Books, me and weird interview guy

by sidin in

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Ahem. Hello there. Welcome back.

As you may be aware this blog was away for three months doing authorly things like launching, reading, interviewing, posing for pictures, reading good reviews, reading bad reviews, crying ourselves to sleep and so on. And amidst all the celebrity-ing, Pranab Mukherjee presented a Union Budget. The union budget is pretty much the highlight of the annual calendar for the business journalism business. (Whatay play on words.) Which means the Union Budget is one of those "do anything as long as you are doing something" periods in the office. And boy did we do things. Many, many things.

Of course today no one remembers anything Minister Mukherjee said or announced during the budget.

(When I say no one, I am NOT referring to professional and hobbyist economists. Those guys are still going at it with shouts of "Good golly there is fiscal widening happening here!" or perhaps "I am perturbed by the supply-side inflationary tendencies of the moneterary policy implications of this policy shift...".

Economists. Oh yeah. Those guys are fun.)

But for the rest of us the Union Budget was the Rashomon to the Rail Budget's Wrestlemania XII.

FYI: That's the one in which Shawn Micheals beat Bret Hart in the first ever WWF Iron Man Match.

Pranab Mukherjee, Indian politician, current F...

Mukherjee needs to do something about the public recall of the budget. How can he get people to talk about his budget for years and years after he presents it? How can he get coverage on every channel from CNBC to Dwarka Entertainment Network?

Exactly. Get Shashi Tharoor to live tweet the budget. Preferebly a day in advance.

So now that all such matters are behind us and in the past, I can perhaps share some of the more memorable moments from the last many months of hawking Dork to all and sundry.

First of all there was the wonderful experience of seeing Dork at the Full Circle Bookstore during the Jaipur Literary Festival. Which is where we cracked open the first ever cardboard box full of copies fresh from the press. In complete, reseplendent, uber-literary lemon-rice-yellow glory. Aayush Soni and Samit Basu were amongst the first buyers to ever pay for the book and indirectly earn me Rs.15.92 per copy. (Yes. Name-dropping.)

Next morning:

Sidin: "Aayush Aayush Aayush, have you read it, have you read it, have you read it, did you like it, did you like it, did you like it..." Aayush: "I started reading it. And then I fell asleep."

My lips said "That's ok, Jaipur can be pretty exhausting Aayush. Tell me when you finish."

But my mind said "Sidin stealthily approach one of those Festival khullar chai-wallahs. Steal his huge bronze tea drum. Then batter Aayush to death with drum. Write literary book about experience and block calendar for Jaipur 2011 invitation. Working Title: A Humpty Drum Tea Murder."

Thankfully the response I got from the venerable Samit Basu was drastically different.

Sidin: "Samit Samit Samit, have you read it, have you read it, have you read it, did you like it, did you like it, did you like it..." Samit: "I started reading it. And then I fell asleep."

As you can see, the initial market response for the book was less than stupendous.

But things went up from there. We were 13,000 copies down some three weeks ago. And Dork continues to sell.

That was not the only Dork-highlight involving the Mulleted Basu.

The Mumbai launch had Samit and Gul Panag launching Dork, and me trying to gurgle up complete, gibberish-free sentences while talking to Gul Panag. During the un-gift-wrapping of the book, Samit ceremoniously pulled on the pink ribbon, and then let the book fall to the floor. There was an audible gasp from the crowd... who saw the book fall and then collectively internalized the spectacular dress Gul was wearing.

But then things went well after that and the Mumbai launch, much like the Delhi launch with Jai Arjun Singh, comprised laughter, banter and reasonable sales. The flightless ones are pleased. And so am I.

Book launch season also means many interviews and some photo shoots.

I will be honest with you here. After a point, there is a tendency to lapse into auto-pilot during interviews. Mind you, it's not that interviewers don't try. It's just after a point, it is well nigh impossible to be asked an un-asked question. So there is an element of going through the motions.

Except, that is, when the interview stands apart. For bizarre reasons.

Like the guy who was paranoid that I would eat something expensive at the restaurant we met in, and make him pay the bill. When I ordered the Chicken Kathi Roll and Diet Coke, the blood drained from his face:

Sidin: " no, I dont think of any of the characters have been directly inspired from..." Dude: "Excuse me..." Sidin: "Eh? Yes." Dude: "I would like to tell you that I am not carrying any money in my wallet." Sidin: "Ok... Umm... Ok... No problem..."

And then moments after I completed the food and asked for the bill with not a hint of hesitation:

Sidin: " many inspirations. Books, movies, TV shows. Especially a lot of British..." Dude: "Thank you so much for your time. I will go now." Sidin: "..." Dude: *poof*

I don't need to tell you that only the worst possible pictures from photo shoots finally make it to print. Or that around a quarter of my interviewers made desperate attempts to get me to bitch about Chetan Bhagat.

The Hawker P.

But then now, when I am thoroughly over the emotional roller-coaster of launches and reviews and interviews, I sit back and wonder. About the questions I've never been asked yet. Including those about books. And me. And the Harrier Jump Jet capable of V/STOL.

(I might cover ground I've blogged about before. Or not. I don't remember any more. Afteryouth.)

