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The Non-Fictional Indian

What is it about fiction that attracts more readers as well as writers? Is it the whole idea of “making up” things or the liberty of “exaggerating” normal ideas/scenes of daily life to add more color, flavor and spice to it; or the limitless possibilities of creating a whole new world to explore with words and imagination?
Why is it that not many new-age authors venture into the world of non-fiction with that ease? Does the presentation of actual facts and the accurate details (based on ample of research) baffle and scare them? Or is it the thought of taking the “easier” route? Or does everything ultimately boil down to the “commercial” aspect? Yes, fiction sells more than non-fiction. At least in the literary world.

As I see it, the market is huge for non-fiction as well. But it’s only the experienced few who dare walk “the path less taken”. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to play safe.

Let’s look at some experienced authors who have braved the route and the hurdles along with.

Nirad C. Chaudhar’s “The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian” is a work of self-discovery and the revelation of a peerless and provocative sensibility. Describing his childhood in the Bengali countryside and his youth in Calcutta—and telling the story of modern India from his own fiercely independent viewpoint—Chaudhuri fashions a book of deep conviction, charm, and intimacy that is also a masterpiece of the writer’s art.

Talking of non-fiction, who can forget Shashi Tharoor, controversy’s very child. His book – “The Great Indian Novel“ is a fictionalized account of Indian history over the past 100 years. It aims to remain true to the original events, including characters such as Gandhi and Mountbatten but it also utilizes characters, incidents and issues from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. I wouldn’t put this one in the absolutely fiction category.

Angela Sainis “Geek Nation” is an account of India and it’s geeks. Inventors, engineers and young scientists helping to give birth to the world’s next scientific superpower a nation built not on conquest, oil or minerals, but on scientific ingenuity of its people. Colorful characters and gripping stories highlight the fact that though India is looked up on as a spiritual nation, it has its share of science-hungry citizens.

Sudeep Chakravarti‘s “Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country” talks about the Maoist movement – apparently one of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated extreme-left movements. Sudeep Chakravarti combined reportage, political analysis and individual case histories and takes the reader on a heart wrenching journey to areas of extreme destitution, bad governance and perpetual war. A very brave effort.

Basharat Peer’s “Curfewed Night” is a lyrical, gut-wrenching and intimate book with an unforgettable portrait of Kashmir in war. The young journalist writes from experience and touches your very soul with his poetry. And in Khushwant Singh’s words, it is “Beautifully written, brutally honest and deeply hurtful.”

Gurucharan Das‘ “India Unbound” is amongst the only books that offers purely stat-based factual analysis of the Indian economy. It is a narrative account of India from Independence to the global information age, and has been published in over a dozen languages and filmed by BBC.
His other best seller, “The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of Dharma” examines contemporary moral failures through the lens of the 2000 year old epic, the Mahabharata. Apparently he spent nearly 7 years researching the book at the University of Chicago. It uses quotes from the Mahabharata yet also other ancient works such as the Iliad and cites examples as recent as the financial crisis.

Amartya Sen‘s “The Argumentative Indian” is a collection of essays that discuss India’s history and identity, focusing on the traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism.

Ashish Bose’s “Headcount: Memoirs of a Demographer” focuses on the population issues of India’s four largest states—Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The acronym ‘BIMARU states’ was coined by Ashish Bose who is considered to be the pioneer of demographic studies in the country. In this book he presents his unique view of modern India with little known facts and insights into the people and events that have shaped independent India. The book is a readable memoir by one of the most important social scientists of modern India.

Narayan Murthy
’s “A Better India, A Better World” shows us that a society working for the greatest welfare of the greatest number—samasta jananam sukhino bhavantu—must focus on two simple things: values and good leadership. Drawing on the remarkable Infosys story and the lessons learnt from the two decades of post-reform India, Narayana Murthy lays down the ground rules that must be followed if future generations are to inherit a truly progressive nation.

Kaushik Basu’s “Beyond The Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics focuses on the central tenets of economics.

Rashmi Bansal’s “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” is a book full of interviews. 25 IIM grads who broke the shackles of regular societal norms of staying happy with a campus placement or a secure job and went ahead to build empires that continue to inspire many geniuses, make up for some inspirational read.
Then there are biographies of industrialists and people who have led to the economic growth of the nation.

Vinay Bharat Ram’s “From the Brink of Bankruptcy: The DCM Story”, talks about the legendary Lala Shri Ram (Vinay’s grandfather) and gives fascinating insights into how big businesses survive, how family conflicts are resolved, and how luck plays a part in the achievement of corporate objectives.

