Library@Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom

Where Minds meet and Ideas pop up !

S L Faizal’s Experiments with Reading Innovations in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Pattom

Posted on April 14, 2014 by hippocampusschoolservices


It’s not every day that you come across someone like S L Faizal, a librarian who thrives on reading innovations in the school library. From launching the first library blog in India, to promoting information literacy through fun campaigns such as Face-a-book, this librarian’s initiatives deserve to be in the spotlight. Find out more about his experiments with promoting reading in Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom, Trivandrum.

The tagline of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom library where S L Faizal works is: Where minds meet and ideas pop up. Clearly, Faizal doesn’t take this tagline lightly. Enthusiastic about discovering new possibilities to help the library evolve, Faizal’s always looking for effective ways to motivate children to read more. Although Faizal has plenty of pet projects, we have decided to highlight three of his most promising library initiatives.


The concept was developed from the realization that almost all students between the ages of 11 and 17 are connected on social networks like Facebook, and spend less time reading physical books. So they were told this: If you are bored with Facebook, come to your Library and face a book, a real one. Face-a-book – an encounter with a real book – was started in 2012 as a collaborative project between the library staff and students. Thus emerged where children could post their thoughts after reading books borrowed from the library. Born out of this initiative was another reading program called Book Ambassadors. As a part of this, 50 students were selected to closely read a book each. Each of them then became the ambassador for the book that they had read (e.g., Ambassador of Harry Potter). These ambassadors were expected to face all queries specific to the book that they were representing. They were also honoured with badges and certificates.

Library Junction

Library Junction ( was launched in 2010 as an online Academic Social Network with all the features of a popular social network. The targeted users were the net-generation students. Designed as an online collaborative learning platform, members could ask questions, express views, hold discussions, share information, work on projects together, communicate with others and get to know the world better. The project team consisted of more than 1000 students (between the ages of 6 and 17) and 10 teachers from different subject backgrounds. The project won NCERT’s Best Innovative Project for Schools Award in 2011 and KVS Innovations and Experiments Award in 2010.

The prime objectives of this project were:

  • to create an easily accessible and user-friendly online learning platform which connects the library, teachers and students
  • to support student-teacher collaborative learning practices
  • to facilitate information sharing and knowledge creation
  • to cultivate reading habit and inspire love towards books, reading and libraries
  • to develop information and media literacy skills
  • to encourage critical thinking, innovation and creativity
  • to reach out to new-generation library users at their own space and time
  • to make learning more enjoyable

Library-Social Connect (LSC)

LSC is a social responsibility initiative by Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom to connect students to society through books and reading. The project was kick-started in 2013 through a campaign called ‘Gift a Book and Get a Friend’.This was aimed at providing students with better opportunities to find out more about their community – other learning systems in particular – and to make friends through books. Students of the school’s Readers’ Club collected more than 550 books and gifted it to children from underprivileged backgrounds studying in Govt.U.P.S.,Palkulangara. In the spirit of friendship, students from both schools presented cultural programs together, participated in fun activities, told stories, and shared their food. The support and response from students was overwhelming. Visit for more details.


Filed under: Article of the Week, In conversation, Library in the News

The Father of Social Networking


With Facebook, 25 year-old Mark Zuckerberg, turned a dorm-room diversion into a cultural phenomenon. His next goal? To finally turn the company profitable.

Interview with Mark Zuckerberg

Newsweek Web Exclusive

Jul 22, 2009 | Updated: 10:05  a.m. ET Jul 22, 2009


It’s the stuff of dotcom legend. Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg and a few friends hack into the university’s photo ID database and create a site for students to rate and/or berate their classmates’ pictures. Since Facebook’s launch in 2004, it’s become a cultural phenomenon that’s outgrown its Ivy League origins, into middle America and started to expand into countries around the world. NEWSWEEK’s Dan Lyons spoke with Zuckerberg about Facebook’s rapid growth, how it’s reshaped how we think about privacy and whether the site can get too big for its own good. Excerpts:

In just five years, Facebook has attracted 250 million members and become a huge cultural phenomenon. Could you ever have imagined this when you were starting out in your dorm room at Harvard?
Well, no. It was a really interesting time. Like a lot of college kids, we spent a lot of time talking about abstract things that interested us and how things in world would play out, about trends in technology. We were looking at all this over late-night pizza, while we were hanging out. We thought that during our lifetimes the way people negotiated their identity and their privacy would be changed. There would be a lot more information, and a lot more transparency. That was really interesting to us. At the same time we had no idea that we would build a business that would shape that in any way. I was just building something that would let me and the people around me stay in touch. But then it just kind of grew and grew. The cool irony is that now we are able to have an impact on some of those lofty things we used to discuss in our college dorm room.

Has Facebook changed our ideas about privacy?
I think social norms have evolved a bit. When we were just getting started five years ago, people were not sure whether they wanted to put anything about themselves on the Internet at all. It was more about control. People want to feel that they can put something up and can control who sees it and if they want to take it down, they can do that. By giving people that control, we enable them to share more stuff. The debate about privacy is really a debate about control. The system we’re building is one that strives to give people more control over their information.

What will Facebook look like five years from now?
Facebook will be less about and more about this underlying system and platform that we’re building. What we’re trying to do is be more about letting people use their information on any site or platform they want. We launched Facebook Connect last year, and we now have more than 15,000 sites using it, and that’s just a start. Within five years we hope to have hundreds of millions of  [more] people using Facebook. But it’s more about using the system to make other sites more social.

How big can Facebook get? Is there a limit on the number of members you can support? Will you reach 1 billion members?
It’s always hard to say what is the ultimate size that things can get to, but this is a pretty universal application. An application that lets people stay connected is something that a lot of people can use. But it’s very hard to predict.

As you add more users you need to keep expanding your data center, too. How can you get revenues to catch up with the growing cost of operating the site?
We’ve gone from 25 million users at about this time in 2007 to 250 million users just more than two years later. That’s been pretty crazy. We have 15 billion photos on the site, and we add a billion new photos every month. For a while we’ve had a strategy of just expanding and getting lots of people on the site. The primary value of the site is having other people on the site. A lot of people were critical of us, saying we were not focused enough on revenue and wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves. But in reality, more users means more revenue. As we grow, we will become increasingly profitable.

What have been the biggest decisions you’ve made in the past few years?
One thing was making a site that was translated to most of the languages that people speak in the world. We built a system where users could contribute different translations and vote on the translations. The result is we’ve been able to translate into all these languages and dialects and variants. We now support languages that are spoken by 97 percent of the world.

What exactly is Facebook? How do you think of it?
I think Facebook is who people really are. We use this term the social graph, and the verb we use is mapping it out. We think the social graph exists in the world. We try to give people the ability to map out as much of their real identity as possible. We’re far from the real result. But we have a start.

What do you worry about the most?
Right now is a time when we are growing well in a lot of different ways. Our user base is expanding quickly. Our revenue is growing well. We’re doing well in recruiting, and adding some awesome people to our company. The question is how do we maintain this? How do we keep on growing? How do we have the full impact that we want to have.

One of your investors is buying shares from employees—letting them cash out early. I’ve heard you were not crazy about this. Is that true?
No, I’m really happy that people have a chance to do this. Back in the early days I had the chance during one of our funding rounds to get a bit of liquidity. It meant that in making decisions about Facebook I didn’t have to worry about the short term. I could just work on making Facebook as good as possible, and optimize it for 10 to 20 years out. To the extent that other people have the chance to do that now, it would be a healthy thing.

You really think in terms of 10 to 20 years out?
Yes, I think this is a long-term thing. There is still a lot of growth. In all these dimensions—users, advertisers—the peak is not for a long time. A lot of that is our willingness to align incentives of everyone at the company for the long term.

Filed under: In conversation, ,

The truth according to Archer


Interviewed by Ziya US Salam

Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Courtesy: The Hindu


He sells a thousand copies a day. Almost 30 years after its publication, his Kane and Abel is still in demand. A bit of a surprise that Jeffrey Archer calls his latest book, A Prisoner of Birth his best yet, and adds quietly in the ear, “I enjoy short stories better though. I have received greater critical acclaim”.


The short stories will have to wait a while, for, Archer is on a Landmark 11-day, six-city tour of India, his first as an author. Prompted by a friend in New York, Archer was advised that “a trip to India was more important than one to the U.S.”. India, he decided then and there, even stepping beyond the metropolises like Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai to go to Lucknow and Pune. “There are more readers in India than the U.S. With some 200 millions readers here, that is almost the size of the U.S. population. There are at least 50 million serious readers in this country. For me Japan was a big market, but India is emerging as huge now. I got some 5,40,000 hits on my website last month and almost a quarter were from India.”

Little wonder, Archer has been busy giving media interviews, signing copies of the book before heading for a formal release of A Prisoner of Birth in the evening. How does he squeeze in so much into one day?

“I write for two hours daily. My preferred time is from six to eight in the morning. But I had to write for about eight hours a day for 50 days non-stop to complete A Prisoner of Birth. That was for the first draft. The book has had 17 drafts.”

Wasn’t it a test of patience?

“No. When you see that millions of people write to you, and a thousand people pick up a copy of the book some 30 years after it is written, you don’t feel tired. That is just the energy kick you need.”

What is the secret of his success? Is it the fact that he is never short on controversies? Never away from headlines? From the brink of bankruptcy to a stint in prison, he has experienced it all.

“The books don’t sell because of the controversies. You got to be a story-teller, not a writer. If you look at Patrick White or Nadine Gordimer, they won all the prizes but how many copies do they sell? A few years down the line only academics would be reading them. People are reading my books and writing to me, talking about them. I am just back from a tour of Australia, the U.S. and of course my country U.K. A Prisoner of Birth is number one in every country it has been released so far. It became the bestseller in Britain within two days of the launch.

