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Monday, December 15, 2008

Blessed are the Geek

(Just back from my field trip.....this is an article based on an idea by my friend Onyeka Nwelue, about "IITians doing crazy stuff with the pen", as he put it!)
The name IIT(Indian Institute of Technology) throws up a lot of reactions when asked for a word association, but most of them overwhelmingly focus on the banal stuff: words like "technocrat", "cutting-edge" , "elitist", "Silicon Valley" "creme-de-la-creme" keep whirling round and round until they are entirely devoid of meaning or purpose...... yes, IIT is perceived as a land peopled mostly by alpha-geeks, a notion that has certainly been nurtured as much by its illustrious alumni as by the Dilberts of the corporate world(remember Asok the intern?). But as a student of IIT myself, when I look at the people around me, do I see people who will take over the biz-tech domains of the world.......?

Hmmmm...tough one.

The answer is, of course I do. There are people here who have the means to do exactly that, for their talent ensures that they are not bound by many of the things you and I might be(yes, at the outset, I might as well confess, I have tech skills which are negligible, to say the least!) But that's not all there is to them. They are artists, singers, actors and yes, writers.... it's just that these aspects of IITians have only been in the public eye relatively recently.

The beginning of our story is in the late 80's when a young man with unbelievably thick glasses, an unruly mop of hair and a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur(where I study currently) had an epiphany: he took a leap of faith and decided that the world of engineering and technology was just not meant to be for him..... and he enrolled in a journalism course in the University of Southern California. He went on to work at The Statesman, a highly respected Indian daily, and later at The Indian Express, where he's currently the managing editor.

Raj Kamal Jha had announced his arrival in style. In 2000, his first novel, "The Blue Bedspread" was published by Random House and it immediately garnered rave reviews from the high priests of the literary criticism arena. Sample this little nugget from Richard Bernstein of the New York Times:

" ''The Blue Bedspread'' is a brilliant beginning for a writer whose voice already shows a maturity well beyond his years."

By that time Jha was already an editor at The Indian Express where his haunting, razor-sharp editorial pieces were already becoming the talk of the town. When I read the novel about an year ago, I was intrigued and enthralled in equal measure..... the novel chronicles the story of a night in Calcutta, where an unnamed narrator(as Jha puts it himself, "In a city of 12 million names, it doesn't matter") is narrating to his dead sister's child, the stories of his is in this seemingly random vignettes that he stitches together a narrative so original and so atmospheric that it seems as if the writer is right beside you, whispering in your ear urgently.... Jha has a unique talent for precise and delicate portrayals which engage all the senses, when he talks about Calcutta's odours and colours, one is moved enough to actually feel the rancid stench of the by-lanes, the sensation of the first monsoon showers caressing your bare skin. He is also a master at thought-process narratives which tend to focus more on the emotional rather than the material aspects of the story, a kind of post-modernist take on the much-abused stream-of-consciousness technique of Joyce.

His craft is based neither on the theatricality and over-the top exuberance of a Rushdie nor on the quiet minimalism of a Raymond Carver, to whom he has been compared in the past; but rather on a middle path. His work is deep-rooted in the realities of Indian life and the nitty-gritty of daily existence(that's the obvious influence of his day job as journalist) but his prose is evocative, layered and often deeply disturbing. The device of multiple narratives and dreamlike, lyrical narratives took on a whole new level with his second novel "If You Are Afraid Of Heights" where he even had "mirror characters" who tended to complement the other's narrative(they even had "mirror" names, Amir and Mira, Mala and Alam!).His third and most recent novel is "Fireproof" , a brilliant and unusual take on the 2002 Gujarat riots which Jha had covered extensively as a journalist at The Indian Express. As an aside, I strongly recommend an article Jha wrote on the riots , titled "John Brown and a dog named Chum" which can be read on the Indian Express website. This short piece will tell you more about the riots than volumes and volumes of yellow, dog-eared newspaper reports.

Around the same time Jha had his leap of faith, an IIT Kharagpur graduate with a management degree from IIM Calcutta to boot, started work at India Today, one of the country's leading magazines. Writing about absolutely anything under the sun, banging away at the keyboard, rushing to meet deadlines, Sandipan Deb felt truly at home. He went on to work in Outlook, a magazine started in 1995 with veteran journo Vinod Mehta as editor. Deb, along with Mehta, Tarun Tejpal(who went on to found Tehelka, the pioneer of "sting operations" in India) and others, shaped Outlook into a sassy new rival to India Today. Over the years, as an avid reader of Outlook myself, I enjoyed Deb's pieces on politics, business, celebrity, films, sports.....the list goes on and on.

In 2004, Penguin published Deb's non-fiction book "The IITians" which sought to explain the reason how India managed to create a world-class system of engineering and scientific education. The book explored the lives of several illustrious IIT alumni and some who had made their mark, albeit in fields light years away from engineering. It also looked at the madly overblown craze IIT has in India, especially small-town India.

What I liked about the book(and ironically enough, when I read the book, I was preparing for the IIT entrance test) was that Deb looked as much to his own experiences as to the experiences of an Arun Sarin(ex-CEO, Vodafone) or a Nandan Nilekani(Co-Chairman of Infosys, the IT giant). I remember the first lines of the book very well: "This first chapter has been incredibly difficult for me to write, absurdly so, because I make my living working for a weekly magazine, crunching out a thousand words on whatever the editor wants me to....". He then goes down to his old college with a friend, another alumnus, and starts to catch up.