In the humor section, we have cartoonist Suraj ‘Eskay Sriram’s recent work – “Indira Gandhi –The Final Chapter”, lampoons the political figure through witty cartoons. It draws a satirical portrait of the Indian leader, while humorously depicting certain behind-the-scenes political and social affairs in our country.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s “Double Talk” shows Suki, the central character (a bushy-haired, baggy-clothed free spirit, with neither job nor family to tie her down) whose life was breezily uncluttered, unencumbered and unconventional. Her favorite concerns were bewilderingly abstract and her reference points were usually universal rather than local. The strip garnered rave criticism back then, and now the book represents a selection of the strips that appeared in print from 1982 to 1986.

Sudhir Dar Classics is a collection of cartoons. From acerbic takes on politicians of every hue and hilarious asides on everyday issues that plague us—rising prices, traffic jams and bumpy roads—to side-splitting comments on our national obsessions—cricket, films and TV serials—Sudhir Dar’s masterly brush strokes are guaranteed to keep the laughter ringing.

These authors/cartoonists draw satire by keenly observing the situation and analyzing its effects on the common man –the “aam aadmi”.

Then we have books comes imparting “gyaan” on the importance of staying fit and following a healthy regime.
Rutuja Diwakar’s “Don’t Lost Your Mind, Lose Your Weight” is one major best seller in this category. Of course, with Kareena Kapoor endorsing the work of this fitness guru who helped her attain the much talked about “Size Zero”, this one had to top the charts!

Books on spirituality and religion are aplenty.
Like Swami Tejomayananda’s “The Ah! Wisdom Book” is a collection of real life incidences where Swami Tejomayananda has given the highest wisdon during casual interactions with devotees. In a witty and simple way, his playful statements are instantly engaging, when unraveled, they provide the basic building blocks of everyday life.

Bringing the real Indian to the forefront are works of seasoned authors.
V Raghunathan’s “Games Indians Play – Why We Are the Way We Are” centers around us- Indians. The author uses the props of game theory and behavioural economics to provide an insight into the difficult conundrum of why we are the way we are. He puts under the scanner our attitudes towards rationality and irrationality, selflessness and selfishness, competition and cooperation, and collaboration and deception. Drawing examples from the way we behave in day-to-day situations, Games Indians Play tries to show how in the long run each one of us—whether businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, or just plain us—stand to profit more if we were to assume a little self-regulation, give fairness a chance and strive to cooperate and collaborate a little more even if self-interest were to be our main driving force.

Pavan K Varma’s “Being Indian – The Truth About Why the 21st Century will be India’s” presents an insightful analysis of the Indian personality and the culture that has created it reaches startling new conclusions on the paradoxes and contradictions that characterize Indian attitudes towards issues such as power, wealth and spirituality.

The corporate world has seen the rise of many self-help books for managers, leaders and employees.
Radhakrishnan Pillai’s “Corporate Chanakya – Successful Management the Chanakya Way” reveals aphorisms or sutras of Chanakya, a 3rd Century BC’s leadership guru par excellence. The author simplifies the age-old formula of success for leaders of the corporate world.

Ashis Nandy’s “The Tao of Cricket – On games of destiny and the destiny of games” focuses on the sport that Indians live for –Cricket.  He analyzes the popular game and profiles legendary figures such as W.G. Grace, Douglas Jardine and Ranjitsinhji.

Rashmi Datt’s “Managing Your Boss” provides valuable insights and practical tips through case studies and examples based on real life experiences of middle and senior managers. The book is really about building an effective and productive relationship with the boss for the good of the employee, the boss and the organization.

Anurag Anand’s first book “Pillars of Success” touches aspects of personality development while his second book “Corporate Mantras” was based on his experiences in the corporate world.

Vineet Bajpai’s “Build From Scratch“, is amongst one of the country’s first books on young entrepreneurship.

Then we have umpteen books revealing the real face of India –the slums!
Gita Dewan Verma’s “Slumming India – A chronicle of slums and their saviours” is a  whistle-blower’s account of the chaos that is urban development; Kalpana Sharma’s “Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories From Asias Largest Slum” is a book that challenges the conventional notion of a slum; Swati Mohanty and L N P Mohanty’s “Slum In India” probes deep into the problems, integrated all connected issues and provided suggestive measures for meeting the challenge. All written with rare sensitivity and empathy also provide facts to support their data.

