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Interview with Amitabha Bagchi, IIT-D alumnus, professor and author of the book 'Above Average'.
Author :thedesk
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Posting Date :15/10/08
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Interview with Amitabha Bagchi, IIT-D alumnus, professor and author of the book 'Above Average'. The bestselling book was also short-listed for the Golden Quill Award.
          Amitabha Bagchi grew up in Delhi, went to IIT, then proceeded to do a Computer Science PhD before returning to teach at IIT D. Bagchi’s novel, Above Average is the story of a middle-class Delhi boy - Arindam - who has an aptitude for science and math but yearns to be the drummer of a rock band. He gains admission into IIT and his journey starts from there. Arindam finds himself amongst an elite bunch of the best of science graduates whose lives revolve around rarefied mathematical truths and the IIT Rock Fest. But, even as he drifts unquestioningly down the path laid out for him, a few stray incidents and some less lucky people make Arindam pull up short and reassess his life's direction.

Bagchi’s lucid prose, intelligent use of colloquial sounds and terms, cheeky observations on growing up, easy warmth and a deep seated sincerity in storytelling sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. He keeps the pace of the story consistent and doesn’t allow the intervening events and anecdotes in the book to overtake and disturb the flow of what is in a sense, an angst-ridden journey of Arindam’s growing up.

Amitabha Bagchi in an interview with 6bridges discusses amongst other things, his book ‘Ábove Average’, his experiences as a writer, his two pursuits of teaching and creative writing, his student days at IIT and his current role as professor.

6bridges: Congratulations on being short-listed for the Golden Quill award. When did you first think about writing this book and was there any trigger of inspiration? Has ‘Above Average’ met your expectations - in critical and commercial terms?
Thanks. I first thought about writing this book in 2000. I had written a short story about a guitarist in Mayur Vihar. A friend of mine felt it was the best thing I had written till that point. The voice felt very natural, very much like something I had been looking for without being fully aware I was looking for it. I think what propelled me to write this novel was the discovery of that voice. As far as expectations are concerned, I didn't have any particular commercial expectations while I was writing the book (it was the pre-Chetan Bhagat era). By the time the book was about to hit the market last February the sales manager at HarperCollins and I were of the view that 25,000 copies would be a good target to aim for. And we're quite close to achieving that target now, the book is in it's third reprint. As far as critical expectations are concerned, I feel that Above Average has been unduly associated with the college novel genre. A close reading of the book, I hoped, would show that it was never intended as a nostalgic book, it was intended as a serious attempt to understand the lives we live, to figure out how boys became men in urban India in the 1990s. Unfortunately most critics and many readers have missed this. Of course, many have also found it, and for that I am very grateful.

6bridges: What was the most challenging part of writing the book? You wrote somewhere that Amitava Ghosh’s Shadow Lines also inspired you to write. Did the inspiration wane at some point while writing the book. How long did it take to write? Did you ever feel like giving it up half way?
There were several challenges. Structuring the book was a real challenge, one which I did not fully meet I think. Refining the prose was a continuous challenge, I shudder at times when I see some of the sentences I began with. But the biggest challenge was finding the patience required. The book took almost four years to write. I wouldn't say I lost inspiration at any point but there were some slow periods. I never felt like giving up though, I am not quite sure why I didn't, because it often seemed like a very foolish undertaking. But I didn't ever think of giving up, not even as a joke.

6bridges: You mentioned in your website that Above Average required almost no research. All the factual elements marshalled for it came straight out of memory. As a writer, do you think you saw things differently when you started with the book vis a vis the time when you finished it. Was there a time when you said to yourself - well, I think I could have said it differently.
The whole book was an attempt at creating a better understanding of where I was coming from, so yes, I do see things differently from when I started. But, I don't think I have ever seriously sat down and thought of how I could have done this or that differently. Perhaps I could have, but I have other projects to look to now. Maybe I will return to this book some time later in my life and see if there's any other place I can take it.

6bridges: We know that ‘Above Average’, though not intended as a campus novel, emerges from some of your experiences at IIT. However, there have been a spate of novels in recent years that have focussed on the goings on in the campus. Though there have been complaints of overkill of the campus novel genre, one cannot deny that they have mostly sold well. We would like to know your opinion on two aspects a) what are the possible reasons for the continuing popularity of the campus novel in India as a genre? And b) do you see authors from institutes like IITs and IIMs soon running the risk of being typecast as a class who write about their campuses alone, the moment they mention some aspect of life in the campus in their works?
There are several reasons why campus novels are successful. The simple reason is that people want to read about themselves, they want to see their own stories in print. You can think of it as a form of collective narcissism. But another reason underlying this one is that urban India in the post-liberalization era is in the process of trying to evolve models for how life is to be lived. The lessons our parents taught us aren't particularly relevant to what we are going though in this new economy with its spate of possibilities. College, especially professional schools like IIT or the business schools, is where middle class Indians first learn the scope of these possibilities, and discover the excitement of being part of a larger world. With this excitement come expectations and anxieties. How do we live this new life? We need models. I am not saying that these campus novels are successful in providing these models, but they are one source that a large number of people are tapping in their bid to understand this new world.

