Understanding An Author…Interview With Raghu Srinivasan

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” ― Charles William Elliot.

My love affair with books started when I was in class 3. I consider them to be truly best friends who teach me, inspire me, enthral me and never ever make me feel lonely.

I had introduced “The Avatari” and it’s author Raghu Srinivasan in this blog a few months ago. I had briefly interacted with Raghu, thanks to a common friend, Sandeep Malik. When I requested Raghu for an interview, I did so with a little reservation…not knowing how that conversation would go. Imagine my surprise when Raghu agreed and said he will run it through Hachette India, his publishers and once they approve, I could have it published on my blog.

Raghu Srinivasan

Raghu Srinivasan

All I can say is thank you Raghu and Hachette India for making my dream come true!

Great writers have always fascinated their readers. We want to know how they create the characters we love or hate, the imaginative settings, and the plots & story lines that have us reading late into the night, wanting to know what happens next.Talking to an author give us an insight into his mind, what motivated him, how does he sustain his writing while there are distractions galore, researching relevant topics and most of all, understanding him as an individual. Ladies & gentlemen, in the words of the man himself…read on!

In conversation with Raghu Srinivasan, author of The Avatari.

Q1.      How did The Avatari happen in your life?At the cost of sounding extremely clichéd, who and what inspired Avatari? How did the combination of a British army officer, a Gurkha, a mathematician interested in history and an archaeologist happen?

Ans.     ‘The Avatari’ owes its origins to a drink I had with an old timer huddled over a stove, in an arctic tent in the shadow of the Karakorum ranges. The old timer had been a mountaineer before he had had a bad fall and had tramped all over the Karakorums, spending much of his time with local porters and guides. It was from them that he who had picked up a story of a group of Germans who had formed an expedition to search for Shambhala, and were never heard of again.

Q2.      This is your first book. What other kind of writing have you done earlier?

Ans.     From as far back as I can remember I wanted to be a story teller. I started off early by the age of eight; telling my younger brother intricate, fantastic fairy tales which would never end, a la ‘The Arabian Nights’. In high school, I was the editor of the school rag, and as is wont in such cases, wrote almost all of the articles – some under a pseudonym. This ‘occasional’ writing continued in the form of short, humorous articles contributed to Army magazines and journals.  I first tried my hand at writing a short story in 1992 when I was twenty seven; I remember it being very dark and cryptic. The few people who read it were kind enough to say that ‘it had had promise’ while in the same breath wondering aloud what it was all about. That was also a time when I read everything that ‘Papa’ Hemingway had written; and I later realized that your first attempt at writing should not imitate the minimalist ‘Men Without Women’. When I was thirty nine I was posted to the Indian Military Advisory Team for two years. Since it was a teaching assignment, I had time to indulge myself in reading everything their library had to offer and dabble in writing again. I wrote three short stories, which received much acclaim from my wife and mother. My aim was to write at least fifteen, so that I could publish a book of my short stories. I began ‘The Avatari’ as my fourth short story in 2005; it was a story which was metamorphose into a rather long novel, evolve from a spiritual journey to an action-adventure theme and occupy my thoughts for the next eight years.

The Avatari

The Avatari

Q3.      What kind of books do you enjoy reading?

Ans.     I am a voracious reader and like just about every genre; but stick to reading stories written in the ‘classical mode’ – so something by let’s say James Joyce or Arundhati Roy is not on my list. Frederick Forsyth, Hemingway, Mitchener, Maugham and Wodehouse would be the authors I like best. My all-time favourite book is ‘ A Farewell to Arms’.

Q4.      I have read the book and reviews online. The common thread is that your writing style is racy enough to keep the readers enthralled and the book has enough substance to keep us all engaged. How did you manage this balance?

Ans.     I think I received a lot of help on this score from my wife, Sumita and my editor from Hachette, Poulomi Chatterjee, who did some great editting. Left to my own devices I should have probably rambled on and ‘The Avatari’ would have gone on for another hundred pages. I tried to make action sequences and descriptive sequencesas ‘believable’ as possible. I am glad it worked out!

Q5.      Please share with us how much of research you had to do to weave in the details of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo and South & East Asian history.

