KOOLSKOOL met up Manreet Sodhi Someshwar at the book launch of her latest novel, "The Taj Conspiracy" (which has recently been declared a best seller). Manreet talked to Suhas Dutta (KOOLSKOOL founder)in an exclusive interview.
Suhas Dutta: Manreet, in our conversation today lets take a different orientation and perhaps speak more about you being an author than necessarily your latest book if that is okay. The Taj Conspiracy is your third novel, the first of the thriller genre and the first of the Mehrunisa trilogy. Many authors write one novel and fizzle out. Did you always have a novel or five inside you, besides even the short stories?
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar: My first novel, which got published second, because it took me 7 years to write is The Long Walk Home. The Long Walk Home is the first fictional examination of the turbulent twentieth-century history of Punjab. Starting with pre-partition India, the narrative arc comes all the way to the present. It is told in parallel threads, the past and the present, and history is refracted through the life of one ordinary Punjabi. After TLWH I thought I'd do something lighter - a thriller with history thrown in, since I am a history buff, seemed ideal. Of course, I was unaware what a hole I was digging for myself Historical research in India is hampered by scarce records which then aren't accessible easily. The Taj Mahal, for instance, is a monument every Indian knows about - yet what do we really know about it except for the love legend behind it?
SD: Did you always know, you wanted to be a writer? or was it something else, and one day epiphany happened?
MSS: To answer your question, I'll have to tell you how writing waylaid me. I grew up in Ferozepur, a small town located on the Indo-Pak border. It saw some of the worst rioting during Partition, lived through 3 Indo-Pak wars, and I witnessed the Khalistan movement firsthand whilst growing up in the town that was branded a "terrorist hot-bed" by the Press.
Writing waylaid me in early 2001 when after a hectic corporate career that had involved much travel (across marketing, consulting, advertising) I took a sabbatical in Singapore where hubby's bank had relocated us. With my head in the clouds (blame it on a Sing skyscraper - we were on the 33rd floor) I thought I'd take a shot at a short story. I had had this vague notion that I'd write but my experience was limited to powerpoint presentations. With a touch of naivete I went about it, wrote one, enjoyed the experience tremendously, followed it with some more, and showed it to some friends who concluded they weren't bad and, obviously, I was desperate for I took that as validation and persisted with the writing. Sabbatical went from 6 months to 12 and a short story demanded to be converted to a novel. Being a Punjabi, I don't do, I overdo - so I decided to persist, gave short shrift to my corporate career and began to tackle the writing of what would take 7 years of my life writing - The Long Walk Home, which is the first fictional examination of the 20th-century history of Punjab.
SD: In one of our conversations, you had mentioned that you create a plot in your head, put in on paper and then sort of storyboard it, put in on sticky notes and move them around to fit, to tighten the plot. That sounds almost the way someone would create a movie, or certainly an animation movie. One would expect an author to just write / type and polish draft after draft. Does this story boarding mechanism enhance your creativity, or makes the work more publishable?
MSS: I think you missed some of that discussion. I start with the first draft which is always fluid and I have only a vague notion of where I want to go with it. It's usually an image in my mind that propels me on. After I have a first draft ready, I put it aside for a while and then tackle it again. The next phase is what I call sculpting, others call editing. This phase is about cutting the extraneous, re-focussing the narrative, tying loose ends. The final phase is 'Kill your darlings!' where I try to be ruthless with the writing so that it is of the finest standard possible.
In the case of The Taj Conspiracy, since its a thriller and the genre has its own conventions - pace, multiple threads - I resorted to storyboard in Phase 2. Storyboard doesn't enhance creativity but it makes the process more rigorous since the demands of the genre dictate that.
SD: When you write, do you go into seclusion, or does normal life go on?
MSS: Normal life goes on. I am a full-time writer and a full-time mother and the two roles cohabit I write daily, weekdays, 8 am to 2 pm, after which my daughter returns from school. But then, there's always writing in the head thereafter, on the couch, in the shower...
SD: Your latest is on the best seller list already. That makes you a successful writer for sure. But, it is not that easy to write, and get published for the first time. What would you say to younger people who want to write but get baulked with the thought of the manuscript coming back?
MSS: Persist. There is no shortcut and writing truly is a labour of love that can go unrequited. Do it only if you feel the strongets compulsion to do so - there are easier ways to earn a living! And behind the glamour is a lot of grit that remains invisible.
SD: What made you move away, and write a thriller?
