Saturday, 27 September 2014

On Meeting a Manuscript

If reviewing a book is like taking the wrapper and ribbon off from a mystery gift, reviewing a manuscript is nothing short of being given a hidden treasure chest, with the key to open it. What lies within is virginal, for no other eyes except the author’s have seen it yet. You are told that. Sometimes made to sign and swear that you will keep secret whatever you find inside – jewels, maps or pebbles.

So, there is exclusivity to make you feel special. Curiosity too, and how it kills! There is a taste of power, for you have a license to deconstruct, sift-sort-suggest, to your head’s content. There is also a message in the bottle on your work desk, blinking neon – I trust you. Tell me what you think. Honestly. Thus, more than anything else, reading manuscripts makes you feel very responsible; more than being a caretaker of your own treasure chest can. 

Let me get serious now.

A few months back I became what we call a Beta Reader of manuscripts. As much as the term reminds me of a tool in the Physics lab, it actually makes me feel like a moon-dust robot, a nuke scientist and John Nash rolled into one whenever I say it aloud. Just the term, that is. The work of helping an author with feedback about their stories so they can polish them and make them publisher-ready (to put it very humbly) is much more difficult than the zaniest profession you can think of. 

Let me tell you why it is difficult and why you should call us Alpha Readers and not the second-in-command, Beta.

When an author has spent the better part of his past few years ‘working on’ a manuscript, he knows he is mailing you on an average 320 KB and 70,000 words of perfection. Pure perfection. He presses ‘send’ and your inbox reads 1 New Mail and somewhere in the few seconds in between he becomes a best-selling author – in his head. And you? You sweat, reading the introduction to the attached manuscript which is ‘close to my heart’ and a list straight from some Blue Book reading thus - ‘check this’, ‘notice that’, ‘keep a tab’, ‘what do you think’ and of course, ‘be honest’ – the last almost like a threat with an invisible ‘or else’ attached. After all, you are not the commissioning editor who will be dear-ed. Instantly, your finger nails feel your teeth and your fee seems like salt-free peanuts. 

So, you make a list of your own, next to the one the Boss sent, called ‘Expectations’. Suddenly, you are married to someone’s work and the father of the bride carries a pen (mightier than the sword), while the bride herself seems high-maintenance. Your side of the page, the real Beta list, is but a shadow in comparison. In short, there’s work to be done. The manuscript has to be read with a concentration even your inner eyelids have never seen. Comments and suggestions have to be added in track change mode and in polite language, even if you are asking them to go easy on the expletives. All impulses to kiss-bin-bin-bin-kiss-just-bin the virtual copy in admiration or deliverance have to be resisted. Finally, a chunky document called Overall Feedback has to be readied, which becomes a blueprint for the author to mull over slowly. In all this, do not forget, you have to be honest yet balanced, academic yet not-too-heavy, suggestive yet not over-smart, loud and clear yet not drown his voice and finally, helpful. Phew!

Yes, Alpha Reader would be good. Thank you! 

And then one day, when a book you helped shaped in whatever little (I mean big, actually!) ways sees the light of the published day you cut a cake, pat yourself publicly in the MCD park next door and order Chinese from Yo! China to celebrate “your” success. All jesting apart, it feels very, very good. Right from the point when the message in the bottle from the start is mouthed at the end of the assignment too as ‘I trust you’. That is when, as suggestions you made are incorporated, discussed and worked upon, you realize where the real value of this work lies – in the regard for what you call your impressions and feedback but which mean much more to those receiving them.

Ritu Lalit’s ‘Wrong, for the Right Reasons’ is the first among the manuscripts I beta-read to be a published book. I remember her call when with a semi-certain yet hopeful voice she shared this book’s idea with me, asking me straight away ‘Do you think this will work?’ It was 3 pm on a lazy day, it was 45 degrees, there was no electricity and I had a ripped toe-nail hopping around with me. But nothing clouded the conviction with which I felt for the book. Not just because it was woman-centric; not just because it was about surviving the everyday and not the fantastical but also because I assumed she was going to pour a huge part of her own life’s experiences into this survival account of a young divorced mother-of-two. The result of her hard work is for anyone to read now. 