Ans.     As I said before, I am an avid reader, and the one thing I promised myself while writing ‘The Avatari’ was that I should attempt to make no factual errors. I remember reading ‘San Andreas’ by Alistair Maclean’; where one of the characters is a Pakistani, but the story is set during World War II – when there could have been no Pakistanis. So starting with reading the ‘BardoThodol’ (The Tibetan Book of the Dead) and everything that has ever been written about the Shambhala myth, to events as they chronologically happened in history in 1296, 1956, 1963 and 1986 has been researched. I had to do a fair bit of reading on Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as also the Afghan War. These included Kublai Khan’s biography and ‘The Bear Trap’ by Brig Mohd Yusuf, probably the best book written on the Afghan war. Likewise I needed to read up on travelogues of people who had visited the enchanting places which Henry Ashton and his team visit in the book.

Q6.      Ashton, Susan, Peter & Duggy are all larger than life characters in the book. As a reader I’m curious to know if you want to continue using the same protagonists in your next book also…like a Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy novels or the famous Jason Bourne in Robert Ludlum novels.

Answered below!

Q7.      I’m sure all your fans out there want to know when the next book is being published. I’m definitely waiting eagerly

Ans.     It’s too early to say. I am presently working on a book set in China. I am a slow writer – but I hope I can write something faster than ‘The Avatari’ which took seven years!

Q8.      Would you experiment with other genre of writing, besides thrillers?

Ans.     Yes, I would love to be able to write something like ‘Love Story’.

Q9.      A novel such as The Avatari can be made into a great movie. Has anyone approached you for scripting or even offers of making a movie?

Ans.     You’re right – I think the book has a definite cinematographic appeal! The problem is, that given the exotic locales and the swathes of history the novel covers- It would have to be a very big budget! Keeping my fingers crossed!

 

*Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted after the book was published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

The Boulevard & The Screen…Silvery Hollywood

Sinking in a seat as the lights dimmed, the lion of MGM roaring in front of me on the silver screen, I was transported to another world all together. If books help me visualise and let my imagination work overtime, I love the movies for the power they have over the mind and heart. Roman Polanski, a director I admire tremendously, once said, “Cinema should make you forget that you are sitting in a theatre”

Having grown up a staple diet of all time classics like Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Sound Of Music, The Good The Bad The Ugly and few more in the same genres, I did not understand the nuances of appreciating a well made film those days. However, you can never escape the influence of a great movie…and that’s what happened to me also!

This sounds like a cliche I know…but they really don’t make them like that anymore!!! When I look at the kind of Hollywood movies released now, I find them revolving around aliens, autobods, vampires, draculas, witches and wizards. Where are normal human beings? One gets a strong feeling that our planet will be taken over by all the above…that’s why we don’t have movies made about normal people like you and me 🙂

Casablanca

I was reading the tribute paid to Eli Wallach who died recently. And I remembered some of the movies I have enjoyed during my teenage years and later too. The genres that I’m a sucker for – romance (that’s easy to guess), suspense thrillers (Hitchcock variety), westerns (gun slinging, crooked cigars/cigarettes in the mouth), war movies (they always bring in nostalgia, poignancy and a smile). You know something…I still enjoy watching them again now…every once in a while, on a rainy afternoon, with a nice cuppa and some popcorn…I’m willing to be transported to the world of Scarlett O’Hara, Capt & Maria Von Trapp, Eliza Do Little & Prof Higgins and the ever lovely Mrs Campbell. So, who are all these characters? It would make sense to write about some of my all time favourites…

Casablanca 

This remains my numero uno as far as romantic movies are concerned. I can swoon every time I hear Humphrey Bogart say, “Of all the gin joints in the world, she had to walk into mine.” With nearly every line of its script engraved on the collective subconscious, and its central performances of Bogart and Ingrid Bergman defining iconic cool, Casablanca is an exultant classic. “Here’s looking at you, kid”.

Great Escape

Great Escape

The Great Escape

I love a good war movie, especially the Second World War ones. This 1963 American film on the escape and escape attempts of Allied forces prisoners from a German military camp is the right audio visual choice that tickled my palate with intriguing drama and meticulous war and war camp description. The movie has a a classic motorcycle chase sequence featuring the great Steve McQueen. The all-star ensemble includes James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Garner….can one ask for more?

