major newspapers and magazines in India give themselves a mandate to review mainly international fiction, which includes diaspora fiction." Do you believe that?
I wouldn’t have said it so plainly if I didn’t. It’s not just my last 4-5 months that have convinced me about this, but the way I have seen Indian-published writer/ translator friends being treated by the media, especially the bigger national media. It’s amazing how they are racist with their country’s own voice. If our own media is not going to give us reviews (even uncomplimentary ones) because they see us as losers since we couldn’t get published abroad, who else will? Aren’t they depriving the general public from the right to information? Ignored thus, it’s a struggle to get bookstores to stock it or display it well and worse, readers to ask for it. Writing is hard as it is – fighting these odds is much harder.
6. What about this comment: "We have no creative confidence as a nation. It' s so apparent in our cinema and television – it's embarrassing." Where does that spring from? What examples would you give?
You can see the examples with the naked eye. Which are the 3 TV shows our networks take great pride in, in the last 5 years? KBC, Jassi, Indian Idol? They take great pride in announcing the ingenious ways in which they have adapted the shows from abroad. The thought that maybe the real credit is in exporting ideas rather than importing them doesn’t really strike them. The DVD culture in Bollywood (a very apt term actually, at least for the Hindi cinema of today, whatever anyone may say) is well-documented. The remix fad is now a way of life in the pop music industry – you figure out if it suggests confidence of any kind. And the focus on exotica even in Indian-published books and the preference for internationally-published fiction, even if the writer is India – that tells you how little confidence Indians have in the worth of their ideas and voices. It’s not just commercialization that is responsible for this. It’s our mindset and it’s pathetic.
In fact, because fiction, cinema and popular music do not feed off each other in India, they are neatly slotted as far as audience expectations are concerned. Maybe that explains why Indian fiction only has pulp and “literary” as its only viable genres. I cannot understand why fiction cannot be entertaining like a good film, resonant as a good popular song AND yet substantial as non-pulp fiction is expected to be. It is in the culturally-developed world, why not here?
7. Why is Mumbai suddenly a star? What would you say differentiates it from any other Indian metro?
It’s hardly a star. Maximum City and Shantaram and now Vikram Chandra’s forthcoming novel have kept it in the literary news lately (and if they were all merely Indian-published books, they wouldn’t get an iota of that attention). Given what a remarkably diverse city it is, it hasn’t got an iota of literature it should ordinarily have inspired by now.
See the literature that other great cities in the world have inspired and continue to, year after year. If Mumbai was a star, other books out of or on Mumbai would get much more attention. They don’t.
Mumbai is different from all other cities in India because of what the pace of life does to its people (this pace is mostly the result of the commutes most Mumbai inhabitants cannot avoid). People learn to conserve their energy, and that is why people are less nosy and streets relatively safer than other cities in India. There is a strange focus in people here, even if it is on their commute, which makes them different from people anywhere else.
8. What now? Does writing some more feature in your future plans?
Telling stories is the single-point agenda of my life. If I cannot make a living from writing fiction, I’ll pursue other media. I guess, if it takes me time to earn a living from it, I’ll have to do things to keep myself financially afloat.
In 2004, I was 18 days away from the first day of shoot of a feature film that I was directing. I want to resurrect that with the same team I had built up in my 7 months of pre-production. But this time I will try to get a producer who is not a barefaced liar. It’s a big city, there must be a few of those.
1. How and when did the idea for the book come about? The basic idea of Local - living aboard a local train - was a first for fiction, in some ways. Were you ever conscious of this while writing?
In the early-mid 1990s, I used to travel by train to my workplace and if I got a place to sit, I noticed how strangely relaxed I felt during the commute. Stress and tightness melted away and those seated commutes were the most relaxed moments I had in the whole week. Maybe it was the rocking motion or the energy of the people in the train, I don’t know exactly what. It struck me as curious and I began mulling with the idea of a man who actually deliberately seeks this peace by living on the train. That was the starting point for the book.
No, I never saw the idea of a man living on the train as something unique; to me that was just the premise of the book. The real story starts from there.
In fact, I think the unique thing about the book is the format, which fuses the novel and short story forms. The idea of these standalone short pieces punctuating the main narrative, but utterly connected to it, excited me immensely when I thought of it first. This seemed more of an unchartered territory for me, in form, because while it replicated a train journey with station halts on one level, it also expanded the canvas for the book and contributed innovatively to character development on the other. It also gave me the space to experiment within a particular short story.
Also, the everydayness of the characters in the book, while avoiding any romanticizing of the train-life or any exotica, struck me as a challenge. This “real” quality of the book was more important than the basic premise for me. That was just the take-off point.