Wrong, for the Right Reasons’ is one of the most real books you will read this season. It is Shyamoli’s story – as a young divorced woman, a single mother of two, a daughter struggling to break-free from an abusive mother and a person looking to walk on her own terms in a society which defines ‘respect’ in the most constricted of ways and hangs norms like nooses around the necks of single women. What is special about this book is what is seen as amiss in others – there are no sudden twists and turns, no army of characters and not even a flourish of a closure. It tells you a story keeping the sensational and the spectacular away, yet retaining the extraordinary within it, in the form of portrayal of relationships, streams of consciousness and the growth of the characters over the years that span the novel. One of my first doubts was about Shyamoli being too real to be made into a ‘heroine’ but by the end of the manuscript I had revised my idea. She is that exactly because she is life-like. And readers will be able to find a Shyamoli in their lives too. Isn’t that a wonderful thing in a book?

I met one manuscript for coffee first. Then I met some more, and then a few more and I don’t need to stop any more. Each speaks in its own voice to me, in its own style, not just to the reviewer that I am but to the dreamer that I want to be, of holding my own piece of art in my hands one day. Perhaps, that is what makes me love my work, for the possibility it keeps alive in my mind and for the various lessons it tucks within its folds for forwarding that on the right path.  

In the meantime, do you now see why we should be called Alpha Readers and not Beta, the second in command?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Are you being served?

If the written word had measurable decibels, this would be one of my loudest posts. I don’t rant for I don’t trust myself with impassioned screaming where I may spell Punjabi expletives incorrectly (the ignominy!) I also calm my blood down before writing my opinions down because to have one’s genuine piece being read and rejected as Post Menstrual/Marital/Mid-age Stress is but the single biggest discouragement any writer can get. Plus, over-use of ‘annoying’ is so annoying.

I was asked a few moments back about my most tiring experiences as a customer. There are 2 which jumped red lights, broke their lane and came honking to mind with holy stickers on their wind shields. Sadly, these two are as regular in my day-to-day life as my milk man’s thin moustache every morning is. If you too like me stay in New Delhi, these may not be anything new for you. I would still like to ask you though – are you too being served thus?

Parking Fraud

Those young lads manning MCD parking areas all over the city know more about us than even we know. They know we are short of time, perhaps looking at how little we open our windows and how hurriedly snatch the tickets from their hands, before crumpling them and stuffing the ball into our top pockets. They also seem to have realized that we stopped caring for Rs. 10 long back, and especially now when it got converted to mere coins from full-blown currency notes. Why else will they tear the tickets as you see in the picture above? 

I got this parking ticket at PVR Naraina parking lot. Notice how it has been torn. While the rate for parking the car is Rs. 10, the counterfoil is torn such that Rs. 20 is what is visible, asked for and paid. At India Gate, the boards listing the expensive charges have been systematically defaced to "sell" this fraudulent idea. At New Delhi railway station, umbrellas and barricades are placed such that cars coming in are misled into entering the 'Premium Parking' area, where you pay Rs. 100 per entry. In Dilli Haat, the paid parking (with such tickets) even covers areas outside the legally designated areas for parking. Yes, you can park your big car where 'No Parking' boards exist. It’s everywhere!

At many levels, we are "promoting" this cheating at a massive scale pan Delhi. Either we have no idea, in case we do not notice the slip properly because the movie or the sale is about to begin. Or, we know the story but are too embarrassed to argue with the parking guys over a meagre Rs 10. What will the car behind us think, after all?

Try putting your foot down to be served right, instead of on the accelerator to find that elusive parking spot or vacating it for the next in line. Try asking him to check the part of the counterfoil he has left under the thick rubber band. See his face then, hand over the right amount, say good night and then sleep tight knowing a youngling is not discussing with his friends what an owl the Audi driver was. It feels good. 

Toffees for Change

Parents or no parents, the cashiers at so many stores seem better equipped to handle toddler tantrums and sudden urges for sweeties than most of us who popped real-life babies. Why else would they buy packets of Kissme toffees or Cadbury’s Eclairs to give you instead of change which they are always short of? Of course, one may say they are spreading sweetness but oh boy, try calculating what the store is making by giving you a sweet that cost it a paisa instead of the Re. 1 it hands over in exchange and with a smile that would put the frogs’ to shame. 

