Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Option of Jealousy by Omair Ahmad

With a new essay, Omair Ahmad returns to the blog after a few weeks. This piece is Omair's account of a book reading session. The author is Amitabha Bagchi who read from his first novel, Above Average. The book is published by Harper Collins India and has been well received both by the market and the critics. Having read sections of the book I can vouch for the above.
I remember watching a serial in the US in which a character remarks, “Do you know why the competition in academia is so vicious?”

And then answers her own question with a burst of cruel laughter and the remark, “Because the rewards are so insignificant!”

She could have been talking about English language writing in India. With the exception of a few Western-recognised names, the rewards for writers are few and far between. So it is a pleasant surprise when somebody succeeds.

Or is it?

The Book Launch

Amitabha Bagchi’s book launch is an interesting affair, and one which shows just how much this particular success rests on the shoulders of the writer. Since his book was released a few months ago it has sold eleven thousand copies, more than twice the amount that “good” books sell in a year. Some portion of that success is purely his, attributable to decisions such as hiring a small two-person team of publicists, and arguing to keep the price at 195 rupees (~$4.00) rather than 295 ($6.00).

The HarperCollins India team deserves praise for the quality of the production and putting their faith in Bagchi with an unusually large initial print run. Nevertheless they seem slightly bemused by the success. As an outsider it seems to me that the things rest and revolve around the gentle, generous figure of the author as he makes his way through the guests, greeting them one by one.

The IIT Brand

It is a small gathering in the India International Centre Annexe; small, but select, with a sprinkling of names from Delhi’s, India’s, elite circles. Bagchi is quietly comfortable in the surroundings. Not only has his upbringing prepared him for such company, but as a teacher at (and former student of) the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, he is associated with the best and brightest of India’s science & engineering students. He has a natural place in such a gathering, earned by intellect and the hard work required to have come out among the top of one of the most competitive exams on the planet.

The IIT brand marks him out as among a select group but it is also, curiously enough, a mark against him. There has been a spurt of writing about the IITs after the unexpected success of Chetan Bhagat’s novel “Five Point Someone”. Much of the writing is hardly literature. Bagchi had already begun work on his book which is also set in and around the IIT crowd when Bhagat’s novel hit the bookstores and headlines. He was aware that he would have to face some dismissive comments but he chose to soldier on.

A Writer & His Craft

It is possible that some of those in the room might have entertained the thought that his success was solely due to the Indian awe of IITs and the students of those institutions. They could only have done so if they had not read the book. I doubt that they could keep such an attitude after Bagchi’s reading out from excerpts of the novel. There is a craftsmanship to his writing and he savours the words and the feelings that they evoke. He reads in a comfortable, slightly wistful tone, with a trace of longing for a passage into manhood that he is still exploring, full of half-understood hurts and delights. He is completely at home with his writing, a writer who has found a small place of his own and upon which he will hopefully build with other works.

As he draws attention to Pankaj Awasthi, who has provided the music and background vocals while Bagchi recited, I rise to leave. There is more to the programme but I have an appointment to keep. I send a brief SMS of congratulations, and apologies, and make my way out through the people crowded at the door.

The Option of Jealousy

And yet I am far from an uninvolved spectator. Not only am I Bagchi’s friend, but I am also a writer, a novelist whose book was released at about the same time as his, in English, in Delhi. As I make my way to the dinner meeting, I muse that I have the option of jealousy, if I should choose to exercise it.

It would be an irrational jealousy, of course, as there are enough differences in our writing, and the purposes behind our writing, to leave space for each other. The success that I am looking for is far different, and partially achieved in its own way. But jealousy isn’t, by its very nature, a rational exercise. It isn’t limited to how you define your own success, but also how you relate to others’. Much of Bagchi’s book is precisely about that, both the camaraderie and the irrational hurts given and taken, in the hothouse environment of intense competition.

The one thing that it is almost easy to overlook in the book, and especially because of the detached, non-judgmental tone of its main character, is that by any rational definition he is a success. That he could also be a target for jealousy. In a sense that is very true of Bagchi himself. His determination, and will to succeed in this incredibly difficult venture, from which he has emerged laurels in hand, is almost obscured by his own gentle and generous nature.

Maybe that is why jealousy is actually not an option. Not in this case.


amit ghosh said...

thanks for posting this, and thanks to omair for writing it. makes me feel like reading the book.

Omair said...

Hope you do. It's well worth reading, and does a very good job of creating the atmosphere / mahaul of bits of Delhi.
Bagchi isn't telling a straightforward story, more drawing a canvas to delve and discover the hidden fissures underneath people's characters.
By the way, quite liked your "ABC of Bengali" on your blog.