Former Outlook Managing Editor Sandipan Deb's opens up on two of his books released in quick succession, The Last War, which is fiction with a strange take-off point, and Fallen Angel, an investigation of the Rajat Gupta mystery
This must be some sort of a world record, for an author to have two books out in successive months, and that too on totally different subjects...
Well, I have no idea if it’s a record or not, but yes, there’s nothing at all connecting the two books, unless you consider ‘greed’ that connects the two books. The Last War is a re-imagining of the Mahabharata set in the contemporary Mumbai underworld. The idea was in my head since, I think, 2006, but it was only in late 2010, when I quit my mainstream media job that I found the time to get down to it. Fallen Angel, which is an investigation into the Rajat Gupta affair…well, it just happened. The case had shocked people all over the world, especially in India, and everyone who had known him. I had met him several times some years ago, and one evening in June last year, I was telling a friend about the conversations we had had, and that Gupta was one man I had been completely unable to figure out. So my friend said: There’s a book there. Write it. Once he had said that, the idea wouldn’t leave my head. I started researching, and wrote the whole book in a focused frenzy of maybe four months. So the two books are entirely different, demanding entirely different approaches. In fact, now when I read the books after they were published, I myself found it difficult to believe that the same person had written both of them!
What made you write the Last War?
I have loved the Mahabharata for as long as I can remember. I love the story and the characters, the implacable cause and effect relationships between events, the personal codes of honour that most of the characters followed. I mean, it’s simply the greatest story ever told, right? Even as a student in IIM Calcutta, I had done a termpaper in Group Dynamics on the Dice Game episode. So it was inevitable perhaps that at some point of time I would do something about the Mahabharata. I am not a scholar of the epic by any standards at all, so I decided to tackle it through fiction.
Did you ever pause to think that it might be considered too gimmicky and/or too contrived, given that it is not just a reimagining of the Mahabharata but boldly says so on the cover?
Oh no. That is what it is, so why hide it? In fact, saying it upfront may also pique interest among prospective readers. For me, in a way, it was an intellectual and creative challenge—how to maintain the essence of story in a completely different setting, and I love this sort of challenge. Now, obviously, you can’t have a swayamvar in the 21st century. So how do you handle that? Draupadi can hardly marry five men simultaneously, so how do you contemporize that one? People don’t throw away their empires in a dice game any more (if they ever did so at all), so I had to find a way around that—cricket betting. In fact, those were the parts that I had to think most about, and those were also the most fun parts of the whole imagining and writing exercise. I’ve made some changes in the plot, without altering the basic trajectory of the story. But I think the end will surprise a lot of people. I believe it is in keeping with the spirit of original story, but very different from what the Mahabharata says happened after the battle of Kurukshtra was won.
Some of the comments on our site where we put out some extracts said it was Mahabharata meets Kamasutra. So on behalf of those letter writers, I must ask: Is the sex gratuitous, or is it just matter of fact and organic to the story?
There are only two sex scenes—maybe four or five pages out of 575. But both are extremely important to the story. In fact, they are pivotal points. I had another paragraph of sex, which I discussed with the publishers, and we felt there was a possibility that some Hindutva types may raise a quite unnecessary hue and cry, so I toned that down considerably. And there was a long passage that may have shocked quite a few people because of the rawness of the sex—both the physical and psychological sides of it—depicted there, and I took that off on my own. I regret that a bit now, because it would have certainly fleshed out the character of Jahn (Draupadi) more, and would have made the ending of the book even more plausible. So, no, I did not think of Kama Sutra at all while writing any of the sex. In fact, I find it quite embarrassing to write about sex. I am not confident at all and am afraid I may end up looking silly.
Jahn. Clearly, she is your jaan, as she surely must be of anyone who reads the book. Strong, sexy, wilful... even vengeful. How closely is she modelled after Draupadi?
