Sriram’s literary curry

Sriram Karri, a widely known orator in Hyderabad and a literary figure whose first book, The Spiritual Supermarket (Mosaic Books) was nominated for the Vodafone Crossword Award in the Non-Fiction category. His second book, Autobiography of a Mad Nation (Fingerprint! Publishing), released recently, is shortlisted for the Asian Literary Prize (formerly known as Man Asian Literary Prize) in the Fiction category.

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An interview over e-mail with Sriram where he talks about his book, Autobiography… of course, his journey so far as an author and the characters that lived with him.

When did you think of this story?

Around September, 2007, after the launch of my first book, The Spiritual Supermarket, l felt a huge vacuum, and a sense of emptiness. Strangely, I felt I had a lot to say, but no writing agenda, and nothing to do. The bleakness of the life of our nation began to haunt more strongly. Lines from various passages to come in future were echoing in my dreams, characters were taunting me. I did write a few short stories but a large feeling overwhelmingly pointed at something else: don’t wait a minute, start the next book – a novel you have to write.

I did not write because I wanted to write as much as I had to write – to keep sane, to keep my brain from exploding, and my fingers were only too eager to type away till nirvana. So it started. The burden of keeping characters and ideas bundled for long ensured they erupted – and the first draft was over in less than two months.

I used parts from a previously completed but never published novel – One Good Shot. Scenes of the Kargil war toward the end of the book for instance as well as some parts of school scenes were taken from there but drastically molded for the current narrative’s purpose. Theatre and plays replaced debating as an identity for a central character. The device of the alternative diary excerpt and story in Book 1 of the novel was plucked from an even earlier novel – The Unread Diary.

The journey has been enriching, fruitful, overwhelming, frustrating, happy and sad, wonderful and irritating. The long hunt for agents, and then publishers, close hits and misses – before I found a wonderful agent, Tom Dark, who sadly expired before he could this published, and a dream editor, Pooja Dadwal, the kind of editor authors hope to get someday in life – so it was worth the wait. The book is out and people are buying and reading it in great numbers and loving it.

 Who was in your mind when you thought of  the character, Vaidya in Autobiography ..?

 I often fight and discuss with friends who love Oscar Wilde about The Picture of Dorian Gray being the right form of ‘first novel is also the autobiography of author’ idea. All three major characters are Oscar Wilde – Dorain, the beautiful looking man is what Wilde always thought of himself since his dandy fashion epicurean indulgences in Paris as a youth – Lord Henry was Wilde, the intellectual and wit – who never said a good thing or did a bad thing – while Basil is the artist that Wilde was but pretended did not actually exist. Each of the characters are in a sense autobiographical – one in reality, one intellectually and one in spirit and aspiration.

 In some sense, Vaidya is a level of desperation and passion to pursue a work of art and take a course of action in a cynical world – I wish I had the craziness to act like him and would not mind having his courage. Outwardly, he is the only character I had absolutely no real life context of – no one to think of while thinking about him.

 

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 Since how long have been living with these characters?

Some of them, maybe forever – or almost as long as that. Like the maternal uncle Kartik describes to Ravindra – some like Ayalur Bala – a decade, and some others, like Vaidya, happened a few days before I actually started writing. I guess I needed Vaidya and Vidyasagar to get started – they happened just before.

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  How did you research on the story? What is the inspiration or the triggering factor?

The assassination of Indira Gandhi is the first event I personally recall – which is why the parts of Emergency are handled from the perspective of someone who was too small to know about it during its actual occurrence. In that sense, we are the Children of Emergency – but we learnt about it from the Children of Midnight.

 Rakesh Sharma’s space trip, anti-Sikh riots, Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as premier and his assassination, international debut of Sachin Tendulkar, role of Advani and VP Singh in the Mandir-Mandal ordeal, (during our class 12th board exams year), PV Narasimha Rao and liberalization, Babri masjid demolition, Kargil war, and Godhra are the most powerful of events which impacted the Emergency’s Children and they paint themselves in the canvas.

