How the Perl series was written
The first novel I ever attempted was at age fourteen – an Alistair McLean style suspense thriller about a gunman. I was in my McLean phase that time. I didn’t get far. Even as a fourteen year old, I could recognize it was completely fatuous. I had discerning taste even at that age. I gave up, disheartened.
The second attempt came almost two decades later, at age thirty-five. I was going through a rough patch at work, and seriously considering scribbling a resignation note and ramming it up the boss’s nose. It was shortly after The God of Small Things hit the bookshelves. It inspired me. No, not the book itself: I’ve frequently considered buying it, sighting it in bookstores. But after eyeing that pallid green volume nervously and flipping through the first few pages, the conclusion is always the same: There’s no way I’ll get through 400 pages of this boosh.
No, it was not Arundhati Roy’s writing that inspired me, it was her million dollar advance. It caused a sensation at the time. It was the first time in living memory that ‘Indian Author’ and ‘Dollar Advance’ had been mentioned in the same line. As a child, I knew of other Indian authors, of course – R.K Narayan, Kushwant Singh, Mulk Raj Anand… Narayan’s A Painter of Signs was a particular favorite. But the general impression one had was that these fellows wrote for a lark, that they had other means of bringing in the bacon (the idly-vada, in case of Narayan).
The brouhaha over A. Roy’s advance made one think that it might actually be possible for an Indian to write in English – and make an honest living out of it. It isn’t surprising that many of the newer Indian writers launched their literary careers shortly after that.
I went back to my earliest influences, the first book that had truly touched me: Watership Down. It was about a warren of rabbits in search of a new home – it works both as a simple adventure and an allegory. At around that time, my wife and I had adopted a stray pup. Chikoo we called him and loved him to bits. I started work on the story of an abandoned pup in search of its human family. Sandy’s Quest. The plot was rather interesting, having elements of both a physical search and a spiritual search. The first few chapters went well; my wife even got teary-eyed reviewing it. But then I came to an action sequence and was stuck. I was still no good at action. I shelved it. It was, after all, at heart an adventure novel, and you can’t have adventure without action, however many layers of spirituality you might shovel onto it. Rather sad, it was a promising book. Someday I’ll complete it.
I turned to a bigger influence: Humor and Wodehouse. I wanted to write Wodehousean comedy. Now naturally I knew no one would take seriously a brown-skinned chap with an unpronounceable Eastern name writing about castles and earls and dukes and fellows going ‘Jolly Good, Old Chap – Pip-Pip’. I had the idea of changing the dispossessed earls to dethroned maharajas, and American millionaires to Marwari businessmen, and locating the action to a royal Haweli in Rajasthan that had seen better times. The plot would be about unsuitable suitors and pushy hoteliers. But I got nowhere. Writing society humor like Wodehouse was beyond me. I couldn’t fill pages and pages with inane, breezy dialogs about almost nothing. And the humor: it was excruciating. I couldn’t think of a single funny thing to say. I’d heard humor was the most difficult of art forms: I now knew it to be true.
I shelved my writing career. At work, things had improved. I’d gotten a new job. Here, I was the boss. I got to bully instead of being bullied. A literary career wasn’t pressing any more.
A few years went by. And one fine day my mildly-dissatisfying existence broke a rear axel, and I broke a heart. Heartbreak is an interesting thing; I recommend you all have one. It makes you think about Life, The Universe and Everything. I had an enlightenment of some sort. I was vouchsafed a glimpse of the Eternal Truth. I hurried to write a book about it. I was wanted to share my insights with my fellow man, and I was certain my fellow man would be delighted to pay $2.99 a pop for it. The Lunatics Guide to Life, Love and Happiness, it was called. I even taught myself cartooning for it. I wanted it to have cartoons, and no one was willing to draw cartoons for the price I was willing to pay.
Certain I had a hit on my hand, I sent it to over a hundred publishers and agents. But I had miscalculated. Agents and publishers do not like getting enlightened. I watched bemusedly as the pile of rejection slips on my writing desk grew into a modest hillock. It came in useful for lining the garbage can.
But I had tasted blood. Undaunted, I launched into another literary work: back to fiction. Since my last book had managed to be modestly funny, I had lost my fear of humor. But not that of society dramas. I decided my novel would be Wodehouseian only in spirit; that I would write about things I was comfortable with. I started work on a tale of two software engineers: Perl and Hari. They get laid off, start a company, get projects with a series of curious customers, fall in love, break up, reunite. It was by turns funny and sad and romantic. It wasn’t terribly Wodehousean but the funny parts were really funny: even hard-nosed editors said so (they said other things too, not all complementary). I guess you could compare it to P.G.’s earlier work when even he wasn’t terribly Wodehousean.
I was certain I’d hit the jackpot this time. A hundred and fifty literary agents and editors said I hadn’t. More lining for my garbage can.
