Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Above Average, and a conversation with Amitabha Bagchi

My first reaction on hearing about Amitabha Bagchi’s Above Average was: “Okay, here's another IIT book, written by someone who's studied/taught there. What's the quickest way to kill myself?” The cynicism was misplaced. This debut novel isn't just an attempt to cash in on the craze launched by Chetan Bhagat's blockbuster Five Point Someone and subsequently indulged in by at least two mediocre writers. Much of Above Average is set in the Indian Institute of Technology alright, and the focus of the story (in so far as there is a main focus – for this is a more complex book than its branding suggests) is the IIT Rock Festival. But this is also a touching coming-of-age story, simply written, but with a good feel for character and conversation, about how easy it is to dream big when you're young and equally easy to start compromising as you grow older. The very format of the book – the protagonist, Arindam, tells his story years after he passed out from IIT, which allows him to reflect on the subsequent trajectory of his and his friends’ lives – points at something more ambitious than your standard campus-life tale.

Arindam (Rindu for short) is a middle-class boy with an aptitude for science and maths but the yearning to be the drummer of a rock band – which, more than anything else, is why he seeks admission into India's premier engineering college. (He also has a love for opera, which seems rather at odds with his IIT aspirations – and besides, it isn’t a very practical interest to have if you’re growing up in 1980s Delhi.) Moving between various phases of his life, the book tells the story of how this dream plays out, along with the disappointments that strew his path. Along the way we meet a number of his friends and acquaintances, many of whose stories illustrate the unreliability of surface impressions.
In the years to come, as I slowly began to unravel the truths and falsehoods of my own life, I realized that it was not enough to catch a liar in his lie, it was much more important to figure out whether he believed the lie himself… Unshakeable self-confidence was key to winning the battles we fought. The battle for grades and academic achievement was just one small part of the larger war, the others being the battles to appear unconcerned, in control, well-rounded, cultured, self-confident. Accustomed all our lives to being lauded as exceptional, we were all scared that the true measure of ourselves, our unremarkable selves, would emerge one day.
No one will accuse this book of breaking new literary ground, but it's among the best written in a spate of similar works that have been jostling for space in the Indian market, and which I wrote about in this post on mass-market publishing. In full disclosure, I’ve known Amitabha Bagchi for a couple of years. I visited him at the IIT campus, where he now works as an assistant professor, for a short Q and A.

You started working on Above Average before Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone was published (in 2004). Was it frustrating to be "scooped" by Bhagat?

To an extent, but it doesn't really matter as long as people are buying and appreciating my book. It took me roughly three-and-a-half years to finish the first draft, and that was in early 2004; I was looking for a publisher when a friend called and told me that Chattu [Chetan Bhagat, who was a year senior to Bagchi in IIT] had a book out. My heart sank because I instinctively knew what his book was going to be about. But in a way it's good, because Five Point Someone opened up the market. Also, because it's taken this long for me to get published, there's been no head-to-head competition.

Was Above Average an IIT book from the outset?

No, it began as the story of a guitarist, set in Mayur Vihar. But when I began writing it I realised I had to bring IIT into it, because it was a place I knew very well, and because it would provide a concentrated setting for my characters and their aspirations.

The book contains many reflections on the things you dream about when you're young and what eventually becomes of them. Do they derive from your own life experiences?

Some of the disappointments and setbacks are my own. When I was younger I had no model for dealing with failure, and I resolved some of that while writing this story – the writing process was therapeutic for me. Also, as the book was coming together, I realised that the patterns of many of my friends' post-college lives were similar to mine – they were faced with the same questions about success and failure as the ones I was dealing with, and I worked some of those issues in through the characters Arindam interacts with.

My editor was looking to market it as an IIT book, which made me a bit uncomfortable, but at one point she told me, "Amitabha, there's a deep sadness in this book." And I said to her, "Yes! You've FINALLY got it!" (guffaws)

Incidentally Moonis Ijlal has done a wonderful job with the book cover, which highlights some of that sadness – in the boy's eyes. The cover is so striking, I’m sure it’s played a big role in helping the book sell.

