Daily Archives: March 9, 2011

An Interview with Arjun Rao

I am excited to present to you my interview with Arjun Rao author of Third Best. I had reviewed the book earlier. You can find the review here

And here is the interview:

Why do parents have such tall expectations from their kids? Will this ever change considering how skewed our education system really is?

I don’t really think that parents have tall expectations. I believe that parents just want their kids to do well, find themselves a career, have kids, that sort of thing. Kids whose parents allowed them all that freedom to do whatever they wanted always wish that their parents had actually interefered in their lives, offered advice when they needed it, instead of allowing them to bungle their ways through life! So, in some ways, I guess the grass is always greener and all that. Besides, all parents do want their kids to live better lives than they did. Why else would they save money for them, send them to good (sometimes unaffordable schools and colleges)and then help them try to get jobs?

Now, finding parents who have realisitic expectations of their children – very, very rare. I really don’t think any parent will ever say: “My child is mediocre and I’m happy with that.” They will hold the school accountable, they will send the child to extra tuition classes everyday, force them to join sports coaching camps and then become very upset when their kids want to have nothing to do with them in the future.

You know, skewed isn’t really the right word. Education and society are important reflections of each other. They influence each other in a very big way. But, like everything else, they have to constantly evolve. A society, an educational system, a school that does not evolve, constantly embracing change, is going to become extinct.

Is your book really a coming-of-age novel? If not, then does it fit into any genre so to say?  

Well, it is coming-of-age in that the kids grow up, go through these major events in their lives and emerge, older, wiser and not entirely unscathed. That said, I’m not really sure that Third Best does fit into any genre. Sure, the people who will instantly form a bond will be kids who are the same ages as the kids in the book but this is no children’s book even though it is about children. I’m not entirely sure how that happened and I didn’t start writing thinking that I’m going to create something that no one will be able to classify! But on some level I like that people are finding it tough to categorize (mean laugh).

How strong is the element of Moral Compass played out in the book, with reference to the dilemma that Nirvan is in when it comes to spilling the beans?
For most males, growing up in an environment like Shore Mount (even though there are girls around), means to live life with a silent code (it’s silent in that no one talks about it but it’s the same everywhere!). And not “telling” (to use the same phrase as in Third Best) is a very important part of this. Most boys who’ve been to boarding school would have even taken punishments that were intended for others – seniors or classmates, it’s something that is just done. So when Nirvan, who has heard about Shore Mount all his life, is faced with the same situation, there’s no way that he’s going to give anybody up!

Do the kids feel bad doing some of the things that they do do? I’m not so sure. You see, systems in boarding schools were, for the longest time, archaic. Adults, in their efforts to instil a sense of responsibility in older boys, appointed them prefects or monitors, placing them in charge of the juniors, making it very clear that if the juniors muck about, the prefects will be held responsible. And so, when a seventeen year-old is faced with the need to discipline a thirteen year-old, what else will he do but instil fear in the younger fellow so that he doesn’t get in trouble again? And that fear is almost always instilled through violence. It must be the adults who must stand up and remember that it is them who are running the school and not the senior boys, just like Gomez does after a point.

Your favourite writers while you were growing up…
Oh no. This is really going to be embarrassing. Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Jeffrey Archer, (oh what the hell!) and Enid Blyton and Ved Vyas (yes, I do mean the Mahabharata).

Your favourite writers, now that you have grown up…Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, George RR Martin, Terry Goodkind, Neil Gaiman.

Arjun as a teenager…Obnoxious, loud, in need of a hair style, never lonely, loved school, couldn’t figure out why girls weren’t instantly charmed by him.

Arjun as a writer…

I need to be left alone. I could be anywhere (I wrote most of Third Best in Delhi) but I need to be alone. I plot stories just before I sleep. It’s very scary but I’ve actually dreamt some sequences that are in the book (and I don’t mean the sex!). My characters often surprise me – they end up doing things that I did not intend when I first started out. Predictably, Gautam is the character that does that the most.

Arjun the teacher…

I’d like to think that I’m kind and I’m proud of what I do. I chose to teach and (even though there are some days when I miss life in the metropolis or watching the newest movies or feel like I’m stuck in a rut) I still really enjoy myself.

Do you think teachers today are able to influence their students’ choices and thought process? Did they ever? Are you a disciplinarian?

This is one of those yes and no questions. Kids have traditionally believed that adults are full of it and will never be able to see the world as lucidly as they can. And, for some mystifying reason, kids think that the most of their teachers. But I think this is because of the world’s perception of teaching. On average, a great teacher is paid less than an average corporate office-type guy, which is a real shame. Society depends on teachers to create the generations of the future – for the first twenty-something years of a person’s life, the adults that they interact with (and in many cases this is even more than their parents) are their teachers. Why does the world expect everything from a teacher – help mould kids into responsible citizens, equip them with the tools they will need to survive their futures and help set them on a path to that future and then treat them with the greatest of disdain? You should see eyes light up when I (now) tell them that I’m an author. When I tell people I’m a teacher the usual response is: “Oh…”

Every kid should at least have one adult to look up to and in the case of so many people it’s that one teacher. The one who went out of his way to make you feel like you were the greatest student in the world, the one who went out of her way to teach you something you should have figured out years ago and the one who stood at the school gates as you left for the last time and smiled. So yes, I do believe teachers have, do and will always influence the lives of their students.

