By Madhusree Chatterjee
Reportage is the essence of good story-telling, concur veteran journalists across global, linguistic, ideological and divides down the ages because a novel breathes its life-blood from the narrative it builds upon.
A journalist does not have to go to the Himalayas to write a novel. You can be quite comfortable sitting where tou are - even at work - and get started if you have a story," says writer turned novelist Manu Joseph, the author of "Serious Men" and "The Illicit Happiness of Other People".
What readers are interested in “stories of other people”.told with nuance and dramatic flourish, Joseph said at a writers’ interface with leading publisher V.K. Karthika of Harper Collins- India at the Alliance Francaise in the national capital last week. “You are inclined to look at writing in less extreme ways,” Joseph explained, listing the advantages of journalist as a novelist over his non-journalist counterparts. Writing and wordage come easy.
In the west, the art of modern novel writing was crafted and honed by “canny” journalists beginning with great pioneers like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Joseph Addison, P.G. Woodhouse, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, to modernists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tom Wolfe, George Orwell, Martin Amis, Ken Follet and commercial successes like Ace Atkins and Len Deighton,
Journalists have a natural eye for details and power over the narrative structures, say critics. They have an innate pulse on popular psyche, courtesy their regular interfaces that set them out of the groove – of literary fiction writers from non-journalistic background, who often gloss over human factors in the rush of pedagogy, statistical overload and abstractions.
Journalists in India are emerging as a tribe of formidable fictional story-tellers – novelists using their “wide network of beats (coverage areas)” and “first-hand experience” to cull stories from the reams of their dispatches. The effect is an interesting mix of fiction growing on a bulwark of facts that are not far removed from reality.
The fact that the Indian journalist with a flair for creative expression is rooted in the mass- primarily a field hand – gives him the power to etch full-blooded and well-rounded characters – who live, breathe and inhabit the printed space like many of us.
The power to relate to the average reader is the hallmark of new Indian novel writing, says the publisher of Harper Collins India V.K. Karthika, whose publishing house has a star-studded roster of India journalist- novelist.
The names tote like official rolls- Rajkamal Jha, Arvind Adiga, Tarun Tejpal, Sobhaa De, Manu Joseph, Sudeep Chakravarti, C.P. Surendran, Binoo K John, Indrajit Hazra, Saumya Bhattacharya, Sandipan Deb, Amitava Srivastava and newbies like Sandipan Deb and Amrita Tripathi. Besides, a large legion of top of the chain non-fiction writers had broken their writing teeth in journalism.
Writers like Arvind Adiga and Tarun Tejpal, the helmsman of Tehelka, use journalistic realities to weave their plots. While Adiga’s “Last Man in the Tower” looks at the real estate war in Mumbai – where land is up for grabs amid a vicious ongoing war between the land mafia, rivals, underworld and local residents, his Man Booker-prize winning novel “White Tiger” probes the dynamics of India’s stark socio-economic contrasts.
Tejpal, on the other hand, casts a long hard light on the ruthless criminal politics of 21st century India from the perspective of a journalist – how easily newsmen run the wrong side of goons in a country that is as lawless as a jungle.
In his latest book, “The Valley of Masks”, Tejpal comments on multi-layered realities like Kashmir, power structures, autocracy, relevance of Indian epics, cultures and corruption purge for a compatible world with a story that swings between “reality, intense melancholy, wild imagination” and “boyhood memories of the Mahabharata- the epic he had read in full while in college”, as the writer recalls.
Sobhaa De, often hailed as the queen of mass fiction, best captures the progression of a glamour journalist in the heart of Mumbai to successful commercial novelist. Her new novel “Sethji” published by Penguin in 2013 has been described by critics as a “thinly veiled” introspection of the Shiv Sena years in Maharashtra – with Mumbai’s first political family as the fictional premise for the story.
A social and political columnist for several leading publications, including The Times of India, and the former editor of “The Femina”, De’s new novel is a departure from the “glamour sagas like ‘Starry Nights’ of her early years” that were inspired by her close proximity to colourful Bollywood – Mumbai’s moviedom.
Sudeep Chakraverti’s “Tin Fish” and “Avenue of Kings”- two intertwining novels – draws from childhood memories as a boarder in a prestigious boy’s school and go on to protagonist Brandy Ray’s young years in Delhi during the turbulence of the Sikh riots reeling in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The novels, strangely, are nearer to realpolitik – with a gut-wrenching blend of social angst, growing up realizations of a young man, human riddles and the politics of the land — than the writer’s non-fictional accounts of the Naxalism-ravaged Chhattisgarh and his journalistic accounts of Northeast.
Binoo K. John opens the “shadowy and miraculous world of Kerala’s Church politics in the backdrop of the catastrophic tsunami and a love story in “The Last Song of Savio De Souza” - a subject that novelist John claims is “close to his heart and home turf”.
“The novel is a cry for some sort of rational thinking to prevail in that educated state (Kerala) overrun by religious fundamentalism of all hues,” Binoo John lamented in an interview to this writer. Religion is the only working industry in Kerala – tourism comes second and third is information technology, John commented with a newsman’s eye on the state, where he hosts the Kovalam Literary Festival every year.
Editor-novelist Indrajit Hazra has been grounded in the milieu of his familiar Kolkata in his novels – “The Burnt Forehead of Max Saul”, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and “The Bioscope Man”- where the city’s colonial legacy, the chips of Oriental cultures and modernity clash into sad stories that brings to light the contrasting soul of the eastern hub. Hazra puts to use his astute editor’s eye for unusual facts, human colours and a flair for dark comedy.
Says journalist-turned novelist Anupam Srivastava - “I have moved on from reportage to probing systems – more introspective and mature in my analysis of situations” – about his novel, “A Piece of Giant” that tries to understand the relationship between the rulers (in Lutyen’s Delhi) and the ruled (the man on the streets).
It is the maturity of the journalist as a narrator and an analyst that matters as a fiction writer. Nobel laureate and journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez believes that there is not much difference between fiction writing (novel) and journalism. In an interview to the Paris Review, Marquez expained, “that the sources were the same, the material is the same, the resources and the language are the same”.
The only difference being that in journalism “one fact that is false prejudices the entire story” while “in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work”.