Our neighbourhood Safal – the one shop which promises fresh vegetables and executes its promise of freshness only once a week from 6 am to 6:30 am, be there or miss it! – is where you find a cash register full of coconut toffees. No matter what time of the day you get your vegetables billed there, they will never have spare change, though by God's grace, they will always have these toffees. 

Initially, I used to refuse taking them leaving behind the change which was my due. The shame-faced cashier used to produce a few coins from somewhere then. Gradually, as I saw through his scheme of things he saw through mine and I was asked to take-toffee-or-leave-it with the confidence of a politician in the Parliament. So, I had no option but to take toffees, and collect them. Yes, sir, I did collect them. (If they were popular ones, I would have bought a packet to add to the kitty) I collected them not just to see by how much an average customer was getting duped per visit but also because one fine day I wanted to take a handful back, in exchange for onions and potatoes and ginger. 

I did exactly that. Stumped, the cashier did not know how to ‘sell’ me the vegetables in exchange for sweeties, or how to refuse. Stumped, the old uncle who had just popped his into his mouth stopped sucking on it. And magically, the woman next in line raised her voice against this practice too. That she was diabetic and this was promoting sugar-intake was a little off the mark from the real reason to reject this phenomenon but it helped. Suddenly, there was the clink of coins and everyone got their change.

From food courts in popular malls to our favourite general stores, the toffee-for-coin is rampant. What does it take to see through the act? I know it takes quite a bit to refuse a kind hand handing you gooey chocolate filled toffees but look close. Apart from the parking guy’s pocket the vegetable cashier’s belly too is shaking in amused disbelief at its dumb customers. And you know as well as I do who they are.  

To be subtly swindled and served thus got my goat. Regularly and by the neck on bad hair days! So much so that finally the goat was ready to offer itself up as mutton to end the ordeal. Up until the day I left her at home, because I had decided to stand by my right to be served right. It’s very easy. It’s very important. It’s also as patriotic as painting a flag on your face every Independence day or for India's cricket match.

Are you being served right?

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Are you being served? - What’s the most dreadful (or wonderful) experience you’ve ever had as a customer?]

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Book Review – Seduced by Murder by Saurbh Katyal

If books were to be judged by their covers, I would never have picked this one. An amateur attempt to show what the story within is about does not do justice to Saurbh Katyal’s ‘Seduced by Murder’. At best it (mis)leads you to believe that a smoking and hot woman is involved. What is this murder mystery about?

Vishal Bajaj is a corporate rat in a race which he wants to exit, because he wants to feel ‘content with being rather than becoming’. A maternal uncle’s death brings his way a one-room office and a desire to restore order in people’s lives, by wearing his uncle’s shoes and becoming a detective. ‘Cheating-husband jobs were my core competency’ up until his old flame, Aditi, seeks his help for investigating the murder of her husband’s brother. With Pranay, his sidekick and Babu, the police officer on call, Vishal works against time and the affected family’s desires to close the case in order to find the killer and stop the corpses from piling high. Spicing his need for alcohol with regular doses of wit, Vishal’s single-handed investigation forms the crux of Saurbh’s ‘Seduced by Murder’. Which means, both Vishal as a character and his methods of investigation form the premise this novel’s narration rests on. 

Vishal, the character

If the author did not have us believe that he works in the corporate world, I would have thought he is a private detective himself. Or is he, in his free time and on the sly? For how else would he be able to create such a well fleshed-out personality as that of Vishal's? 

In the protagonist of this novel we find a real and believable man; intelligent, of course, but also presented with all his vulnerabilities. There is nothing superhero-ish about him (except for two fight sequences, whose grandeur is forgotten the moment he catches a fever simply by getting wet in the rain). He unravels the mystery by relying purely on circumstantial evidence, logic, timely articulation and a regular supply of tongue-in-cheek humour. Not just who he is, but how he is characterized as the book progresses is something to notice too, as Saurbh gives equal space to the detective that he is without as the conflict-ridden person that he is within. His loves and his losses form a quiet backdrop to the action happening in the fore, especially Vishal’s relationships with his booze and with his past. Which essentially means – he is etched for the readers through his dialogues as well as his narration of the story.