Talking about reality, A. Revathi’s “The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story” (Translated By V. Geetha) is the unflinchingly courageous and moving autobiography of a hijra (eunuch) who fought ridicule, persecution and violence both within her home and outside to find a life of dignity.

So is Sonia Faleiro’s “Beautiful Thing” –the story of Bombay’s dance bars and bar dancers.

Further in the genre of self help books, certain names cannot be missed. Like Shiv Khera, Deepak Chopra, Yogesh Chabria, all who have more than a pile of books ranking amongst the country’s top best sellers.

So you see, most authors, who have ample years of experience backing their work, combined with factual data and deep research churn out insightful non-fictional books.
But I wish the youth of today, with their brilliant writing skills and new narrative techniques, would venture in to this genre, given the kind of exposure they have nowadays.
Truth IS stranger than fiction. I say, give it a try. You might surprise yourself!


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Truly Beautiful

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2011 was more than just a festival for me. It was a celebration of ingenious minds. And it gave me an opportunity to know many wondrous authors and writers of the country. Amongst them all, I prominently grew a certain fondness for Sonia Faleiro. And it’s not because we share the same name. It was the kind of substance she brought with her – her second book (and her first non-fiction offering) “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars”. When she read an excerpt out of the book, was I hooked or was I really hooked! I knew I had to grab a copy (an author signed one at that) to read Leela’s story. And oh! What a fine read it is! We scheduled an interview with Sonia but due to time constrains we were only allowed a couple of questions.

But before we get to that, in case you don’t really know much about her – read on.

An award-winning Indian reporter and writer, Sonia Faleiro was born in Goa. She  grew up in New Delhi where she studied History at St. Stephen’s College, and went on  to do her master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh. Staying away from  home, her melancholy reflected in her first book- The Girl that created waves and  went on to become a bestseller. Her second book -Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret  World of Bombay’s Dance Bars is a work of narrative non-fiction, based on five years  of research in Bombay’s dance bars.
Beautiful Thing has been described as ‘brilliant and unforgettable, a book by a writer who is one of the best of her generation’. It was Time Out magazine’s ‘Subcontinental Book of the Year, 2010’ and ‘CNN’s Mumbai Book of the Year’. Beautiful Thing is being translated into several languages and would be published in Australia, UK, and USA. A recipient of a CNN Young Journalist Award (2006), as well as of awards from the Ratan Tata Trust, the Oxford Cambridge Society of India, and the British Council’s D’Souza Trust, Sonia has reported for India Today and Tehelka magazines, and is currently a contributing editor to Vogue (India). Her reportage includes numerous reports on India’s sex-workers, on Bombay’s bar dancers, a six-part series on India’s domestic workers, and extensive writings on the suicides of farmers in Vidarbha.

Sonia Faleiro has contributed to several anthologies, viz. AIDS Sutra: Hidden Stories from India; First Proof; The Fiction Collection; Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa. She now lives in San Francisco.

And as for our “quick” interaction with the author, here’s it.

What was it about Leela that she took centre stage in your book? Is it true that most of the bar dancers have a (sort of) similar story?

I was introduced to Leela in 2005 at a dance bar in South Bombay. Although several bar dancers were present, she immediately grabbed my attention. She was an electric spark with a great sense of humor and enviable self-confidence. I had some idea of the background most bar dancers came from and so I knew it was very likely Leela had suffered poverty and other deprivations, that she had possibly been abused and perhaps been forced into the dance bar by avaricious family members. That she was, despite that, genuinely happy and optimistic and was clearly enjoying her life intrigued me. I hadn’t and in fact wouldn’t meet another bar dancer like her. And yes, while it’s true that more often than not bar dancers emerge from similar situations of deprivation it is what Leela strove to make of her life that marked her as different and very special. I always knew I would write about Leela, but it was the ban against bar dancing that was proposed in May that year that put her story in context.

As a journalist writing a non-fiction account of a bar dancer’s life, was it easy to be detached and not get emotionally involved in Leela’s life?

Leela knew that I was writing about her and that anything she, or anyone around her said, unless I was told otherwise, might make it into the story. So our relationship was from the onset a professional one between a reporter and subject. That said, it isn’t easy and perhaps even desirable for a relationship in which one spends hours, days and nights in the company of another person to remain formal and detached. I was very moved and troubled, by the things I saw, and there were occasions on which I wanted to intervene. But Leela was an adult who made her decisions deliberately.  After the ban she lost her job and almost all her money, and as readers of Beautiful Thing will know my numerous attempts to help her—by offering to find her a job in an NGO, for example—were met with derision. Leela was the commander in chief of her own life and her independence was one of the things I admired most about her.

