Sunday, March 01, 2015

"That’s why they call it an Intro” (things you learn at a Book Fair, contd)

[This is also up on the website Anti Serious]

An alarming thing happened at the World Book Fair in Pragati Maidan last week. Outside the HarperCollins stall I met someone who was halfway through my Jaane bhi do Yaaro book and had apparently been enjoying it. (I haven't got to the alarming bit yet.) He said a few nice things, I mumbled self-effacingly, the afternoon sun beamed down at us, having ended the Delhi winter a month before schedule, but it wasn’t too hot and all was well. Then he made an observation about Jaane bhi do Yaaro (the film) and I said “Yes I mentioned that in the book’s Intro”, and he replied “Oh I didn’t know that. I haven’t read the Intro yet. I will read it after I finish the book.”

* Dramatic double-take followed by a series of heavy blinks in slow motion. Visions of concentric circles and iris wipes leap into my head. I hear those ululating sounds which indicate, in slapstick comedies of yore, that a character is day-dreaming, followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s recorded message at the initial screenings of Psycho, meant to dissuade viewers from walking in after the film had begun: “Psycho is most enjoyable when viewed beginning at the beginning and proceeding to the end. I realize this is a revolutionary concept, but we have discovered that Psycho is unlike most motion pictures and does not improve when run backwards.” *

I spluttered, remonstrated. My reader looked sheepish, admitted that he was in the habit of tackling Introductions last, having been advised to do so by an English Literature teacher or some such animal. To fortify his case he mentioned a classic he had read recently, where he went straight to the main body of the book and only later read the Intro for context. The name Virginia Woolf came up. At which point I saw the lighthouse, so to speak, and realised he was talking about the sort of Intro where someone other than the author writes an analysis or tribute, usually for a new edition of a book that was first published decades or centuries ago. 

“But I’m alive! I wrote this Intro myself! It was part of the narrative!”

In a calmer mood later, and flipping through my poor misunderstood book, it struck me that the word “Introduction” on the contents page – seemingly demarcated from the other chapters by a visual break and Roman-numeral pagination – can indeed be misleading. But it is still worrying to think this may have happened to a large number of readers. People tend not to be very rigorous when reading film literature anyway, and I’m sure it’s possible to treat the JBDY book as an anecdote-trove – to open it at a random page to read about something of specific interest. But when I wrote the thing I intended it to be a flowing narrative that would ideally be experienced in sequence; not a patchwork. And that opening section was important to the continuity. It provided background information for what was to come: what the film had meant to me over the years, what the Hindi cinema of its time was like. Skip it and you’re just as adrift – for a while at least – as the people who made the film in 1982 were, fumbling about, not quite sure what they were doing.

One lives and learns, though. My next book has an intro too, a long one, but I’ll keep all bases covered this time by using that ever-reliable tool, the subhead. The title will say



  1. Ha ha ha, this is funny, Jai. When I read introductions, I seldom go beyond them. This being the reason I directly jump to the main story. I guess one reason is mostly introductions (or the ones I have read) are written by people who have researched that work and/or other works of the same author, which results in them sounding more like a research paper.

  2. On a related note, Sriram Raghavan's Badlapur has the sub-title, "Don't miss the beginning". And, of course, in Annie Hall, Woody Allen refuses to enter a the theatre because the film has already started.

    (Btw, I read the intro to your JBDY book first!)

  3. I used to read Introduction and Preface first. But don't do it now because I fear the suspense of the book getting spoiled by the intro. It happened to me when I read Villette by Charlotte Bronte. The introduction made it clear that the book was a sad one and that the hero dies in it. Result? I set it aside for many months and didn't pick it up till I had quite forgotten the names and other information that I had learnt from the introduction.

  4. Jyoti, Pessimist Fool, Aandthirtyeights: have already had an extensive discussion about this on Facebook,but to quickly summarise some of it -

    1) I am talking specifically about Intros written by the author and intended as a context-providing buildup to the rest of the book; for all practical purposes, a "Chapter 1", except that for whatever reason it makes sense to set it aside from the rest of the book structurally,
    2) I realised after the FB exchanges that there is a clear difference in this regard between fiction and non-fiction. With most novels, obviously an "Introduction" will not be part of the narrative flow of the book - it is more likely to be the author spelling things out about the novel, possibly providing what some readers would consider spoilers, and so on. But with many non-fiction books, an Intro serves a very different function (as outlined above).
    3) For my own next book, I have come around to the idea that "Prologue" is a better option than "Introduction". And either way, this bit should definitely begin with Arabic numbering (Page 1, 2, etc) rather than being delineated from the rest of the text by the Roman-numeral system.

    1. Aandthirtyeights: Yes, I actually saw that Badlapur warning as being (at least in part) a tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous publicity that accompanied Psycho's release. Because Raghavan does have a habit of making many film references and paying such tributes.

  5. Loved your write up. I have not checked your site for a while, so am a bit late. But I would like to inform you that for many serious dedicated readers, the intro is important and in fact gives a foretaste of the book.So please, go ahead, write the intro, and try steer your readers towards the intro, whatever way you can. Non-fiction books are best attempted after a run through the intro. I love films and film-literature ( used to get access to some wonderful film books while I was a member of the British Council library 15-20 years back; ended up reading some amazingly entertaining and informative books about Michael Caine, Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder.... very little of good literature on Indian cinema. Do possess a couple of decent Indian books and a two volumes of an old Hollywoodian's autobio) .

    With regard to your JBDY book -- have not read it,but I have read your long article written for a magazine ( maybe Mans World if I am not mistaken) on the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary( 1983+ 25 yrs, would make it-- 2008). Very good.

    1. Thanks, Lalsub. Having consulted with my editor, I have decided that the best thing for the new book is to call the opening "Prologue" (followed by a subhead) and make sure to number it with the Arabian rather than the Roman system, to emphasise that it is part of the text.