Part 2: Street beat, non-fiction writing and Auroville book

For my 100th post, I am publishing a fresh follow-up interview with veteran journalist and author Rajendar Menen.

Our previous interview was about your book Karma Sutra from HarperCollins India. New readers may not be familiar with the first edition.

The first edition of Karma Sutra was published in Canada by Saga Books. It was the unedited version. When HarperCollins India wanted to re-print it, they asked me to knock off at least 30 pages. They said the book was too “dark” and laborious reading for Indian audiences. I fought hard against chopping my book but finally had to relent as market conditions also determine the fate of your product.

It is very easy to get publicity if you put something inflammable or objectionable. That is up to you. I prefer the low key approach as the trolls get on my nerves and abort my carefully cultivated routine. I am also not seeking cheap publicity. As I said, the choice is yours. If I hadn’t changed names and masked those involved in jettisoning all sanity from the street, the consequences and repercussions of Karma Sutra would be completely different.

Non-fiction writing is a different kind of beast, isn’t it?

Yes. I am very keen to do fiction, however. The reason I did non-fiction till now was simply because the payments were certain and I needed the money as I was surviving on my own in Mumbai. Fiction may or may not work and I couldn’t wait that long for the money to enter my kitty.

Non-fiction is important, though. It documents a thread of time and space. Non-fiction is more ‘useful’ if I can use that word. It is like a time capsule. You are documenting time; what could be greater than that?

No one else will be able to do a book like Karma Sutra. I lived in brothels, hijra dens, beaches, streets, bus stops, rail stations, spent time with gangsters, the underworld, those dying of AIDS and TB, the homeless and the dispossessed. Those were really heady days. I loved every moment.

I lived with danger all the time, I smoked it. The underworld asked me to do a book on one of their dons. I refused. They didn’t mind. The conversation took place on Juhu beach. They hugged me and said: ‘You are the only one who can’t be bought.’ But I did allow him to buy me a cup of chai.

You’ve also collaborated with a slew of international writers and journalists.

I’ve had the good fortune of working with some fantastic writers from all over the world. They were simply brilliant and kept away from the limelight.

fallen-angelsJohn Frederick was the guru of the street. An American settled in Nepal, he was an expert on street life, drugs and human trafficking. Along with the legendary photographer Thomas Kelly, we did the masterpiece Fallen Angels which covered sex workers in South Asia. There were many other writers and photographers as the scope of the subject was vast. I did the Mumbai angle.

This was a brilliant book but feminists in the western world took objection to the book and we couldn’t hype it. It was also expensive as it was printed on art paper, had a hard cover and countless exclusive but carefully edited photographs. We had targeted a select audience.

I’ve done a lot of street coverage with Javier Moro, the great Spanish writer and nephew of Dominique Lapierre. Jerry Hopkins, another great writer of several books, is also an inspiration. An American settled in Bangkok for decades, he opted for a risque and offbeat life and used his experiences to write some amazing books including The Doors biography Behind Closed Doors.

There were also some fantastic editors I worked with like Bob Snyder who could spot a mole on a grasshopper miles away. They were of the old school: print perfect copy, anything less is sacrilege.

How useful was your journalistic experience to the craft?

I can write in the midst of noise and chaos as I was weaned in a newsroom where we worked on typewriters and stuck to strict deadlines. No error was pardoned. I once used a comma wrongly (the typewriter was to blame) and the news editor of the Times of India where I worked then publicly humiliated me. He called me an illiterate and asked me how I got the job. Such were the standards then!

We discussed Karma Sutra at length in the previous post. Tell us about your other books.

I was in the HIV/AIDS programme of a Mumbai-based NGO and edited three of their journals, and also did several books and booklets for them. I then did a series of books on alternative health: benefits of magnets, music therapy, feng shui, vastu shastra, and so on. The books on alternative therapies were quickies. They are low priced and meant for a different audience. They were limited by the scope of their potential.

Dr Jussawalla

The last book is titled Nature Cure. I loved doing it. It was on the late Dr. Jehangir Jussawalla, the pioneer, in a sense, of the alternate therapy movement in India. Nature Cure is packed with information. I spent long hours with his son Adil Jussawalla, the poet and writer, to get information, and the book came out really well. It is packed with knowledge.

Bringing out the mini books on Tulasa and Dominic, the first Indians detected with HIV/AIDS, was enjoyable. I travelled all over Goa and Nepal and met some fabulous people doing incredible work. It was an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Nothing was planned, things kept happening.

I have also written over 3,000 articles. But an article is forgotten the next day unless it kicks up a political or financial storm. Books last forever.

Do you have a writing ritual?

Yes, I work like a maniac. For ten years I wrote 2,000 words a day every single day, even Saturdays and Sundays. All I did was write, then sleep, eat, do yoga, run on the beach, meet some friends sometimes, and write again. This pattern lasted ten long years and I authored and ghost wrote close to 100 books and booklets.

I came to Mumbai (Bombay then) with nothing. I took no money from my parents and decided to make the best of whatever skills I possessed. I also decided as a kid that I would never take a bribe. So the journey was a bit more difficult and much more rewarding.

I had my back to the wall in the big city, literally. Initially there was no accommodation worth the name and all I could afford was a wall!

What is your writing process like?

One draft, that’s it! I write the book chapter by chapter and then let it marinate. Later, maybe after a few weeks, I take another look and make changes. For Karma Sutra, I chipped at every line till I was satisfied. I wanted perfection. But there is no perfection. Later, when you look at the manuscript you realise that you could have made many changes but then it’s too late; you are already printed!

How important are life experiences in becoming a good writer?

Very. No point going to journalism school if you cannot get out of your car. If you are not motivated and adventurous you can never be a good writer. You have to keep reading and writing and updating your skills. You have to get out of your zone and face challenges frontally.

I have faced challenges my entire life and it has sharpened my survival skills. I can sense danger on the street and in every encounter even in the most docile places. Imagination helps but life experience cannot be compromised.

What is your next book about?

I have been going to Pondy (Puducherry now) for many years. I have lived there for extended periods of time and also lived in Auroville close by. My book will talk about long-term settlers in Auroville, the challenges they face and the Mother’s dream slowly unfolding.

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