Monday, June 21, 2010

Q&A with Karan Bajaj

Karan Bajaj is the author of two contemporary Indian bestsellers Keep off the Grass and Johnny Gone Down. Together his novels have sold more than 100,000 copies to date making him one of the largest selling novelists in India. Keep off the Grass (2008) was a semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and shortlisted for the Indiaplaza Golden Quill Award, among other honors. Johnny Gone Down has topped bestseller lists since its release in May’ 2010.

We did a short Q&A with him on his latest book, Johnny Goes Down:

Your protagonist, Nikhil, is a guy who has everything going for him until his illfated holiday? What or who inspired this character?

I think emotionally all novels are autobiographical so in that sense, I think my own life experiences have inspired the novel. I deeply relate to the displacement, loss and failure that the protagonist experiences as I can to the unconditional love and friendship that he receives.

The situations in the novel are less autobiographical, but somewhere or the other, I have experienced somewhat similar things. When I was backpacking through Philippines, for instance, a sudden violent protestation broke out just in front of me as I was ambling aimlessly down the streets. People were shot and killed and I had to run for cover. Those kinds of events do make you wonder on how fragile life can be and how one, unexpected event can set off a chain of events in motion that can alter your life completely.

In JGD, that’s what happens to Nikhil. A sudden event in a vacation leads to his surreal twenty year Faustian search.

How did the title come about?

At its core, the novel is about the bizarre, almost surreal series of events that transform an Ivy League NASA scientist into first a genocide survivor, then a Buddhist monk, a drug lord, a homeless accountant, a software mogul and a deadly game fighter over a period of twenty years. In the protagonist’s view, it’s a downward journey (although I don’t quite agree with him!).

Your book covers quite a lot of ground, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil, much research went into getting the location and the ambience for the settings?

All aspects of the novel are very thoroughly researched. Beyond my personal travels to all the places—Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil, Columbia, US and the extensive books/novels I’ve read set in these countries, films were very helpful in research as well. They added an extra dimension to my own visits to these places because of the very personal stories they narrated. For instance, the Cambodian portion of the novel is set in the Pol Pot genocide of 1974 when I wasn’t even born, so beyond reading historical books of that time, it greatly helped to see the Killing Fields which is a stark, visceral portrayal of that time and tells a deeply moving story of the bond between a genocide survivor and an American reporter. Having a visual sense of that era helped me place my own characters in that environment more realistically. Same with the research on Thailand, Brazil and Silicon Valley as well-I supplemented my travels with reading books and watching films of that era.

Your first book got a lot of interest from film makers, do we see a film coming out soon?

I’m completely indifferent to film deals and choice of actors etc. as I have no desire to be involved in the film-making process, nor do I find the film industry particularly fascinating or glamorous.

Eventually, I just hope a filmmaker with some level of empathy buys the rights so they can transfer the broader emotional/philosophical thoughts in the novel into film versus just make it a fast-paced, racy intercontinental adventure that the novel automatically lends itself to. That way the thought or the message behind the book can be relayed beyond the limitations of a book.

The path Nikhil's life goes through seems improbable. Did you face that while writing the story, that it just seems to improbable to be credible?

I deliberately wanted to stretch the boundaries of credibility yet not break them since Nikhil’s incredible journey was necessary to communicate a core thought of the novel: the joy of living a big, interesting life and how a life lived without a measure of adventure is perhaps one not lived at all. The broader idea in the book is that of an ordinary man slowly embracing his extraordinary destiny and realizing that he is actually richer for all his loss and failure. In that sense, its almost like a Greek mythos—a myth, an exaggeration to make a point, but one which is very believable.

As I read the very passionate reader reviews on blogs now, I think Johnny Gone Down has been able to achieve this task with a lot of success. The Indian protagonist is very identifiable and the bizarre, almost surreal events that characterize his twenty year intercontinental journey are incredible but leave a lasting, lingering impact on the reader’s mind.

How long did this book take to research and write?

I usually start with a big theme in mind and allow the story to work itself in my head for a while before I put pen to paper. The theme I was playing around for Johnny Gone Down was around success and whether a stable, even-keeled life is better than a rich, interesting life with towering ups and abysmal lows.

During this time, I was also backpacking for a year between jobs and traveled to some pretty interesting places and ended up meeting quite an odd assortment of people on the road and in youth hostels. Somewhere in the middle of the trip, I began to realize that no matter where I went, whether Cambodia or Brazil or Mongolia or India, there seemed to be more similarities than dissimilarities in people, feelings and ideas. Hence this incredible intercontinental journey of the protagonist began to fuse with the original theme.

So this story was playing around in my head for almost a year while I was traveling, but the actual act of writing took four or five months. I began when I was back in a job and had an apartment and a writing desk and a computer to myself once again.

If there is single thought you would like the reader to take from Johnny Gone Down, what would it be?

I would like readers to take away two things. One, living a big, funky life—traveling, being open to the many interesting turns that life keeps taking, pushing yourself to break the stable patterns of mediocrity that life boxes you into and living a clutter-free hippie sort of an existence within the parameters of society—makes for an interesting life.

Two, as Johnny realizes in his incredible intercontinental journey, the world is extremely flat, connected and generous.

Who are your favourite authors, and which are the books which have inspired you?

A lot of books have inspired me for different reasons. If I were to pick one novel, it would be Forrest Gump by Winston Groom. I’ve read it multiple times since I first chanced upon it as kid, and though the movie version was quite brilliant as well, the novel takes Forrest to even more interesting places—a space shuttle to Mars, a tropical jungle full of cannibals and a Hollywood blockbuster starring Raquel Welch, for instance. I’ve always been inspired by “unlikely hero”/ “ordinary men in extraordinary situations” stories and Forrest Gump is a near perfect example of that genre. It has been a great inspiration for my writing since it communicates inspiring, heroic thoughts without elaborately stating them, something I aspire to in my writing.

Closer, my favorite authors would be Upamanyu Chatterjee (English August), Mohsin Hamid (Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Ruskin Bond (everything by him), who write about hope and loss; life and death; cynicism and happiness with situations that are even more “real” than real life.

Right now I’m re-reading the Bangkok Series-Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok haunts, a series of mystery novels written by a British lawyer based in Bangkok. I dig these novels both because of its gritty take on Thailand’s underbelly—snuff films, drug cartels, tantric practices etc—as well as the spiritually confused Buddhist detective protagonist of the novels, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. I’m an unsuccessful armchair spiritual seeker, and in that, I find myself relating very closely to the protagonist who is unsuccessful in his quest for Nirvana or enlightenment, but remarkably successful in solving some of Thailand’s most surreal, morbid crimes.

You work a regular day job, and are an author on the side? How disciplined do you have to be to be able to write?

I have no schedule or discipline for writing predominantly because I have no utilitarian goals for my writing. My only goal is to communicate an idea that I am deeply passionate about and I feel can make a difference to my reader’s lives. I feel no pressure to write just for the heck of it. So until I can crystallize the idea and figure out a credible, yet stretching fast-paced storyline in my head, I don’t put a word on paper.

Are you working on your next book? If yes, what is it about?

Not yet. I’m getting interested in mysticism and occult sciences as also in the importance of charity and giving back so it’s likely going to be some combination of these ideas. But that’s all I know right now. Before I begin writing another novel though, I think I need both silence and some new experiences to nurture the substance within. Otherwise I’ll end up recycling the same ideas in a different story.


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