Janhavi Acharekar at the time of the launch of her book, Wanderers, All

Irficionado | Author Interview | Janhavi Acharekar

“I want to write”. At about the turn of the millennium, when Janhavi Acharekar was quitting her copywriting job in the ad agency we both were in, and I asked her why, this, in perhaps true Janhavi style, was her simple response. Janhavi has managed to achieve that dream, beginning with pieces in papers and going on to a collection of her stories (Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City), to travel guides (on Mumbai and Goa), to recently, her first novel, Wanderers, All. In between, among her other literary pursuits like readings, lit-fest curations, and interviews, she was also recognised as a Mumbaikar of the Year, 2009, the same year in which her first book, Window Seat, came out.

Inspired by Janhavi’s ancestral history, Wanderers, All (published by Harper Collins) is the story of two people, separated by time. Murlidhar Khedekar, who moves with his dad from Konkan to old Bombay, begins with dreams of being in Marathi theatre, then moves on to wrestling (kushti), before setting down and growing as a policeman. The other, shorter narrative that punctuates Murli and his kith and kin’s story is that of Kinara, a newly single, seemingly directionless woman of today. The starting point is Kinara’s father giving her Murli and his ancestors’ maps. Kinara and Murli, separated by time, are related by blood: she is his great-granddaughter.

Cover of Janhavi Acharekar's new book, Wanderers, All

In this email interview, Janhavi talks about the book, her writing motivations and motifs, and the under-appreciated choice/chance of being a wanderer.

IS: I read in one of your other interviews that the idea for Wanderers, All came from a story in Window Seat. Which story is this, and how did that short story lead to this bigger story?

Cover of Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City, a collection of short stories by Janhavi AcharekarJA: I had a vague idea of the novel I wanted to write, but the story ‘Freedom at Midnight’ in Window Seat was a test run. I was clear about having the Independence movement as the historical setting and began to seriously think of writing Wanderers, All only after I wrote this story. The characters too made their way into the novel. Sudhakar Vernekar, the young, idealistic journalist and freedom fighter in Wanderers, All is the old pensioner in 21st century Mumbai in ‘Freedom at Midnight’. The chief protagonist of the story ‘Birthday Party’ in Window Seat also appears as a younger version of himself in the novel. The book began as an exploration of the lives and times of these characters.

IS: I also read somewhere that the full novel took shape somewhere in the middle of writing it. By this, do you mean the idea of having the parallel story of Kinara, or were you referring to something else?

An old photo of a Bombay policeman, from Janhavi Acharekar's research files for her book, Wanderers, AllJA: No, the story of Kinara was the starting point of Wanderers, All – the beginning of the book as you see it today. It was the historical narrative that took shape slowly because I wasn’t entirely sure about how it would progress. Also, the research on Marathi theatre as well as the history of the Bombay City Police slowed me down and then contributed to turns in the narrative. There were times when I didn’t know how Murli’s life would progress. And there was the question of two timelines without making one or the other seem incongruous. Nor did I anticipate the length of the novel. That said, I enjoyed the process of not knowing. I’m not a structured writer who has a clear plot in mind before I begin writing. It evolves as I go along.

IS: Many authors begin their novel-writing journeys with family/ancestral history. There are Marquez, Naipaul, and Rushdie (among my favourites). So, is it an easy starting ground, or was there some other motivation?

JA: Actually, it was our colonial history that was the starting ground for me. That my family had, unwittingly and marginally, been a part of this history made it more enticing. I used familiar terrain to make characters and situations more real. I also added oral history – something that we are losing rapidly in this era.

IS: How was the feeling and experience of retracing your ancestors’ paths? I know you took a road trip in Goa and went on several heritage walks in Bombay…

Cover of Mumbai & Goa by Moon Books, a travel guide by Janhavi AcharekarJA: Thanks to my father’s enthusiasm for travel, I’ve been on several road trips through the Konkan and Goa as a child and then later, on my own as an adult (my familiarity with Goa also comes from the time I wrote the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa for Moon Handbooks), so it wasn’t entirely new. Also, I didn’t have the maps and details that Kinara does in the book, so the retracing was both imagined and real, but exciting all the same.

Retracing the history of Bombay was equally interesting. My research led me to fun facts and incidents like the criminal case filed by a British employer against his trusted Parsi clerk for gambling away at the races all the money given to him for safekeeping during the former’s trip to England. Or that the police, for lack of a crowd to line the streets to greet a visiting British official, rounded up beggars and petty criminals from the area, gave them new clothes to wear and had them cheer and clap for a small fee.

