Tag Archives: Shreekumar Varma

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.”

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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… 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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