There are a lot of Indian authors who write novels about Indian settings and milieus. However, only some of them are able to capture its nuances at its very best. Kochery C. Shibu is one such writer. He is a graduate from the prestigious National Defence Academy, has served in the Indian Navy and commanded two warships; and after his retirement, he has executed hydroelectric projects in the Cauvery river basin in Karnataka, Beas river basin in Himachal and the Teesta river basin in Sikkim, and the technical content of his novel has been derived from the setting of these hydroelectric projects. In a candid conversation with Chirdeep Malhotra, he talks about his debut book “Men and Dreams in the Dhauladhar”, the current scenario in Indian English writing and the importance of detailed research in writing.
When did you first start writing? What inspired you to start writing?
I was a voracious reader and in many a novels I used to visualise the degree of research done by the author and appreciate the collation and presentation of information. During the days in the Navy , when we were required to make notes to the bureaucrats in the defence headquarters on complex weapon systems, torpedoes, sonar and other such technological subjects, the challenge always was to summarise the spirit of all the technical jargon to the decision making bureaucrat in one paragraph at the end.
Explaining the cutting edge technology to sharp people from the finance and the bureaucracy, who had little or no technical domain knowledge, but were quick to grasp the qualitative issues, was a job that I relished for over four years. Often it had to be done like storytelling to convey the essence of the matter. In many ways those four years were formative in writing and the forerunner to this book.
Can you give a brief outline of your book “Men and Dreams in the Dhauladhar”?
“Men and dreams in the Dhauladhar” is a story of India and Indianness and the struggle of ordinary people in a hydroelectric project and the extraordinary challenges that they face in their day to day life. It is a story which has never been told till date by any of the authors in India. The novel is in many ways a reflection of our society as it exists and the recent historical events that have shaped our society and its people. The terror threats to people and large dams remain a reality in the environment that we live in. The novel has been an effort to write literary fiction with an equal mix of thriller ingredients; for the reader to get a feel of sprint and drift as one reads through the novel.
The narrative is also meant to whet the appetite of the inquisitive reader whose regular sources of scattered and disjoint information is most often the skewed media presentations. The effort has been to tell facts on the ground as they are without being judgemental and without the relevant facts being left out of reckoning.
In your book, you have used a lot of regional references and nuances in the form of terminologies and slang. What was the reason behind it? The Malayali terms would have posed no problem, but how did you perfect the Pahari and Punjabi ones?
India would be among a few countries outside the US, UK and Australia where so many of the students start their education with English as the first language. The Information Technology revolution, which has transformed India, has had its roots in English. Since the nineties, the IT revolution has given a boost to the same, with millions coming out of schools with English as first language. The IT sector has also led to a sort of melting pot of cultures with engineers from all over India working in companies with English being the lingua franca. These people also form a large percentage of the Indian English readers and are well placed to understand the importance of the native language. It has been a deliberate effort to have the characters use words from their native language(s) to emphasize dramatic moments and by situating them in several well known episodes of recent Indian historiography.
To put things in perspective, there are many languages in the subcontinent which are spoken by millions of people- Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu being in the forefront. In terms of the number of native speakers, these are as widely spoken as French, German or Japanese and in that sense are not regional. The subcontinent from a linguistic perspective is like Europe and one of my efforts was to sensitise the reader to the beauty of Indian languages and to bring it in its nuanced best. I spent about five years in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab working on a hydroelectric project when I wrote this novel, where Punjabi and Pahari was the local flavour. The whole effort was to bring out the beauty of our own rich and diverse languages to the English reading audience pan India and across the world. In many ways, I believe that as we embrace English for its universal appeal, it should still be well rooted in India. This book is a good example of embracing Indian English.
What do you think of the current scenario in Indian English writing, especially in the fiction genre? Any contemporary Indian author that you love to read?
I have stopped reading fiction novels since 2009 when I started writing this novel. This was to avoid being influenced in my writing and to develop a unique style of my own, which I believe I have achieved in this book. I would start reading only after I complete the next novel or may be even two. The Indian English writing has come a long way with a new generation of Indian readers who like to read Indian authors. Of course, researched writing and fiction has still a lot of ground to cover, which I believe our writers will once readers evolve from the popular love story based and mythology based writings.
Which genres do you like reading? Who are your favourite authors?
I like reading genres across a spectrum ranging from Classics, Literary fiction, Pulp fiction, and Science fiction to non-fiction books and technical literature. My favourite authors include R.K. Narayan, Shakespeare, Fritjof Capra and Harold Robbins to name a few.
What are your other interests apart from writing?
Apart from writing, I enjoy reading, trekking/travelling, solving Crosswords, and Yoga.
Are there any new projects that you are currently working on?
I am in the process of writing a new novel.
Who is your biggest critic and how?
The readers of course. I believe the best recognition to any author is a critical review by the readers and a discerning one at that.
Can you provide some insightful advice for budding authors?
Observe and start writing on events and people around you to hone your skills and then supplement it with research. Each one of us has a writer in us and all of us have a story to tell. You just need to get down to writing it.
Then of course serious writing requires a lot of research. Just to give an example, in this novel there is a scene of a motorcycle borne person spraying gun fire on a crowd that is captured on a video. The event was taking place in Karachi and I had to be sure whether a handy cam, a mobile or a video camera would be appropriate considering the setting. So, a couple of sentences in the novel turned out to be research for a month. This book was written over a period of four years from 2009 to 2013 and I diligently used to write for three hours every day and 25 days a month to complete it. It took 3600 man hours of research and writing to complete the novel. Thus, detailing in research is very important for serious writing.
By Chirdeep Malhotra