Nikhil Sachan is a young Hindi writer and a business consultant based in Gurgaon. His first book, a collection of stories, Namak Swadanusar received much acclaim.
It was included in BBC Hindi’s list of “remarkable Hindi books” of 2013. While most of his contemporaries write stories centered around college romance, room-mates and career choices, in Namak Swadanusar, Sachan explores the violence, both real and psychological, that arises from the inherent inequity in society: between child and adult, woman and man and rich and poor. Born in Kanpur, Sachan studied engineering at IIT BHU (Benaras Hindu University) and completed his MBA from IIM Khozikode. In this interview he talks about the process of writing, his interest in theatre and cinema and what he feels about commercial fiction.
KM: The protagonists in your stories are the vulnerable and the voiceless: children, poor women, a background actor, a sex worker, etc. The stories portray rather starkly and matter-of-factly the intolerance, inequity and exploitation in society and are somewhat dark and disturbing. Where do these stories come from?
NS: So, I would say that whenever I start a story I do not finish it in a short time. When I pick up an idea, I live with it for a couple of months. First of all, the idea has to be a hard-hitting one and I need to feel strongly about it to be whole-heartedly involved. I really cannot say why all the stories in my first collection are dark and disturbing because the second book has many happy stories. I can say my stories are of two kinds. The ones about kids are mostly happy and the ones about adults are generally not. I loved my childhood. Maybe I do not enjoy being an adult myself. It can get stressful and depressing. So if you want to trace it, I can say it comes from a longing to be a child again. Again, coming back to the process of writing. When I am fascinated by the idea, I keep thinking about whatever I am doing. I make notes on my mobile. I write the drafts and pointers and leave it for a while and then pick it up again. Writing is a meditative process for me. Research is also very important. For example, Tehzeeb, was a story based on the Afghani custom of Bachaposhi, according to which parents who do not have sons dress up one of their daughters as a boy. I was fascinated by the idea and wanted to use it for my story. I researched a great deal for it and read several articles and watched many documentaries. Unfortunately my publisher thought nine stories was enough and dropped this one from the final list. I did not insist and hence this story is not a part of the collection. The story Mugaaltey is about a prostitute. I can probably link it to the fact that I had been reading Manto (the famous Urdu writer) a lot those days. Manto has written many stories on prostitutes. I wrote Mugaaltey as a play. It was a 45 min monologue and was very well received. I then converted it into a story. During the rehearsals, the interactions with actors and their improvisations helped me discover new perspectives. I thought there was scope (for improvement) so I rewrote it as a story. When I am interested in an idea, I keep working on it. I can say the stories come from my involvement with the idea for a long period of time. Writing is all about rewriting.
KM: Three stories in the book are told from the child’s point of view. Through the child’s naïve eyes an entire new world opens up. A bias that an adult accepts as the norm can be explored and societal issues can be viewed with a new perspective. Truth in a child’s voice has a poignancy the adult narrator will find difficult to achieve. For a writer how difficult or easy is it to use a child’s point of view? What are the challenges you face while writing a story from the child’s perspective?
NS: Basheer Badr says it beautifully, “Bacchon ke chote haaton ko chaand sitaren choone do chand kitaben padh ke yeh bhi hum jaise ho jayenge.” Children have an innocent yet truly powerful insight and observation. Adults too see the same things but they are in denial (smiles). It is probably more advantageous for them to ignore reality. A child protagonist helps me convey powerful messages, simply and easily. It is a little challenging to maintain the balance between playfulness and maturity that writing such stories demands. But, children are strong protagonists and I enjoy writing from a child’s point of view. I would love to write all my stories from a child’s point of view but I want to keep a little balance for my readers so that the reception is a bit wider.
KM: Good writing demands that slang and expletives be used judiciously and as naturally as possible and not to shock or provoke readers. The reference to sex/ bodily functions in its vulgar slang and the character’s use of cuss words in your stories add authenticity to the setting and characters. Were you at all inhibited about using these words? Did you ever worry that your parents may read the book or what would people you know think about it?
NS: I was not worried about it at all when I was writing my first collection Namak Swadanusar. It has many cuss words and bold themes. It is all real and authentic. Your protagonist and narrator will use the language according to their setting. At six or seven years of age I too used these words. Books regarded as contemporary classics such as the Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer Kashinath Singh’s book Kashi ka Assi (on which Chandra Prakash Trivedi, director of TV series Chanakya and movie Pinjar, has made a movie titled Mohalla Assi) also uses language which many may find objectionable. My book too, has offended a few people. I got a 14 page hate mail from a reader in Allahabad. He sent it to my publisher and mentioned his two cell numbers and two addresses, one of Allahabad and one of Mumbai. He said he wanted to receive confirmation on both addresses that his letter was delivered to me. He listed each and every word and phrase he found objectionable in the book. He was offended by the language and the subjects. He said that I had corrupted literature with such language and themes. While one can ignore reactions of a few readers, you cannot disregard the opinion of those close to you. Comments of those close to me made me wonder if these words and themes were necessary for me to write a good story. I tried to entirely do away with them in my new collection. My second book does not even have one cuss word. Zero! But, when it was published I was disappointed. I had restricted myself and it did not make me happy. My third book will be much bolder. You have to be honest with your story.
KM: In Bajre ka Rotla the story begins with two boys defecating in the open fields as is common in rural India.
NS: Baajre ka Rotla was my first story that is why it has this rawness. Here again, I was captivated with the idea that there could be two kids who are totally oblivious to the political, social and economic upheavals of their surroundings and are only worried about how thick their poop is (chuckles). I was at that time reading a lot about communism and capitalism and everything found its way into the story.