2. Did you always envision the book with so many characters? Or did they come to you during the process of writing?
I wanted the experience of the reader to be as real as the experience of a man traveling on the train and working in a big office. He would obviously run into many different kinds of people but would really know very few of them closely. That is exactly what happens in the book. Again, the format of the book helped immensely in compacting this sprawling narrative, and make it more focused as the main journey is through the main protagonist Akash’s eyes.
Some characters I thought of before I started writing, but quite a few new ones made their way in as the narrative developed.
3. How did the title come about? Were there other working titles?
The working title was "No Sign Of Home". But Local just seemed more apt, with its multiple meanings. Not just the local train, but also local as in home. Since the story is of a man voluntarily homeless, it just fit perfectly. In fact, there are other little plays on it too – local anesthesia, for example.
4. What has the response been like so far?
The book is getting into its second print run after just 4 months, despite practically no coverage in the national media. Mumbai, it’s moved primarily on positive word-of-mouth, which is gratifying. I honestly suspect that is more because of the subject than the quality of the book per se, at this point anyway. Which further proves the point that readers want more contemporary stories to read, not the exotic, romanticized “literary” titles our indigenous publishers keep churning out. And I cannot complain about the reviews too, whatever has come. All of them have recommended the book in varying degrees. So, I guess the response is good.
5. Did your music writing from Gentleman days come back to you when you wrote the music bits of Local?
Actually, the writing on music here is very different from what it was in my songwriter series in Gentleman. There, the focus was on the music and the artist. In Local, it is about what the music does to Akash (the protagonist). Music is actually used as a barometer to convey how Akash changes as a person through the book. Akash’s changing relationship with the music is the only obvious way to see how Akash is changing. But yes, I also did use a couple of different takes on the music (like Dylan’s tunes being more significant than his lyrics) that I’d expressed in the Gentleman pieces.
6. What’s your next project? We’ve heard you’re working on a film?
In fact, I was making a small-budget feature film in 2004 (with actors like Pankaj Kapur, Konkona Sen Sharma and Sushant Singh; music was by Indian Ocean). We were in pre-production for seven months, but exactly 18 days before the first day of shoot, the producer pulled the plug as his finances were not all-clear. It was a huge blow, and I was severely depressed for a while. The strange thing was that my book came through at exactly that time and working on its final draft with the publisher actually helped me recover. Now that the book is out of the way, I need to revive the film with my team. This time I will have to take care to find a producer who is not a barefaced liar. Mumbai is a big city – there must be a few of those. (unlike Rediff, FC actually printed the last bit! One cheap thrill accomplished.)
This is an interview that was slated to appear on a cutting-edge new literary website, but as it’s been hanging fire, I’ve taken permission from them to put some excerpts from it up on this blog. Will give a link to the full interview whenever it appears. This is the only interview where the questions were more to do with the book than anything else, which was both - a surprise and a relief.
INTERVIEWER (N. Ravi Iyer): Shantaram and Maximum City are being considered the quintessential Mumbai books. Where do you see Local amidst them?
JV (me): They’re both outstanding books but they’re very different from Local. For one, I think Local is looking inside-out rather than outside-in. Shantaram is clearly an outsider’s point-of-view of Mumbai. Maximum City is non-fiction, so its thrust is very different anyway, but that too has an objective view, which cannot be an insider’s vision. Also, they’re written differently. Local is more contemporary, more rock and roll in its tone. Most importantly, it is from the point-of-view of life lived in Mumbai.
I: Thematically, they’re very different too.
JV: Shantaram and Maximum City are underbelly books. Local is the opposite in many ways. It actually strains to not go in that direction.
I: Maybe even to a fault. Yes, Local is literally an anti-drama book, whereas in Shantaram incredible events are occurring every few pages.
JV: Akash, the main character in Local, is trying to eschew any kind of involvement with life. That’s not the stuff drama is made of.
I: And of course, Local is also about the globalised corporate world in a sense, the advertising agency world, to be precise. And its collision with the starkness of real life that Akash lives on the train. This collision is, in essence, the real story of the book. Given that, why did you complicate things further with the format of inserting narrative departures? (a reference to the format of short stories punctuating the main narrative)
JV: I don’t see it as a complication, but as a device to bring out the milieu and its people in a more complete manner. It helps the main narrative too, as it is an innovative way to achieve characterization.
I: Yes, it is innovative and often compelling, no doubt, but it can also be argued that it breaks the flow of the book.
JV: That’s a trade-off. It does break the flow, I agree, but what it adds to the book, by way of illumination of characters, is hopefully far greater. It’s not really complicated reading at all, is it?
I: Not complicated, but it can be a little disconcerting sometimes.
