The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 5, 2000

How to write The Great Indian Bestseller
By Dharminder Kumar

This is dedicated to the progeny of flaccid loins of Indian English fiction on whom has fallen the noble and great burden of holding a conversation with the world.

DEAR novice, open your eyes. You are in the world of The Great Indian Bestseller (caps not mine). So what, if Iowa is a far cry? Despair not, if East Anglia is a lost dream. There is hope for you yet. I, the tailer of tales, the saviour of the unsavoury, the fabulous fibber, ever mindful of hacks and quacks submit my service to you. My capacity? I touch penny dreadfuls and they disgorge pounds. Jerks and duds come out of my hype-machine as writers: Starry-eyed, sagging under loads of prizes.

Arundhati Roy I have taken swines to the pearls and made them eat. You are in good hands, count on it. Let me strike your iron with my flint. Let sparks fly. "Is there really any iron in me?" Why did the chicken cross the road! Don’t ask irrelevant questions. Writing Indian Bestseller is an act of faith. Believe in God, me and firangis (if may be in reverse order) and pick up your pen if your have the temerity to not own a PC.

(First take "The Empire Sermon" — "Indians, O novice, are writing. And for whom, O novice, are they writing? They are writing for the sum that never sets, for the connoisseurs of elephants and snake-charmers, for white bodies and black masks, for junkies of exotica, for Anglo-Saxon professors of Costpolonial Theory. And with what, O novice, are they writing? They are writing with elan, with tour de force, with verve, with cadour, with vigour, with poise, with inventiveness, with nostalgia. And what O novice, are they writing? Errr..... let me ask God).

  Good counsel, as they say, has never failed anybody. So, nice novice, sit down, cross your legs and lend me your ears. Before I get down to the most important part of the bestseller (the dust jacket, you moron!), I’ll just fill you in on a few details about the pages inside.

Language is the second most important part of the bestseller. Ell, ei, en, gee, uoo, ei, gee, ee. Yes, LAngUage. Play with it. Never mind if, in the course of playing, you stab yourself with a split infinitive or hang yourself by a dangling participle. It is commonly observed that extraordinary linguistic inventiveness takes place if not a single line is rewritten. Try that. Let there be word in the beginning the middle and the end. But what about sense, you may ask? Well, novice, that was in another country. Besides, the wench is dead.

Dump the Forster fellow and his kings and queens. Here I give unto you a few formulas, well-cut and also dried to the last drop.

The Outsider Formula:— Should you happen to have your precious literary faculty working, lay it to rest. All you have to do is to contemplate as if you weren’t born and brought up here but dropped from the sky or get unearthed like Sita (cute, no?) Once you’ve got this obstacle out of the way, it’s downhill from then on. Blink your eyes, novice, and then dilate them. Hold things in contempt. Dig, prod, turn inside out and upside down. Compare and contrast, as though to the manner born. Get surprised, shocked and amazed. Look at India like you did at the Pythagorus theorem in the maths class. Try the country like a new shoe. Let India be an assault on your senses. Refer to the Naipaul guy, the crook has done it to the last trick.

Vikram SethThe Insider Formula: — Here you are all of a piece with the setting. India, that is. Fate has cast your lot in this country, make the most of it. So first you’ve got to persuade yourself that you were born and brought up in your own country. That done, this one will be a cinch for you. Here experience of writing travel guides and tourist brochures gives you a cutting edge. The novice should keep two colours handy — local and purple. The latter one helps in confessions and authorial intrusions. Monsoon, river, politics and vernacular are important ingredients. Put them all in a mortar. Pestle them till you get a fine psychedelic powder. Create with it. It looks exceptionally uplifting if seen with blue or green eyes. The native will of course be none the wiser. But that should not bother you. The novel about the growth of the writer happily falls into the same category. Chose a city. By city I don’t mean Meerut or Bareilliey but a metro, well-chronicled by firangis. Remember, it is as much about the city as about your bloody growth. It will be a tell-all. Bare your heart. If you find nothing inside refer to a Hindi daily where you’ll find some pithy news in small boxes. Glean them all. If the story you put together makes sense, let it. Don’t, repeat, don’t interfere. If it doesn’t, it runs the benefit of being labeled postmodernist. See! you have it both ways.