Yes, in literary circles we often talk about how no Indian book has had a real knockout of a cover design. But the book's website is also very nicely designed. I especially like the concept of "Extras", including deleted scenes from the book. Your idea?

It’s like the extras you get on a DVD. When my editor asked me to tighten up the book, I took a few passages out, and now I'm putting those up on the site. The Net is wonderful that way – it gives one the opportunity to share a lot of material around the book. I've also uploaded an audio clip of me reading a passage, with [music director/guitarist] Pankaj Awasthi performing alongside.

Is it difficult balancing your day job [teaching at IIT] with your love for writing?

No, there isn't a major conflict in my mind-space. Teaching is my job and it's nice to have one – necessary too for most writers in India! And I enjoy my computer science and my maths.

That reminds me of a clever little passage in your book where Arindam and his friend Neeraj are discussing Amitav Ghosh’s “gol fundas” in The Shadow Lines. In Ghosh’s book the narrator draws a circle on a map to illustrate the wide-reaching effects of communal riots. You have your characters commenting on this passage from the engineers’ point of view: scale, projection, the shape of the earth.

I was being a bit cheeky there! But at the same time this passage also helps Arindam come to terms with his passion for writing.

I like your intimate descriptions of parts of Delhi, especially from the vantage point of Mayur Vihar. The city hasn’t been particularly well treated in literature.

Yes, there is a lacuna, especially in contemporary writing about Delhi. My favourite Delhi novel is Khushwant Singh’s book, but even that isn't exactly contemporary. However, I don't think people should self-consciously set out to write "the Great Delhi Novel". The city, like a good percussionist, should be in the background, a sub-strait around the lives of the characters. I've tried to do a bit of that here – make it obvious how Arindam's life has been informed by the place he lives in, the spaces he occupies.

There's a new democratisation in Indian publishing – reaching out to the mass market. Was pricing the book at just Rs 195 part of that process?

The overall entertainment spend in India has been shooting up, and there's no harm in making a bid for that. We live with too much exclusivity in our daily lives anyhow. Besides, genuine democratisation is still some way off – reading is still quite marginalised compared to other leisure pursuits.


  1. Oh yes!! The book's amazing.
    It certainly ain't your regular-old-book-by-another-IITian

  2. Somehow he was invited to our office for a book reading last week, which is a fist of its kind at my workplace! Couldnt attend it though.

  3. *first of its kind

  4. Twilight Fairy, it's too bad you missed the session at Aricent. It was a lot of fun. One of your colleagues wrote it up. You can read what he wrote here.


  5. Hey thanks for the link Amitabha! I actually cancelled a full day training to be able to attend your session only to get caught in some meeting around the same time as your session :(

    (J - sorry to borrow on your space for this comment)

  6. I was in one of the Waterstones outlets in London yesterday when I saw a stack of this book on the 'new books' shelf. I was happy to see that one of the main characters was called Radhika (like me). I was not happy to see that they misspelled Radhika in the blurb('Radikha'). Amitabha spells it correctly in novel, so is it just a regrettable typo on the UK publisher's part or is it the same in the Indian publication?

  7. Ha! It seems my haste and lack of attention (and the fact that I comment half asleep) is now on show for everyone to see on the internet.
    Amitabha, I am very very sorry. I seem to have confused your novel (wrongly) with Chetan Bhagat's One Night At The Call Centre. They were side by side in Waterstones and I mixed the names up.

    Which leads me to wonder - ONATCC was published in 2005 - why is it being advertised as a 'new novel' alongside Above Average?
    And the typo question still stands.

    Again, Amitabha and Jai, I am very sorry for wasting a comment. I'll be more careful next time! (and comment in the morning)

  8. Radhika: no problem! My copy of ONATCC doesn't have any blurb on it, so what you saw must have been another edition.