JV: In which case, you can simply skip the short stories and come back to it later, after you’ve finished the novel (main narrative), or you can read the stories first and the novel later. It will give you a slightly altered view of the book, but a complete one nevertheless. They are very valid alternative ways of reading the book. In any case, cumulatively the short stories are less than one-third of the book.
I: How did you write the book? As it appears finally?
JV: No, I wrote the novel in one go and the short stories separately. And then matched them. Though, the novel often found its momentum and direction based on which story was coming up next, so they did influence each other significantly.
I: But you didn’t write it in the order you want it to be read?
I: Local is quite a sprawling book, in many ways, lots of concerns, many characters. And yet, there is a unifying theme to it, a relentless wit and a peculiarly personal narrative thrust that makes it a page-turner. Did you consciously set out to write it in a particular way? Did you have a style-map in front of you?
JV: I don’t know what a style map is, but no, I had no particular style in mind. Since it was a first person book, I wanted to have a certain tenor to Akash’s voice, which I allowed to set on its own. But yes, I did want the short stories to have a different tone, and I worked at that. There were little things – for example, I was not obsessed with getting it “right” in Akash’s narrative. Imperfections like occasional use of passive voice, usage of clichés sometimes and repetitions of thoughts are deliberately there in Akash’s sections to allow his one-on-one voice to seem more natural, more human. Also, his voice had to sound as pat and smart as someone in advertising, he couldn't sound like a university professor! Hopefully, there is none of that in the short stories, where the writing is more invisible, in a sense. But see, none of this was studied – whatever imperfections came out in the natural course of things, I kept, if it was not impeding the flow.
I: The editing process at the publisher’s end couldn’t have been very smooth.
JV: Actually, it was. Thanks mainly to Sampath, my chief editor, who had instinctively tuned in to what I was trying to do, without too many discussions. We had disagreements at times, but very minor ones. Overall, it went very smoothly.
I: Then you won’t mind a cliché from my side. How autobiographical is Local?
JV: The spirit of it is, but I suppose that is the case with most books. Not so with most of the events.
I: Given that you were in the advertising business and traveled by local trains…
JV: See, the main reason to set it in the ad world is not that I had been in it but that it was a direct contradiction to his train life of non-attachment. And the way Akash deals with his train life, is certainly nothing like what I have experienced. He literally achieves the status of an observer, in a sense, which is very consciously done. It takes a certain temperament to manage it. I don’t think I have that temperament, though I wish I did.
I: Are you satisfied with the response to the book?
JV: I’m grateful for the response from readers – the occasional feedback I get off and on, and the fact that the book is going into a reprint mainly on the basis of word-of-mouth. I’ve got a few reviews, but nothing with national coverage. It’s dismaying because the odds are enormous against a first-time writer anyway. On top of that, publications don’t just want you to dance and sing, but to lie prostrate in front of them and beg for coverage. Shit, even the big bookshop chains behave like that. This annoys me greatly because it is staggering to see the complete absence of benefit of doubt given to writers not published abroad. It is a matter of record that most major newspapers and magazines in India give themselves a mandate to review mainly international fiction, which includes diaspora fiction. On the other hand, books on Mangal Pandey and General Dyer (just a recent example) are given considerable space in major publications but contemporary Indian-published fiction gets no space. I’m not saying for a second there’s anything wrong with reviewing historical non-fiction but at the blatant cost of original contemporary fiction – that seems very bizarre to me, simply because the latter will always have more takers. There is space for all kinds of writing to co-exist in India, but all kinds of writing are not given equal opportunities to exist.
I: What do you think the reason is for that?
JV: We have no creative confidence as a nation. It’s so apparent in our cinema and television – it’s embarrassing. And our publishing scene has a huge, massive, colonial hangover. To them, a book published in India is clearly inferior because it could not get published internationally. Why waste time on these losers, is their attitude. You even recently had a well-known reviewer make a remark that she has to “lower the bar” when she reviews Indian writing vis-à-vis international writing. Besides being tasteless and arrogant, this is just so ignorant. Does she do the same when she watches Indian films (non-Bollywood) or listens to Indian music? Ultimately, if writing is about stories and characters and ideas, how stupid do you have to be to “lower the bar”?
I: The lack of attention given to Indian language translations is also shocking.
JV: Absolutely. People who will rave about Orhan Pamuk, Murakami, Chekhov and Marquez will not even think of reading Premchand or Ambai or Ashokamitran or Mahashweta Devi or…
I: Unless one of them wins the Nobel.
There is also an interview with me here by the Tribune reviewer. Some misquotes here, especially when I speak on Indian publishing, so that was somewhat irritating.
In any case...
...the chances of being misquoted, or misunderstood, by the media are much more than even every single time. I have understood that.