Monthly Archives: April 2010

Book launch: Ravi Subramanian’s ‘Devil in Pinstripes’

You don’t often see these many corporate-types at a typical book launch. Pretty much just one guy in the packed audience is wearing a t-shirt, and that one reads ‘Proud to be an IIMB alumnus’. And all around, you hear scattered gossip about how so-and-so, a common colleague, has been featured in the book…

That was the scene at Landmark during the launch of Devil in Pinstripes, Ravi Subramanian’s second novel set in the cutthroat world of banking in India, following his popular debut novel If God was a banker (2007) (his second book,I bought the Monk’s Ferrari (2007) was more of a how-to guide to corporate success, the “antithesis of Robin Sharma’s book”).

Turns out the crowd consisted mostly of ex-colleagues (from his Chennai days of working for Grindlays Bank) and ex-IIMB batchmates (Subramanian graduated in 1993). Mostly, but not entirely — a fair share was curious readers, people who’d enjoyed his earlier books, people who were intrigued by his insider’s view of the high-stakes world of international banking.

And, they all had the same question. “I have 17-18 years of my banking career left, I wouldn’t risk it by writing an autobiographical book,” he laughs. He admits he has written about things that have happened, but not of specific people: “I’ve taken extreme care that no character is recognisable; that would not be right.”

Devil in Pinstripes (launched by D. Murali, deputy editor, The Business Line, and Sundarrajan, managing director, Shriram Capital) centres around a fictional international bank in India, New York International Bank (just like in If God…), and outlines the politics, the power plays, and the Machiavellian manipulations that go on behind the scenes.

“This book was a lot harder to write — If God… had a clear-cut good guy and bad guy. It was all black and white,” says the Tiruchi-born, Ludhiana-brought up author who currently works at HSBC, Mumbai. “But in Devil…, every single character has shades of grey.”

Both books fall unapologetically into the Chetan Bhagat bracket of the New Indian masala novel — fast-paced easy reads, set in contemporary, urban India, with some frankly clunky writing and editing — that nevertheless appear to strike a chord with their readers. That connect was apparent as audience at the launch engaged the author in discussions on corporate fraud, ethics and intra-personal politics during the question-and-answer session.

“I was quite surprised by the audience reaction — by the way, I was interrogated!” he says laughing. Not surprisingly, his next book The Imperfect God will also be on banking. “Banks are one of the largest employers in the country, and have the largest number of job aspirants; they impact everyone’s lives; there’s money, sleaze and power struggle — and no one else is writing on them!”

This one, he says, will be set in the streets of Chennai, Coimbatore and Tanjavur. And, will also, no doubt, feature the basest form of corporate politics. But as Subramanian says: “Corporate politics is a way of life — learn to deal with it.”

***

Other recent book launches (fiction) in the city:

Aatish Taseer’s The Temple Goers

Shreekumar Varma’s Maria’s Room

Daisy Hasan’s The To-Let House

Not a work of fiction, but an excellent collection of poetry by an unlikely poet: G. Kameshwar’s Seahorse in the Sky

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Interview with… M.S. Ananth

Director of IIT-M, M.S. Ananth tells DIVYA KUMAR about his love for academia, the setting up of the Research Park and his future plans for the university

PHOTO: S.R. Raghunathan


The view from M.S. Ananth’s fifth floor office window has to be one of the most beautiful in the city — a sprawling expanse of lush green treetops for as far as you can see below a clear blue sky. It’s enough to make you gasp when you first see it, but Ananth’s reaction is slightly different.

“We found out that a lot of these trees are invasive — there is 70 acres of Prosopisalone,” says the director of IIT-Madras ruefully, looking at the 630-acre campus. “Did you know that South Africa has launched a multi-million dollar project just to get rid of Prosopistrees?”

Of course, IIT-M can’t afford anything of that sort, so they’re working out alternative strategies — like selecting the spots with these rogue trees for future development. That’s just one of the many responsibilities, big and small, this unassuming man has shouldered with grace and a certain philosophical pragmatism during his tenure as director (since 2001).