No matter. This time I really, really wanted to write an adventure novel. I sketched out a suspense thriller about Indian secret agents in a tense race through the alleys and byways of Bangalore to track down terrorists with a nuclear device before the ticker runs out and it goes pop, leading to all kinds of inconvenience and demotions all around. But the action scenes were still glutinous: as bad as my attempts as a fourteen year old. What was worse, they were even unintentionally funny, now.
It had taken me a heart break to learn to write humor. I have a theory that you can’t hope to write real comedy unless at least once you have been to the brink and drawn back just in time. That yawning chasm of nothingness gives you the realization that it is all a bit of a joke, really. It was as if a rusty tap had been knocked open in my head, for the humor to gush out. But now that the tap had opened, it wouldn’t close. I couldn’t write with a straight face any more. And this is fatal in case of the suspense thriller: the suspense novelist is expected to churn out the most unbelievable nonsense with a dead straight face.
But where my fourteen-year old brain had been stymied, my middle-aged cranium saw an opportunity. My forte, I decided, was action-comedy. I turned the nuclear device into a buffalo bomb, the terrorists into a group of crazed movie fans, and for the secret agents, I fell back on Perl and Hari. You see, I’d fallen in love with Perl and Hari. They were two really nice people, I liked them. I wanted to keep writing about them. I worked them into the plot: they’re still software entrepreneurs, but they take the wrong project and fall headlong into a dangerous world of exploding animals, ruthless Japanese spies and fanatical fan clubs.
That was the beginning of Perl and the Exploding Buffalo. It was also the most exciting period of my writing career – comic ideas and weird but lovable characters and bizarre situations gushed out of my fervid brain like a bubbling geyser. It was all too much for one novel – I planned on a trilogy – and then a ‘Trilogy in Four Parts’ à la Douglas Adams – and finally a series of seven novels.
I sent Exploding Buffalo out into the wilderness of gaunt, gnarly trees of rejection slips and hard, cold boulders of puffy-faced literary agents. I hadn’t much hope this time. I personally thought Buffalo brilliant, but I feared it would be too bizarre for the average literary agent or editor. With my short exposure to that tribe, I had come to realize that literary people tend to be – how shall I put it – somewhat literal minded. A PhD in English Literature seems to somehow rob one of the ability to appreciate a joke. This is not sour grapes – many of the editors I had spoken to had even spoken sneeringly and condescendingly about Wodehouse – which is about as close to blasphemy as you can get with right-thinking people. Much as I resented it at the time, at times I feel relieved my dad hadn’t allowed me to do a Bachelor of Arts. I too might have become one of those puffy-faced ones.
Shrugging it off, I plunged back into the writing of my grand oeuvre. Three more Perl novel flew out of my laptop. By this time, Amazon and Kindle had arrived. Self-publishing wasn’t a stigma any more. You weren’t considered a failure if you self-published. In fact, there are many now who considered you an idiot if you let publishers gouge you out of a major portion of the profits for very little in exchange. Of late, publishers have even stopped doing decent editing, proof-reading or marketing. Some even go to the extent of expecting the author to provide the cover art and layout. So they take 70% of the profit – for what?
I got ready to self-publish the Perl series. But I paused. The very first Perl novel was now looking decidedly out of place. With its sad-romantic parts and mostly believable situations, it stuck out like a sore thumb in the bizarre and violent new world of Perl and Hari. Perl too had changed. She had started out a complex character: by turns warm and friendly, by turns hard and ruthless. At times she was even sad and wistful. But the later Perl was a tough baby through and through.
With a heavy heart, I scrapped the first Perl novel, and rewrote it with a completely new plot. Perl and Hari still meet and start a company, yes. But then it careens off into a wild, heart-stopping romp through the spiritual lowlife of Bangalore. I pulled in many of the side-characters of the later novels and gave them a past history. I set up an over-arching plotline for the entire series that has its genesis in the events of the first novel.
I wrote this new novel is four months flat – the fastest I had ever written a Perl novel. I was in a hurry to self-publish. And funnily, it turned out the best one yet. I called it Perl and the Sacred Ashtray. Yes, Sacred Ashtray is actually my newest work, although it is No. 1 in the Perl series.
Having written it, like an idiot, I sent it around again to publishers, to give them another chance to gouge their 70% margin. Luckily, they still weren’t biting.
And so here we go: Sacred Ashtray is self-published. Another three novels are in the pipeline. I’m currently writing the fifth: Murdered Milkmaker. It isn’t going as smoothly as Sacred Ashtray – in fact, it is coming out in dribs and drabs, like squeezing blood from a stone. It is also the most ambitious Perl novel to date: when finished, it’ll be a massive door-stopper of a book, with multiple narrators, multiple points of views, multiple layers of fictional history of a fictional people – the works. I’ve spent six months on it, and expect to be working on it another year, at least.
Someday, I’ll publish the very first Perl novel too – the semi-realistic sad-romantic one with a softer Perl. For all its faults, it was a charming book and I am very fond of it. My readers might like it as a historical footnote to the Perl series.