She is modeled after Draupadi, I’ve just amped her up a bit in every way. For me, Jahn is the most important character in the book, and certainly the strongest, even though she appears for maybe only 120 pages out of the whole 575. I wanted to create a modern woman who is comfortable with and confident of her sexuality, who loves fiercely and will do anything for the people she loves. She also hates pitilessly and will never forgive. I thought of her as a modern embodiment of Shakti, who, in a way, is even above Dharma. And most of the feedback I’ve got from readers mentions Jahn, how she is a very sexy women (in a much broader sense of the term than just physical) and much steelier than most of the men in the novel.
So is Jahn also your favourite character in the book, then? Or is it someone else? Is Draupadi your favourite Mahabharata character?
I wrote The Last War for Jahn. Many years ago, 25 at least, I saw a truly amazing one-woman Bengali play by Shaonli Mitra, called Nathabati Anathabat, which I can only roughly translate as The Woman Who Has Husbands But Yet Doesn’t. It’s the Mahabharata told from Draupadi’s point of view. It had a very powerful impact on me, and I really believe that in these current times, when there’s so much public debate about gender rights, this is the one play that should be translated in every Indian language and performed. And for whatever reason, I find the women of the Mahabharata much more interesting than the men. For example, Gandhari. I couldn’t give her the space and importance that she demands in The Last War, quite simply because the book would have become too lengthy for a normal reader. Or Kunti. If I ever write a sequel, they will get much more space, and in a way the writers of the Mahabharata, I think, intended. A famous film maker called me up the other day. He had read the book. He said: Why have you made Arjuna and the other Pandavas so weak? Well, I did it purposely, and also it’s not true totally. Yes, the Arjuna character in The Last War may be seen as a weak man, but I’ve made the Yudhishthir character evolve into a very strong person over time. And throughout, Bheem is pure and strong and faithful, and I have great respect for him. I think he loved Draupadi far more than his brothers. In The Last War, Vikram (Bheem) has no sexual relationship with Jahn, but she trusts him more than the man she sleeps with. If I ever write a sequel, I’ll take that relationship further, but I do believe that a man and a woman can totally trust and love each other and never have to go to bed. That’s how I see Vikram and Jahn.
The obvious question, then, is, what about Karna? In my book, Karna is Karl Fernandes, who I have carefully portrayed as the most handsome, deadliest etc etc. He is the tragic romantic ideal. But to make Karl the central sexy figure would have been a sort of easy cop-out. The story is far more complex, there are so many other characters who demand to be heard and understood. It’s all about points of view, and that’s what makes the Mahabharata the greatest story ever told. You can read it any way you like.
The Mahabharata also contains the Bhagwat Gita. The Last War also has it—in fact, structurally, it holds the whole novel together, but your version is profane.
I took a very conscious decision when I set about writing The Last War that I wouldn’t read the Mahabharata again. I would write from memory. That set me free, and my imagination free, if you know what I mean. But I read various translations of the Gita, and I had to absorb it, as far as my intellectual capabilities allow, I have very mixed feelings about its teachings. This I say, with all humility, that I may not have the intellectual/ spiritual space to grasp it in all its glory. I found it immensely insightful and inspiring, and also totally practical. Practical in a sense that denies or transcends morality. Now, morality, I believe, is a social construct, very necessary for peace and general well-being, and we as human beings are still around and leading a somewhat regular life or maintaining a façade thereof, because of it. The Gita is very crucial to that. But I find the Mahabharata as a story totally beyond our society-instilled notions of morality. It is fundamentally about individual choices and power. That has nothing to do with morality, a word that I find convenient, abused and somehow fake at its core. That’s what has shaped human history.
About Fallen Angel, Rajat Gupta was one of the IITians in your first book. Would you want to share with our readers what struck you as totally unexpected about him during your research now, as against when you first met him in the early 2000s for your IITian book?