“A controversy helps you only if you have interesting things happening to you. Then you write better. But not much has happened in my life for the past six years and I have still written three books, been to theatre, attended art shows and done charity. I don’t need controversy to drive me on. The media does.”

Then he gets a bit acerbic with the media that has always attributed his success to every factor other than his own ability. There have been murmurs about his wife’s contribution, of his bad original drafts having to be polished by the editors and the like. Not to ignore the accusations that the man generates controversies to feed the author in him. “If the books were rubbish nobody would buy them. Success is not generated by controversy. In the end the reading public decides. And thank God for that. The reader is not bothered about any controversy. He is concerned about the quality of the book. I am what I am. I am a positive person. I have not allowed anything to come in the way, focus of my book. The journalists cannot handle my success. They thrive on controversies, not me. The readers like story-telling, love a tale, a yarn. The great writers appeal to intellectuals, a storyteller appeals to everybody. Whether it is Charles Dickens or Tolstoy or Jane Austen, it is the story that matters. Rudyard Kipling is still read in this country and thought wonderful. I am first and foremost a story-teller.”

Not quite enamoured of some of the big Indian names dotting the international literary firmament, Archer is a keen observer, a big-hearted man, generous with compliments. On the one hand, he comes across as an indulgent elder, who notices a child’s scribble on a notepad, and says, “Oh! The kids! They don’t know notebooks are for writing!” On the other hand, he does not hold back from expressing his opinion, even if it means not winning new friends with his words. In the middle of an animated discussion on his new book, he sneaks in a half sentence in a whisper-like fashion, “Can you jot down the name of one Indian guy I should read? Quick, give me a name.” It is not a query, just a little remark on the paucity of great story-tellers from India. But considering he gets so much mail from India, and his books are as popular in the book shops of five-star hotels as they are with the humble book vendor in down town railway stations, should he be writing more about India? “I don’t write much about India in my books because I am not qualified. For instance, it is only after coming here that I have discovered there is a huge market for translations in India and some of the regional languages have a huge readership. It was the same with Japan. I have had great readership in Japan, but it does not figure prominently in my work. If I were to speak about India and Indians in my books, it would be the same as an Indian writer talking of somebody living in Bristol without having any first-hand experience. It would be unwise to tread on unfamiliar territories. My characters are based in the U.S., U.K. That is the world I am confident talking about. I do politics, revenge, big business through my characters there. Others do it better for India and Indians.”

Now that he is here, having criss-crossed the country by touching places like Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Delhi, Archer is keen to find publishers for his work in Indian languages. “I am read in 131 languages across 137 countries. Indian rights are very important to me. I would love to have a Tamil, a Hindi or a Malayalam version of my latest book.” Of course, he struggles to pronounce the names of the languages but that does not dissuade him from proudly proclaiming, “I probably sell more here than most much feted names.”

Some candour. There is more to come. “I absolutely adore Vikram Seth. He is a genius. I loved his book, A Suitable Boy. He can do anything. I am surprised he does not open the batting for India! He can play the violin, he does poetry. He is pretty special. I am a huge fan.”

One thing he would very much like to do is to be able to go back to his short stories. “Oh! They are my favourites. I have got a lot of critical acclaim with them. They are a hard medium, very different to novels but I enjoy them immensely.”

Some 30 books in 32 years — his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less came in 1976 — to go with all the accusations of perjury, misappropriation of funds and the like. How does Archer find the solitude for his work?

“Again, I don’t allow things to affect me. I think of my readers, and then words come easy,” he says. He might be a prolific writer and a fine orator but listening is not his forte. “I have a problem,” he admits modestly. May be, some day, he would use the condition to put together a book on the subject, having used every calamity in his challenging career as an opportunity to pen a fresh book. He put together A Prison Diary based on his jail experience in the perjury and conspiracy case.

Amidst all the challenges, he manages to sneak in time for charity. “I do charity auctions in the evening. I did one for Ian Botham last week for leukaemia. We need to raise 2.5 million pounds a year.”

Well, if A Prisoner of Birth does half as well as Kane and Abel, he would be able and willing to help!

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny


Less (1976): His first book stemmed out of necessity. His investments had gone so horribly wrong that he was almost bankrupt. He wielded the pen to ward off accusations of being insolvent, and the result was a book he calls “a sentimental favourite”.





Kane and Abel (1979): A hugely success


ful book which is “bought by someone somewhere every day”. Almost 30 years after it was published, he calls it “my passport to lasting rapport with reader”. The book sells many more copies through pirated versions across India.

The Prodigal Daughter (1982): Back in the news thanks to the Clinton campaign in the U.S., the protagonist is inspired by the lives of the five women Prime Ministers of the world at that time. “I worked with Margaret Thatcher. So some influence is natural and unavoidable,” is all he offers by way of tribute to the lady.

Twelve Red Herrings (1994): “My favourite” is how Archer sums up the 1994 short story collection. But then that is the expression he has also reserved for Kane and Abel and A Prisoner of Birth!

False Impression (2006): A lady is murdered on the eve of 9/11 in this book where Archer takes his readers to Tokyo, a rarity considering his characters operate out of the U.S. and the U.K.

A Prisoner of Birth (2008): Archer calls it a modern day version of The Count of Monte Cristo. This latest book uses his prison experience to the fullest with the story of a guy accused of a crime he never committed. “We draw from our experience of life. We are comfortable writing about what we know,” Archer says, indirectly admitting to the influence of his prison years on his book. Incidentally, his two-year imprisonment has lent itself to four books now. “My challenge was to make everything authentic, including getting the guy out of the prison and making the reader believe it.”


Quick takes



On writing to mint money, almost like a factory production…



Who has the time to sit back and understand the classics these days? My books are racy to read. My readers are proof of my success as a writer.



On allegations that his wife writes for him…



Ridiculous. Just rubbish. She is a scientist. She knows nothing about the kind of books I write. I wrote three books in prison, she could not have written them for me.



On thriving on controversy…



You are the first one saying that I thrive on controversies. There have never been any controversies, just different experiences.



His love for cricket…



I absolutely adore Indian cricketers. Sachin Tendulkar has to be among my favourites along with Brian Lara. I also keenly watch the progress of Virender Sehwag and Anil Kumble.



Not much of a T20 fan…would prefer to watch an “India versus England Lord’s Test match with England winning”.



On India…



I have been to Mumbai before but this is my first official visit to India. I love it because Indians are voracious readers. For one mistake in my book, they write six pages to me. I love that too. It shows they read carefully.



Delhi? A green city. I looked out of my hotel conference room, it was all green. Awesome. I am told it is full of heritage landmarks but I would need a separate tour to visit all of them.





l Coming up next…



Archer is working “a script” for a film that he intends to turn into a novel shortly. To be directed by Bruce Beresford, Archers intends to wrap it up shortly. It is based on a real person, a first for Archer.

Filed under: In conversation,

‘Teaching profession is in a deep crisis’


Interview with Prof. Krishna Kumar, Director of the NCERT.

“Far too many people still believe that only the so-called bright or smart children matter and deserve education of the best quality,” says Krishna Kumar. AS Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Prof. Krishna Kumar has brought to his position an awareness of the systemic realities in Indian society’s approach towards Education for All. His sensitivity to the teacher-student relationship and openness to research in teaching methods relevant to Indian conditions have finally brought centre stage some of the exciting educational experiments, notably by Eklavya, the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme and the MV Foundation, among others. Some of these approaches have found place in the school curriculum.

However, the bottlenecks in democratising the school system persist. Krishna Kumar has gone on record to say: “There is plenty of evidence to say that India’s present-day society lacks the desire to see every child at school.”

For years, he and other educationists such as Anil Sadgopal and Shantha Sinha have been warning that the government school system founded on the Indian Constitution will collapse unless a genuine national effort is made to prevent it. The far-reaching recommendations of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) and the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) cannot take off “until people stop believing that only the best and the brightest matter … and that only their own children deserve education of the best quality….”

Krishna Kumar is the author of A Pedagogue’s Romance (Oxford). An advocate of peace education, he has written Battle for Peace (Penguin) and Prejudice and Pride, which is a study of Indian and Pakistani history textbooks. Excerpts from an interview with Krishna Kumar:

Education was mentioned no fewer than five times in the United Progressive Alliance’s Common Minimum Programme. But despite the work done by the revived CABE to achieve a national consensus, there is a feeling of


let-down after the initial enthusiasm of 2004. We hear the Prime Minister expressing the hope that the nation’s schooling system will improve. Has the agenda shifted away from education? Education is a long-term investment. To make such an investment generously, one needs faith in the future and the hope that we will get there. For appropriate investments in education we also need socio-political imagination and a social consensus on certain basic ideas, such as the idea that every child matters. In our country such a consensus has yet to emerge. Far too many people still believe that only the so-called bright or smart children matter and deserve education of the best quality.

Also, a lot of people perceive education as a private concern, in the sense that they worry about their own children but don’t feel hurt or pained when they see others’ children exploited or treated badly. In such a social ethos, any government will have difficulty in pushing radical educational reforms.

In 2004, you took over as Director of the NCERT, which guides the State governments and provides replicable materials and models for school education and teacher education. After embarking on a curriculum overhauling e


xercise, in line with the National Policy on Education of 1986, you oversaw the emergence of the NCF in 2005. How representative were the debates and discussions held for this purpose? I am very happy that the Ministry of Human Resource Development enabled the NCERT to build the National Curriculum Framework with the help of the CABE. It is a document with tremendous potential for guiding long-term reforms in the system of school education. A massive attempt was made to enable all representative voices to be heard across the table so that ideas could be sifted. A major concern was to benefit from research, to incorporate its findings in curricular policy. As many as 21 National Focus Groups were set up to cover all major points and areas relevant for curricular redesigning.

