Oct 222012

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the sales of Ayn Rand’s work in India.
This was the headline: :
“Why Ayn Rand outsells Karl Marx in India by 16 to 1 (and what else she tells us about countries)”

Here’s more from the article:

Rand’s minor cult status in India has been noted before. According to one report, Indians searched Google for Ayn Rand more often than anyone else until 2007, when a Tea-Party obsessed America took over the top spot. It’s typically read as a reaction to the country’s stratified social hierarchy and heavy, lumbering government, anathema to the fiercely self-sufficient heroes of Rand’s novels. Indeed, one Indian libertarian, writing a few years ago—before the rise of the Tea Party—argued that she was even more respected in India than America because Indians actually live in the “collectivist, pseudo-statist, tradition-bound, mystic society” that she would have decried (unlike American Rand fans, who only think they do.)

The Google citation presumably is based upon this Economist article, which the article cites.

What does all of this tell us about India? May I humbly suggest that the answer is nothing.
After all, it’s a country where you can buy Mein Kampf and the anti-Semitic hoax Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but where you still can’t legally buy a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
The availability of certain books and the lack of availability of others may provide a hint about reading tastes of certain groups of people, but little else.
Are there Indian who worship at the fountainhead of individualism? Sure.
Are there those who want to set up a Maoist regime? Absolutely.

Of course, is it possible that the sales of Rand’s works means the growth of individualism in India, a country where even today notions of self-expression and privacy are practically nonexistent outside the major cities. The real story would be if Rand’s works outsold Marx and others in Hindi or any of the regional languages. English, after all, is confined to a tiny sliver of the nation of 1.2 billion people. What’s 100 million people — especially when they don’t vote.

Sep 042012

Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:

In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.

Jul 312012

At a gathering last week to mark the release of my book, Murder in Mumbai, there was one question I was asked more often than others: How did you get published?
It’s an odd sort of question because it can mean many things: What is the process of publishing? How does the publishing industry work? What steps do you take? Is it easy? But the answer I ended up giving was: “With a great deal of luck.”
I’d love to believe that my writing is so brilliant, my prose so sparkling, my insight so sharp that agents and publishers fought among themselves in order to sign me. But the David Foster Wallaces of this world are few, and I belong to a tribe whose adherents fall into one of three categories: those who want to write books, those who are writing books and those who have written books.
Of course, not all of them have been published. A former colleague of mine is one of the most incisive people I know, and I love his writing, but he’s had little luck in publishing his novels. That story extends to many others. So why me and why not them? I thought long and hard about this until I came across writer Michael Lewis’ commencement speech at Princeton this year.
Lewis, as he recounts in his book Liar’s Poker, was a student in London when he was serendipitously seated at dinner at Buckingham Palace next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers executive. That seating arrangement led to a job. That job led to more than one best-selling book, and hit movies, too. In his commencement speech, Lewis is clear about why he was successful:

“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

The luck to which Lewis attributes his success is hard to define. But it’s one of those things you recognize when you see: It’s the child who can run across the street despite oncoming traffic with the absolute certainty of making it to the other side. It’s the climber who stretches for an impossible-to-reach hold in the knowledge she’ll make it. It’s the confidence I possessed as a student in Bombay that I’d catch any train I chased.
Of course, there are times luck deserts us, too. The former English cricketer Ed Smith, who’s now an accomplished author and columnist (his new book is called Luck), spoke of the vicissitudes of his own career. A crucial umpiring decision ended his England career; an ankle twisted during a county game ended his cricketing career.

“It sounds like I just had an awful lot of bad luck. In actual fact, they were just the prompts that made me think about luck in a much broader sense. I realised that if you define luck as that which is beyond your control, which is implicit in the definition you used, I have been massively lucky in a much bigger sense too. For example, the luck of where I was educated, where I first learned how to play cricket. You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school. So I suppose I started thinking about luck in a much broader sense, in terms of the social luck of where you grow up and your genetic good fortune. We tend to gloss over genetic good fortune in sport because it’s all supposed to be about effort but I know from having been in a dressing room with all range of sportsmen that the luck of genes is a massive influence on sport.”