But more than anything, it was imagining the era, creating characters and situations around the things I had heard and read about, linking the lives of characters with the story of Bombay (and I see the city as a character in itself) that was for me the most enjoyable part.

IS: Is the book also an attempt to bring Marathi culture, which often loses out to the pop culture and sheen of Bollywood/Bombay, to the foreground?

JA: Not really. I wouldn’t consider myself the flagbearer of any culture. Here, it was integral to my plot and the historical setting. I had a certain level of familiarity with it.

IS: You intend a very thought-instigating, possibly empowering message through the book, that no matter how sorted or scattered we seem, we are all wanderers. Is that even possible in today’s time, when everyone seems so focussed or at least is told/expected to be focussed?

JA: The journeys in Wanderers, All are both physical and metaphorical. The book is more about fluidity of identity and openness in belief and experience. An acknowledgement of the fact that your origins are likely to very different from what you imagine them to be and that nation, religion, community are all human constructs; boundaries, both geographical and cultural, can change in one’s lifetime. Those who hang on to these constructs or derive their sense of self from them will do well to remember that the only thing that binds us is the wandering. But history only proves time and again that there will be those who choose to appropriate rather than embrace, to trespass rather than wander.

Janhavi Acharekar answering questions during a reading of her book, Wanderers, AllWe see it all around us today whether in the form of jingoism, religious or cultural chauvinism; the hatred being spewed by various groups against each other comes from their own need for belonging and justification of their prejudices. It’s ironical when local parties in Bombay take an anti-immigrant stance considering that the city was a creation of the British and they are, most likely, descendants of migrants themselves. It’s strange when European nations take pride in their support of freedom or equality given their own history of colonization, or when Americans speak out against the Holocaust given the near-wiping out of the Native Americans and their very recent and continuing history of racism. It’s also easy in the wake of Islamic terrorism to forget the brutalities of the Christian Inquisitions; as for Hindus, they’ve oppressed their own for centuries with the caste system. Let’s not even get into the male-female equation.

So, possible or not in this day and age? It can’t be that hard to be peaceful travel companions. As Kinara’s father tells her when she’s setting out on her solo trip, we’re all on the same journey.

IS: While on that, how much of a wanderer are you?

JA: Considering that I’m late in sending you my response because I was wandering…

IS: Continuing the wanderer bit, you love traveling and photography. How do these feed into your writing, apart from in the obvious ways?

Janhavi Acharekar with her camera, during one of her travelsJA: Each lends to the other and everything feeds into writing in some way or the other. This applies to all of us, I think. I write both fiction and travel – travel always brings new experiences and perspectives to the writing table, especially where fiction is concerned, and there’s always storytelling involved in good travel writing, so the two intersect at some point. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is both travel narrative and engaging storytelling (some say, even fictional in parts), while you find a lot of Hemingway’s travel experiences in his fiction. While Kinara’s story is fictional, her travels are based on my own road trips.

IS: Your style is very simple and soft-spoken, or at least, not loud. Is this a natural trait, or something you’ve cultivated?

A promo photo of Janhavi Acharekar at the time of the launch of her book, Wanderers, AllJA: I prefer a subdued, matter-of-fact style so as to let the story emerge and provoke readers into drawing their own conclusions. Cultivating a style is tricky because it could get self-conscious and might not ring true. (Although one’s tone, or voice, could change depending on the character or story being told, which is bound to affect the style in some way. Kinara’s is a younger, contemporary voice different from the traditional historical narrative.)

IS: The name pun seems to be an emerging motif in your writing. There was the lovely ‘China’ in Window Seat and now ‘Raj/Swaraj’ in Wanderers. Is this perhaps due to the copywriter in you?

JA: And there’s ‘Play it again, Sam!’ too in Window Seat. Yes, advertising is great training ground for a writer simply because it teaches you to play around with words and not to take yourself too seriously. It loosened me up, apart from teaching me to write to insane deadlines and create an unbelievable amount of excitement around mundane things like automotive lubricants and office storage cabinets. And, of course, to pun. Ad people keep showing up in my work, whether in Kinara’s travels or in my short stories. An agency is (or at least used to be) a lively place filled with people with a great sense of humour. I would like to believe that it has rubbed off on my writing somehow, if ever so slightly.

IS: Kinara’s arc is as absorbing as Murlidhar’s. Was there a thought to extend it beyond the space it occupies now? Is there, for instance, a novella about her waiting in the wings?