Each focus group included not only academicians and educationists from various universities and institutes of teacher education, as well as the NCERT’s own faculty, but also, very importantly, practising schoolteachers from all over the country. Quite a few rural teachers were among them. Their voices had earlier been largely ignored. In addition, we ensured that the voices of the more innovative NGOs [non-governmental organisations] known for their good work in education were also heard. These grassroots organisations had worked where the system had failed to reach, and NCF 2005 mainstreamed their ideas and innovations. The draft NCF also received wide attention and participation from the States. Its final approval by the CABE marked a historic national consensus on pressing issues in education and on the nature of curricular reforms required. We count this as a positive achievement.

The approval of NCF 2005 was followed by the preparation of new syllabi and textbooks with the approval of a National Monitoring Committee. The new syllabi focussed on reorganising knowledge in a psychologically and socially defensible manner. The issue of curricular burden, caused by the incomprehensibility of irrationally assembled syllabi and poorly prepared textbooks, was addressed.

The new textbooks are an entirely new kind of material. The main concern of NCF 2005 was: “Why has education become a burden rather than a source of joy?” The books are based on the recognition that the children construct knowledge with the help of experience and activities. In every area, from science and maths to social science and language children must be given a space to reflect, ask questions, wonder, and probe sources of knowledge outside the textbook. The NCF process has been fruitful in bringing about a major shift in perspective. It permits the child’s view to become the centre of teaching.

Isn’t it a fact that NCF 2005 goes only to elite schools, mostly English medium? Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Schools and private schools? And there, too, it is only after the eighth standard that CBSE [Central


Board of Secondary Education] schools are required to use them? What is being done to promote these curricular guidelines and model textbooks in State-run schools? The NCF is certainly not meant only for elite schools. Its approach and recommendations are for the entire system. A number of its recommendations, in fact, focus on rural schools. It is true that the syllabus and textbooks based on it are being used by all the CBSE schools. But several States, such as Goa, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, have already sought copyright permission to reprint them. So, NCF-based material is also being used in many State schools.

More significantly, quite a few States are currently preparing their own plans for syllabus and textbook reforms. Kerala, Bihar, Mizoram and Punjab are examples of this kind. Within the next few years we expect to see an NCF-oriented curriculum design in these States.

The NCERT had given a one-time grant of Rs.10 lakh to each State in the country to promote NCF in the language of the State and to compare its current syllabus with the syllabus we have proposed, so that a plan for future reforms can be made. Several States have taken up this challenge. This exercise is being carried out with the involvement of State Councils for Educational Research and Training [SCERT] and District Institutes of Education and Training [DIET]. The most recent experience is that of Uttar Pradesh, which organised a seminar in Lucknow and invited all the DIETs to participate in the process of analysing the NCF and its relevance for the State.

Which are the areas in which change is not up to the expectations – such as examination reform and teacher education, both of which will impact the implementation of NCF 2005?


These are two sectors that need urgent attention. A modest beginning has been made in examination reforms. The Council of Boards of School Education [COBSE] has made an effort to build consensus among the 42 school boards in India, on some basics like improving the quality of questions. This is no small matter, and I am happy that the CBSE has taken some concrete steps to include at least some questions of a reflective nature in the examinations to be held in March. It is not clear whether all the subjects will show evidence of this effort, but I am hopeful that the change will be visible. Among other boards, Kerala has taken some measures. Let us see how much change they bring about. Evidently, examination reform is a complex exercise and India has a long way to go before its children can benefit from an improved strategy to assess them. The NCF’s recommendations on other aspects of examination reforms have received scant attention. For instance, it recommends a staggered examination calendar, offering children the freedom to take some papers in March, the remaining later on.

Similarly, the NCF says that children who repeat Class X should have the option of taking a school-based exam for Class X rather than the Board exam if they wish to do so. Schools have welcomed this recommendation, but no Board has moved in this direction. The NCF’s focus group on exam reforms talks about several other measures to reduce stress and to make examination an educative process.

If progress in examination reform has been slow, the case of teacher education is worse. The sector is facing a grim situation, with rampant commercialisation on the one hand and a lifeless, uninspiring B.Ed. curriculum on the other. Quality teacher education programmes such as the B.El. Ed. of the Delhi University, focussing on the specific needs of elementary education, are rare. We need drastic reforms in B.Ed. and other teacher training programmes for primary and pre-primary classes. We are currently designing a new course structure for our own Regional Institutes of Education. It will be a modest beginning. The real power to bring about major changes in this sector lies with the National Council of Teacher Education.

Would you agree that for young people looking for opportunities, teaching is the last option, and a woman’s option? That is, given the status of women, it is not a “serious” profession.


These are very negative trends. Frankly, I feel quite worried about the state of teacher education in the country today. We are in a situation far worse than when the Chattopadhyaya Commission took stock of the issues of ghettoisation of the profession. They made significant recommendations for making teaching attractive and for teachers’ welfare. But after the 1990s and globalisation-related structural adjustment programmes, teaching lost out both in terms of status and in professional autonomy.

And this has happened even as the teacher’s responsibilities have greatly increased. Society does not recognise the contribution of teachers in dealing with the problems that children face today, with many stresses in the social fabric and in families. Nor does the state. With the result, statutory reforms for improving the available provisions for teachers have remained neglected. The profession is in a deep crisis today and in certain parts of the country it is in a shambles, with unqualified, part-time para-teachers serving in place of professionally committed teachers.

The CABE discussions were followed with considerable interest. They ranged from girls’ education and inclusive education, universalisation of secondary education, autonomy of higher educational institutions, inte


gration of culture education in school curriculum, regulatory mechanism for textbooks and parallel textbooks taught in schools outside the government system and financing of higher and technical education. Also, there were discussions on the often repeated promise of neighbourhood schools for all, the Common School System. What is happening to these recommendations? The CABE was a remarkable exercise, and has performed a very important role. If the recommendations given by its sub-committees over the last four years are implemented, they would move India towards a national system of education with improved quality. But the CABE, like the NCERT, is an advisory and not a statutory body. It is only an instrument of dialogue, and has no executive authority.

And yet, despite the different political scenarios and viewpoints, a national consensus was achieved in the deliberations over the NCF in September 2005. The CABE also approved several other reports submitted by its own sub-committees.

The Eleventh Plan has received enormous inputs from these reports – for example, on girls’ education and on incorporation of culture in the curriculum. The report on regulatory mechanisms for textbooks used outside the government system of schools was also approved, but the States have done little in the matter of the recommendations.

On higher education, the CABE approved a range of good proposals, but this is an even more difficult sector for reforms than school education, apparently not only because of its commercial potential but also because several basic reform ideas have been neglected for a very long time. Curricular reforms belong to this category, and it includes the question of orienting college teachers towards communicative and interactive teaching.

The CABE had recommended a Right to Education Bill to implement the 86th Amendment to the Constitution. Are we anywhere near passing this Bill? Will the Bill be passed by the Centre or the States? How will the Bill


negotiate the difficult space of jurisdiction over schools, given that education is a State subject? That is a moot question. The Right to Education Bill, even if it is passed by the Centre, will have to be implemented in the States. So the Government of India decided to formulate a Model Bill for the States to pass. But the States’ response has not been positive. The Fundamental Right to Education Bill has yet to be notified in order to get enforced.

Centre-State relations in this crucial area are complex and have not been properly defined or even examined in the current context. The Centre provides broad orientations and the States are supposed to look after execution plans. We need far greater clarity, we need to put our minds together. It is not so much a political but an administrative issue, which has remained unaddressed since colonial times. For instance, the Kothari Commission back in the 1960s recommended a pattern of 5+3+ 4 years of schooling. This has not happened everywhere. More than 10 States continue with the practice of four years of primary education. Similarly, there are multiple boards of education.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, there are as many as four boards, or streams. We have a backlog of reforms in education, both of a structural and administrative nature. As for the Bill to enforce the right to elementary education with financial support, we need Central legislation.

We live in a very divided society. People just defend themselves and their own interests in everything. [Points to bottled water on the table.] We even drink different kinds of water, and education is like that. It all depends on class, caste, gender. For at least two decades there has been a high value placed on education even by the poorest. But the system has not evolved to the point where their children get the attention they deserve.




Filed under: In conversation,

Talks with a writer


Jayasree Mishra 

Interviewed by

Mr.A. Chandrasekhar

Jaishree, can you update us about your current life and activities there abroad? Though we know you as a writer, our readers know little about you as a person. So kind of you, if you could throw some light upon your family too. Something more about your husband, Rohini, your work etc.

At the moment, I am working as a film censor at the British Board of Film Classification. It’s a job that keeps me quite busy so I have to snatch time to write between that as well as my duties as a wife and mother. I live in London with my husband (his nickname is Dicky). Our daughter, Rohini, has moved to live in a residential college since leaving school but comes to us at the weekends. She’s now 22 and as independent as it is possible to be, given her special needs.

How was your childhood and teenage in Kerala? Can you just enlighten us upon that.

My childhood and teenage years were spent mostly in Delhi, although we traveled down to Kerala during the holidays every year. I went to actually live in Kerala when I first got married as a nineteen year old. These days I make one or two short trips a year to see my mother and other relations in Trivandrum. She moved there after my father passed away 20 years ago.

What made you pen ‘Ancient Promises’?

Joblessness. I’d had to leave my job at the BBC when I was put on the breakfast shift – a news reporting job that involved having to leave the house at 5am to be at the news desk for 6. Since Rohini needed help to get bathed and ready for school in the mornings, this was impossible for me to carry on with. Stuck at home and feeling utterly bored and useless, I started to write a kind of memoir that then grew into the book.