Citizen Kane   

A landmark in the history of movie making. A classic by Orson Welles, this is a brilliant master piece that can resonate with any generation, in my opinion. Surprisingly, it was a box office disaster initially, it generated huge acclaim eventually and continues to thrill audiences even now.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly  

The Good The Bad The Ugly

The Good The Bad The Ugly

Every time Eli Wallach said “Hey Blondie” to Clint Eastwood, I smiled. I loved both the characters…and I think I fell hopelessly in love with Clint Eastwood because of all the westerns. Movies like this and For A Few Dollars More, created a cult following for an entire generation as they depicted typical rough, tough and bold characters, most enigmatically gypsy gang lord like lifestyle and dramatic action. I lapped it all up in the true spirit of adventure. The background scores from most of the westerns are tunes I hum even today and enjoy listening to while driving…yes you guessed right…highway driving 🙂

Sound Of Music

Sound Of Music

Sound Of Music and My Fair Lady

It is unfair of me to combine both these movies…but for me they have always gone hand in hand. The lovely Julie Andrews and the suave Christopher Plummer created a different sense of romance all together. On the contrary, the beautiful Audrey Hepburn and sophisticated Rex Harrison brought such a cute, down to earth feeling to romance. In fact, one dialogue Of Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady, “Where the devil are my slippers?” always reminds me of what my man says,”My requirements in life are simple – my slippers, newspaper, my reading glasses & cuppa”. In fact when the children were growing up, these were two movies I got them to watch a few times…singing along with Maria & Eliza 🙂

Psycho 

Psycho

Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock movies did not allow me to sleep for a couple of nights at least after watching them. For a very long time after watching Psycho, I would be scared of drawing the shower curtain…those of you who have seen the movie will understand why! Hitchcock movies had this quality of making me look over my shoulder whenever I was alone. Psycho is considered a cult movie in the suspense/thriller category, with its rich, dark & enigmatic quality. I will still recommend the black & white version instead of the remakes that have come recently. A must watch…but don’t blame me if your popcorn just falls off and does not go into your mouth.

Some of the other Hitchcock movies I have thoroughly enjoyed – 39 Steps, Vertigo, North By North west, The Birds and Rear Window.

Schindler’s List

A war movie with a difference and a heart. Schindler’s List tops that category for me. Poignant, emotional and incredibly humane – the war crimes against the Jews is depicted beautifully and authentically shown by Steven Spielberg. It is not for nothing that he is called a master film maker. There are movies about the holocaust and there is Schindler’s List…that’s how powerful it is!!!

Once Upon a Time in the West

This is another epic spaghetti western movie from one of the greatest director of the genre Sergio Leone. This 1968 old Wild West tale came with wide screen cinematography of visual splendour that is so intrinsic to raw western lands and most enigmatic actors in the roles of the bandits and cowboys. This film had been a subject of huge cult following in many parts of the world where it inspired great many masterpieces of the same theme.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Oooh, I cannot miss this western gem for its more matured drama. It is set face to face with the modern legal proceeding with the Wild West cowboy heroes in search of a more successful criminal career, that gives the film a large tinge of thrill with other rich eclectic aspects of western movie. This 1969 western classic by George Roy Hill starring great actor Paul Newman in the lead role, won huge critical reception all over the world as one of the finest movies in the genre. And who can forget, “Raindrops keep falling on my head…”

Roman Holiday

A runaway princess meets handsome man and they fall in love…mush story most will say. Of course it is…but what a mushy romantic story. Gregory Peck became the benchmark in romance for a long time for a lot of women. Audrey Hepburn, as the lovely princess is adorable in this all time favourite of mine.

Four Weddings & a Funeral and Notting Hill 

Notting Hill

Notting Hill

Ralph Fiennes once said, “So much of movie acting is in the lighting. And in loving the characters. I try to know them, and with that intimacy comes love.” He, of course said it from an actor’s perspective…I say it from an audience perspective. And I have loved Hugh Grant’s characters in both – Four Weddings & A Funeral and Notting Hill – the same way. British film makers showed Hollywood how to do romantic comedy in a subtle under played way…which only they can do.

There are so many movies that have left me wanting for more and I can say truly good cinema – The Great Dictator, Buena Sera Mrs Campbell, Papillon, Chinatown, The Pianist, Forrest Gump, Rain Man, Pulp Fiction, Apocalypse Now, The Graduate, Shawshank Redemption, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Tamarind Seed, Singing In The Rain…I can go on a little more.

The one film I have to mention in the last two decades after the phenomenal crime suspense thrillers of Hitchcock all of which had a psychological bent, this 1991 psycho thriller is the right one in every aspect of judgement. The film won Oscars in all top five categories including best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best adapted screenplay and in considering the huge artistic and critical reception of the film all over the world. The character of Hannibal Lector, who brought new meaning to having a friend round for dinner, raised Anthony Hopkins to an iconic status and terrified a whole generation…and cntinues to do so.

Martin Scorsese says, “Cinema is a matter of what is in the frame and what is out”

Finally, a good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk more about good movies than about what you did not see in bad movies.

Enjoy the cinemas and like the saying goes…the show will continue to go on!!!