The Tao of Life, Verse and Satire by Sanjeev Sanyal

Sanjeev Sanyal, bestselling history author of Land of the Seven Rivers, is currently the principal economic adviser to the Indian government. A Rhodes Scholar and an Eisenhower fellow, he has written extensively on economics, environmental conservation and urban issues.

 His work takes him to many places and often leads to encounters with various colourful characters throughout India. You can meet them all in his latest book, Life Over Two Beers, slated to release this month marking his entry into the world of fiction and poetry.

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By Sanjeev Sanyal

My latest book “Life over Two Beers” will hit the stores next week. Quite unlike my previous books, it is a collection of quirky short stories, some satirical, some with a twist in the end. And then there is the odd verse thrown in along the way.  So, why this foray into the world of fiction and poetry?

It will come as some surprise to those who have read my non-fiction writings over the years that I began writing this book, in bits and pieces, a decade and a half ago. I was then a young economist working in financial markets, recently relocated to Singapore from Mumbai. My first child had just been born. Sitting in my study one hot and sunny Sunday afternoon, with the rock-band Era playing loudly in the background, I typed out my first short story on my company issue IBM Thinkpad. Nothing pre-meditated, it was just something that I wrote out just like that.

My profession as an economist requires routine writing of reports, articles and newspaper columns. However, over the next few years, I ended up typing a story here, a fragment of verse there. At some point, I had written out enough that I wondered if it could be published. So, when I first reached out to publishers circa 2005-6, it was to publish this book. The problem was that publishers were not too keen on it. As any editor or aspiring writer will tell you, it is very difficult to publish short fiction and almost impossible for poetry.  The publishers persuaded me to write non-fiction. I am not complaining – it sent me on a happy journey and I will probably remain primarily a non-fiction writer. Nonetheless, the idea of publishing my short stories remained and I kept adding and updating the collection. Every time I changed laptops, I had to remember to transfer the file. Only four of my original set have found their way here but I am glad the book finally got published.

There are a several reasons that I wanted to publish this book. First, I have long felt that the art of short story writing needs to be revived. Till the middle of the 20th century, it was the dominant form of fiction writing and most well-known authors across the world practiced the art. However, by the 1970s, short fiction was replaced by the novel. Those who were once avid readers of short stories in magazines and other periodicals, I am told, moved on to television serials. As a result, the market dried up and short fiction became a poor cousin of the longer format.

I have never been convinced by this explanation. I like reading short fiction and I think others do too. People still read short stories by Tagore, Manto, Dahl, Hemingway, Doyle and Borges. Indeed, every era since the Panchatantra and the Arabian Nights has had its stories told simply and without the literary fuss of a full-fledged novel. Why not 21st century India?

The second motivation was to revive the art of satire. India has a long tradition of satire going back to ancient times. While it survives here and there in a few Indian languages (and in social media), it is sadly no longer a mainstream art form. Note that I distinguish here between first-order humor of comedy, which is alive and well, and the second-order humour of satire. Hindi and Bengali, till very recently, had a vibrant culture of satirical poetry. These seem to have somehow been replaced by the humor of comedy. Not quite the same thing.

I am a firm believer that no society can thrive unless it can occasionally mock itself. Hence, many of the stories in this collection, albeit not all, have an element of satire. I would like to clarify, nevertheless, that all the characters are fictional and any apparent similarity is merely due to the fact that satire, by its very nature, is based on a caricature of real world social mores.

The more avid readers will probably enjoy the many hidden layers and inside jokes in the collection. For instance, there are many direct and indirect allusions to my favourite authors. No prizes for guessing who inspired the cover but the reader will be amused to know that the artist Jit depicted himself in the cast of characters!

A more serious theme that run through the book is that of intellectual openness and social mobility in its many forms. India is currently experiencing unprecedented intellectual and social churn. Any depiction of early 21st century India needs to take this into account. Thus, many of the stories depict new entrants into social and intellectual spaces, and the responses of incumbents to this change. Rather than being unduly judgemental and moralistic, the stories sketch out the opportunism, self-doubt, snobbery, and need for validation that characterizes such a churning society.

I do no not wish to burden the general reader with all the above baggage. The book should be read purely for fun at the first instance. As for me, I am glad to have finally dragged it to the finishing line. After carrying around the manuscript for years, a full draft was done by end-2016. It should normally have been published in 2017 but the editing was delayed by a full year as I took up a challenging new job. So, now that it is finally in print, I feel oddly lighter and emptier at the same time.

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