“You know, I haven’t had too many major surprises in this job,” he says in his no-fuss way. “Conflicts arise, but it’s important to recognise that you’re no more ‘righteous’ than the other party in an argument. I try my best to have my way. But if I don’t, I know that in some larger perspective what happened is for the best. That acceptance is important.”

If all that sounds very philosophical and Zen, it is — Ananth is deeply influenced by the famous lines from the Bhagavad Gita: Karmanye Vaadhika-raste, Maa Phaleshu Kadachana…, perhaps a reflection of the time he spent attending discourses as a child. “It may sound facetious, but I’ve believed in it for a long, long time,” he says.

Academia is another thing this Ph.D. in chemical engineering has believed in for a long time. “I think I made up my mind in the sixth standard,” he laughs. “My maternal grandfather was a professor of English; other men I met were in the civil services, and he was the only one who never seemed to have a boss — so that was my major criterion!”

And he never saw a reason to change his mind while growing up, though if he’d had his way, he tells me, he’d be a doctorate in something else. “My interest initially was in history, of all things,” he recalls with a smile. “My father chose chemical engineering for me.”

He has no regrets — his love for history today finds expression in his interest in scientific history, particularly in the biographies of great scientists. Besides, he’s a firm believer that your discipline of study shouldn’t confine you. That is the basis of his grand ambition for the university — a radical, experimental restructuring of science and engineering departments — that unfortunately hasn’t happened yet.

“This ambition has been unfulfilled for nine years because I can’t get a consensus,” he says.

But another grand plan has finally come to fruition after nine years of pushing by Ananth and other professors — the Research Park that has recently become functional at IIT-M (30 companies have already signed up), the first of its kind in India. “The whole idea is the generation of a large number of ideas by the meeting of unlike minds — of industrialists, professors, and students,” he says. “All that’s required is one idea that clicks. That’s the basis of innovation.”

He experienced this ‘meeting of unlike minds’ as a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, with innovation occurring due to the meeting of people from different cultures. “I had a lovely time —the American graduate school is an enviable place,” he says. “I’m fighting to try and recreate that atmosphere here — to have 25 per cent post-graduate students and 10 to 15 per cent of faculty from abroad.”

But as much as he loved college life in the U.S., Ananth knew that he wanted to return to India from very early on. “The first time I came back for a vacation, the moment I set foot here again, I knew,” he says simply. “The sense of belonging was here, not there. I’ve gone subsequently to the U.S. as a visiting professor — first to Princeton, then to Boulder, Colorado — and that feeling hasn’t changed.”

His passion for academia has obviously been passed on to both his children — his son is a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, his daughter in theoretical chemistry. His son has even followed in his footsteps and returned from the U.S. to teach at IISER in Pune. And the entire family, especially his late wife Jayashree, has always shared his love for the campus they have lived on since 1972, when he first joined as an assistant professor.

“Jayashree was very involved with the campus — she came up with pocket guides on the animals and birds here, she worked to keep the campus clean, with the Tech Kids crèche and the Atma charity wing,” he recalls fondly.

“As far as we were concerned, living on this campus was always a great boon.”

* * *

Striking a balance

* M.S. Ananth’s vision statement for IIT-Madras reads thus: “The institute should be in dynamic equilibrium with its social, ecological, and economic environment.”

* A biodiversity report of IIT-M’s campus was commissioned, invasive plants identified and poisonous plants removed. Fences were moved closer to buildings to make more space for the deer.

* A new hostel building was delayed by six months because an alternative route was created for black buck in the area.

* At urologist Dr. Ravichandran’s request, IIT-M professor S. Sankararaman created a phosphate binding agent for dialysis patients at one-tenth the original cost. (Other such projects have been undertaken since.)

* As part of IIT-M’s involvement in the ‘ Rural Technology Action Group’ (RuTAG), the Chemical Engineering Department developed a way to solidify vegetable dyes to reduce transport costs for artisans in Gandhigram.