When did you discover yourself as a writer?

I’ve always liked to write. Even as a child, the only homework I used to enjoy was essay writing and I was the only one amongst all my friends who used to write copious letters while on holiday, even if they were never replied to. My first ‘novel’ was written when I was about 10, a pompous little tragedy that was called ‘And the World Marched On’, the title almost definitely stolen from somewhere. But I guess I only took myself seriously as a writer once ‘Ancient Promises’ got published although, even now, there are days when I feel like a bit of an imposter in the literary world. Perhaps when I have a really impressive corpus of work (I count 6 as impressive, so I’m nearly there) and I have the luxury of doing it as a full-time job, I will feel more able to describe myself as a ‘writer’.

You have a strong pedigree, a tradition to boast as a writer. How far did your relationship with the legendary Thakazhi helped you in formating/moulding you as a literary person.

I used to hero-worship Thakazhi Amavan as a kid, seeing him as the only grown-up who did the kind of job I would like to do someday. Whenever he came to Delhi for a seminar or function, the house would suddenly be full of his fans and other well-known writers, such as O.V. Vijayan. An atmosphere would prevail that was completely different to that of my parents’ normal Air Force one. Hanging around the edges of the animated literary or political conversations that always surrounded Thakazhy Amavan, I used to feel as though I were getting a glimpse into some exalted world that was a world away from my mundane one.

When a short story that I wrote as a thirteen year old was published in the Deccan Herald, my father posted a clipping to Amavan who wrote back with the first bit of literary criticism I was to receive. He was a model critic, appreciative but also constructive in his criticism. He picked out one of my descriptions to particularly praise – that of a small girl whose only clean part was the thumb that emerged from her mouth – leaving me with an early, very important lesson in how small observations can serve to present a wealth of information.

Why did you attempt to write a Novel itself for the first time?

Possibly because novels are the genre I most enjoy reading. Perhaps one day, I will try non-fiction or some other form, who knows.

Attempting an Autobiographical Novel-that too revealing some most personal experiences from the life-Dont you ever think of its social consequences?

When I started ‘Ancient Promises’, it was a memoir being written a bit like a long explanatory note to Dicky, my husband, who I felt had never completely understood some of the decisions I had made as a teenager that had affected his life too. It was a private endeavour and I never dreamt at that point that it would ever get published. But, when the manuscript had grown to full-length and an agent was interested in selling it, I obviously panicked at the thought of having something so personal out in the public realm. At that point, I started to ‘fictionalise’ as much of it as was possible without losing the essence of the story and the final result was ‘Ancient Promises’. Thinking about readers and ‘social consequences’ comes only when a writer is assured of being published and, even then, I believe that the best fiction emerges when authors are only trying to tell a story and do not carry any grander agendas in mind.

How did your daughter Rohini respond or react to the novel? Did she know that she too was one of the characters in it?

She recognises my name on the book jackets and her own on the acknowledgements page but I don’t think she really understands what I write about. She certainly knows that I’m writing books when I sit for long boring hours in front of the computer – which really annoys her sometimes. The only bit of the whole thing she’s really interested in are the book launches – which she eagerly looks forward to, calling them ‘book lunches’ as the food served is the most important part to her!

The Novel had in it some strong critical view points against the so called arranged marriages in India. Weren’t you worried about how the Indian/Kerala Community would react to it or accept it?

I completely disagree with that analysis. Far from setting out to rubbish the arranged marriage system, I go to great lengths in ‘Ancient Promises’ to explain how well the system worked for most people in Janu’s immediate circle – her parents, grandparents, uncles – which is why she herself succumbs to it so hopefully. The fact that it did not work for her was down to all sorts of other factors that the book attempts to explain, both on a practical and philosophical level.

Having said that, I was anxious about the reaction I thought I may get from Kerala readers in my presentation of life in its upper social circles as being sometimes not the most conducive to women’s freedom and emancipation. Consequently, I was both surprised and relieved when I received so much positive endorsement of that view from different quarters – from critics and ordinary readers. The only way a society can progress and improve is when it is willing to be self-critical, rather than hang onto false notions of its own greatness. Too often, I had heard fellow Malayalis praise our home state for its hundred percent literacy rates and the many other statistics we share with the developed world and – while I too take great pride in those facts – it seemed doubly sad that, despite them, we still allowed deep-seated conservatism and orthodoxies to keep women from achieving their full potential. Nothing could have delighted me more than suddenly realising that there were enough Malayalis (home-grown and of the diaspora) who felt the same way as me and who seemed to appreciate my honesty.

Ancient Promises has a philosophical touch in its nomenclature. What prompted you to select such a name to your first work.

It’s not just in the name – that philosophical thread runs all through the book and was essentially Janu’s way of understanding and coming to terms with the birth of her child and her broken marriage.

Why did you resort to a Male point of view in narrating the sequel? As against Janu, you have made the Male counterpart, the protagonist of ‘Afterwards’. Why is it so?

‘Afterwards’ is not quite a sequel but I realise that to a lot of people it felt like one. The male point of view was a deliberate effort on my part to try something different. As I said earlier, I’m still discovering and experimenting as a writer and enjoying every minute of it. My second book was a comedy of manners, the one I’m writing now is an historical novel. Heaven knows what will come next!

Priya A.S in her forward in Janmandhara vagdanangal has referred to your college days. Who were and are your most intimate friends? Do you still have such relationships in Kerala?

Yes, Priya and I first met at Prof. Madhukar Rao’s MA tutorials. It was a time in my life when I was quite deeply unhappy but, up in that little ‘Bamboo House’ on the roof of Prof MR’s house, was a lot of laughter and fun that helped me face other things. My closest friends are still my old schoolmates in Delhi – we’ve stayed in touch over the years, through thick and thin. Obviously, my life in England has brought many new friends too but I suppose it will always be difficult to form a very deep bond with people who have not known you since you were a gawky teenager, making the same mistakes as you.

Among the two translations, Janmandara Vagdanangal and Shesham, which is your favourite and why?

That’s a very difficult question – a bit like asking a mother to decide which of her two children she likes better! I got very lucky, both times around, to have DeeCee Books find such excellent, skilled and dedicated translators for my books and I feel absolutely terrible that my Malayalam is not good enough for me to be able to read for myself what I am told by other people are very good translations.

Have you ever regretted being a woman?

The kind of life I lead now has no room for that kind of regret but, purely on practical grounds, it’s still a thought I might occasionally entertain, such as when I feel unsafe walking alone down a dark street.

However, when I was younger and living in Kerala, I spent considerable time dwelling on that regret, imagining that, as a boy, I would have had better opportunities to fulfil my potential and less pressure to conform. It seemed unfair somehow (as Janu says in the book too) that abstruse things like family honour have to be carried on the shoulders of daughters, rather than sons. Arundhati Roy’s ‘GoST’ also deals with that socially accepted inequality when she describes the old matriarch Mammachi’s willingness to understand and accept Chacko’s ‘male needs’ but not, of course, her daughter’s.

What is your view point of Women empowerment and Womens liberation?

Women all over the world have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves equal partners to men. We not just lack the same opportunities that men have, we struggle to cope when we do have them because of on-going social expectations that we will be the nurturers and carers and home-makers as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, for women who do choose to make that their vocation but I know too many working women, even in the West, who – despite being equal earning members – put immense pressure on themselves to be perfect in every way. Perfect wives, perfect mothers – when all those notions of perfection have been put in place by very clever men who are the only people who benefit by it. Despite vast strides taken by generations following mine, it’s still, sadly, a man’s world but we can keep chipping away!

Do you believe that women in Kerala are free? Do you think that women’s literacy make them independent?

Women in Kerala are relatively well off than many others elsewhere in India, our state having been blessed with its traditions of matriliny, education and, in some way, communism too. But somewhere along the way, it became convenient to simply slip into the patriarchal ways followed in most parts of the world. Strangely, it has been my observation that poorer women or those from the working classes in Kerala are more empowered than their sisters in the so-called upper classes who struggle far more against what society expects of them. Literacy alone cannot solve everything. It can go some way in widening people’s minds but there are some pretty deep-seated attitudes that must change too – both male and female. It must never be seen, for instance, as undignified or ‘infra-dig’ for a woman from a ‘good’ family to want to have a career, even if she has no monetary reason for doing so. Financial independence is one of the quickest ways to gain genuine independence and sometimes even freedom of thought.

What according to you are the vices and strengths of Kerala women?

I don’t much like generalisations but I would like to say that, from my observations, Kerala women are generally a lot more well-informed and politically aware than their counterparts in other states.

A vice? Perhaps that we are too inhibited and self-conscious. It may be worth taking a leaf out of the book of Punjabi women who, even aged 60 or 70, would not hesitate to dance and sing uproariously as a family wedding. It may look silly but I guess they know how to have more fun than we do. I’d love to get rid of those proverbial ‘four people’ whom people in Kerala are always worrying about and who really do spoil much of life’s enjoyment.

What do you feel about your fellow newbreed writers like Arundhathi Roy, Sunethra Gupta, Radhika Jha and the lot?

Superbly talented. I recall my editor at Penguin UK saying once that nobody uses English more imaginatively than Indian and Irish writers. I’d like to add that it’s Indian women writers who have shown themselves to be especially good at hitting the right notes. We often get criticised for dwelling too much on domestic concerns, the limited sphere of home, hearth, heart. But isn’t that where life’s biggest dramas are played out? It’s much cleverer, I believe, to be able to describe human endeavours using that ‘two-inch bit of ivory’ that Jane Austen luckily made available to us all.