For instance when did I really begin to read? As in read even when it wasn't mandated by the CBSE or ambitious "At least read the newspaper for ten minutes, instead of watching Different Strokes on TV no?!" parents.

It all began sometime around 1985. I remember the incident clearly, if not the date, because there was a fire. A tiny little fire, confined to one corner of one room of one apartment. But a fire nonetheless. One that needed fire fighting. How exciting for a six year old no?

The fire broke out in the mostly empty flat next door, occupied by a Malayali family a day or so away from abandoning Abu Dhabi and moving back to India. (In the 80s. Who left the Gulf in the 80s?? Maybe only them.) They'd already started emptying the flat, room by room, and shifting everything into a cargo container. All that remained was one room which had some old clothes, old toys, kitchen utensils and such things that had no functional utility, would be a waste to ship, but were of borderline sentimental value.

And books. A closet in a corner had a man-sized stack of books. Most of them were damaged with covers missing and broken bindings. Others were useless ones like out-of-syllabus textbooks, and orphan volumes of old encyclopedias.

The fire had already begun to leap at the stack of books when mom and I started a bucket chain relaying water to fight it. (The brain works in such weird ways. I recall orange and red buckets, and mom running out of our front door, around the stair well and into the neighbour's house. In her petticoat/nightie.)

As reward for my valiant fire-fighting, and in order to save on shipping costs, I was allowed to keep a few books from the stack. Mom, ever proud and independent, allowed me to pick up only one. I took the cover-less, slightly browned single-volume encyclopedia with the big colourful pictures in it.

For many years after the book had a strong smell of char and smoke. And then it began to pick up smells from my own cupboard: old blankets, pencil shavings and fountain pen ink. Finally it made up its mind and decided to smell comfortingly of home.


At first I liked only the pictures in it. Then I began reading the captions. Statue from Mohenjo-Daro. Man building a roof. Spectrum of colours. Isaac Newton. How a nuclear reactor works: in three steps.

And then, slowly, I began to read the paragraphs.

Soon it got obsessive. I'd lie belly down on the floor and read it always. Mom, and to a lesser extent dad, were staunch believers in the fact that 100% school attendance, well eaten meals and plenty of sleep in the afternoon were essential for growing children. (And indeed much physical widening happened in the years hence.)

So I would secretly slip the book under the bed, and when everyone else fell asleep, I'd roll over to the edge, pull the book out and read it. Sometimes with one slyly open eye.

Thus it began. With non-fiction mostly.

We never had too much money for years, and I normally got my books as a post-examination reward:

More than 5 A+ grades = Hundred dirhams for books and Atari cartridge. 3 to 5 A+ grades = Atari cartridge. Less than 3 A+ grades = Name removal from ration card, visa cancellation, legal separation from family and "go and become a coconut tree climber or something..."

I got a lot of A+ grades. The first time I won a 100 dhirhams Vadukut gift voucher, I spent it all on one of those "Monster Book Of How Things Work" type publications. (It was the book Dad liked best from my shortlist.)

This was a stupendous achievement in publishing. Spectacular pictures, copious data, tremendously fun narration. It was here that I first read about:

1. Ayer's Rock 2. D-Day and Normandy landings and therefore, 3. The Second World War 4. The Harrier Jump Jet with vertical/short take-off and landing.

The book had a wonderful hand-painted map of the beaches at Normany with hundreds of little markers and flags. And then there were comparative illustrations of American and German soldiers. Every few sections there'd be an illustrated three or four-page graphic story or biography. Gordon of Khartoum. Florence Nightingale. Famous mountaineering tragedies. Pele. And so on.

D-Day: The Normandy Invasion

That book kick-started a life long passion for World War II. At least 25% of all the books I have bought have something to do with the war. (And history in general.) Indeed it wasn't till years later, maybe when it came up in school, that I began wondering about the first world war. (Between you and me, I'm working on a ambitious-ish World War II book idea. Proposal due early 2012. Fingers crossed. And of course I need to do that PhD in history.)

Forays into fiction are owed to a pro-active school library, the inevitable Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew clubs and excellent children magazines published by local Abu Dhabi newspapers. And, perhaps most importantly, a trip to a discount supermarket once that ended in a big bag of cut price children's versions of classics: Moby Dick, The Last Of The Mohicans, Man In The Iron Mask etc.

It must have taken at least 5 years for me to work through that shopping trip. To this day I find it harder to cope with fiction. A stack of begged/borrowed/bought New Yorker magazines in a cupboard here in Dwarka. And not one page of fiction even touched.

Salaried employment, author discount, review copies and online bookstores now ensure that I don't need to get grades or top exams to get books. I can always buy them when I want to. Provided the missus lets me.

But of course you don't care for all this do you? Of course not. Or someone would ask me all this in an interview.


Have a good weekend. I have weeks of columns and a couple of longer pieces to complete. And yes, book reading trips to Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune.

And we are merely 800 words in to Dork 2. Manuscript due June.

Take care. Give kids books. (GiveIndia can help with that. Click below.)

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P.S. One of the Pastramis became a father in December. The mother is healthy. The child is very healthy and already shows a propensity for bond market trading.

Photo of Mumbai launch from Raven_b's superb Flickr stream. I am most grateful. See more here.