Ramendra Kumar’s Against All Odds will be published in September.
Amrutash Misra is the co-founder of the Book Lovers’ Program for Schools, a programme that helps schools pick up reading as a habit, an author and a storyteller.
AM: I loved Against All Odds, partly because I love sports writing! How do you do it? Do you imagine the games in your head?
RK: I used to play almost every sport as a kid. As an author, I have always loved writing about sports. I enjoy the excitement, the rush of adrenalin, the camaraderie, the nail-biting suspense and the thrilling finish. A couple of my novels and some of my prize-winning stories are around sports. My son Aniket, to whom this book is dedicated, is crazy about sports and we bond over this common passion. He is a football aficionado, and gave me tips about positions, moves and shots.
AM: I also really liked the characters and the setting of the book. Tell us a little bit more about Rourkela. What is it like?
RK: I was born and brought up in Hyderabad. I came to Rourkela as a management trainee in the Rourkela Steel Plant. Initially, this place appeared dull, dreary and truly back of beyond. I found it too laid-back and non-happening. There were no malls, fancy theatres or pubs. No avenue of relaxation or entertainment except for a couple of clubs.
Gradually, however, Rourkela started growing on me. I loved its green and clean ambience, its quiet, unhurried life and its cosmopolitan nature. At times, the focus on the steel plant did get a trifle claustrophobic but the camaraderie among the people more than made up for it. The steel plant is only a fifteen-minute drive, the kids’ school a ten-minute one, everything is just a shout or a phone call away – in a big city you can only dream of such advantages. In a metro, I would have possibly wasted more than a couple of hours commuting and also got my mind addled with all the traffic. Rourkela saves a lot of time and cocoons me from the chaos, thereby helping me to concentrate on my job and my writing. As a parent too, I could spend a lot more quality time with the kids –telling them stories, celebrating ‘Papa’s Day Out’ with them and participating in every important happening of their lives.
AM: I’m so happy you wrote about Rourkela. So many of our books are either set in cities or in fictional towns. But you chose to ground your story in a real place. What were your thoughts when you chose to do this?
RK: I always wanted to write about Rourkela. I have found that life in a steel city is very unique, which not many people know about. I have tried to use Rourkela as a character in the novel–with its distinct persona. I did not use a fictional name since I wanted my readers to know more about the place and its people and connect with it.
AM: About the kids in the book: Are they based on anyone in particular? Is it from your own experiences?
RK: I had seen a footballer who was differently abled play in my hometown Hyderabad. Kartik’s passion and performance is a trifle inspired by him.
AM: I’ve to admit that the thing that occupied my mind the most after reading pre-print copy of book I was sent is that it was clearly written by a very skilled writer so I went and checked your website, and on Amazon and Flipkart! You’ve written so many books, and you’ve been writing for so many years, and yet I haven’t read any of your books before this. So I was feeling very ashamed of myself. Do things like this worry you – where your books are being sold, who is reading them? Or not reading them? How they are performing in the market, etc?
RK: No, I am not unduly worried about how my books are performing in the market. If they are doing well it is the icing on the cake. The process of creating something new and hopefully unique and the reader’s feedback give me the maximum pleasure. Even if my book doesn’t sell well but is appreciated by my young and vibrant audience, I would be happy. During my creative writing workshops and storytelling sessions I get awesome feedback from the kids – this is what keeps me going.
A few publishers do share sales information, but it doesn’t bother me too much. Once a publisher told me the book is not doing well. On a visit to a bookshop in Bengaluru I found the third edition of the book in the store. This kind of pleasant surprises have happened quite a few times.
AM: Writers today, especially new writers, are burdened by the need to market their books. What is your opinion on this?
RK: I don’t think this is a burden. I would view it as a collaborative and fun activity. After all, a writer and a publisher are partners in progress with the common objective of making their ‘venture’ a success.
AM: Do you check your books’ Amazon ratings and wait for reviews to appear in the newspapers?
RK: I do.
AM: Who were your favourite author(s) when you were growing up?
RK: I grew up reading Enid Blyton and Frank Richards. However, my all-time favourite is P.G. Wodehouse.
AM: Can you tell me about your writing journey? Did you write as a child?
RK: I started writing satire, poetry and fiction in my college days and continued my literary pursuits after I joined Rourkela Steel Plant. My creative endeavours received a modest degree of success.
When my daughter, Ankita was four, my son Aniket was born. My wife Madhavi is working in the same steel plant as me. Her hands were full taking care of the baby. “You write satire and poetry don’t you? Then why can’t you tell Ankita stories and put her to sleep, while I concentrate on Aniket,” Madhavi told me one day.
I started thinking up little tales to tell my precious one. I don’t know whether she liked the plot more or my antics, but she lapped up my stories and my confidence increased. Soon it became a tradition which continued even after Aniket grew up and doubled the size of my audience. The stories liked by my kids found their way to the laptop and from there to the publisher’s desk. The tales started getting published and thus began my journey into the idyllic world of children.
AM: Which is your favourite book from all those that you’ve written?
RK: My favourite book is Against All Odds, my latest one. One reason is that it has been published by one of my favourite publishers – Duckbill.
Secondly, it interlaces two of my favourite themes – sports and the predicament of a marginalised kid. As a child I was treated like a freak because of my extremely odd looks. Besides, I was from a broken home – which was a double whammy. I was most often an object of derision or pity. Kartik’s disability doesn’t mirror my state but his suffering does.
Also, through this book I could do justice to Rourkela, my “karmabhumi”, the place to which I owe whatever I am today.
AM: How do you manage to work and write at the same time?
RK: I firmly believe that time is a function of your PQ or Passion Quotient. If you have the passion for something, you’ll find the time for it. I am really, really passionate about writing. I hardly socialize nor do I go for booze sessions with colleagues or friends. I go to the club only for swimming, in summers. My tryst with the idiot box is limited to the news or the odd sports event. So it is basically me, my family and my writing.
Madhavi, my wife, has been a big support since she handles many of the daily chores leaving me to my obsession.
A writer, someone said, is never unemployed. Even when he/she is looking out of the window he/she is ‘on the job’. The same thing holds true for me. In meetings and social gatherings, where I am forced to go, I simply switch off. I have cultivated the art of sporting the right expression on my face during dull conversations so that the speaker gets the impression that I am all ears, whereas actually I am miles away in my own sanctuary of plots, characters and milieus …
Another aspect which helps me is my ability to ‘file’ stories in my head. Once an idea comes to my mind I keep nurturing and nourishing it till a complete story is formed. Many times the story stays with me for days, weeks, sometimes even months. This helps me a lot since I can plot when I am otherwise occupied and key in the stuff when I have the time and access to my laptop.
AM: Wow, that was very well articulated. Okay, I have a more generic question, something that occupies a lot of my mind and time. How do we get our country to read more? How do we get books into everyone’s hands and in every corner of the country?
RK: I think parents have a huge role to play in developing the reading habit. They should begin reading to the child as early as possible and later encourage the child to read on his own. Once this habit is inculcated in early childhood it will stay. Most parents today do not have time to spend with their child telling stories or reading to them. They make it up by switching on the idiot box, making available computer games or other gizmos.
The private sector has to come out in a big way if we want to get a book in every child’s hands. When they can sponsor glitzy and glamorous events like beauty pageants, fashion shows and ‘pre-fixed’ cricket matches, spending crores, they can also spend a tiny bit on distributing books and organising book related events. They can even use their CSR budget to reach books to the marginalised sections of the society.