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To all the Divya Ks out there (Part II)

Those of you who’ve read this earlier entry of mine will know that I’ve had recurrent issues with the number of women (and the occasional man, sigh) with the same name or the same first name-and-initial as I. I get emails from them (when they decide to email themselves deeply private, personal information… without double-checking the email id first). I get email for them, from long-lost friends who’re visiting for just a day and MUST meet them (oops) or from banks that’re convinced I’m Divya Vasudevan K and send me her credit card statement month after month (in HDFC’s defense, they did finally fix it… after my third and most pissy email to them yet). And I’m usually so far down on the Google search results (oh don’t judge me… you all Google your names, you know you do) that I have to enter super specific information and I’m still like five pages down, past results for Bollywood’s sweethearts Divya Kumar Khosla (why couldn’t she just be Divya Khosla? Why?) and Divya Kumar the dancer/actor (nothing personal, I’m sure they’re both lovely people. I’m just a tad bitter), followed by several super-achieving Divya Ks in MIT, Colunbia, et al (it’s really quite impressive how many there are), and then various Divya Ks in IT jobs all over India (how do they tell them apart? Especially in the South, where they all end up being K. Divya? Infosys and TCS alone must have a coupla hundred).

Well (and this is the point of this post… there is one, I swear) it’s all come full circle. And it’s all because of this blog o’ mine :). You see, now, people searching for these other Divya Ks are landing up on my blog. Bwahahahaha. After all these years, having the most common name on earth is paying off. All those times I was the ‘wrong Divya’ and got email meant for someone else and painstakingly wrote back informing them of the error… I’m reaping the rewards, you guys. It’s karma (I’m getting goosebumps). In just the last two weeks alone I’ve had a bunch of cases of searches for “Divya so-and-so MIT” or “Divya Kumar Bollywood” somehow magically leading people to my blog (can you tell I’m slightly addicted to WordPress’ super-fantastic stats and usage info?). AND (this is the big one)… DRUM ROLL… my blog shows up on the first page of Google results for a search on my name!!!! (I think this warrants a rare case of exclamation mark abuse). Go ahead and try it (you know you want to… or not). I’ve quite literally moved up in the virtual world.

So, the moral of the story is… all those of you out there with infuriatingly common names, there is hope. Hang in there. One day, your website too will be rated highly by Google’s PageRank algorithm. And to all the Divya Ks out there… welcome to my blog. (bwahahahaha)

( Note: If there is an unpleasantly gloat-y tone to this entry, please don’t judge the author too harshly. Put it down to years of nominal suffering.)

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Interview with… Shreekumar Varma (Uncut version)

Photo: S.S. Kumar

Things can get a bit chess-game like in this writer’s study. Novel A gets cut by Novel B which in turn might get overtaken at any time by Play C or even Children’s Book D…

Welcome to the world of Shreekumar Varma, Writer-Multitasker extraordinaire. His website lists four items under ‘Work in Progress’ (“I actually deleted two others yesterday”) and his output in the last decade includes two published novels, two plays staged by the Madras Players, three children’s books, and contributions to a whole bunch of short story anthologies. And that doesn’t count the columns and articles he’s done for pretty much all the local newspapers or his forays into poetry.

Or, of course, the projects that have fallen behind in the chess game of completion and publication.

“It’s all very exciting,” he says, adding drolly, “But really, what I’m best at is not doing anything at all. I just seem prolific because a lot of things have come out around the same time.”

Nice try but no dice, Mr. Varma. The publishing game may not have always been kind to him (“The problem is that publishers always seem to want me to produce something else first when I approach them with an idea… and they specify exactly what they want too!”), but Shree’s mantra has been ‘Just keep writing.’ And just keep sending works off to various competitions.

“I have a compulsive urge to send entries to contests – I don’t know why,” he laughs. “I started small, with a couple of short stories, but by the time my play The Dark Lord (1986) came second at a British Council competition and Bow of Rama (1993) won the Hindu-Madras Players Playscripts contest, I was safely into contest mode.”