KM: In your view, is the portrayal of Indian society and culture by Indian writers who write in English different from those who write in Hindi (I am talking about literary fiction here)? Do you think Indian literature in English is made exotic and dressed up to suit a western audience? Do you think there is any difference in terms of literary standards, style and content as well?
NS: Our culture has undergone enormous changes. We use English phrases to express our feelings. We find it odd to say Main tumse pyaar karta hoon. “I love you,” sounds better to our ears. The standard of Hindi literature is comparable to the best works in any other language in the world. But, it has lost connection with the people. It no longer speaks to them. Hindi has suffered from the academicians who patronise it. They have clear boundaries of what can be written and who can write it. They write for each other’s approval. They do not accept and appreciate anybody from outside their circle. For Hindi to flourish, the gap between books and readers has to be bridged. When I started writing, I too liked to use shudh and klisht Hindi. It was fun. But I wanted my book to be in a language people understand. I have used seven different dialects in my new book. I read a lot of Urdu and Punjabi literature. Incorporating different dialects has made my language richer. I have been able to appeal to a large readership without comprising on quality. Hindi is a language people want to hear. How can we say that Hindi literature is not received well in a country which loves Hindi movies? We are crazy about Hindi but do not read Hindi books. Why? Because they are not written in a language that we understand!
KM: Like Indian films, do you think we are now seeing books defined as commercial or art-house (literary fiction vs popular fiction)? What do you think of this trend?
NS: It is necessary to have cheap literature. You need to read a bad book to appreciate a great one. Bad books are beautiful in their own way. Take Hindi pulp fiction for example. Thrillers written by Ved Prakash Sharma and Surendra Mohan Pathak have sold millions of copies. These books are so gripping that you want to finish the entire book in one sitting. Isn’t that a brilliant thing? The reach of these books is awe inspiring. They are available through a great distribution system to all villages where Hindi is read. Even if we look at Chetan Bhagat’s books, whatever we may think of the quality, his books have initiated an entire generation into reading books. There was inertia about reading and writing in the young before he came along. Hopefully the young people who started with his books have gone on to read better books. In films, Kanti Shah’s C-grade movies are now considered cult for their extreme lack of aesthetics and hilariously bad plots and acting. I and my friends watch them if we want a few laughs. I believe there is nothing called a bad art form. Any expression is a form of joy. Ghazals are popular today not because of Ghalib or Mir or Faiz. That art form would have been forgotten had it not been for Gulzar, Basheer Badr, Sahir Ludhyanvi and the like. Many people cannot go to Ghalib directly. They need a stepping stone. Literary criticism and discussion has its own place. But, personally, I do not want to be judgmental about something from which a large number of people derive their enjoyment and happiness.
KM: What kind of books do you read? Which are your favourite books? What are you reading nowadays?
NS: I love to read Urdu poetry. I like Bashir Badr, Kaifi Azmi and Nida Fazli. I enjoy Manto’s stories. In Punjabi writers I like Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poems and am fond of Ismat Chugtai’s works. As far as world literature is concerned I like Joseph Heller, Orhan Pahmuk, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass. Among Hindi writers, I think Shri Lal Shukla’s Raag Darbari is a classic one should definitely read. In contemporary Hindi writers Kishore Choudhary is one of my favourites. He lives in Rajasthan and works for All India Radio and has produced some amazing work. I am missing some important names because I tend to forget names. Yes, Uday Prakash is brilliant.
KM: Many universities offer Creative Writing programs. To what extent is it possible to teach someone to write better fiction or poetry? Do you think that young writers in Hindi will benefit from such a course if it were to be offered in Hindi by a university in India?
NS: Yes, it will definitely be of value to young writers. But, I feel you need to tap the mind of a child. When I was in 6th, my teacher gave us an assignment where we had to write a poem using the words he gave us. I wrote something. I don’t recall the poem now but I remember that my teacher really appreciated it. I enjoyed the exercise so much that I began to write more. It is important to encourage children to write and express themselves.
KM: In an article in Yourstory.com you are describe as “not just another IIT-IIM author”. Do you think readers have begun to identify an IIT-IIM author with a certain kind of writing? Do you feel you have managed to break that stereotype?
NS: People from IIT IIM colleges are ambitious. They know how to convert their dreams into a final product. They have connections. It has led to a particular type of book in the market. That is where the stereotype comes from. But like all stereotypes it is not always true.
KM: You hold a regular office job as a business consultant and you have a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering. How do you balance your creative interests with your rather conventional and demanding professional life?
NS: I was confused for a long time. My school principal told me that I could be a good journalist and so I quit my Engineering coaching for a while. It greatly worried my father. But eventually I did complete my B.Tech. I moved to Mumbai after my Engineering to try my hand at film writing. My friends were already writing scripts for films there. Within a few months I realized that I needed certain comforts to write. I could not write under the pressure of trying to earn a living through writing. Once that was sorted, I got back to a mainstream job. I enjoy my current job. After a few wrong turns, working with some large consulting companies, I now work for a start-up. My first book was written over 7 to 8 years but my second book Zindagi Aais Pais took considerably less time. I was able to complete it only because of sheer discipline. I wrote for an hour every day.
KM: What other interests do you have apart from writing?
NS: I love cinema. All genres of cinema. Majid Majidi, the Iranian director is my favourite film maker. I like writing about Cinema. I used to write a blog called Filmistani. I enjoy theatre. Most of my stories start off as plays and I turn many of my stories into plays. My weekends are mostly spent watching plays at Siri Fort auditorium and when in Mumbai I definitely visit Prithvi theatre.