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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The book's the thing

The story behind my first novel – a thriller set in the world of Indian politics

You know how the joke goes. Everybody has a book inside them – and in most cases that is where it should stay.

Well, it’s too late for me now. My book is already out, rolling hot off the presses, and available on Amazon and at all good bookshops near you. As for whether it was better inside me or out in the world, well, there’s only one way to decide that question. Buy a copy and make up your own mind!

Sorry for that bit of shameless self-promotion but perhaps you can indulge me just this once. I am still giddy with delight, having unpacked the box containing the first hardback copies of my novel, Race Course Road (Aleph Book Company). Since you ask, it’s a thriller set in the world of Indian politics and deals with the aftermath of a Prime Minister’s assassination. Most of the action centers around Lutyens’ Delhi and the Prime Minister’s residence on Race Course Road – hence the title. (Yes, yes, I know, it’s now called Lok Kalyan Marg; but you have to admit that doesn’t have the same ring when it comes to book titles.)

So, here I am, with a silly grin that refuses to move off my face, and a mind that refuses to think of (let alone write about) anything other than my book. Did I mention it was called Race Course Road?

Over the last week or so, ever since the book went on sale and I began the never-ending process of trying to flog it, I have been asked the same questions both in real life and on social media by those who have picked up a copy. 

The first one inevitably is: why did I decide to write a thriller set in the world of Indian politics? 

That one’s easy. As all those advice manuals keep telling you, ‘write what you know’. And, for better or for worse, this was what I knew. I first started writing about Indian politics way back in the late 80s and early 90s, when India was going through a political churn like no other, with one unstable coalition taking over from the other. 

Despite the fact that I was straight out of college, with no real experience of either journalism or politics, I found myself thrown into the deep end, being sent off to interview Prime Ministers (VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar) on their first day in South Block, resulting in page-one bylines that I cherish to this day. I followed such stalwarts as Madhavrao Scindia on the campaign trail, driving with him in a rickety Ambassador car through dusty villages and sleepy small towns, feasting on the stories he regaled me with. And I interviewed everyone from Atal Behari Vajpayee to Kamal Nath to Uma Bharati, as I climbed up the ranks at work.

As luck would have it, I developed a certain familiarity with the Race Course Road complex over the years as well, visiting it both in a professional and personal capacity. The workings of the place fascinated me: the security set-up that ensured that no guest was ever left unaccompanied; the many different channels of entry in place for people with different levels of clearance (a ‘green-channel entry’, for instance, meant that no record was ever kept of your visit); the air of inviolable privacy it exuded. 

It was this fascination, in part, that led me to base most of my book in RCR (and to name it Race Course Road). It seemed a bit odd to me that most Indians have no idea how RCR is actually laid out, even though so many Prime Ministers have lived and worked there. Unlike the White House, that conducts tours so that ordinary citizens can walk through the seat of government in America, the RCR complex is out of bounds for most of us. 

Very few people even realize that 7 Race Course Road, the official address of the Indian Prime Minister, is not where he actually lives; it’s the office complex where his secretariat is stationed, where meetings are conducted, where the Cabinet sometimes meets, and where foreign dignitaries come to call on him. Over the years, Prime Ministers have lived in either Number 3 or Number 5 Race Course Road, while Number 9 has been taken over by the SPG, and Number 1 by a helipad. 

But while the book is set squarely in the real world, none of the characters in it are based on real life people – to answer the second most frequently asked question. Yes, I know that’s not going to deter those who are determined to find parallels with real life but for what it’s worth, here’s my disclaimer: all the characters are figments of my imagination, and have no existence outside of my own mind. 

And as for that perennial query: how does one keep going at writing a book when the end doesn’t appear in sight? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Take things one day at a time. Make sure you get at least 500 words down every day. Write even if the words are not coming (you can always edit – or even delete – the day after). Read good books to get inspired. Read bad books to feel better about your own writing. And write, write, write, until the damn thing is done!

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