Saga Formula: — This one is recommended strictly for exiles. Exile is the man, Bacon would have said. Novice, become an exile. It’s hep. Besides, India is an old sow that eats its farrow. Beg, borrow or steal, do become an exile. It rouses creative faculties. And if you’ve got none in the first place, it still gives you an edge over outsider, insider jerks. Once in exile, remember, memory is the key.

Start the muddle with nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts then let it take care of itself. It usually does. If it demands a directing hand, don’t give it one. Throw in more relations. Scour lineages. It is believed that naming the characters after vegetables and sweetmeats creates a sublime effect. Another method is to hold the history firmly in your left hand and slice up. Let the slices marinate in a mythological. Then deep-fry in magic realism. Season with the autobiographical and the picaresque. Novice, while preparing this progress report for the West, say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable, ask difficult questions and save yourself from fatwas. Me and good sense warn you not to play the game with Firangis. Burra sahibs don’t take kindly to it. Let there be no saga about firangis, much less about them in their own land, not at all for them to read. If you beg to differ, go ask that Rushdie character. Or Seth, for that matter. They must be knowing better.

Dhoba Se Formula:— This is called popular literature because it’s written by popular women or they get very popular after writing it. Most of the story should take place after the sunset. It should have in its title appropriate words like evening, dark dusk, night, wee-hours etc. Here I must point out to the great benefit of the novice that such fiction is not read, it’s rummaged through. Care should be taken to spread the "matter" evenly through all the chapters. Unlike, M & B where embraces slowly shift from vertical to horizontal, here it’s all along x-axis. Still a blow-by-blow account is quite in order. To make it an instant hit, you can list the ‘relevant’ pages in the beginning. As for the plot, it remains uniform and occurs several times in a novel — exposition, rising action, climax. Finally, I might well ad that the formula requires you to have some mug to splash on the cover.

{ Note:— The formulae given above are not always mutually exclusive. Thank you}

Now, I let you into the secrets of the most demanding part of the manufacturing process of The Great Indian Bestseller. Sit erect, good novice and prick up your ears. The next-door professor of English may tell you that the author has died. Set no store by it. Better give the crook one in the kisser. All the stuff about the death of the author is tripe. Who do you think grabs the advances and flees to Bahamaas, you litt-crit pinko? The author, believe me novice, is quite alive and kicking and signing books and giving readings and generally having a ball of time (also having the latter by the plural of the former). The doubting devils can pick up any bestsellers and see him right there on the end flap. That sepia mug-shot. Beatific. As is so often the case with photographs, they allow little to be done to them. The lines below it, however, demand your precious attention. You should not just write them, you should pack the punch. Samples for you:

ABC, a chiropractor by training and a taxidermist without training, is an editor with India kink. This is his first novel.

ABC was born at Jhumri Tallayia and went to Oxford on a writer’s fellowship. She lives in a barsati in Mumbai with three dogs and a giraffe.

Make it graphic. That about sums it all up.

After the words on the end flap come words on the back. Blurb, as they call it. If the novice has a ‘network’ at his service, he will do himself a favour by getting hold of anybody from Salman Rushdie to KS. The trick is to get them to speak three polysyllabic words. For instance "uproarious, dexterous, ambitious" (and don’t you dare ask the meaning!). If these thugs are as elusive as Booker, you are left with your own devices and my good offices. Anyway, even if they do condescend, you’ve to add something. The golden rule in blurb-writing till now has been to say as little as possible in as many words as you can. But these days they come in a variety of ways. Samples:—

"The most exciting new voice to be heard form the subcontinent". (don’t ask, excites what?)

"The book makes R.K. Jha’s The Blue Bedspread look like a dirty pillow cover". More ambitious one in the same category—

"The book makes Allen Seally’s The Everest Hotel look like a vaishno dhaba".

"Lyrical, truculent, rumbustious, outrageous, lubricious, concupiscent and irreverent".

"But what if nothing of the sort is there in the book?" Don’t be tiresome, novice. So many different adjectives are bound to neutralise one another or the reader will be pleased to take his pick.

By now, it must have come home to gifted novice that writing The Great Indian Bestseller is unlike writing any novel. The bestseller is the book you don’t so much write as WRITE. Get up, novice, pull yourself together and set the Atlantic on fire.