Balaji Venkataramanan, author of the forthcoming Flat-track Bullies in conversation with Kaushik Vishwanath, author and fellow-Chennai-dweller.
KV: Let me start off by saying I thought your book was MANGOES good. It had me laughing quite loudly through the whole thing. What I think you manage to do really well in the novel is to capture something very typical and funny about the Chennai Tam-Brahm mentality, and yet I think anyone can identify with Ravi’s predicament: how hard adults make it for kids to just have fun. Even during their holidays!
What struck me most while reading the book, though, was how believable I found Ravi’s voice, to the point where I could easily be convinced that this was a real eleven-year-old’s diary. So I have to ask: Did you keep a diary as a child and find Ravi while digging through some old entries? Or do you have a son or nephew who inspired him? Tell us what the process of writing was like.
BV: Thanks Kaushik. Am happy to know that you liked the book.
The book talks about modern middle class families in general with ‘go-getter’ parents wanting their kids to get started early.
Everyone’s a go-getter these days. Isn’t it?
Though the setting’s Chennai, I don’t classify it as a ‘it can happen only in Chennai’ book. Replace Chennai with anyplace in Kerala or Punjab or Mumbai and I guess the scenario’s the same for the kids.
Run! Run! Run!
I grew up in Trichy and spent my childhood in a Township that thankfully was filled with trees and lots of open spaces. The moment my parents started to the office, I would slip out to play with the neighborhood kids all through the day. I can say I spent more time outdoors than indoors during vacations.
No, I did not maintain a diary when I was a kid. Maybe, some part of me still remains a kid.
I talk with my nieces who are 9 and 7 about the classes, competitions and parties they and their friends attend, the TV shows they watch etc.
Spelling bee, music class, IIT coaching, Reality shows, Swimming, Cricket, Tennis, Birthday parties, holiday trips, handwriting assignments, Trinity tests, Super Singer. The list is endless.
And, come annual vacation, the newspapers are filled with coaching camps, storytelling workshops and whatever.
Then there are these IIT coaching class ads for 6-8th std early starter batch, 9th-12th std batch and I have seen kindergarten ads promising to make the kid an IITian. Seriously!
Taking these inputs I sort of let my imagination run wild. ( Have jumbled the past and present tenses in the above few lines.)
I started writing FTB just to keep myself amused.
KV: Ravi seems to be a good kid in many ways. Yet his parents, like so many Indian parents, are constantly filled with anxiety and insecurity. Do you have a theory for why they are this way? Why parents feel the need to put their children through summer classes from sunrise to sunset (and beyond)?
BV: I am no authority to comment on why parents put their kids through summer classes but on a lighter note if I were to paraphrase William Temple’s quip on cricket, I think the parents want to turn the vacation into some sort of ‘organized loafing’. (Just kidding.)
KV: Towards the end of the book, or I should say the end of Ravi’s summer diary, Ravi says, “In case you are looking for messages, be disappointed, coz there are none in my notebook.” and then proceeds to give two messages: “1. Never read the notebooks of others. It’s bad manners. 2. Don’t read something expecting messages.”
First, I must apologise to Ravi for having read his notebook. Second, Ravi may believe there is no message to be found in his notebook, but what about you? Without giving away too much of the story, do you think Ravi ends up learning more by being outdoors instead of indoors, by hanging out with the kinds of friends of whom his parents would disapprove?
BV: Actually there is no message. All I was trying to say in a lighter way is we are all Flat track bullies at some level.
Ravi does learn that life outside is totally different from what is taught in the classroom. But I wouldn’t say he learns more being outdoors than indoors. I would just say he gave himself an opportunity to see a different facet of life.
KV: If a young reader asked you if he should try to be like Ravi, what would you tell him?
BV: That’s a difficult question to answer.
As you say Ravi’s a good boy. He’s just exploring the world in his enthusiasm which is all part of growing up.
Well, I find this funny. Why should everyone try to be like somebody else? Just be yourself.
Young readers today are smart, that after reading the book, no one is going to ask me for advice for they will know they aren’t going to get any.
KV: Were there any books that influenced or inspired you to start writing?
BV: When I was young, I liked R.K Narayan. Also coz, the R stood for Rasipuram, the place my people originally came from.
I was hugely influenced by Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. I keep going back to the book time and again.
I am not a voracious reader. Have never read Harry Potter or Twilight series or Lord of the Rings.
I like books where the protagonist talks in the first person for I feel I can identify with them and their slightly skewed view of the world.
KV: What was your experience of the publication process?
BV: I never thought I would get published in the first place. The manuscript was there in my folder for 6 months and my niece who was snooping around found it in my computer and she goaded me to submit it.
So I did a Google search and Google said Step 1: you should first approach Literary Agents.
So I sent it to agents whose mail ids I could get from the net and I got rejected.
Then I did step 2: If rejected by agents approach the Publishers directly.
The first publisher I queried was Westland who put me across to Sayoni and Anushka of Duckbill and I have to say I got mighty lucky from then on.’Duckbill Rocks’ and if needed I am can shout it from the roof tops.
KV: Do you see yourself writing a sequel, or do you have something else in mind for your next book?
BV: Have not really thought about a sequel. At present a couple of ideas in the YA space seem to keep me amused.