However, what remains most impressive about this man is his power of observation, his eye for reading characters and his ability to make us see them through his portrayal. He speaks directly to the readers to reveal characters to us so convincingly that we trust him blindly. Even when he is driving and drinking!

The level of Mystery 

Think back to those old Bollywood movies where crimes were investigated by detectives who came built in with an articulate mind, a good degree of foresight and at the most a magnifying glass in their hands. Where footprints to tyre tracks and gestures to signals helped solve the most heinous crimes through the detectives’ hawk-like eyes. That is ‘Seduced by Murder’ for you, in print. By completely relying on the human ability to solve crimes sans gadgets and radars, GPS and supercomputers, Saurbh has created an authentic detective novel with a strong old-time flavour. Three things help maintain the level of mystery high at most points of the narration:

The one aspect that propels the story forward even more than incidents are the series of clues discovered at the scenes of crime or in peace time. Through eyes or vibes, noise and lights, gestures and objects; catching a standalone word or by noticing the missing grief on someone’s face; even sniffing the smell of deception or seeing a father’s swelling pride. Hints and clues inch the story-line forward at varying speeds and with different degrees of success, as Saurbh wills, of course.

Then, answers are sought scientifically and unravelled with clinical precision, from point to point. This leaves very little room for dramatic situations and personae. Each character is serving a sane role in the scheme of things, without running amok with a knife in hand or surprising you with a gun shot in the head. This also helps in keeping the plausibility of the story from dropping. For this reason, 'Seduced by Murder' does not aim to thrill or chill but keep you firmly grounded in intelligent investigation.

I recently learnt about points of tension/twist which need to be present as well as be spread apart just right in order to keep the reader involved. On the 25th page itself Vishal announces ‘this meant … the murderer was staring at me right now’. The reader is instantly set thinking. Then, with just 25 pages to go, we hear ‘It was all so evident that I was surprised I had missed it’ and we wonder if we had been on a wild goose chase all along too. Throughout, as Vishal changes tracks, he keeps you on your toes too. Multiple such turns, many intentionally misleading, keep you engrossed and guessing till the very end. When Vishal finally and with full conviction 'locks eyes with the murderer, and he pales,’ another heart beat of a fully-involved reader is skipped. The mystery still remains far from solved!   

Alas! I smell some problems.

Vishal and Pranay’s relationship is portrayed so well at the start of the book. Standing in direct contrast to each other, the two as a team would have made a perfect Indian answer for foreign detective-duo imports. It was not to be, because somewhere in the beginning of the action Pranay takes a back seat, and goes missing. Mysteriously! Why? Is it to aggrandize Vishal and keep the limelight on him from getting diluted? Or, did Saurbh forget the absent-minded, bumbling yet endearing role Pranay played in Vishal’s investigative life? I wish I had seen more of Pranay.

Babu, the police officer, comes across as a type borrowed from a comedy movie rather than one investigating such a high profile crime. He seems too na├»ve with ‘I got … carried away’ being his best defence for derailing the investigation at multiple points. He could have served as a foil to Vishal in so many ways. Not that that would make his lack of investigative “skills” any plausible as a man heading this murder's trail.

I don’t know what the last chapter is doing there, especially since Aditi’s seductive presence has either been missing from the scenes or been immensely unhelpful in carrying the story forward. For that exact reason, I would have titled the book differently too. Or was the title an attempt to mislead, making this, my comment, a spoiler?  

Finally ...

Seduced by Murder’ is a brave risk at writing a murder mystery, not just because it is old-fashioned in its execution but also because it is so sparsely populated by characters that it runs the risk of getting predictable. I could not predict the end because the continuous stream of the narration left no time for me to think, which speaks for how well the sequencing of events is done. What makes me happy to see is how Saurbh has lent a proper Indian flavour to this murder mystery –  the characters, the habits of the police, the real estate trade, the socio-economic ramifications of murder in a high-class family and even the way the press hungers for scoops. The book is simple (not simplistic), interesting and unpretentious. For those of us who enjoyed detectives with magnifying glasses in their hands will enjoy this book. At this point all I can say is 'I have a hunch … let’s see’, as Vishal would say.

Author: Saurbh Katyal
Publisher: Bluejay

[This review was commissioned by the author. All views are my own.]
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