Reader’s Question:It is said that journalism is literature in a hurry. Both as a journalist and a novelist, what are your thoughts about this? Do you agree? (Submitted by Adilah Ismail)

My novel The Girl (Penguin, 2006), took two years to write. Beautiful Thing took five. The research that I put into it, and the innumerable number of drafts that I wrote in search for the perfect narrative structure for Leela’s story required as much time and attention as would any well crafted novel. Unlike general non-fiction, the specific genre of narrative non-fiction attempts to combine the rigor of research with the craft of fiction, and binding as it does two genres it is, to my mind, even more demanding than fiction. Some of the best examples of narrative non-fiction, all of which are at once gripping, cinematic and novelistic while also maintaining fidelity to facts are Adrian Nicole Le Blanc’s Random Family, Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, and more recently Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons.

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Book Review of “Beautiful Thing” By Sonia Faleiro

Beautiful Thing

By Sonia Faleiro

Though a piece of non-fiction, “Beautiful Thing: Inside the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars” by Sonia Faleiro, flows more like a well-narrated (contemporary-fiction) story. Having heard Sonia read an excerpt during the Jaipur literature Festival, 2011, I could almost visualize the entire narration as I read the book.

Crisp and neat prose, jelled with prolific slang used by the characters, the story explores the world of dance bars and the women who work in it.

The first half of the book tells the story about bar dancers and the second half deals with the effect of the ban imposed on Bombay’s dance bars, by the government.

The life of dance bar girls is told through the story of Leela (a bar dancer), her family, her past, her friends from the same profession, her customers, dance bar owners, the underworld, the policemen, the eunuchs, the pimps, the health hazards, and other flesh trade businesses affiliated with it all makes for a deep and compelling read.

Leela comes across as a very colorful/vibrant person. She is young, beautiful, self centered, contemptuous, sharp-tongued, and a calculative character who demands gifts of money, clothes, jewellery and oddly, vegetables, from her customers, and lures them with her sighs, pouts, smiles and other such charming tricks. In search of love, a normal traditional Indian wedding and a normal life, the girls end up falling for treacherous men who con them for money and sex.

Then comes in the ambitious politician who, rides on a wave of false morality and, bans dance bars in Bombay, in August 2005, rendering more than 75,000 dance bar girls unemployed.

Life changes for Leela and the others in the most unexpected way.

The harsh and brutal reality of fathers raping their daughters, selling them to dance bar owners for money, a son raping his (prostitute) mom, a mother stealing from her own daughter, the grim tale of domestic violence, the ugly truth masked by pretty faces, is well portrayed by Sonia. The language is lucid, simple and real with a mix of Hinglish and the colorful jargon used blatantly by the characters.

Characters like Masti, the stunningly confident hijra (eunuch) accepted by his/her family; Priya, Leela’s (best) friend in love with her own beauty; Apsara, Leela’s selfish “simple” mother; Shetty, the owner of the dance bar; Gazala, a brothel madam who is a eunuch; and a  Dubai-based fixer who claims to be Abu Salem’s right hand man, are unforgettable. The life of all these people in Mira Road and Kamathipura evoke emotions that seemed unstirred for so long.

Capturing the disconnected events as they appear in the lives of the dance bar girls that she befriended, Sonia highlights tiny but significant details of relationships, friendship, feelings, love, longings, independence, poverty, desperation and the bitter truth of the dark side of Bombay.

The story, beguiling, warm, funny in bits, sensitive for most of it, is absolutely heart-breaking. It shows the hardened lives of bar dancers who’ve been used and abused to endless limits. It gives the reader a whole new perspective about the lives of bar dancers and circumstances that led them to a fate – definitely not by choice, for most. At a point, dance bars seem to be a boon for these girls that save them from the endless exploitation they (otherwise) face every day.

Sonia put in five years of her life, researching for Beautiful Thing and following Leela. And it was totally worth it!

You grow to care for Leela. The sad, moving fate to which she and the others are pushed to makes the reader think and question the “morality” of society at large.
It depicts a part of society that we pretend is invisible, since it doesn’t concern us. Sonia Faleiro brings it out in the open, revealing the true nature of “men” – who move from one bed to another, from one woman to another, to satisfy their own needs. And women (like Leela) end up resorting to alcohol and false promises of happiness and normal life.

As rightly described: “Beautiful Thing, one of the most original works of non-fiction from India in years, is a vivid and intimate portrait of one reporter’s journey into the dark, pulsating and ultimately damaged soul of Bombay.”

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