Who is your most favourite author?

I don’t have favourite writers as much as favourite books – Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ and Seth’s ‘Suitable Boy’ among Indian writers. My favourite book of all time – Harpers Lee’s

To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Do you watch Malayalam movies? If so, who is your favourite actor and actress and why?

I used to watch Mal films quite a lot when I lived in Kerala but get less opportunities now – unless one comes in to be classified for a UK release. I think the last one that I saw at work was ‘For the People’ which was quite interesting but gave us problems in terms of classification because of its bloody violence.

What are your favourite dress and dishes?

The most comfortable and elegant item of apparel has to be a well-made salwaar kameez.

It’s hard to choose a favourite dish but one that will stay in my mind forever is the most fantastic mampazham pulisheri made by my friend Das Sreedharan (who has a chain of Kerala restaurants in London), especially since it was a dish I used to hate as a child when it appeared on the table everyday in the summer months. When Penguin UK were launching ‘Ancient Promises’, their publicist made a mad search of London to find a Kerala restaurant and that was how I first met Das – and had the luck to have him personally cook his pulisheri for us.

What are your future projects?

At the moment, my historical novel is nearing completion. It’s based on the life of the Rani of Jhansi, has a big canvas backdrop of the uprising of 1857 and is the book that I’ve worked hardest on so far. When that is done, I’ve promised my friend Mala Dayal that I’ll write something for children. She worries that Indian children are not getting enough home-grown literature and still go for what the western market produces – eg. Harry Potter. She is, rightly, starting a campaign to get Indian writers like me, who write in English, to turn their hand to children’s writing so that urban Indian children can have Indian settings and role models to look to. I already have an idea bubbling away at the back of my mind, as always happens as one book starts drawing to a close, and now have to somehow squeeze precious time from somewhere to be able to sit down and get on with it.

Filed under: In conversation, ,

Talks with a writer

 John Grisham

(alternate text)
Books in the Library by the Author

Call No                  Title
823 GRI-B         Broker
823 GRI-B         Brethren
823 GRI-C         Chamber
823 GRI-I          Innocent man
823 GRI-L         Last juror
823 GRI-P         Painted house
823 GRI-P         Playing for pizza
823 GRI-P         Pelican brief
823 GRI-R         Runaway jury
823 GRI-R         Rainmaker

For writers struggling to get an agent or a publisher, it’s almost too big of a dream to think of reaching the best-seller list. Now, think of being the top-selling author, in the world, for an entire decade. John Grisham reached that almost impossible pinnacle. He was the top-selling author of the 1990s, and including his work in this new century, he totals more than 100 million books sold. 

His books continue to dominate the publishing landscape. When his most recent novel, The Broker, was published in January of 2005, it sold more than 80,000 copies in its first week of release. And that figure only includes sales at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Waldenbooks.

Grisham has worn his success well over the years. He remains accessible, personable, and friendly. And he uses his powerful position to benefit a number of worthy causes. He endowed a visiting writer position at the University of Mississippi that attracts prestigious authors to Oxford each year. He also funded a number of fellowships so that talented students can study in the creative writing department at Ole Miss. He has built athletic fields in Mississippi and Virginia for local little leagues. And he was so affected by the devastation from Hurricane Katrina that he gave $5 million to the relief efforts.

We were honored that Grisham was willing to speak with us about the legends of his publication, his work habits, and his theories of writing suspense.

Slushpile: It’s the late eighties, you’re an attorney, you’ve got a family, and you’ve been a state legislator. What prompted you to add writing a novel to your already busy schedule?

Grisham:  I was driven by a story. I created this wonderful courtroom drama set in a small town in Mississippi, as seen and told through the eyes of a young attorney, like myself. My motives were pure, I was not dreaming of best-seller lists and big fat royalty checks.

Slushpile:  I recently read a claim (inaccurate, I believe) that you self-published A Time to Kill. Can you please set the record straight on how your novel came to be published by Wynwood Press?

Grisham:  Wynwood Press was a new, small unknown publishing company in New York in 1989. Everybody else had passed on A Time to Kill, Wynwood Press took the gamble. Printed 5,000 hardback copies, and we couldn’t give them away. Wynwood later went bankrupt, or out of business.

Slushpile:  Likewise, the story of The Firm publication has been retold and recast into legend. Like a tall tale, aspiring authors often recount this extraordinary set of circumstances and mix in a healthy dose of exaggeration and falsehood. What is the definitive account of how The Firm was published by Doubleday?

Grisham:  A bootlegged copy of the manuscript of The Firm was misappropriated from some unknown place in New York, either the offices of a publisher or an agent. It surfaced in Hollywood, where some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it.

Slushpile:  At what point during the success of The Firm or The Pelican Brief (or maybe it was another book) did you realize that this wasn’t going to go away, that your success wasn’t a temporary accomplishment, but that this was going to be your career?

Grisham:  Just before the publication of The Firm in March of 1991, Doubleday offered a two book deal. At that point, I knew I could write books for a long time and not worry about the mortgage.

Slushpile:  You’ve now authored about 18 books. How have your writing habits changed over the years? Do you do anything differently now as opposed to when you were writing A Time to Kill or The Firm?

Grisham:  Not really. The books are written from August to November, from 6 a.m. to noon, five days a week. Old habits die hard.

Slushpile:  Do you think your work has changed over the years?

Grisham:  Not intentionally, and not to my knowledge. Read The Firm, then read The Broker, and see for yourself. There has been no deliberate effort to change writing style. I have tried over the years to become more efficient with words and produce 400 page manuscripts, as opposed to 500. Also because I have become lazier.

Slushpile:  What are your goals for future books?

Grisham:  My goal each time out is to write my best book ever. It’s that simple.

Slushpile:  Rumors on the Internet claim you are working on a nonfiction book about a death row inmate who turned out to be innocent. Is this true? If so, can you please tell us about this project?

Grisham:  Yes, it’s my first work of nonfiction. It’s a story of a death row inmate in Oklahoma who came within five days of being executed for a murder he did not commit, and was later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Slushpile:  Do you have any writing superstitions? Do you have any special habits, good luck charms, or talismans that you use?

Grisham:  Not really. I write at the same place, same table, same chair, with the same cup and type of coffee. The same computer has produced the last fifteen books, and it’s about to give out. I’m not the superstitious type.

Slushpile:  How do you think the publishing industry as a whole has changed since the late eighties, early nineties when you were first established? Do you think it has changed for the better or for the worse?

Grisham:  Obviously, there are fewer small publishers, more larger ones, much more consolidation. Truthfully, I don’t spend a lot of time studying the publishing industry. That may sound odd, but I concern myself with what I am writing. I rely on Doubleday to take care of the rest.

Slushpile:  Once you’ve turned in a manuscript, how long does it take Doubleday to get it on the shelves.

Grisham:  The first draft is usually in by November first, then a furious three weeks of revisions, with the goal of finishing finally by Thanksgiving of each year. The books go to press on December the first, then to the warehouses. They usually go on sale February first.

Slushpile:  Clive Cussler’s character Dirk Pitt has a Doxa diving watch as sort of a trademark item. Is there something you own or enjoy that you give to your characters? Airplanes seem to appear frequently in your work. Is this a fascination of yours?

Grisham:  Nothing in particular. I started flying and buying airplanes about 10 years ago, but it’s not a passion.

Slushpile:  Your fellow Doubleday author Dan Brown is enjoying a phenomenal amount of success and J.K. Rowling seems to set a new publishing record every day. As one of the few writers who know what they are experiencing, what words of advice would you give to Brown and Rowling?

Grisham:  Everything is temporary. The books will not always sell the way they are selling now, so enjoy the success but don’t let it go to your head.

Slushpile:  Both of those authors seem more private, more reticent with interviews and public appearances. If you could start all over again, do you think you might try to reserve a little more privacy for yourself and your family?

Grisham:  Probably so, but we’ve always been extremely private.

Slushpile:  What are you reading these days? What is the last book (fiction or nonfiction) that really excited and enthralled you?

Grisham:  I’m reading a biography of Willie Morris. The last good book I read was The March by E.L. Doctorow.

Slushpile:  Your friend Stephen King got a lot of attention, deservedly so, for stepping in and helping out Ron McLarty by endorsing The Memory of Running. He also got a lot of attention for taking the publishing industry to task in its rejection of McLarty’s work. Have you ever been tempted to help an unknown writer in such a public way? Would you ever do such a thing if a book really moved you?

Grisham:  I look at more unpublished manuscripts than I care to admit. With each one, I am always hoping to discover a great writer. I have yet to do so, but if it happened I’m sure I would make a few phone calls.

Slushpile:  You have helped writers by establishing the John & Renee Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence program that bring authors to the University of Mississippi to teach each year. T.R. Pearson was the first writer to hold this position and you became friends with him. How did you meet Mr. Pearson?

Grisham:  We met through mutual friends at Square Books in Oxford.

Slushpile:  You never took any writing classes but have said that you wished you did. If you could study with any writer, who would you choose?

Grisham:  Mark Twain.

Slushpile:  Aspiring authors are always told the importance of getting the “right” agent. What advice would you give them about selecting the right agent?

Grisham:  Take a long look at the other authors represented by the same firm.

Slushpile:  How involved is your editor? How closely does he work with you? What is your working process like?

Grisham:  Editing is not an enjoyable process. The editor, who is also my agent, looks at the second draft and makes extensive notes. Then I do the third draft, and the fourth and the fifth. The mistake that many big authors make is to get lazy and shy away from careful editing. You can usually tell it in their work.

Slushpile:  I know you’re swamped with strangers approaching you with a manuscript to read, or a CD to hear, or a movie script to review, or a legal case that “only you can solve.” What is the craziest thing you’ve ever had thrust upon you?