MSS: The genesis of The Taj Conspiracy lies in my last visit to the Taj Mahal on a crisp winter morning As our guide urged us through the Jilaukhana, forecourt, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the white mausoleum perfectly framed in the arched entrance gateway. Before we could savour the moment, we’d stumbled through the gate into the lush gardens.
The green of the chahar bagh contrasted with the red sandstone platform upon which stood the famed white mausoleum with its flanking buildings. Everything sang harmony - except our guide. Intent upon hustling us on, he ignored the perfect symmetry of the gardens, dismissed the central pool - almost as famous as the celebrities who pose from across it, gave a wide berth to the garden wall pavilions with their intriguing verandahs accentuated with coupled columns and arches ...
No, for him, the Taj Mahal was only the white marble building at the north end, which, in turn, was some periodic table, materials and numericals interwoven, in which ‘marble’ and ‘sandstone’ popped with unsurprising periodicity.
Admittedly, I was nonplussed. I am a writer, I like stories - they tell the truth, about the world, about ourselves, and since inception, homo sapiens have deployed stories to learn and remember by. When I objected to the lack of a narrative, he nodded sanguinely and proceeded to a garnish of urban legends.
Earlier that year, we had toured the Vatican museums with a guide who had brought alive the magic of Renaissance. Here was the world’s most beautiful marble monument that should be pulsing with life stories, yet its narrative was buried under bloodless piling of numerical detail and credulous myths when the true story of the monument was far bigger?
When we departed, I turned once to look at the Taj. This time, unhindered by the guide, I savoured it framed within the arched Darwaza-i-Rauza, the mist swirling around its marble dome. Somehow, the Taj looked forlorn, as if it needed someone to tell its story...
I resolved that day to write a novel around the Taj Mahal, one that would rescue it from ignorant guides and benighted rumours and show it for what it really is - as the colour white contains all colours within it, this monument of white comprises multiple, diverse threads of a pluralistic India.
SD: Manreet, this was wonderful...I could ask you plenty more but thank you so much for talking to us
MSS: Thank you!
KOOLSKOOL being a start up effort, every Rupee and every Dollar counts. Travel always, for us or large behemoths, is always a major expense whether its just local intra-city or inter-city travel. After having done some math, we quickly moved to traveling discounted and low cost airlines with Indigo being our usual choice.
Like most other low cost carriers there is no free food on board, but available for purchase. The only low cost carrier which was an exception was Kingfisher Red (erstwhile Air Deccan) which did provide free food. That will now change as well. Kingfisher Red calls it the "Sky Treats", an exclusive gourmet service. I saw the menu, didn't seem any gourmet to me. The important difference however is that there are specific time of the day options, besides the standard all day sandwiches and the like. For Rs. 200 for a regular meal, not a bad idea at all really. Oh well there are hot beverages too unlike Indigo. If prices were to be similar, Kingfisher Red it would be for sure (you got to consider the on-time factor too, I guess)
I have spent my life traveling full service airlines and mostly in business or in first. For a long period of time (at least on domestic routes) on Indian Airlines, till very recently on Jet Airways and a smattering of everything else. The change of career path (with the initiation of KOOLSKOOL) now gets us to look for cheaper fares, and some amount of low cost carrier flying brought in some interesting insight.
Lets do a quick comparison of cheapest available return fares on three different airlines - Indigo, Jet Airways, and Kingfisher. The route chosen is Bangalore-Delhi-Bangalore, and the dates are 26th Oct (for onward) and 30th Oct (for return). The cheapest tickets we could find are listed in table 1.
Clearly, the real low cost carrier beats every other fare hands down. But, that would be an unfair comparison. Lets bring in food. Table 1, also shows the price of food in the LCC flights. Kingfisher Red will serve you a sandwich for free and provide you a small bottle of water. The other two will sell you food for say Rs 150 a sandwich, and Rs 50 for a can of an aerated beverage. Table 1 also shows approximate costs of food that you might buy on-board. The full service airlines, of course, serve you a free hot meal (depending on the time of the day), but the stark difference still remains.
Lets now assume that you are a Platinum level on the Loyalty Programs of both Jet, and Kingfisher (Indigo doesn't have a loyalty program). You would get lounge access in most airports. Jet doesn't have a lounge at Bangalore, but they give you a food coupon. You do get to sit in peace for a while and eat a bit and/or sip a beverage. Surely that has a cost as well. Lets throw in a Rs 250 (my guess)for the food, and the same amount per passenger in the lounge. That makes is a Rs 500 (per journey) that the airline spends on you for the lounge. Table 1 above also adds the cost of lounge access to the Indigo ticket.
