Debutant author Upendra Namburi, who took up his first summer job when he was 17 and has spent the last 16 years in the FMCG, banking and financial services, talks of the highs and lows that go with writing a novel.
Typical management type. Would love corporate jargon and boardroom duels. Loves gadgets and would probably be 'connected 24/7'. E-mail and Blackberry addict.
If first impressions count, that's how debutant author Upendra Namburi will first be pegged in a little corner of your brain. Somewhere, you'd probably be right.
But there is another avatar to the 40-year-old Namburi, an avatar that loves the world of words. A columnist with the financial daily, Mint, in his free time, Namburi could not resist the lure of the written; the result is his debut novel, 31.
The background Namburi created is frighteningly real; in 31, it is populated by an overachiever, Ravi Shastry, the zonal head for Imperial Bank, whose world had suddenly turned upside down, leaving him with the near-certainty of losing his job and, with it, his young family's comfortable lifestyle.
In this interview, Namburi -- who took up his first summer job when he was 17 and has spent the last 16 years in the FMCG, banking and financial services -- talks of the highs and lows that go with writing a novel:
31 is a fast-paced book about how the life of a middle-level executive at Imperial Bank turns completely awry in the span of a month. You are a banking professional yourself. Is 31 inspired from real life?
I was seeking subjects that were contemporary in their setting and would be of interest and relevance to working professionals.
A few years back, when several organisations were either downsizing or shutting down their operations, millions of salaried professionals across India shared a sense of anguish.
Much had been written about the rising affluent mass purchasing premium cars and duplex apartments, but the reality was that it all relied on the paycheck coming in at the end of the month.
Unfortunately, I know quite a few people who were affected in that crisis, both in India and abroad. Hence emerged 31, the modern Indian corporate thriller.
How much of you can we see in Ravi Shastry, your protagonist?
There are always shades of the author that reflect in the protagonist. Luckily, however, I have not had to personally experience challenges faced by Ravi.
Now that I've written 31, I'm inspired by his tenacity and determination to pull himself and his family through the crisis. So, in a strange way, I'm evolving with Ravi.
Do you believe the challenges, stress and politics at work eventually change who you are as a person? Ravi, your protagonist, was impacted by office intrigue.
I believe every situation and challenge we face makes us reflect and learn. Ravi too finds himself at the crossroads of ambition and ethics. Quite often, the situations (one faces) and the environment (one is in) makes one do things they may not otherwise have.
The true test of character lies not in faltering, but in finding one's path back after having taken a false step. That's the litmus test of change.
Yes, I have seen people change. But I have also seen people having two personalities -- one that they wear to work and the other that is seen outside work. That seems to be the new approach in metros these days!
Ravi's wife Savitha is facing her own personal and professional crises, which are glossed over in the book.
The book was written in the first person, from Ravi's perspective.
There are two dimensions to this.
Savitha is quite a determined and confident person herself, and can stand on her own feet. She is also someone who needs her space. Ravi is cognizant of that fact.
At another level, Ravi is so overtaken by the challenges and situations at work that he is quite overwhelmed.
Who's your favourite character in the book? Why?
I am intrigued by Maithili (Ravi's colleague and, sometimes, rival). She is whimsical, ambitious and bold.
I had a tremendous amount of fun evolving her; at the same time, it was a challenge.
She challenges everyone around her and does it with feminine flair. She's also quite a contrast to the other characters in 31. They appear rather staid in her presence, and that's not just because she is a lady. She has tact and her own unique way with people.
What were your most frustrating moments while writing 31?
That could be the making of another novel! There are times when the keyboard doesn't respond to the fingers...the infamous writer's block!
The characters start taking their own shape and direction, and you need to bring them back in line with the story.
The bigger challenge is when one gets engrossed with one character and has to struggle to find a balance and stick to the rhythm of the overall plot. It is, after all, a story for the reader.
Did you take a break from work to write 31? How long did it take to put the book together?
This book has been written on weekends, holidays, late nights, in cabs, airport lounges...
I'm sure every author would say this, but writing this book has been an energising process. I've found surges of inspiration and energy that I didn't think I ever had!
The first draft took about three months. Those were exhausting, yet invigorating days. This was followed by the traumatic process of editing and restructuring. The whole journey, till the launch, has taken about three years now.
Your parents are from Vijaywada (Andhra Pradesh) and you're a Mumbaikar at heart who's now based in Gurgaon. Yet, you chose to place your book in Bengaluru. Why is that?
Bengaluru is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with a character of its own. Its people, culture, attitude, work ethic...has always fascinated me.
I was looking for a setting for a South Indian family. I was also looking for a city that was distant from Imperial Bank's head office, which was destined to be Mumbai.
What, according to you, were the mistakes you made as a first-time author?
I was in a tremendous rush to complete the book and get on with it; I was treating it like one of my product launches.
I also believe in the discipline of time management and maintaining timelines for any project that I undertake. However the writing process can sometimes take its own path and time.
Who is your target reader? What do you think will convince him to pick your book off a shelf?
I would hope that working professionals would relate to the incidents and events in the book.
I would also like to think that, for those entering the corporate sector, Ravi's epic battle in those 31 days would prove to be an insight into what lies in store for them as they commence their careers.
For those whose spouses work in the corporate sector, 31 would possibly open their eyes and reveal the challenges faced by their partners as they hurtle into work every day.
The book is the first in a three-part series. Can you tell us about the other two and when they will be out?
Let's just say that the next two books are titled 60 and 8.
Both the books would be modern Indian contemporary thrillers and will touch upon passions, phobias and manias spanning work, family and love.
These would be quite unique in the Indian context and time would remain a major dimension in both these books as well.
I would like 60 to be out on the stands by next year!
Why are all your book titles numbers?
It just reflects the reality of contemporary urban lifestyles and how numbers are interwoven into every aspect of our lives. Timelines, deadlines, flights, trains, meetings, business plans, schedules, the stock market, the grocery budget...the list goes on.
Numbers and time are all around us. The clock is always ticking. We all lead thrilling lives! The trick lies in surviving these numbers!
Do you see yourself becoming a fulltime author, like Chetan Bhagat?
I have been asked that question a zillion times over the last fortnight. I haven't thought about it; I'll cross that bridge as and when it comes.
Both of you come from the finance background. What do you think of his books?
He has identified and written on subjects which are of interest and relevance to a large segment of Indians today.
His writing is simple and therein lies its beauty. He has challenged the traditional and archaic view of what is good writing and literature.
He's proved that there is an extremely large audience out there for content. It's now for the writers to deliver relevant and credible content.
He's also proved that it's not the complexity of the words but the simplicity of thought that is paramount.
Do you see your books turning into movies as well?
31 touches upon several aspects of modern Indian urban life. Why not?
How do you think Indian authors are being received by readers in India?
There are numerous authors in different genres, addressing varying customer segments. I think the market is opening up and there is a huge need for local 'content'. I'm sure it will evolve rapidly.
As a first time author, how did you go about getting a publisher for your book?
It wasn't easy. There are few publishers who have the skill and competence to manage the entire lifecycle of a book, ensuring quality at each stage. On the other hand, there is a huge amount of content seeking out these publishers.
I went through the rounds, approaching the leading publishers. I was fortunate enough in finding in Westland, a publishing house that believes in my work and also Red Ink, a literary agency that has guided me through this process.
What pitfall-avoiding tips would you give other first-time authors?
Believe in your work and stay true. There is a fine balance between what you would like to write and what the readers may like to read. Traverse that line carefully.
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