These events we lived through, we saw, we experienced and we were changed as people after. There was no research needed afterwards – I could recall most of it.

 The trigger was the need to speak out; to yell out aloud – hey, you there, moron, citizen of a mad nation, do you know your own story – Listen then, I will tell you – but since you can neither whisper personally into a billion ear, nor give a shout out to the entire nation like Arnab – you set to write.

 The challenge was to balance the history and real events with needs of plot and deleting what was a great essay but did not belong to the novel. ‘Show, not tell’, the credo, is very challenging when you pass the test for every line in a book. I lost large parts on T N Seshan, P V Narasimha Rao, and my intellectual views on the past – and rightly – they are my views, not what the characters said. So sacrificing the loved narrative and writing – for the sake of story – was the hardest but essential part of being from the romantic school of writing.

For me, story is final test, the only religion; as a natural storyteller, my preference is for plot, structure, and a wow factor lies in the theme-plot integration – a story that lives to the question: if you had to choose between betraying your country or your friend – what would you do? A brilliantly told non-story is still a non-story. Dialogue and sense of drama are crucial to development of story – so you write a lot, delete most, and move on.

The beauty of great stories and characters is that they start dictating to the author and writing the next line themselves – and the author in that sense is a stenographer – perhaps that is the real meaning of Ganesha dictating to Ved Vyasa.

 

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What is your writing routine like?

 No routine. Just a mad crazy outburst for a few months to finish a novel from start to finish – then read or sleep for a few years till the next one happens.

 

Do you make notes while you are researching about your characters?

 During the thinking or building the bubble phase – no. Not physical notes, really – only mental notes. But once the writing start, a few tissue papers get inked furiously and thrown and then all over again.

Please can you tell about your first book?

 The Spiritual Supermarket is a political essay of sorts – a story of a supermarket where only four companies are allowed to sell their products – these are Religion, Politics, Violence and Reason. Their products, God, Nation, Oppression and Money for example, reign supreme. They have hidden subsidiaries, and clandestine joint ventures, and secret partnerships. It is like the story of human history as we would have known it if modern media had reported since the trial of Socrates – in 100 pages. It was long-listed for the Vodafone Crossword award and sells decently in its Kindle version.

  Do you think stories around Hyderabad and publishing as a writer from Hyderabad was tough?

 I would not know. As a person and in my writings, I am more universal – and not really located in any place. I am really from everywhere, including places I have never been to – and while getting published was tough – it was because of the nature of my writings rather than place.

 Were you at any time scared of publishing this story especially because of the Hindu Muslim angle? 

 There is no Hindu Muslim angle – I just tell the story as I know it. I seldom have felt fear on these aspects of life – always been a disaster tourist and seen my country when it goes mad. I will feel greater fear crossing the road in Hyderabad than in a moment of historic significance.

You are a great orator and also a wonderful writer, how do you balance both? 

I have been often accused of being a great orator, I suspect, because of my email handle – oratorgreat – rather than my actual talent or any such thing. I see both as medium to idea reach out – you think something, and then you either write it or speak it. I feel both have their appeal, both have their power, and limitations.

I have enjoyed both writing and oratory; writing is a more patient and lonely business; by and large, and oratory is right there in the spotlight and amidst people. The validation of ideas, and impact of your ability to persuade are instant in speaking. We need both – I sure do. And contrary to the cliché, people can be great at both.
How did you find the transition from writing a nonfiction to fiction?

The Spiritual Supermarket was strictly not a non-fiction – it was a genre-borderline thing. It was less a novel than less a non-fiction – hence it got slotted there; though some book stores did put it in the spiritual section as well. To me writing is writing and it is all about storytelling – if some story also happens to be true, it is called non-fiction. I do my bit of freelance journalism and corporate brand writing – so it is something I do – but nothing – neither oratory nor non-fiction is the reason I was born for – it has to be story telling. So the transition was to doing things other than fiction as part of more pragmatic career choices.

What are your future plans for your books?

 Writing three of them in parallel – waiting for the moment when one will consume me completely, enough to ignore all else and sprint.

 

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