Add the miles twist
Now, Indigo does not have a loyalty program and thus you don't get frequent flier miles. But, assuming you are the same Platinum level frequent flier, the miles that you get are as in Table 2 on the left along with the miles that you will need to get yourself a free return ticket on the same sector.
For the final math!
So, with what we have seen so far, one calculates backwards to figure the number of flights (see Table 3) you will have to take to be able to get a free return tickets on this sector. And second, given the differential between Indigo fares and the others, how many Indigo tickets you might be able to buy within that extra flying.
This is rather clear. Talking money, it makes no financial sense to fly a full service airline at all. Unless, of course your company/ office/ employer or someone else is paying for the ticket.
- The entire analysis above is based on a spot check, and the fares of each of the airlines could easily differ on other days.
- The fares on all the airlines could have been different due to the current load.
- The analysis above is not derogatory in nature, neither is it a paid advertisement (or otherwise) of any airline. It is but an observation. A similar analysis (with similar or different result) would have been possible with other airlines in India.
- All calculations provided above are for the cheapest available fares in economy, on the airlines' individual web sites. Choosing different sectors, class of travel and source of ticketing may alter the calculations.
- Passengers of these airlines are expected to use their own judgment to purchase tickets. Our above post in no way aims to influence a buying decision.
Technology is appearing in our lives and in schools in a big way. Many of us, who remain glued to computers for a large part of the day are slowly finding it difficult to wield a pen. The prolific use of calculators makes the memorization of tables, and ability to do calculations in the head somewhat redundant. A printed book might still be delightful to hold in your hands, but the movement towards electronic gadgets and media is undeniable.
A school that we visited in Dwarka (in Delhi) showed interest in going paperless in school and bringing in systems which can integrate the Kindle into the lives of their students. It is a different matter that they admitted that they don't really care for convenience of the students or related cost factor either.
My four year old spends time with her coloring books, and other story books but is definitely more comfortable playing games on her mother's cell phone. Her interest level (or span of attention) is non-electronic matter is somewhat limited. And she is clearly not an exception. It seems usually that the children adapt to technology much faster than their parents, but also get a little less active physically.
Here is the other potential problem. Intensive use of technology, from posting homework online, class notes getting emailed and students starting to lose the "old-world" skills will find themselves somewhat stymied by challenges that the board exams pose. The board exams are not yet online (and won't be for a long time).
Technology is here to stay and grow, but can we retain some of our innate skills?
J&K has been a hot bed of political activity, terrorism, separatism, 'ethnicide' and what have you. The activities in the state continue to orphan children and widow women. It continues to be a drain on the system for the rest of the country, thanks to our rogue neighboring nation.
What is more disconcerting than anything else is what this turmoil is doing to the children in the valley. Not just psychologically, but even in terms of education. It does not get talked about much, but we picked up something when we started doing research for KOOLSKOOL. We were looking through circulars issued at DPS, Srinagar and found that more often than not the school had used Friday as the weekly holiday instead of Sunday. A little more digging told us that DPS, Srinagar is not an exception.
Some schools are already trying to get their senior students transferred to schools in Delhi, including the DPS group to prevent loss of year for at least the senior secondary students.
Newspapers reported today the opening of schools after a gap of 100 days. School buses and other transport ferrying children and school staff are being allowed through. Government schools are starting to open up and the private schools will watch a bit and then open. It is appalling that a movement (of whatever nature) cares so little for its own children and future. Destroying education can't possibly help the Kashmiri people.
CBSE recently passed a circular to its affiliated schools informing them about UNESCO and Times Foundation's joint initiative "Donate a Book" (Read More). This initiative is meant to strengthen school libraries by receiving voluntary donations from students, teachers and parents.
Though the initiative is appreciated, and the goals noble, I believe its a step in a relatively lower priority direction. With Right to Education Act (RTE Act) related direction setting happening, and initiatives being chalked out, the Donate a Book initiative should have targeted a higher priority problem which will result from the admission of economically under-privileged children (belonging to a weaker section or a disadvantaged group) into the private schooling system. The Act asks the school to provide the learning material. Guess, how will this get funded in real life? Other children (who are not under-privileged) will bear the subsidy brunt.
How about getting older text books (and related material) from the non-under-privileged children donated to a pool and then distributed to the children who benefit from RTE? Sure, these children will not end up with new books thus somewhat violating the RTE principle of discrimination (perhaps), but surely better being resented! So, instead of filling libraries, it really might be a better idea for children (who can afford to do so) donate to their juniors instead.
This might be something that KOOLSKOOL will help facilitate in the future at least at the schools that it operates in.