I teach at a boys’ school so I think it’s easier for me to establish boundaries. And it is necessary to do that – you can be friendly but remember, you are not their friend. Students are not buddies you discuss your problems with, they are children placed in your care for limited amounts of time and you have to be able to make sure that you don’t feel bad disciplining them when they do something wrong. I try.

Do you think that e-readers have changed the way we read? What do you prefer – e-books or books in their physical form?

Of course they have, it would silly to deny that they haven’t. I have read nothing longer than an essay online so I really couldn’t tell which I prefer. But I will say this – a house without books on shelves is very cold. And besides, a computer (or any equivalent) will never be able to replace the smell of the paper in a book (brand new or very old). Almost as good as rain on dry ground.

Which character is closest to you and why?

I think it would be very easy to say that Nirvan is closest to me because his is the one character that I had plotted out in the greatest detail. He never managed to surprise me at all! But on another level, I think each character has a little of me inside them. I had to imagine how I would react in the situations I threw them into and so they all bear different aspects of my personality (Both Gautam and Faraz would probably be very embarrassed by that!).

One book you wish you had written and why?

Without hesitation, it would have to be A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I think it was the first book I read by an Indian author (apart from the epics and pieces by freedom fighters) and I finished and immediately started again. I couldn’t believe that someone could tell a story like that! I loved the detail, I laughed at the characters and I couldn’t believe that he allowed Lata to marry the guy she gets married to. But then I was younger when I first read it (and the second time) but in retrospect I can totally see that that was the only realistic way to go. Besides, when I finished, I wanted to become Amit. I wish I was that cool.

 You can purchase Third Best on: Flipkart

Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta

“Look sir you’re not going to tell me that! Everyone knows stories! I just told you I slept in the same bed as my wife every night for the last fifteen years in the same bedroom of the same flat in the same suburb of Tokyo – and look at all you different people! You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! It’s a legend! Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required.”

Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta is a modern day Canterbury Tales. A group of passengers get snowed in at an unnamed airport, on their way to Tokyo. They hunker down for the night in airport chairs, surrounded by cavernous, vacant halls. To pass the time, they tell stories.

From there, Dasgupta had a choice. He could have taken us into the passengers’ lives. We could have learned about why they were travelling, what was important to them, how they made the right choices or wrong choices in their lives, and how they came to be stuck at that airport. Dasgupta had other ideas, though. The stories the passengers told were modern day fables.

The book is a collection of thirteen of these fables framed in the overall story of being stuck at the airport. They stories are generally magical and filled with unexpected twists. Dasgupta writes clearly and simply, but still has wonderful imagery. Some of the stories have simple plots, and come to a resolution; others end with more questions than they began. The characters in the stories accept a magical world with few questions.

These are not children’s fairy tales, though. In many of them, they characters don’t live happily ever after. There may be morality lessons in some of them, but the lessons, if any, are far from clear. Good isn’t always rewarded and evil isn’t always punished. And in many cases, there is no good or evil — just a deep gray. And in this book, Dasgupta finds ways to write about nearly all bodily functions at some point. While not jarringly out of context in the stories, the material may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.

That said, it is a great book to read. The stories are fascinating, and Dasgupta does a nice job of pulling the reader in. When Dasgupta has a point to make, he usually has one character in a story speak it to the main character in that same story.

For example, one character describes the world of organized crime like this:

“`It’s a scintillating world; it’s a pyramid of mercury: and we have to be standing on top.'”

That’s one of the best descriptions of a treacherous balancing act that I’ve seen in a long time. I can see the poisonous material sliding out from underneath.

We also get this description of the nature of time:

“‘For you the present is easy to discern because it is simply where memory stops. Memories hurtle out of the past and come to a halt in the now. The present is the rock face at the end of the tunnel where you gouge away at the future.'”

The idea that the present is nothing more than where memory stops will keep me starting at my lava lamp for hours.

The point of the book may be that the only time things worthwhile actually happen is when something major completely disrupts people’s lives. They sleep walk through their routines, and big adventure like in the stories, or a simply travel mishap like in the framework may be all it takes to live a different life.

“Was it not at times like this, when life malfunctioned, when time found a leak in its pipeline and dripped out into some little pool, that new thoughts happened, new things began? Would they look back at this night and say that is when it started?”

The book is not perfect. I don’t think some of the stories needed to be as graphic at they were.

My other concern is the voice of the story. Each story “sounded” like the same story teller. Even “The Doll”, with its innovative layout, had the same language-feel as the others. This would not be a problem for me if it was just a collection of short stories. But Dasgupta chose to have passengers tell the stories. And all the passengers tell their stories the same way.

It’s still a great novel, though. Tokyo Canceled is a rare book that calls for a second reading. It’s difficult to get everything out of the early stories without having read the later stories. Each story itself brings its own setting, plot, and characters. Discussing the deeper meaning of these stories would be great way to pass the time with fellow passengers the next time I find myself stuck in an airport overnight.

Tokyo Cancelled; Dasgupta, Rana; Harper Perennial UK; Rs. 325

WWW Wednesdays

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

My answers:

– The Intepretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld
– Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and
– Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own WWW Wednesdays post, or share your answers in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!