His recently-published second novel, Maria’s Room was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and his recently-staged play Midnight Hotel was longlisted for the Metroplus Playwright Award, leading the author to ruefully refer to himself as the ‘Longlist expert’.

But Shree has a whole lot more than a proclivity to land himself in longlists going for him. The veteran journalist began his career with Indian Express in Mumbai and hung out with the likes of Amjad Khan (who spouted shayari to him), Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand (who invited him to join a political party he was starting) while writing for a film paper, Cinema Today, owned a small press and even started his own magazine at one point. He’s also taught journalism and English Literature at his alma mater Madras Christian College, and for the last 11 years, Creative English at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

“I do enjoy teaching, and I find that science students often come up with more out-of-the-box thinking than lit students do,” he says, thoughtfully. “I love encouraging people in whom I sense talent for writing – I literally pester them to write, actually!”

Other loves include magic (“I used to do illusions all the time as a kid”) and the spooky and fantastical (“Those are recurring themes in my work, though I never had the courage to put in an actual ghost until Midnight Hotel”), music, especially classical (“I love Shree Raga, it brings tears to my eyes – and I’m not just being self-obsessed!”) and the big one, movies (“Movies have always been a major inspiration… before I die, I want to make a movie.”)

In typical Shree style, he tells me how he’s actually converted a couple of his works into scripts for filmmakers, but nothing panned out (so, naturally, he just went and wrote a couple of novels in the interim.) He jokes light-heartedly about Three Monkeys, the ‘unfortunate’ novel that always ends up being put on hold (checkmated?) while others take over (Maria’s Room, for example), his non-fiction book on Chennai requested by a publisher that he never gets around to writing (“It hangs like a terrible shadow over me,” he says mock-theatrically. “With my last breath I’ll say, ‘That Chennai book…’”) and his up-coming novel on Chennai, The Gayatri Club that Chennaiites will see a lot of familiar characters in (“The eccentric ones won’t be mentioned by name,” he says with a wink).

But he turns serious as we talk about his fascinating lineage – as the grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bai, Maharani of Travancore State, and great grandson of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma.

“I’m really proud to belong to that family – I believe my cousins and I have all inherited a certain artistic sensibility, and also an entire mythology of stories, some of which went into my first novel, Lament of Mohini,” he says, “But sometimes it’s difficult when that heritage is applauded more than my accomplishments.”

Well then, here’s to Shreekumar Varma, writer, Longlist expert, teacher and bonafide Chennaiite (“Chennai’s my home, Kerala’s my soul”). May your chess game of novels, plays, short stories and poetry continue uninterrupted, and may movies be added to the list very soon.

Factfile

–          Shreekumar is a vocal supporter of the Right to Read campaign, and at his request, two of his works, children’s book Devil’s Garden and novel Maria’s Room are now available in audio format.

–          In 2004, he was the recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship and spent three months in Scotland. That is the inspiration for one of his many works in progress, the novel Indian Scotch.

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    Article: Remains of the Day

    JERASH Where touristy souks and the sprawling cultural centre of the Roman Decapolis of Gerasa, complete with amphitheatres, temples and baths, happily co-exist

    Walking into the ruins at Jerash feels a little like tumbling down the rabbit hole with Alice.

    One moment you’re in a grossly commercial, touristy souk at the heart of modern-day Jerash, the next, you’ve been transported to 1 AD, to the unexpectedly sprawling cultural centre of the Roman Decapolis of Gerasa, complete with amphitheatres, temples, baths and more.

    Rightly touted as one of the largest, most well-preserved ruins of a Greco-Roman city, the remains of Gerasa are remarkable in more ways than one. The sheer size is mind-boggling — we plan to spend an hour there, expecting to saunter casually through a cluster of old buildings. Instead, we end up trekking for close to four hours in the mid-day heat through ancient, colonnaded main roads, the smooth stones of which still bear the marks of chariot wheels that travelled over them thousands of years ago.