Grisham:  Nothing too crazy, just the usual assortment of manuscripts that end up on the front porch or at the office.

Slushpile:  How many times a week does someone come up to you and say “I’ve got this fantastic idea for a book. I’ll tell it to you, you write it, and we’ll split the profits.”

Grisham:  They don’t always mention splitting the profits. That normally comes in the second conversation. But, about twice a month someone will say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for your next book.” At which time I always say, “So do I.”

Slushpile:  If you were starting out today, how would you go about finding an agent or publisher?

Grisham:  I’d do it the same way I did it 16 years ago. I researched the agents, made a list of about 20 I thought looked promising, and did multiple submissions to them. If your writing is good, an agent will see it, sooner or later. There are many agents in New York, and they are all looking for authors.

Slushpile:  Let’s say an aspiring author can focus on writing a music column that will get him a lot of exposure, but it’s not fiction, it’s not his goal for writing. Should he concentrate on getting the exposure and building a name for himself? Or, should he focus on making his fiction as good as possible and worry about exposure later?

Grisham:  Make the fiction as good as possible, and everything else will fall into place.

Slushpile:  The Broker features quite a bit of discussion about Italian culture, food and geography. These sections are crucial to the plot, but there is still a danger of making the novel too much of a travel guide instead of a thriller. How did you balance the pacing of these discussions without losing too much of the actual “story” sections?

Grisham:  When you write suspense, you cannot spend too much time with other elements of the story, such as setting, food, wine, relationships, etc. It’s a long list. You have to continually keep in mind that you are trying to make sure the pages are turning at a rapid rate.

Slushpile:  How do you develop your plots? How detailed and developed are your plots when you start writing the novel? Do you use outlines or any other mechanism?

Grisham:  Outlines are crucial. I start with Chapter 1 and write a paragraph. Then Chapter 2, then Chapter 3. When I get to Chapter 40 the book had better be finished or I am in trouble. The outlining process is no fun, but it forces the writer to see the entire story.

Slushpile:  Some thriller or mystery writers focus almost exclusively on plot while others try to create a specific atmosphere and still others develop character and so forth. What is your main focus when telling a story?

Grisham:  Plot.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Grisham:  Write at least one page every day, without fail. If you’re trying to write a book, and you’re not writing at least one page a day, then the book is not going to get written.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print.

Grisham:  Get a good agent.


Filed under: In conversation, ,

Talk with a writer


Leaping the Abyss

Stephen Hawking on black holes, unified field theory, and Marilyn Monroe.

Stephen Hawking seemed slightly worse, as always. It is a miracle that he has clung to life for over 20 years with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Each time I see him I feel that this will be the last, that he cannot hold on to such a thin thread for much longer.

Hawking turned 60 in January. Over the course of his brilliant career, he has worked out many of the basics of black hole physics, including, most strikingly, his prediction that black holes aren’t entirely black. Instead, if they have masses equivalent to a mountain’s, they radiate particles of all kinds. Smaller holes would disappear in a fizz of radiation — a signature that astronomers have searched for but so far not found.

The enormous success of Hawking’s 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, has made him a curious kind of cultural icon. He wonders how many of the starlets and rock stars who mentioned the book on talk shows actually read it.

With his latest book, The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam), he aims to remedy the situation with a plethora of friendly illustrations to help readers decipher such complex topics as superstring theory and the nature of time. The trick is translating equations into sentences, no mean feat. The pictures help enormously, though purists deplore them as oversimplified. I feel that any device is justified to span such an abyss of incomprehension.

When I entered Stephen’s office at the University of Cambridge, his staff was wary of me, plainly suspecting I was a “civilian” harboring a crank theory of the universe. But I’d called beforehand, and then his secretary recognized me from years past. (I am an astrophysicist and have known Stephen since the 1970s.) When I entered the familiar office his shrunken form lolled in his motorized chair as he stared out, rendered goggle-eyed by his thick glasses — but a strong spirit animated all he said.

Hawking lost his vocal cords years ago, to an emergency tracheotomy. His gnarled, feeble hands could not hold a pen. For a while after the operation he was completely cut off from the world, an unsettling parallel to those mathematical observers who plunge into black holes, their signals to the outside red-shifted and slowed by gravity’s grip to dim, whispering oblivion.

A Silicon Valley firm came to the rescue. Engineers devised tailored, user friendly software and a special keyboard for Hawking. Now his frail hand moved across it with crablike speed. The software is deft, and he could build sentences quickly. I watched him flit through the menu of often-used words on his liquid crystal display, which hung before him in his wheelchair. The invention has been such a success that the Silicon Valley folk now supply units to similarly afflicted people worldwide.

“Please excuse my American accent,” the speaker mounted behind the wheelchair said with a California inflection. He coded this entire remark with two keystrokes.

Although I had been here before, I was again struck that a man who had suffered such an agonizing physical decline had on his walls several large posters of a person very nearly his opposite: Marilyn Monroe. I mentioned her, and Stephen responded instantly, tapping one-handed on his keyboard, so that soon his transduced voice replied, “Yes, she’s wonderful. Cosmological. I wanted to put a picture of her in my latest book, as a celestial object.” I remarked that to me the book was like a French Impressionist painting of a cow, meant to give a glancing essence, not the real, smelly animal. Few would care to savor the details. Stephen took off from this to discuss some ideas currently booting around the physics community about the origin of the universe, the moment just after the Big Bang.

Stephen’s great politeness paradoxically made me ill at ease; I was acutely aware of the many demands on his time, and, after all, I had just stopped by to talk shop.

“For years my early work with Roger Penrose seemed to be a disaster for science,” Stephen said. “It showed that the universe must have begun with a singularity, if Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct. That appeared to indicate that science could not predict how the universe would begin. The laws would break down at the point of singularity, of infinite density.” Mathematics cannot handle physical quantities like density that literally go to infinity. Indeed, the history of 20th century physics was in large measure about how to avoid the infinities that crop up in particle theory and cosmology. The idea of point particles is convenient but leads to profound, puzzling troubles.

I recalled that I had spoken to Stephen about mathematical methods of getting around this problem one evening at a party in King’s College. There were analogies to methods in elementary quantum mechanics, methods he was trying to carry over into this surrealistic terrain.

“It now appears that the way the universe began can indeed be determined, using imaginary time,” Stephen said. We discussed this a bit. Stephen had been using a mathematical device in which time is replaced, as a notational convenience, by something called imaginary time. This changes the nature of the equations, so he could use some ideas from the tiny quantum world. In the new equations, a kind of tunneling occurs in which the universe, before the Big Bang, has many different ways to pass through the singularity. With imaginary time, one can calculate the chances for a given tunneling path into our early universe after the beginning of time as we know it.

“Sure, the equations can be interpreted that way,” I argued, “but it’s really a trick, isn’t it?”

Stephen said, “Yes, but perhaps an insightful trick.”

“We don’t have a truly deep understanding of time,” I replied, “so replacing real time with imaginary time doesn’t mean much to us.”

“Imaginary time is a new dimension, at right angles to ordinary, real time,” Stephen explained. “Along this axis, if the universe satisfies the ‘no boundary’ condition, we can do our calculations. This condition says that the universe has no singularities or boundaries in the imaginary direction of time. With the ‘no boundary’ condition, there will be no beginning or end to imaginary time, just as there is no beginning or end to a path on the surface of the Earth.”

“If the path goes all the way around the Earth,” I said. “But of course, we don’t know that in imaginary time there won’t be a boundary.”

“My intuition says there will be no blocking in that special coordinate, so our calculations make sense.”

“Sense is just the problem, isn’t it? Imaginary time is just a mathematical convenience.” I shrugged in exasperation at the span between cool mathematical spaces and the immediacy of the raw world; this is a common tension in doing physics. “It’s unrelated to how we feel time. The seconds sliding by. Birth and death.”

“True. Our minds work in real time, which begins at the Big Bang and will end, if there is a Big Crunch — which seems unlikely, now, from the latest data showing accelerating expansion. Consciousness would come to an end at a singularity.”

“Not a great consolation,” I said.

He grinned. “No, but I like the ‘no boundary’ condition. It seems to imply that the universe will be in a state of high order at one end of real time but will be disordered at the other end of time, so that disorder increases in one direction of time. We define this to be the direction of increasing time. When we record something in our memory, the disorder of the universe will increase. This explains why we remember events only in what we call the past, and not in the future.”

“Remember what you predicted in 1980 about final theories like this?” I chided him.

“I suggested we might find a complete unified theory by the end of the century.” Stephen made the transponder laugh dryly. “OK, I was wrong. At that time, the best candidate seemed to be N=8 supergravity. Now it appears that this theory may be an approximation to a more fundamental theory, of superstrings. I was a bit optimistic to hope that we would have solved the problem by the end of the century. But I still think there’s a 50-50 chance that we will find a complete unified theory in the next 20 years.”

“I’ve always suspected that the structure never ends as we look to smaller and smaller scales — and neither will the theories,” I offered.

“It is possible that there is no ultimate theory of physics at all. Instead, we will keep on discovering new layers of structure. But it seems that physics gets simpler, and more unified, the smaller the scale on which we look. There is an ultimate length scale, the Planck length, below which space-time may just not be defined. So I think there will be a limit to the number of layers of structure, and there will be some ultimate theory, which we will discover if we are smart enough.”

“Does it seem likely that we are smart enough?” I asked.

Another grin. “You will have to get your faith elsewhere.”

“I can’t keep up with the torrent of work on superstrings.” Mathematical physics is like music, which a young and zesty spirit can best seize and use, as did Mozart.

“I try,” he said modestly.