JA: Thank you. Kinara’s is just a hint of a character in that sense because the historical is the dominant narrative. A woman who is independent, in search of nothing in particular, and who finds friends, parties, new places and experiences along the way.

Like I said, I’m never sure about the direction my work is going to take. Sometimes, I feel that I’m done with a story but not with the characters, so to answer your question, yes, it’s a possibility.

IS: Finally, what next, apart from the continuing promotion of the book?

JA: Writing 🙂

  • Follow > You can follow her on Twitter through @WanderersAll and also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Profile pic of Desmond Macedo, offering a writerly pose with his tool of the trade, the pen

Irficionado | Author Interview | Desmond Macedo

I read. I liked. I friended. I picked up Desmond Macedo’s debut satire A Guy Growing Old in a Country Growing Young (brought out by Harper Collins) soon after it came out earlier this year. Liked it, especially the first chapter; no, loved the first chapter. Started following him on Twitter, and then friended him on Facebook. We’ve never met, or even spoken with each other, but correspond and share common professions (advertising/writing) and an earlier city (Bombay/Mumbai). Having been a copywriter in several Mumbai agencies, Macedo now works out of Pune as a freelance copywriter, entrepreneur, and of course, author. In this email interview, he talks about the book, the several issues he brings up in it, and whether there’s hope for people growing old in a country ever growing young.

Front and back covers of Desmond Macedo's book, A Guy Growing Old in A Country Growing Young

IS: The first chapter is one of the most exquisite pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. It really takes you back to the time you talk about there. Was it a conscious decision to start this way, or did you feel ‘inspired’?

DM: Since I was writing from memory, it turned into a flashback. It does seem a beat slower than the rest of the novel because that period was slow. I wanted the narrative to slip into the period.

But something else was at work that I have to admit. I wanted this book to be well written. I had to start from the first sentence. I do not know if I have succeeded, but if you found this section exquisite, it is what I had in mind. So, conscious. And while you have said this to me earlier, the rest of the book is in the same style, just a beat faster. Actually, there is more wit in the rest of the book, so it may ‘seem’ faster. A reader tends to read this book fast. It is written that way. I have people who finished it in one afternoon.

It’s also past and present, the two divisions in the story, so the reader may feel a difference.

IS: The portions after that, right up to the beginning of the last chapter, are not in the same mellow vein and look eager to cover a lot of ground: girls, GenX, politicos, attitudes, aspirations. It also seems punctuated, as you seem to want to move from one issue to another quite rapidly.

Passage in Desmond Macedo's book, A Guy Growing Old in A Country Growing YoungDM: I intended this book to entertain. Not educate, instruct and inform, through thesis, academia and research material. I also intended this book for youngsters. Elder folk with a sense of fun will love it, but I knew that some may not agree with a few of its views. Like in the chapter, ‘Bottom-up Country’, there are these lines: Top-downers loved meetings because it gave them a chance to reinforce hierarchy. And wherever there was hierarchy, the top level was usually old.’

So if the youth were going to read it, I had to be practical. What with the number of wonderful distractions they have – Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, iTunes, movie and music downloads, games, chatting, coffee shops, dating, career, salary and pay hikes, LinkedIn, Pinterest, blogs, Man U and Barca – better to keep my book short. And just try to make it fun. Happily, I did get a bonus, too – some have told me the book has interesting insights.

It is deliberately written in short paragraphs. This would seem ‘punctuated,’ but it gives the book pace, avoids any boredom setting in, and the reader, instead of me, moves rapidly on. The reader should love how the fun surfaces every little while, without any dependence on puns and innuendo. There must be a pun and a half in the entire book.

One more important reason. Though I do not mention it anywhere in the book, I have noticed that the present generation has a better sense of fun than earlier ones. They are teaching Indians to laugh at themselves. So if I am appealing to them, how else to?

IS: The end promises to offer hope to your protagonist – with the discovery of those inspiring messages beneath the bed – only to crash them. Why did you choose to end on a non-positive note? Did you consider that it might limit the potential success of the book?

DM: How can you end on a positive note when, as you turn old in India, or as Dan Mullagathanny was turning old, you are left isolated: at work, at getting jobs – as the book says, ‘Who will give a 49-year old a job when he can get two twenty-four-year-olds for the age of a forty-niner?’ – by your own disdain for the language used by the youth, by your lack of interest and/or facility in things technology, by your enthusiasm, drive and ambition that does not equal theirs.