    On either side, the towering columns bear beautiful Greco-Roman carvings, as do the stone water troughs placed at regular intervals (for those hard-working chariot horses). So does the ornate fountain and intricately-worked Nymphaeum (a monument to water nymphs) we pass along the way. We climb up and perch, almost dizzy, at the topmost seats of the soaring Southern Theatre, and listen in fascination to the old Jordanian bagpipers at the smaller Northern Theatre.

    We stand and marvel at the gorgeous Oval Forum, surrounded by tall columns, once the bustling marketplace of the city. We go up the endless steps to the beautiful temple of Artemis at the highest point of Jerash, past its palatial portico and up to the sanctum sanctorum, as our guide fills our ears with stories of the mighty goddess of the hunt.

    This is no museum; Jerash is one of those rare locations where history comes alive vividly. As you walk down those uneven stone pathways between rolling, grassy plains, you can see the city as it must have been thousands of years ago, a thriving, wealthy trade hub that flourished between the first and third century AD. You can almost hear the horse-drawn chariots clatter over the stone streets; the hawkers selling their wares at the the main street; the clamour of toga-clad men filling the forums during political debates…

    Perhaps the most striking aspect is how well-preserved the city is — buildings, roads and all. The story goes that Gerasa, which was one of a confederation of 10 cities of the Roman Empire known as the Decapolis, was buried in sand for centuries, accounting for how well it seems to have withstood the ravages of time.

    Indeed, Jerash was little more than a sleepy village for the longest time; the magnificent city under the sand was rediscovered only in 1806 by German traveller Ulrich Jasper Seetzen. Excavations and painstaking preservation work continues to this day, and, little by little, Gerasa reappears from its hiding spot. What remains is, however, mostly the cultural and administrative centre; the area where most of the houses were was mostly destroyed, it is said, in a series of earthquakes that rocked the city in the Eighth Century AD.

    Our final stop is the majestic temple of Zeus, and we pause to look down upon the sprawling grass-and-stone vista — the grand oval of columns that is the Forum, the main street, the arches and amphitheatres — that somehow survived those quakes and still stands magically in the midst of the thriving modern city of Jerash. And, we’re just grateful we took that tumble down into this historical wonderland.

    FACTFILE

    * Getting to Jerash is easy. Just an hour’s drive away from Amman, the capital city of Jordan, it is reachable via road by car or by bus.

    * Make sure you give yourself enough time to explore these ruins and the small museums within — at least half-a-day is recommended.

    * Carry plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes — there aren’t many rest stops once you’re in the midst of the ruins.

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    How to… do girl talk

    1. The first lesson in girl talk is multi-tasking. Girls came up with the idea of walk-and-talk long before the cellular company did. Also watch-TV-and-talk, cook-and-talk, dress-and-talk, shop-and-talk… you get the drift.

    2. You also need to be able to follow multiple conversation threads at once. Any topic introduced before a girl-gang can — and will — branch into at least five related / random conversations within 10.9 seconds. And, good luck attempting to trace the conversation back to its root even a minute later (A Bulgarian professor of discrete mathematics reportedly spent his entire career unsuccessfully trying to find an algorithm for the madness.)

    3. No girl talk, of course, is complete without The Giggle. Bursting into loud, high-pitched giggles in any milieu (classroom, corridor, mall, restaurant…) is unique to feminine group behaviour (much like going to the restroom in twos and threes). In other social situations, these same women might be heard laughing delicately, as mummy taught. Not when with the girl gang, though.

    4. That brings us to the next big G in girl talk — Gossip. Everyone gossips, of course, men and women, the old, the young and the middle-aged. But girl gangs have it down to an art form. This is the only time you’ll hear silence fall over the group (depending on the degree on exclusivity, salaciousness, etc.) as voices drop to decibel levels a bat would strain to hear, and code language employed that would make an ex-KGB agent jealous.

    5. And finally, the one that confounds men completely — confidences. Girls share secrets and personal feelings to a degree that most men can’t fathom. You don’t just discuss what happened; you thoroughly dissect how you felt, how you think the other person felt, how you think the other person thinks you think they felt, and so on. If you just read that last sentence and knew exactly what was meant, you are clearly a veteran of girl talk.

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