I don’t want to speculate about what made him do what he did, what had changed in him. That will remain a mystery and a tragedy. Also, I met him a long time ago, in 2002 or 2003. When I was researching my IIT book , I met a galaxy of extremely successful IITians. Later, going through my notes and recalling my interactions with them, I realised that of all these people, Rajat Gupta, then worldwide head of McKinsey, was the man I had not been able to fathom at all. In fact, though I had spent several hours talking to him, in the US and in India, face-to-face and on the phone, I knew nothing about him as a person. Either he was the perfect guy—highly intelligent, unfailingly courteous, never a hair out of place—or he had built an impenetrable wall around himself; I could not get the slightest glimpse of what could lie behind it. If, that is, there was a wall at all. I have always wondered about that. Everyone else I met let their guard down at some point, joked, digressed, spoke about indiscretions from their student days, stuff like that. Not this man. He was just perfect. And everyone who has known him swears he was perfect. That makes his fall from grace even more strange and totally unfortunate..
Do you believe that Rajat Gupta is guilty of insider trading?
No one I spoke to, who knew Gupta, and some of them have known Gupta for more than four decades, thought that he was guilty. They could not believe that a man like that would ever knowingly break any law. The evidence against him was entirely circumstantial, but it was overwhelming. Having gone through all of it, I have to admit that I believe he is guilty, and I think it is truly a human tragedy of Greek proportions. A small misstep at the end of such an admirable life, and you’ll be possibly remembered for only that folly. It’s very sad.
And you tried to write it like a thriller?
I didn’t have to try too hard. The dramatis personae are truly awesome. Gupta has had an astonishing life. Orphaned as a teenager, extraordinarily talented, the first non-American-born CEO of McKinsey, one of the most prestigious corporate jobs in the world, great philanthropist—if you created him as a fictional character, no one would believe you. Raj Rajaratnam, the richest Sri Lankan-born person on the planet, insider trading kingpin who thought of himself as a warrior and idolized Muhammad Ali. Robert Moffatt, who could have been the next CEO of IBM, but fell into a sex trap and passed on classified information to his lover. His lover Danielle Chiesi, who openly used her sexual charms to get ahead on Wall Street and become rich. She once said that making a killing on the stockmarket was as pleasurable as an orgasm! If you listen to her FBI wiretapped conversations, as she talks about making illegal stock deals, her voice goes husky, almost a moan, like she is having sex. Then there’s Preet Bharara, the Indian-born US attorney who turned out to be Gupta’s nemesis, who ruthlessly and single-mindedly hunted him down. And Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of Goldman Sachs, who has been called both smartest and the most evil investment banker on earth! Even the brilliant judge, Jed Rakoff, whose PhD thesis was on Mahatma Gandhi! It was totally fascinating getting to know about these people. John Grisham could never have thought up this cast of characters!
Tell us something about your writing schedule. I saw you write your IIT book in a most disciplined way, after work (at Outlook) between 5 and 7 everyday. How did you approach the writing of these two? Did you set yourself a target of so many words a day, or did you just write when inspiration struck?
About the only thing I am disciplined about in my life is writing. In all other things, I am a lazy and irresponsible wastrel. I have never missed a deadline in 22 years of journalism, unless it was due to illness or some act of God or something. The books…I set myself long-term deadlines—that I’ll finish so much by this date, and I set myself daily deadlines. If for some reason, I can’t meet the deadline for a day, I make sure that I make up for it the next day. Fallen Angel, the Rajat Gupta book, for instance…I thought of writing it after he had been found guilty in a New York court sometime in June 2012. I decided that I would finish it by the time of his sentencing, which was scheduled for October. And this meant not only writing, but doing all the research and all that. But once I set myself a deadline, I hold it as sacrosanct. I suppose that comes from working in the print media for so long. The Last War…I actually took it back from my publisher because I wasn’t satisfied with it. I said, give me two months. I’ll redo the entire book and give it to you on March 20. I rewrote at least 40 per cent of the book, including very major changes in plot and characterizations, and I delivered on March 20 late evening. He was surprised.
So now we have an IIT book, a thriller based on the Mahabharata, and a biography of an achiever gone wrong. What's next? Any books already in the pipeline?
I have a couple of non-fiction book projects in mind, but haven’t started working on either. One will require a lot of research, the other will need a lot of travelling. And of course, there is the idea of a sequel to The Last War lurking somewhere at the back of my mind. I want to take Jahn further. As you would have made out by now, I am in love with her!