We began discussing recent work on “baby universes” — bubbles in space-time. To us large creatures, space-time is like the sea seen from an ocean liner, smooth and serene. Up close, though, on tiny scales, it’s waves and bubbles. At extremely fine scales, pockets and bubbles of space-time can form at random, sputtering into being, then dissolving. Arcane details of particle physics suggest that sometimes — rarely, but inevitably — these bubbles could grow into a full-fledged universe.

This might have happened a lot at the instant just immediately after the Big Bang. Indeed, some properties of our universe may have been created by the space-time foam that roiled through those infinitesimally split seconds. Studying this possibility uses the “wormhole calculus,” which samples the myriad possible frothing bubbles (and their connections, called wormholes).

Averaging over this foam in a mathematical sense, smoothing its properties a bit, Hawking and others have tried to find out whether a final, rather benign universe like ours was an inevitable outcome of that early turbulence. The jury isn’t in on this point, and it may be out forever — the calculations are tough, guided by intuition rather than facts. Deciding whether they meaningfully predict anything is a matter of taste. This recalls Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that in matters of great import, style is always more important than substance.

If this picture of the first split second is remotely right, much depends on the energy content of the foam. The energy to blow up these bubbles would be countered by an opposite, negative energy, which comes from the gravitational attraction of all the matter in the bubble. If the outward pressure just balances the inward attraction (a pressure, really) of the mass, then you could get a universe much like ours: rather mild, with space-time not suffering any severe curvature — what astronomers call “flat.” This seems to be so on such relatively tiny scales as our solar system, and flatness prevails even on the size range of our galaxy. Indeed, flatness holds on immense scales, as far as we can yet see.

It turns out that such bubbles could even form right now. An entirely separate space-time could pop into existence in your living room, say. It would start unimaginably small, then balloon to the size of a cantaloupe — but not before your very eyes, because, for quite fundamental reasons, you couldn’t see it.

“They don’t form in space, of course,” Stephen said. “It doesn’t mean anything to ask where in space these things occur.” They don’t take up room in our universe but rather are their own universes, expanding into spaces that did not exist before.

“They’re cut off from us after we make them,” I said. “No relics, no fossil?”

“I do not think there could be.”

“Like an ungrateful child who doesn’t write home.” When talking about immensities, I sometimes grasp for something human.

“It would not form in our space, but rather as another space-time.”

We discussed for a while some speculations about this that I had put into two novels, Cosm and Timescape. I had used Cambridge and the British scientific style in Timescape, published in 1980, before these ideas became current. I had arrived at them in part from some wide-ranging talks I had enjoyed with Stephen — all suitably disguised in the books, of course. Such enclosed space-times I had termed “onion universes,” since in principle they could have further locked-away space-times inside them, and so on. It is an odd sensation when a guess turns out to have some substance — as much as anything as gossamer as these ideas can be said to be substantial.

“So they form and go,” I mused. “Vanish. Between us and these other universes lies absolute nothingness, in the exact sense — no space or time, no matter, no energy.”

“There can be no way to reach them,” his flat voice said. “The gulf between us and them is unbridgeable. It is beyond physics because it is truly nothing, not physical at all.”

The mechanical laugh resounded. Stephen likes the tug of the philosophical, and he seemed amused by the notion that universes are simply one of those things that happen from time to time.

His nurse appeared for a bit of physical cleanup, and I left him. Inert confinement to a wheelchair exacts a demeaning toll on one’s dignity, but he showed no reaction to the daily round of being cared for by another in the most intimate way. Perhaps for him, it even helps the mind to slip free of the world’s rub.

I sat in the common room outside his office, having tea and talking to some of his post-doctoral students. They were working on similarly wild ideas and were quick, witty, and keenly observant as they sipped their strong, dark Ceylonese tea. A sharp crew, perhaps a bit jealous of Stephen’s time. They were no doubt wondering who this guy was, nobody they had ever heard of, a Californian with an accent tainted by Southern nuances, somebody who worked in astrophysics and plasma physics — which, in our age of remorseless specialization, is a province quite remote from theirs. I didn’t explain; after all, I really had no formal reason to be there, except that Stephen and I were friends.

Stephen’s secretary quietly came out and asked if I would join Stephen for dinner at Caius College. I had intended to eat in my favorite Indian restaurant, where the chicken vindaloo is a purging experience, and then simply rove the walks of Cambridge alone, because I love the atmosphere — but I instantly assented. Dinner at college high table is one of the legendary experiences of England. I could remember keenly each one I had attended; the repartee is sharper than the cutlery.

We made our way through the cool, atmospheric turns of the colleges, the worn wood and gray stones reflecting the piping of voices and squeaks of rusty bicycles. In misty twilight, student shouts echoing, Stephen’s wheelchair jouncing over cobbled streets. He insisted on steering it himself, though his nurse hovered rather nervously. It had never occurred to me just how much of a strain on everyone there can be in round-the-clock care. A few people drifted along behind us, just watching him. “Take no notice,” his mechanical voice said. “Many of them come here just to stare at me.”

We wound among the ancient stone and manicured gardens, into Caius College. Students entering the dining hall made an eager rumpus. Stephen took the elevator, and I ascended the creaking stairs. The faculty entered after the students, me following with the nurse.

The high table is literally so. They carefully placed Stephen with his back to the long, broad tables of undergraduates. I soon realized that this is because watching him eat, with virtually no lip control, is not appetizing. He follows a set diet that requires no chewing. His nurse must chop up his food and spoon-feed him.

The dinner was noisy, with the year’s new undergraduates staring at the famous Hawking’s back. Stephen carried on a matter-of-fact, steady flow of conversation through his keyboard.

He had concerns about the physicists’ Holy Grail, a unified theory of everything. Even if we could thrash our way through a thicket of mathematics to glimpse its outlines, it might not be specific enough — that is, we would still have a range of choices. Physics could end up dithering over arcane points, undecided, perhaps far from our particular primate experience. Here is where aesthetics might enter.

“If such a theory is not unique,” he said, “one would have to appeal to some outside principle, which one might call God.”

I frowned. “Not as the Creator, but as a referee?”

“He would decide which theory was more than just a set of equations, but described a universe that actually exists.”

“This one.”

“Or maybe all possible theories describe universes that exist!” he said with glee. “It is unclear what it means to say that something exists. In questions like, ‘Does there exist a man with two left feet in Cambridge?,’ one can answer this by examining every man in Cambridge. But there is no way that one can decide if a universe exists, if one is not inside it.”

“The space-time Catch-22.”

“So it is not easy to see what meaning can be given to the question, ‘Why does the universe exist?’ But it is a question that one can’t help asking.”

As usual, the ability to pose a question simply and clearly in no way implied a similar answer — or that an answer even existed.

After the dining hall, high table moved to the senior common room upstairs. We relaxed along a long, polished table in comfortable padded chairs, enjoying the traditional crisp walnuts and ancient aromatic port, Cuban cigars, and arch conversation, occasionally skewered by a witty interjection from Stephen.

Someone mentioned American physicist Stephen Weinberg’s statement, in The First Three Minutes, that the more we comprehend the universe, the more meaningless it seems. Stephen doesn’t agree, and neither do I, but he has a better reason. “I think it is not meaningful in the first place to say that the universe is pointless, or that it is designed for some purpose.”

I asked, “No meaning, then, to the pursuit of meaning?”

“To do that would require one to stand outside the universe, which is not possible.”

Again the image of the gulf between the observer and the object of study. “Still,” I persisted, “there is amazing structure we can see from inside.”

“The overwhelming impression is of order. The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws. If one liked, one could say that this order was the work of God. Einstein thought so.”

One of the college fellows asked, “Rational faith?”

Stephen tapped quickly. “We shouldn’t be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics.”

Walnuts eaten, port drunk, cigars smoked, it was time to go. When we left, Stephen guided his wheelchair through the shadowy reaches of the college, indulging my curiosity about a time-honored undergraduate sport: climbing Cambridge.

At night, young men sometimes scramble among the upper reaches of the steepled old buildings, scaling the most difficult points. They risk their necks for the glory of it. Quite out of bounds, of course. Part of the thrill is eluding the proctors who scan the rooftops late at night, listening for the scrape of heels. There is even a booklet about roof climbing, describing its triumphs and centuries-long history.

Stephen took me to a passageway I had been through many times, a shortcut to the Cam River between high, peaked buildings of undergraduate rooms. He said that it was one of the tough events, jumping across that and then scaling a steep, often slick roof beyond.

The passage looked to be about three meters across. I couldn’t imagine leaping that gap from the slate-dark roofs. And at night, too. “All that distance?” I asked. My voice echoed in the fog.

“Yes,” he said.

“Anybody ever miss?”





His eyes twinkled and he gave us a broad smile. “Yes.” These Cambridge sorts have the real stuff, all right.

In the cool night Stephen recalled some of his favorite science fiction stories. He rarely read any fiction other than science fiction past the age of 12, he said. “It’s really the only fiction that is realistic about our true position in the universe as a whole.”

And how much stranger the universe was turning out than even those writers had imagined. Even when they discussed the next billion years, they could not guess the odd theories that would spring up within the next generation of physicists. Now there are speculations that our universe might have 11 dimensions, all told, all but three of space and one of time rolled up to tiny sizes. Will this change cosmology? So far, nobody knows. But the ideas are fun in and of themselves.

A week after my evening at Cambridge, I got from Stephen’s secretary a transcript of all his remarks. I have used it here to reproduce his style of conversation. Printed out on his wheelchair computer, his sole link with us, the lines seem to come from a great distance. Across an abyss.