As for the second question, I think typecasting is something that readers do at their own risk, and author's accept to their detriment. Reading a book for what you think it is talking about is counterproductive. The reader always benefits by trying to figure out what the book is trying to say rather than by imposing some preconceived notion on it. In India we often tend to dismiss a book as being "just a campus novel" or "just chick lit." This kind of classification prevents us from seeing the work in its totality, and is ultimately our own loss.

6bridges: How much have authors who have day jobs, been able to bring into their writing the nuances of how the outside world influences them. Also, when you write about IIT or Ravi Subramaniam writes about investment banking or Karan Bajaj writes about IIM, do you think it creates a certain perception of an insider’s view amongst readers, which in turn enables characters, settings and events to appear more realistic and believable.
Definitely having a leg in the real world is an advantage for a writer. It's hard to generalize as to whether all authors with a day job can bring that aspect of their lives into their writing or not. How readers perceive such writers is something you'll have to ask the readers but from my side I feel it's important to not confuse writing with reportage. Besides "realistic" and "believable" are two totally different things. A "believable" character is one with an internal consistency, a character whose emotional landscape rings true. A "realistic" character presumably is one who could be part of the real world as we know it. That's very limited. Sci fi and fantasy fiction are full of believable characters who are clearly not realistic. Even though I operate within the confines of realism, I think believable is an important yardstick but realistic is not. At the end of the day, literature is not gossip.

6bridges: How much has readership changed in India now? Considering that more writing is coming out of India these days, and since there are literary agents who are available, do you think Indian writing in English is in the process of change where Indian authors find it easier to get published? What has been your personal experience?
The increase in readership is part of a larger revolution in retail that is sweeping urban India. Publishers seem to be responding actively as well. Many more writers are coming forward and many books are being published in India. That's a phenomenon I'm very happy about. I don't know how hard or easy it is to get published as a first timer relative to when I was searching a few years ago. But now it does appear that there are a lot more high quality options available, and that the attitude of those who were there earlier has changed considerably.

6bridges: You have been in a unique position: You have been a part of the generation that straddled pre and post liberalisation eras in India and now as a mentor you’ve watched the new generation that goes to IITs. Do you think much has changed from the way Arindam, Kartik and his friends approached life. Also, did your being a professor, in any way, preclude you from expressing yourself completely in the book?
I think there has been a major increase in confidence that comes with being more plugged into a larger world. The increased connectivity between people and places, the easy access to information has changed the way young people live today. But I still see some of those same struggles, some of that same unsureness, that inability to prioritize correctly that troubled Arindam and Kartik and their friends.

When I wrote the book I was not a professor although by the time it was accepted for publication I was. But no, that didn't affect anything.

6bridges: There has been a sudden spurt in books written by alums from IITs, IIMs, XLRI, NITs and others. Considering it’s a recent phenomenon (including new ventures and pursuits by Indian professionals), do you think the Indian professional is finally mustering the confidence to break free and seek self-actualization through writing and other innovative activities that fire his interests?
I don't think I can answer that question although it has long been my feeling that as prosperity increases and family ties grow weaker the needs that are labeled self-actualization will grow stronger.

6bridges: What do you cherish most from your IIT days (We have members from those institutes in our community who would also be keen to know about this)?
IIT introduced me to the excitement of ideas. IIT provided a pressure-cooker which forced me to make friends from diverse class backgrounds, people I would never have known how to relate to if I had stayed in the Delhi cocoon I was brought up in. I don't cherish my time at IIT as much as think of it as a trove of clues to the person I am and the person I was.

6bridges: With a full time job at the IIT, how do you balance your passion of creative writing alongside it? What’s your favourite way to unwind apart from creative writing? Are you planning on a second book soon?
I don't think of creative writing as secondary to my job. Both are my passion and both are my job. I don't unwind by writing, in fact when I'm writing I have to be as wound up and focussed as I am in lecture. To unwind I like to sit and stare at the wall or off my balcony, chit-chat with my wife, do a crossword of sudoku, google my own name, and other such fun things.

6bridges: In the 6bridges community there are professionals couched as aspiring writers, ones who haven’t yet been able to make a start yet. What is your advice for them?
It's one of the most rewarding things to do. The feeling of total immersion you get when writing is on is like nothing else. But it's also quite frustrating. So, do it only if you love it, do it only if you have to.
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