I honestly can’t argue with any of the things either Lewis or Smith say. I’m a product of my background. I grew up reading books. I make my living through journalism. I was fortunate to write a book set in an “exotic” foreign location at the same time my publisher was looking for something different. Of course, that I went from wanting to write a book to writing one helped, but many others have done that. As Lewis said in his commencement speech:

“Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

May 282012

i’m in the final stages of the editing process for my debut novella, murder in mumbai. it is surreal, awkward, even. the words are mine, i know, as is the story. but there’s a distance, an awkward distance. it feels a little like meeting a long-unseen close childhood friend. there is a shared past; happy memories. but something incredibly tentative.
let me explain.
i began writing the story one summer after it came to me during a walk with my wife in berkeley. and when i say the story came to me, i mean the rudimentary elements of a plot about a murdered american in bombay. nothing more.
i set myself a task of writing about a thousand words a day. and in these thousand words, the story took shape, characters were born (some discarded), plots conjured, twists contorted. i was shaping the plot every day, and on days i didn’t write, i thought of ways to propel it forward.
eventually, after months of exhilaration and frustration, i finished. or at least i thought i did. i eagerly sent out the manuscript to agents, and the man i signed with, josh getzler, had suggestions — plenty of them, and they were good ones. so the book that had gone from being my creation, tweaked with inputs from my wife, was now being reshaped by additional, and very important, suggestions from josh. not all the changes were easy.
remember, i was close to this story, and i saw it in a way that no one else could. but being an editor in my other life helped. i took a step back and brought out the hacksaw (i jest, but you get the picture).
once the book found a home, the editors at dutton had their own suggestions. back i went to the book, reading and rereading, shaping and reshaping. to be honest, by the end of it — though the story hews very closely to the one i wrote — i’d be lying if i said i could read “murder in mumbai” the way a reader would. in my opinion, this is my greatest challenge as a writer — being able to read my own work the way i would the works of others. i know every line. and each time i read it, i face the awkward questions: is this any good? can this be improved?
of course, as an editor i know everything can be improved — all the time; forever. but i also know it’s time to let go.
and how am i doing with that? it’s a work in progress.

Apr 202012

My book, Murder in Mumbai, is being published July 17 by the Penguin Group’s new digital imprint, Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries. You can pre-order it here 

Gateway of India
Mumbai, Chaotic, confusing and pulsating with life has fascinated writers. There is something about the city that, even those of us who love it, can never comprehend. In most books, the City of Mumbai – with its crowded alleys, its overflowing drains, its overworked public transport system its maddening traffic, its’ people who never stop to star – is as much a character as any of the protagonists. A city which despite all its warts still has heart of gold – but that heart is hidden away under layers and layers and layers.

While writing “Murder in Mumbai”, i tried to get some of the quirks of my city – especially the way it moves seamlessly from Bombay to Mumbai

Here are, in no particular order, some excellent books on the city:

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found — Author Suketu Mehta returns to the city of his birth in this brilliant work of narrative nonfiction. Mehta examines life in Bombay, its people, its businesses, its crime and its prolific film industry. But the chapter that left the biggest impression on me was the final one, about a Jain diamond merchant who renounces his material life and family in search of enlightenment.

Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie’s most-famous novel is one of my favorites. Much of it is set in the city he loved, one that perhaps sadly no longer exists, except in the realm of memory.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Mumbai Fables — A recent discovery, this book by Princeton professor Gyan Prakash is a historic telling of how a group of islands that were gifted by the Portuguese to the British as dowry eventually became India’s commercial powerhouse. It tells of Bombay under the British, the rise of the communists, of the Shiv Sena and the city today. It’s surprisingly one of the few historic accounts of Bombay’s growth.

Bombay, Meri Jaan — The title to this collection of essays — which translates to Bombay, My Love — says it all. With essays by Kipling (he was born in the city), V.S. Naipaul and, perhaps my favorite one in the collection, Duke Ellington.