Portraying the flinty faces of science — daunting complexity twinned with numbing wonder — demands both craft and art. Some of us paint with fiction. Stephen paints with his impressionistic views of vast, cool mathematical landscapes. To knit together our fraying times, to span the cultural abyss, demands all these approaches — and more, if we can but invent them.

Stephen has faced daunting physical constrictions with a renewed attack on the large issues, on great sweeps of space and time. Daily he struggles without much fuss against the narrowing that is perhaps the worst element of infirmity. I recalled him rapt with Marilyn, still deeply engaged with life, holding firmly against tides of entropy.

I had learned a good deal from those few days, I realized, and most of it was not at all about cosmology.

Filed under: In conversation,

Talk with a writer


Indra Sinha

Man Booker 2007 Nominee

Eyes wide open


I didn’t really want to sound like Salman Rushdie, who actually to me, does a caricature of Indian speech and Indian writing…

The day is an absolute scorcher. I have flown down to Toulouse from Paris, then driven back up north for some 150 kilometres in a rental car, lost my way, and am now at their doorstep, hot, flustered, unsuitably dressed in black and hugely embarrasse d, as much by the lateness of the hour as about arriving empty handed — my gift-wrapped bottle of Chateau Carbonnieux 1998 having been curtly disallowed by airport security.But Booker short-listed novelist Indra Sinha and his wife Vickie are warm and welcoming and dispel my misgivings in the twinkling of an eyelash. “How good are you at mending sluice gates?” Indra asks slyly. “We might need a pair of hands if you feel up to it”.They live in an ancient, re-converted mill and as such are the keepers of the locks that control the water level in their neck of the river. The tiny village of Castelfranc is somnolent in the intense heat as is the stunningly beautiful wine-growing countryside that produces the rich, full-bodied Cahors.

No politics please

In a rambling interview conducted partly in his gravel-strewn garden, munching sweet, early apples and partly indoors over a simple but delicious meal of salad and poached salmon, Indra Sinha talked about growing up in India to Indo-English parents, his years spent in London as a top copywriter (Collett Dickenson Pearce), his involvement with Bhopal, Amnesty and other social causes but also about his book Animal’s People and the media-made(-up) controversy about Indo-Pak rivalry over this year’s Booker. It was the collective spirit of the Bhopalis, he feels, their feisty humour in the face of what they have lived through, that somehow got channelled into the character of Animal.

Sinha seems riled by the comments in the Indian media hinting at Indo-Pak rivalry over this year’s Booker. “Absolutely not true. I met Mohsin (Hamid) at the shortlist party the other day and we embraced each other and we said we’re not going to play along with these reports. We are writers, not politicians,” he says firmly. Nor does he particularly relish how the British reading public tends to question the inclusion of “people from faraway exotic places” on the Booker list. “And then they say things like, ‘Three desis on the Booker List’? It shouldn’t be like that, really, because it completely demeans and denigrates your book. And it’s a bit sad if it’s imputed that you are really there because of tokenism.”

His mother was a writer and he grew up with thousands of books so it wasn’t surprising that he first started writing at the age of ten. “She wrote under the name Rani Sinha and was published mostly in the New Statesman, whose editor John Freeman, liked to nurture new talent. She died in 1986, having left two unfinished manuscripts. My sisters and I plan to make a slim volume of her collected short stories,” he says.


Listen to him talk about growing up in India and you can feel the nostalgia setting in, feel him go back in time to bygone golden days. “I have very vivid memories of being a child running wild in the Western ghats. This would have been during the late 1950s, the same time my mother was writing her stories. India was young then, Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker were kings of cinema and the progressive writers were at their peak. It was a wonderfully optimistic time, a special, unforgettable time”.

There have been attempts to draw parallels between Salman Rushdie and Indra Sinha. Some of the similarities are startling — they were both born in Bombay, attended Cathedral School, went to Cambridge and became advertising executives only to give up lucrative careers in order to write full time. But there the similarities end. Unlike the much-married and gregarious Rushdie, Sinha is quintessentially a family man, deeply devoted to Vickie, his wife of 30 years and their three children. And towards the end of his career in advertising, when, aged 45, he decided to chuck it all up for writing and charity work, he had already taken a completely different route, campaigning for Amnesty International and the Bhopal Medical Appeal with ads that are even today considered amongst the best in their genre.

Cocooned from reality

So what made him go towards the Amnesty and Bhopal appeals? “I think for the first 10 years proper in my career in advertising I was just having fun. London advertising in the 1970s and 80s was full of some very amusing, very clever people who all liked a good time and it was a big laugh and everyone knew each other. We had a very easy lifestyle and we were horribly spoilt, paid far too much. You only had to be seen lunching with the Creative Director of another agency and you’d be summoned by the Managing Director who said, here, have another £20,000 or something like that. It was silly money. I didn’t regard it as real and so there was no reason to open your eyes. And then we were asked to do this pitch for Amnesty and I saw all these pictures…”

Pictures of terribly tortured bodies, of hollowed out people, so gruesome they were unprintable. And that marked a change, he says. “Suddenly in the office someone says, ‘Coming for lunch?’ and you think ‘I don’t want lunch; I don’t feel like eating, I don’t feel like making jokes, I don’t feel like being amusing. I feel destroyed by what I’ve just seen’. That’s how it was.” Close on the heels of a very successful ad campaign that helped Amnesty win many new members, an activist from Bhopal, Sati or Satyunath Sarangi, walked into his life.

“Like many others I was unaware that nothing had been resolved in Bhopal. Nine years after the tragedy to learn that people were struggling on with all these illnesses, that the politicians didn’t want to know, that they’d been sold down the river by Rajiv Gandhi’s government with a settlement so feeble that the company’s share price actually leapt when the news came out… I remember it was a lovely sunny day in the Weald of Sussex when Sati told me. And suddenly I felt as if a dark cloud had descended upon us. I told Sati that the only way I could help was to write but that there was no guarantee of success.”

For a whole year Sinha struggled to find money for the ads. Taking a huge financial and personal risk he inserted a double page spread in the Guardian on the 10th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. “When the ad actually appeared, on a drizzly week-end in December, I was in a bit of a sweat, but when Monday came along, it had covered its cost already. And then it went on to make something like 60 grand so a net profit of £48,000 — enough to buy a building, hire people. So that became the Sambhavna Clinic.” The clinic is still up and running and has treated over 30,000 patients.

He says he owed his “freedom” to his wife Vickie who encouraged him to hand in the letter of resignation he had penned on an impulse on his 45th birthday. “That was a truly fantastic gift,” he smiles. Sinha has since become a familiar figure in Bhopal and that is where he perfected his Hindi. “Growing up with an English mother who spoke no Hindi at all and was divorced from my father at an early age, I didn’t speak any Hindi except Bombay gutter Hindi until I was 10. It was not until I got involved with Bhopal that it became necessary to improve Hindi not just because they don’t speak any English but also because many of the documents are in Hindi. So you just have to learn it.”

Flavours of the street

The peculiar inverted syntax used by Animal in the book has been described by some critics as “Yoda-style” speech. Sinha says Hindi is a language that lends itself to just such inversion. “Animal says ‘Khamosh, silent then I am.’ I first heard his voice which is expressed in low grade English with some Indianism — a sort of mix that would be accessible to the English. It needed to have an Indian street flavour. And I didn’t really want to sound like Salman Rushdie, who actually to me, does a caricature of Indian speech and Indian writing rather than the actual thing. For every book you need a good editor, and for Animal’s People I had a really wonderful editor, Ben Ball, who made me extract everything from what was there. I’m very grateful to him and whatever success the book has owes a lot to him”.

Sinha is irked by suggestions that it was unfair to base a novel on such a harrowing, real-life tragedy as Bhopal. “I think it was Boyd Tomkin in The Independent, who asked how far the book relied for its power on the fact that it was based on a real tragedy — which I find an impossible question to answer because if you were playing by some rule which said that you must never write about something real, then many, many terrific books wouldn’t be written in the world. Plus, one isn’t writing books for prize juries. I don’t personally feel books should go out into the world and change things. Animal feels that — but that’s because he’s a Khaufpuri. But for me it’s enough that a book should have good characters and a strong story and should satisfy. If it can go out into the world and do some good, so much the better.”

Getting it right

The two distinctive voices in the book, that of Animal and the bewildered French nun, Ma Franci, both came to him in the space of one week. He’d been struggling hard to breathe life into his characters but they remained wooden, unmoving. Until the day someone showed him a picture of a young boy, who, like animal, walks on all fours. And suddenly, Animal came ablaze in his mind. “We talked at once and had huge arguments. He didn’t want a bit part. He wanted to tell it all. And I don’t know where it came from. I think it was the collective spirit of the Bhopalis somehow got channelled into one character who presumably symbolised just how disadvantaged you can be”.

Sinha stoutly defends the long passage towards the end of the book when Animal hallucinates in the forest. “He needed to have a complete meltdown in order to be reborn. He could only reject humanity by acknowledging that he was human in the end,” he says. In order to write that passage Sinha consumed a bagful of magic mushrooms for the same trancelike experience and recounts what he saw, the colours, the visions, in hilarious detail. “And it was in that spirit that I wrote that section. Now this sounds like some rather corny mysticism but at the time it was very powerful. Someone described this as some kind of Christian redemption — the cave and wandering in the forest and so on as being Christian symbolism. But the cave could be Amarnath and the wandering in the forest could be Rama. You could bring your own perspective to it. I don’t know about redemption, but the truth is, nothing’s changed except that that there is some happiness in their lives. I think I did want that because it’s been a very grim book in many ways. I know the humour has carried you through and kept you from really drowning in that horror, but the horror’s been there all the time. Let’s at least have a little bit of a light touch at the end.”

© Copyright 2000 – 2007 The Hindu

Filed under: In conversation, ,


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