Thrillers can thrill but violence numbs

Girl onthetrain

The setting reminded me of the six-hour journey (two-way) I used to take while commuting the Oxford-London route everyday for work a few years ago. I knew the people in the story, because I saw them from my train window too.

Having just finished reading Paula Hawkins’ debut novel Girl on the Train with a good pace  and thriller-like quality, I also came away slightly nauseated from all the gore. Is there a purpose to violence in fiction? Isn’t real life hard enough, violent enough, with all the guns and violence everywhere? How much thrift should a writer expend in gore and sex? Shouldn’t there be more room for the imagination in novels? Or does more imagination translate to lower readership? Sigh, difficult choices. A hard place to be, a harder place for writers to be in. I guess, that’s my only problem with whodunnits that chill the blood in my skull. Agatha Christie somehow set a high benchmark in matters of mystery, if I remember correctly. Her focus used to be on the mental/psychological workings of the murderer (murder and murdered), and the build up and slow (cleverly engineered) postmortem, rather than the brutality of the act itself.

To know about the publishing records Paula Hawkins has broken in the UK, selling over 800,000 copies since January, please read more on the BookMachine blog.

Ithaca and the Roller Coaster that was (publishing)


Ithaca by David Davidar (Harper Collins 2011) is the story of international publishing today. Or yesterday. The novel does not, though, read like news. Is there a story that’s exclusively about publishing anymore? And, as an extremely smart gentleman friend queried a couple of years ago when I told him I was trying to “Master” Publishing at some fine school in the U.K., “What is publishing?” Is it about breaking the right revenues and making books contagious overreaching different target markets and hitting the right shelves at the right time? Or is it a painfully rewarding lifetime aesthetic! What is the scale and where’s the competition? If the market is out to fool its participants, or set up cliques and empires in what is a measly numbers game driven by sales, distribution, and supply-chain networks, nobody is prepared enough. Roles are undefined, and good leaders a rarity.

Ithaca cleverly advertises the stable of authors and books the author himself has groomed and or published over his career in publishing. The story touches on the by now trite if grim realities of a recessive industry. It’s not that books are not drowning, even as their creators are more empowered with access to better technologies or resources. Just that the story of publishing today, is not as relevant or pivotal anymore. Excitement is at an all time high only because connection is the buzzword—marketing having assumed unprecedented avatars, mergers leading the way. If strong independent retailers (epitomizing good taste) have been swallowed by giant monochrome corporations powered by big industry data and algorithms, it does not matter anymore. If good people have lost their jobs out of bad circumstances, there are only gains to be made. If bad people got famous leeching off others’ talents, it will never be made known (or matter).

Publishing at its best is a beautiful lie. Ithaca (no less enjoyable or addictive) is one nugget of ode to that reality.

What is Illicit Happiness?

Manu Joseph is a poster-boy father, if his book is anything to go by. He writes about a family in Madras and their soul searching quest to get to the bottom of their older son’s suicide three years ago. The story thoughtfully plods down memory lane in what is a rich rumination of thoughts, triggers and emotions aroused by a dead boy, who is as much the spine of this story as Ousep Chacko his father, the bare flesh.

There is something very contained about Mr. Joseph’s words.  “Controlled chaos” is how a friend once described my thoughts, “like a CERN experiment,” he explained. The same expressions return when  I read Illicit Happiness. Elements of controlled surprise, steer what could otherwise be a piece of artistic non-fiction. I am not suggesting he is me, or I am this author, for his prose is qualified by years of experience as the editor of a popular alternative mainstream newsweekly that comes out with GOOD quality newswriting way higher than what you see in other mags. (That said, I am also very interested in knowing OPEN’s circulation and sales figures). All I’m saying is that every once in a while or more, it is an honour to spot books of your liking and taste. The day book publishers begin to understand that buyers want to read books that are worthy of them, we (also “publishers”) will be closer to a watershed moment in publishing (and no, digital is hardly that moment, not even the mere excuse for a revolution). Subcontinental literature is the big idea all set to penetrate the middle-class consciousness like never before, offering a new kind of upward mobility. The rise of the mental aesthetes, not unique to their political or geographic communities but to an evolving metamorphosis. And when I spot a contagion of reading habits in traditionally non-reading households or offices, it lights my heart with hope.

