I was born in Kenya where my parents had migrated from India before the War. The 1960s were the most turbulent time in the history of many African countries because the European rulers were withdrawing, and Africans were taking over governance and economy. Discussing politics had become a second nature among high school boys because as expatriates, our future depended upon political developments. Against that background, I wrote a spoof on racial politics in South Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe. I was 17. I put it up on ‘Limelight’, a handwritten magazine that our class produced every fortnight. Our principal Mr. J.M. Wood happened to read it and appreciated it. I showed it to my father and asked if it was good enough for publication. “Send it,” he encouraged. “Laage to teer, nahi to tookko!” meaning “It would be an arrow if it hits the target. Otherwise it’s a dud anyway!” 'Shankar’s Weekly', a political periodical in India which later chose to shut down during Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’, considered it ‘an arrow’.
Did you visualize yourself as a novelist at that age?
No, neither then nor ever afterwards. Writing has been a hobby to me rather than a serious pursuit as a career. That was probably because of my middle-class background in a developing country. Throughout our youth, my wife and I were more concerned about earning and saving an adequate amount with which we could repay the house loan and educate two kids.
In India, free-lance writing didn’t provide that sort of income till a few years ago. Now several young fiction writers – Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi in particular – have made it big in the exponentially expanding English-readership in India. That often makes me feel that I should have born a generation later than I did!
Any one person without whose support you couldn’t have reached your present position in writing fiction?
Yes, my wife Bharti. She is Encouragement Incarnate. The frequent traveling that was required to conduct my small business of Industrial Market Research started tiring me out after I crossed sixty. However, I was reluctant to stop working as I was afraid that without anything challenging to do, I might contract psychological and physical problems.
That was when she suggested that I take up something which I always wanted to do and couldn’t due to social responsibilities. “I love to travel for fun, I love photography, and I love writing,” I said with reservation, “but none of that can earn us anything.” “Is the money all that necessary now when both children are settled?” she asked, “I still have several years of service left, and we have enough savings upon which to fall back.”
With such an assurance from the other half, which man wouldn’t dive into the pool of a long cherished interest?
Do you write full time or do you have another job as well?
I wrote full time for three and a half years, writing 'Trade winds to Meluhha'. When you self-publish, you lack the support of an established book publisher. So ever since I put the novel on the net in January 2012, I work full time creating awareness about it in the media.
Was it easy for you to write or did you ever get writer’s block?
It wasn’t easy, but there is one plus point in writing Historical genre—you rarely get a writer’s block. There is so much material to study and so many places to visit that they keep you busy in lean times. They also generate new ideas, many of which transform into small useful bits which either go to enhance a situation or build a character.
For instance, I was visiting a museum that is housed in Maharaja’s Palace in Jaipur. There I saw small toy-like depiction of people in India during the 18th century—hunters, wood cutters, water carriers, farmers, fishermen. The cultural influences that India had experienced till then, seemed to have bypassed those people altogether. You could well imagine that they lived much like their forefathers in the Bronze Age. Those toys helped me to visualize and describe the people I was writing about.
Share with our readers one incident in your book which is either derived from your experience or from interaction with people.
An ex-colleague, the late Percy Vajifdar, experienced an unusual incident at Sanjan beach on the west coast of India. One evening he walked far into the shallow waters of Sanjan and sat on a rock for long, unaware that high tide was surrounding him fast as the sun set. He started for the shore, lost his bearing in the fading light and stepped in a couple of deep holes. Suddenly a small bird flew in from nowhere and chirped restlessly around him. It guided him through a rocky seabed to safety. That anecdote became the basis of my protagonist Samasin’s experience with a sea-eagle in the novel.
Tell us a family anecdote that you wish would be narrated by your children to their grandchildren.
Around 1920, Mahatma Gandhi visited our hometown Morbi. Gandhi’s meetings were directed as much towards social reforms as they were towards freedom from the British Empire. My grandmother attended his rally and was motivated by Gandhi’s plea for women’s literacy. Grandma asked my father — then a school going kid — to write a letter from Gujarati alphabet on the kitchen wall blackened by smoke from a wood stove. While cooking meals each day, she learnt one letter or its vocal variation by heart. She persevered till she had learnt enough of the script to read the 'Ramayana' by herself.
(The 'Ramayana' is an ancient Indian epic in which Virtue wins over Evil. It is a long thread of parables focusing on moral and principled living. The 'Ramayana' is popular among people throughout India and in several S.E. Asian countries.)
Which books have inspired you in life?
Three books: The 'Bhagwad Gita' which is to the Hindus what the 'Holy Bible' is to the Christians, 'The Power of Positive Thinking' by Norman Vincent Peale, and 'The Law of Success' by Napoleon Hill.
In my final semester of Engineering, I was required to pass in papers totaling 1,000 marks including the backlog. Those were six months when I prayed the most in my life. I used to meditate every morning in front of an image of Lord Shiva. Time and again I murmured a hymn from the 'Bhagwad Gita': ‘To toil is your duty and you have no right to anticipate the outcome.’ And whenever I felt low, which was quite often, I picked up Peale’s book containing psychological pills and tried to ‘digest’ one. I passed the exam in first attempt.
During that time India was passing through a very rough patch after an economically disastrous war with Pakistan. Work was scarce and salaries ridiculously low. Unable to get a satisfactory job, I tried my hand at starting a small machining workshop and failed. Late one night while looking down from the fourth floor of a dilapidated lodge in Ahmedabad, a thought flitted across my mind, “Clamber the railing and let go!” Then something suddenly pulled me inside. Under such stressing situation, it was the repeated reading of Hill’s book that kept my hopes alive.
Do you have a favorite snack that you enjoy while writing?
Avid readers as well as authors hold that common dilemma as Lord Sandwich who loved playing cards so much that he hated going on a lunch recess. In order to address the need to take snacks amidst long sittings in front of the computer, I go for salted banana chips. They are tasty, nutritious, and neat enough to enable typing while eating. Every Sunday, Bharti peels unripe bananas, slices them into thin wafers and fries the chips to replenish the stock in my home-office.
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Recounts young Samasin's adventure in Bronze Age Mesopotamia & Indus Valley Civilization. Implicated in murder, Sam flees to Meluhha to search Siwa Saqra – name uttered by the dying man. Meeting Siwa, he finds that the murder in Babylon held an enigma.