Award-winning journalist, yogi writer, snail breeder, stone collector, handicraft exporter. Rajendar Menen is many things. But one thing he is not is a “press conference journo”. Two decades of on-ground reporting and life in India’s underground are evident in his gritty book Karma Sutra (published by HarperCollins India). Yes, it’s a play on the iconic Kamasutra, but that’s not the only meaning behind the title.
“Street people are innocent and pure,” says Menen. “Despite the odds stacked against them, there is no rancour. They work hard and live by their wits. They believe in karma or naseeb and feel that life will be better the next time around. This also gave me the idea to name my book ‘Karma Sutra’,” he says.
Karma Sutra tells the stories of those who live on — and off — the street, an amazing cast of characters that includes sex workers, bar girls, hijras, Devadasis, drug addicts, runaways, migrants and hustlers. Menen didn’t restrict his research to Mumbai — he has introduced the underbelly of Karnataka, Goa and Nepal.
He began his career, which spans over three decades, with The Times of India in Mumbai. He has launched and edited magazines, written four books on different aspects of healing, and freelanced for The BBC, UNFPA, France 2, Ray of Hope, Gulf News and several other international media organisations. He has co-authored books on AIDS and prostitution in South-Asia, been Executive Editor of three journals on the technical and human aspects of HIV/AIDS, and written extensively on the subject. This urban yogi is currently working on a book about India’s French quarter, Pondicherry (or Puducherry?) where he has spent many years.
My first encounter with Menen happened in 2008 when I was hired for a fringe lifestyle magazine which was too radical for the time to see the light of day. We kept in touch and I interviewed him a year later about Karma Sutra for the beloved tabloid Mid Day.
This author never sits still. The street is his muse. He didn’t want to do a sit-down interview so we took a stroll around Juhu (his old hood) and discussed the book. It’s a first person account of the trauma and triumph of those destined to spend their lives on the other side of the boulevard. He was kicked, pushed, beaten up and threatened, but refuses to regret a minute.
Over the years, Menen has become a dear friend and guide. I’ve collaborated with him as editor on small projects and he has made my acquaintance with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. One being Romel Dias, founder of ‘The Listening Sessions’ in Mumbai.
Menen’s knowledge about the city’s nooks and crannies is impressive (add to that Goa, Pondicherry and Nepal). He happens to be one of the original Indian hippies who had dreadlocks long before it was considered cool here. He changed his lifestyle completely decades ago (in his 50s now) for a balanced Tibetan yogic way of living.
For anyone who liked Shantaram and wants to know the real Indian streets, Karma Sutra is a must-read. Writers like Menen are motivation for aspiring authors like yours truly — they are humble and authentic yet uncompromising in their standards for truth and quality. He is a thespian in the street beat and knows how to blend into a crowd while using his powers of observation to find a good story. I have a lot to learn from this prolific writer; he still churns out 2,000 words every day. Reproducing excerpts from two interviews I did with him for Mid-Day and The Times of India.
How many years did it take you to do the groundwork for Karma Sutra?
It started when was a rookie with The Times of India. We wrote on typewriters back then. There was no TV either, or very little of it. So, normal reportage involved sports, the police and BMC beats. There were no wars to cover. I was restless, so I hit the street. It was filled with poverty, desperation and an amazing resilience to live. I saw the many colours of life at so many levels. All this excited me.
So, what started innocuously became a huge passion. I did a lot of work on HIV/AIDS, wrote books, edited journals and was part of several international teams covering the street, so that I could also gain access to several places and people. We combed the streets with a magnifying glass. I must have spent about 20 years doing the research, with several breaks, of course.
How did the book take shape?
I have been covering the streets for over two decades, and I had a lot of material. Poet Dom Moraes, my guru, encouraged me to put it all in a book. But I didn’t take the suggestion seriously. Then I sat at a computer for three months, and finished it. Despite zero publicity, the response was fantastic.
What is your modus operandi?
I am like RK Laxman’s common man. I just hang around and keep my eyes, ears and nose open for strange sights and sounds. Normally, I play dumb and pretend to be an idiot, or I talk nonsense and provoke. Both are good methods to dig out information. I don’t fit in a crowd, and I don’t stand out either; this ambiguity helps.
But if the person I am getting information from is poor, like a sex worker, I pay for the time spent. Sometimes, I buy gifts or food and drink. But I’ve never “bribed” anyone for information; people love to talk out here!
How did the beat affect you?
The street beat has changed me from inside out; I live very simply because of it. I’ve realised circumstances and birth determine the directions in life. It is easy to understand someone’s actions when you look at the circumstances they are born into. I try not to be judgmental; everyone has their own margins of right and wrong, and it works out alright in the end.
What would you say to street writing hopefuls?
A lot of good writers lack discipline and get sucked in to the system. On the street however, there are no freebies. You go with the flow.
Karma Sutra: Adventures of a Street Bum from HarperCollins India is priced at ₹ 299. If you enjoyed this author interview, leave a comment below for more insights into interesting books and authors