He describes himself as "The Black Sheep" among IITians. It is this self-effacing humour which is one of the hallmarks of the book. Even when superlatives are flying thick and fast, you never get the feeling that Deb is getting over-the-top in his praise of either IIT or IITians. Indeed, there is a whole section on the problems the IITs are facing today, some of them involving draconian laws imposed on students.(Believe me, I know all about them!) "The IITians" is required reading for anyone wishing to know about IIT's or IITians,warts and all.

But both Jha and Deb are very much into quote-unquote serious literature/journalism. Of late, there has been the emergence of IITian writers at the other end of the literary spectrum. In 2004, the same year Deb's "The IITians" was published, an IIT Delhi graduate(and IIM Ahmedabad PGDM) Chetan Bhagat released his first novel "Five Point Someone-What Not To Do At IIT" . A hilarious take on the bildungsroman format, involving the misadventures of three friends at IIT Delhi, the book became an instant bestseller. Bhagat's underdog characters, humour which ranged from the wry to the slapstick, and snappy narrative won him a whole generation of fans, many of whom were not in the habit of reading fiction in English. The novel was the kind of book which is very difficult not to like. In effect, Chetan Bhagat did for Indian young adults what Rowling did for kids the world over: he got them to read. In India, if an English language book sells 5000-10000 copies, it's considered a bestseller....."Five Point Someone" sold lakhs and lakhs of copies.

Since then, Bhagat has published two more novels, one of whom "One Night@ Call Centre" was adapted into a Bollywood film "Hello" ,(whose screenplay Bhagat wrote). He has become a publishing phenomenon and also a bone of contention between critics who trash his work, saying that his work is basically "Bollywood on paper" and lacks any plausible logic or coherence; and those who laud Bhagat the entertainer.

Snobbery and inverse-snobbery flying back and forth, sometimes it is hard to separate Bhagat the writer from Bhagat the defiant celeb who declares he writes "for the common man" . I will say, however, that while it is a futile exercise to critically analyze Bhagat's later two novels, the overall quality of his work has taken a severe beating, ever-escalating sales figures notwithstanding. His latest book "The Three Mistakes of My Life" (following which The New York Times, no less ,did a profile feature on him) is riddled with shockingly juvenile bits of prose, highly cliched flights of fancy, and as was later found out, embarrasing factual inconsistencies. But the magic figure for Bhagat and his publishers, Rupa and co. :500,000 copies sold .......

The latest to jump onto this IITian-as-writer bandwagon is young Tushar Raheja, a 2006 IIT Delhi graduate, whose debut novel "Anything For You Ma'am" subtitled "An IITian's Love Story" was published while he was still in his final year of college. The novel, with its simple, uncomplicated storyline, became popular through word-of-mouth publicity. The 5000 copies of the first print were sold out within a month of its release, and there has been no looking back for the 24-year old who candidly admits “I have never been a writer. I find it difficult to form flowing sentences. I don’t have a disciplined approach to writing”. Now people might find this an easy buffer against criticism(“I knew I couldn’t do very literary stuff”) but clearly this is a brash new batch of authors who are unapologetic about their erudition, or lack thereof.

The novel itself is a study in over-simplification and hatchet jobs from cringe-inducing early 90's mushy Bollywood movies, with more than a dash of IIT thrown in. Having said that, Raheja is genuinely funny at times,and a natural raconteur. But the publishers went well and truly overboard with the blurbs when they dropped names like Wodehouse . Just because Raheja uses the word "bally" liberally does not warrant comparing him to perhaps the greatest humourist of all time.... Especially when the author himself distances himself from the purported norms of "literature".

So from the dark landscapes of Jha's dream-worlds to the cotton candy realities of Bhagat and co. , who is the IITian writer? Is he someone who has a unique and illuminating perspective on the world around him, or does he choose to escape into his own flights of fancy? I suppose the answers aren't so simple. From my own experience, I can say that there are plenty of people here, who are among the most culturally aware people you'll ever meet.....I have a friend who says his dream job is "pop-culture historian" ! The thing about this place is, and this is one of my favourite things about my college, no matter how weird or outlandish your tastes are, you'll always find kindred souls. Bookworms and movie-maniacs have a plentiful haven here. With the massive file-sharing network on campus, you have terrabytes of stuff at your disposal all day, everyday.

But there's also the other side. People often fight so hard to get here, they lose sight of what they really want from life in the long-term. Moreover, there's a sense of having reached a plateau sometimes. When you finally arrive here, sometimes after years of single-minded preparation, there seems to be a general disinclination to strain the grey cells, and opt instead for entertainment of the goofy, mindless variety. I, for one, am not prepared to take sides here. For all their supposed shallowness, Bhagat and Raheja are getting young people to read, and that is easier said than done. While I certainly wait for Raj Kamal Jha to dazzle us all with his inimitable prose again, I permit myself a smile when I see the likes of Bhagat and Raheja stacking the bookshelves.

And I most certainly smile when I see my name among the contributors for the annual magazine and think, "Hmmm...once upon a time, a guy named Raj Kamal Jha used to write in these pages...."

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