And anyway, the bit about the one-liners beneath the bed was a crack at clichéd thought, expression and jargon, which is quite a noticeable thread throughout the book.

Besides, even with the melancholy tone, the reader still has a laugh. My synopsis to the publishers says so: The story will end on a sad note, though wittily, the way the entire narrative runs.

But, if anything, the end is more reality than any other consideration. ‘The old disdain the young and the young disdain the old’, as the book says. I have watched how determinedly youngsters separate from elders even at family get-togethers.

IS: Why did you choose this as your first book? You seem quite politically tuned in. Was it the typical writer/political participant’s angst coming out through your protagonist? The language at least suggests so.

DM: Politics lends itself to satire. Politicians can do things that are so funny, satirists can’t match them. But politics is where writers get the urge to set right the wrong, like they easily can, but they clamour for the truth louder than others, and their desire to expose it is usually stronger than the others. Like Behram Contractor and Art Buchwald, two people I have loved reading, and Swami Anklesaria Iyer, whom I think of as a business and finance satirist.

In my case, as must be with a few other writers, honest and straightforward writing is a good idea in India simply because no one uses these traits – we are devious. So honesty is always rare and fresh here. I often had my forthright, straightforward headlines/copy bounced in advertising.

IS: Did this not need any research? Or did it?

DM: I wrote quite a bit of this book simultaneously as the events took place – as I read the newspapers. You will notice from dates. Some research has also gone into it. A helpful editor, too, dug up some names. Well, he is young, with more drive and ambition. *Smile*

IS: The standard first-book question now: How autobiographical is it, especially with the protagonist sharing both his initial and age with you?

DM: A good part of it is. As I believe: If you haven’t lived it, you can’t write it. Not true, all the time, but it helps if you believe in something.

Author Desmond Macedo offering a mug shot

IS: Any particular reason for choosing Dan Mullagathanny (Dan ‘Pepper-Water’ – a popular form of soup, aka rasam, in South India) as your protagonist’s name?

DM: I was looking for a name with an Indian cultural reference. Like Mullagathanny. Yes, it’s the word for ‘rasam’ that South Indians and Anglo Indians use, me being both. ‘Dan’ was to offset the ‘Mullagathanny’, nicely. I had tried out the name with colleagues, and they seemed to like it. So it stuck.

IS: What’s your personal take on the situation in the book’s title? With an ever-increasing youth population and a population that’s set to become the world’s largest in the next decade or so, is there hope for people on the wrong side of 40 – or should we just move to the Himalayas?

DM: There may be several people in India facing a similar situation. For them, it is good to know where they stand. As when Rajesh Khanna passed away, many youngsters condoled their parents. And when a mother wanted to gift clothes to her son, and had almost paid for them, he called and said, ‘Drop the thought, mom! Just leave this generation to do its own thingy.

The division is so distinct.

And oh, there is hope in the book for them, as Dan tries to cheer himself: ‘One consolation. Elders will be an officially designated minority. A vote bank. Once in five years, Gen-X will come around kissing my arse.’

Passage in Desmond Macedo's book, A Guy Growing Old in A Country Growing Young

IS: Most copywriters eventually move on to either film-making or pure writing. Had you ever seen yourself making this transition (although, yes, you continue to be an independent ad professional), or did this just happen along the way?

DM: Serious writing never occurred to me until Google Blogs arrived. Irony right there – technology gave me the idea.

I did run out of the desire to write for a client, as you often have to do in advertising. I wanted to write as I want to write. For instance, have stiff and studied, well-educated English stand next to guttersnipe language, like it or not. Like, ‘Dan Mullagathanny questioned the wisdom of burning his own arse.’ Or contorted logic like, ‘Clichés work. That’s why people use them. That’s how they become clichés.’

IS: Finally, expectantly, simply: What next? ‘What Dan Lamented Next’? Or something else?

DM: On Twitter, I came across a thought: Tips On How to Market Your Book. ‘Shut up and write your next book.’ Even the handbook for writers says, ‘Write regularly’. This book came about much that way. I used to write regularly on a blog. That’s where I got the character’s name, and practised writing the way I want to write.

So that it will be.

  • Read: Here’s an extract of the book on the Harper Collins WordPress blog: ‘Guy Growing Old’ on Harper Collins
  • Buy: You can buy the book on old-gen and new-gen stores (bookstores and e-commerce sites respectively).
  • Follow: You can follow Desmond Macedo on Twitter through @Desmond_Macedo. You will also find him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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