So, the Chacko family is devastated by the death of their older, cartoonist son. Tales of his gorgeousness,  bravado, and goofiness are well afloat the school.  Ousep (father) Chacko goes through the excruciating process of  tracking down the clue to his son’s death through his final comic strip, as he cross-questions everybody Unni was close to or interacted with during those final days, including the Anglo-Indian teacher who harassed little boys in the lab. Three years later neighbours think Chacko is a lunatic, trapped in an ordinary past unable to overcome an ordinary, even mediocre suicide! If his death was so ordinary, why didn’t Unni leave his mother Mariamma Chacko a note? In normal circumstances, he would have, she insists. And if Mariamma suffers her own demons, their younger son Thoma is not spared either, the litany of ghosts that prey on his waking crush for a beautiful neighbour, a terrible node in a peer triangle. Is Thoma, Unni? Is Thoma good enough for Unni? Or better?

Illicit Happiness (Harper Collins 2012) India edition

Illicit Happiness (Harper Collins 2012) India edition

Those who haven’t read the book, will also ask, so what is Illicit Happiness? Illicit happiness is the freedom to be what you want to be, act how you want, be how you are, not caring whether you are standing in the male’s queue or female’s for some, or simply breaking home rules by  going out to the Marina beach at midnight as a defiant girl, to save the Olive Ridley turtle with other boys or committing your own death as pronouncing a verdict. Illicit happiness is like lying naked with a prostitute without touching her but is also the ability to maneuver others to execute your fantasies to foot your blame.

Illicit happiness is like gold. It is the fine line between friendship and enmity; one person’s joy is another’s misery and thus happiness dictates a certain discretion which also sometimes leads to injustice and death. Unni’s death was well-mourned but forgotten, until we find out otherwise. Neighbours remember him, even miss him. So do his friends, but retention is short, and people have themselves and their futures to worry about than recall the passing. Which is what this book is about: an absurd trenchant journey of a parent (or two parents and a son) down memory lane, which is  the only desperate scene of crime as they hunt for a turning point in Unni’s life.

Lots of little worldly gems from the book illuminate the motives and motivations of everyday men and women in our midst. Spitting on others is not as easy as you think! Bullying, on the other hand is an art. The only way to ensure witnesses keep shut about a crime is to “make them complicit”. The omniscient narrator is a force higher than Ousep, his own dead Unni who enters his conversations, and confronts the reader effortlessly. Unni sets the tenor and moral axis of this story:

It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity. By standing outside the huddles of man, he sees a lot, and what he often sees is the evidence that people are not as smart as dogs think they are. And he wants to see it time and again. In the fog of ambiguities and mysteries, he desperately searches for truths because truth usually shows humanity in a poor light. Balki and Unni are similar in that way. Unni, too, was exceptional, he was strong, so he did not need to belong. Unni, too, stood beyond the bonds of people because that was a good place to stand and watch. And Balki does not want to concede that such an endearing foe of the ordinary was ultimately defeated by the world. For that is what Unni’s death is until proven otherwise — a defeat. Balki will do all he can to take Ousep closer to the truth (182-3).

Was he depressed or in a hieghtened state of happiness all the time? (Was he a “corpse”, or an “anti-corpse”?) Was he schizophrenic, or just an ordinary gifted child with heightened powers of observation? Did he die over unrequited love like so many folks in Madras who fall in love and fall into “four types of suicide”? Unni’s narrative directs his father’s own, as the emotional superreporter tracks down his son’s wanderings.

Unni spoke to and observed his mother as often as his mother kept silent with her husband. Son would tell mother, “Truth is not consistent. It changes from brain to brain. The truth of every neurological system is unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found. Delusion, on the other hand, is contagious and transmits from one brain to another in order to survive.” His mother his confidante, would have to digest his implication that two people were deluded together, but only one person knew the “unique, inconsistent truth.” Hectic conversations power this story in between plot points, as we are led to wonder at the philosophical genius that undercuts Unni’s err… folly of one. Was he at the helm of under-appreciated leadership?  We are what we once were. Childhood influences us in ways we may never fully realise. Thoma his brother, trudges along, just about in step with his time, free of the burden of genius, or expectation.

This story sits deeply in the recesses of the mind. Why do men who molest women get away? What is the best form of revenge? What is the fine bond between human beings that snaps free in times of desperation? This tale is as much about a boy getting to grips with the menace of manhood as his urgency to master the truths of mankind. As one of Unni’s surviving friends who is a scared simpleton and now recluse since Unni’s death, ends up confessing to Unni’s father, “I don’t want to know the truth. I don’t want to see beauty. I am just another boy in Madras who wants to escape to America.” You think the story stops here, but it has only just upped the mystery of Unni’s death, one notch higher. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is a deeply resonant, muscular satire that will be lifted off the shelf several times by men and women alike.

Starting Up is Hot in Chile

Everything you want to know about doing business in Chile

Everything you want to know about doing business in Chile

Businessmen and women friends. Go to Chile. Now. You could be a student or native entrepreneur. Go. South with your partners. Silicon Valley dreams are  giving way to the lure of Chilecon Valley, declared the Economist last year. According to an article, despite several other nations’ attempts to replicate a Silicon Valley and failing, Chile’s has been an incredible attempt to capitalise on the weak spot of the Silicon Valley dream — the murky waters of US immigration policy. In what has fast gained currency as the most disruptive initiative in public policy in recent years, Chile has opened its doors to the world, setting out to achieve a realistic goal of becoming the innovation and entrepreneurial hub of Latin America. I found out about StartUp Chile while surveying  story possibilities for a fabulous international education e-zine about the rise of foreign student entrepreneur migrants, a demographic that I felt existed even if it was not often written about or analysed outside of say, the Silicon Valley context.

Set up in 2010, Start Up Chile has now inducted over seven generations of foreign born entrepreneurs (not just students, even if the age of the typical SUPChile entrepreneur falls between 18-40) . The program is open to all/foreign entrepreneurs of any age, offering incentives to applicant winners of 40000$ equity free capital, office space and an initial year long visa in Chile (that is extendable, depending on how well you have capitalised your opportunities) and serves as an equal inspiration to locals too, who get tremendous exposure to some of the world’s most dynamic entrepreneurs and work ethos.

Nate Lustig is a prolific blogger who advocates Staying Out of the Cubicle for all, but started out as a superyoung entrepreneur who ended up in the pilot round of SUPChile and was so impressed by the experience that he wrote a book on his time there, hoping to help out several entrepreneurs and entrepreneur-aspirants wanting to test their dreams on new international shores. The beauty of his book is that it is exhaustive and yet so concise, sometimes he veers off so concentratedly into other aspects of Chilean life, you realise why finding a traditional mainstream publisher for such a book (or digest) would be very hard/pointless. He is candid about his observations but offers generous awe in return:

In my initial round, the Chilean government spent $ 920,000 on entrepreneurs, plus likely another $ 300k on offices, salaries, promoting the program and travel. So for $ 1.25m, Chile got three big things. First, it’s the best PR campaign in history … Chile appeared in The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, NY Times, BBC, Financial Times and every influential tech blog in the world as an innovative, safe, forward thinking, entrepreneurial country. A half page ad in the Wall Street Journal costs $ 250,000 for one day and that’s an ad! Chile got its money’s worth just from the good press alone. [Lustig, Nathan (2012-12-17). Start-Up Chile 101: Everything You Wanted to Know About Living, Working and Doing Business in Chile (p. 134). Nathan Lustig. Kindle Edition].

Personally as an ex-commerce student and having worked a lot with startups and private businesses, the topic of entrepreneurship is interesting if only to understand the complex relationship between businesses and the markets they serve and in observing how long ideas stay with the market before they change/pivot. StartUp Chile is appealing to the entrepreneur-tourist, the kind that may not necessarily think Chile is forever and may not necessarily stay on long enough to earn citizenship, but would love for a helipad for some whacky international venture in life. If you want to set up a publishing house/franchisee in Chile, though, you would think twice; digital publishing might be the only hope, yet if you’re thinking of setting up something with ebooks, you will have to consider the rampant piracy in a region where there is a very nascant (if non-existent) market for books, more so for non-Spanish language books. Keeping that in mind, ebooks for Indian literary fiction in Spanish language was the idea I pitched to Nathan Lustig. When I mentioned  Argentina or Brazil (a common guest of honour at recent international book fairs) both with a more thriving book publishing scene, I learned the connection was futile; Brazil was a different beast altogether being almost separate from the rest of LatAm owing to separate language and culture, Brazilians themselves got pretty rich attacking their own home market, leaving no proper place for foreigners. (In terms of the type of book publishing markets, would it be fair or naive to compare LatAm with India?)

When I asked Nathan why he chose to self-publish this eminently readable book, he said, it was the easiest most straightforward way out, as he expectedly reaped the good royalties Amazon offered on a book that was best discoverable online through algorithms. In fact, Nate intends to do another version of this book that talks about tourism and culture, rather than be specifically aimed at Chilean entrepreneurs.

A lot of my MBA friends are wondering what to do as their next big step. I am pointing them to Chile. And with some proud help from local and alumni partners, my friends may just find big success if not small relief. I’ve even tried talking my employers into setting up some operations in Chile and have me man it there. Although, for now, it would be a big thing if I even get to exhibit at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Such. is. Life.