Friday, September 09, 2005

Tin Fish, and a nostalgia trip

It’s slightly unsettling to read a first novel written by someone you’ve hitherto known in only a one-dimensional way - especially if that one dimension happens to be as a Very Scary Boss, and the story is a personal one. Sudeep Chakravarti’s Tin Fish is a fluidly written coming-of-age tale set over a 3-4-year period in the mid-1970s in Mayo College, Ajmer, and narrated by Barun Ray (nicknamed “Brandy” on his first day of school). The story revolves around Brandy and his three closest friends (notably “Fish”, whose tragic fate gives the book its emotional centre), their experiences at boarding-school and how they cope with being cut off from family for long periods (or, in some cases, with not being cut off for long enough) – and with growing up during the political tumult of the Emergency and its farcical aftermath. Much slang (“cat”, for instance) abounds. There are cameos by the buxom Katy Mirza, the urine-imbibing Morarji Desai and other relics from the era. It’s an enjoyable read and (something I’m always grateful for these days) a quick one, easily finished in the course of an afternoon.

I met Sudeep the other day for a profile but that was only part of it; we were going to catch up anyway. He was my first boss in journalism, and like most others in the NewspaperToday.Com office I was chary about his temper. When I joined the website in 2001 I didn’t have to interact much with him the first few months but I heard hair-raising stories from colleagues, and occasionally witnessed for myself how the entire 6th floor of Videocon Tower would reverberate when he bellowed at someone. Night after torturous night of doing the 1 AM-9 AM graveyard shift, staring bleary-eyedly into the computer screen at the wretched site template that had to be refreshed every few minutes, I was kept awake by the doom spelt out by a more experienced colleague: “So mat jaana varna Gabbar Singh ka phone call aa jayega.” (Sudeep, if you’re reading this that was Rumman, and now that we’re all living in different cities I can only hope and pray that you won’t hunt him down!)

Later, when the afternoon paper Today was launched from the same office, we worked together more closely – but even though we were all on edge during those weeks leading up to the launch (the intensity levels higher than I’ve ever known in my professional life), some of the fearfulness also dissipated. For a brief, foolishly idealistic period, every member of the team felt proprietorial about this thing we were all giving birth to, and so it was easy to empathise when someone else lost their temper. And subsequently, after Sudeep had left the paper, we stayed in touch on the phone and occasionally at nostalgia get-togethers, and I saw a mellower side to him.

But all that hadn’t prepared me for Tin Fish - for the childlike enthusiasm that runs through the book, the sense one gets of a writer wanting to set down everything he can remember about the era in which he grew up. I know many former Mayo students with whom Sudeep’s book has struck a chord but I think there’s more to it than that. What interested me most (apart, of course, from the natural interest there is in reading a first novel by someone you know) was the first-person perspective it provided of a particular time and milieu. It doesn’t pretend to be an indepth social record but it reads like an honest account by someone who lived through interesting times. (One of the things Sudeep and I discussed was that there’s so much talk of chronicling the “real India” - whatever that grossly overused term means - in current literature that a lot of other things get undermined: the experiences, for instance, of a whole urban generation that grew up in boarding schools in the 1970s and who are as much a part of modern India as anyone else.)

I think it’s vital for personal experiences of this sort to be chronicled, especially because of the pace at which the world is changing now. To take an example: Sudeep is 15 years older than I am so there’s a clear generational gap there. But, as I often discuss with friends, people in my age group already feel alienated from those who are just five or six years younger than us. Some of us, 28-year-old sages that we are, already think there’s a case for our story to be told, because the world is so much different now from when we were growing up. This comes up every time I feel like walking up to a 20-year-old and saying, “Did you know, once upon a not-so-long time ago, the highlight of our TV-watching week was gathering around the B&W set on Sunday evening to see the old film Doordarshan was telecasting that day?” Or “Tsk tsk. We didn’t have cellphones in college – we used paper chits, not SMSes, to send messages to girlfriends. Paper chits build character.” Or “It seems just yesterday that a ‘trunk call’ used to be a special event – and now you kids have MSN Messenger and, worse, Google Talk? Bah!”

Groan, I feel so old. So thanks, Sudeep, for reminding me that there are generations that precede mine. I don’t even remember that Katy Mirza. She must’ve been cat.


  1. Speaking of Sudeep's legendary temper, I will never forget his cutting down to size a former-Miss-Delhi-turned-glamorous-fashion-reporter-for-sabse-tez-chaynal! I forget what the event was, but Sudeep first tried to sweet-talk this person into covering it for Today. But she refused to be persuaded. It was then that Sudeep exploded with a: "Stop being such a prima donna. I want you to go there and get the story NOW!" With that he banged down the phone. The story, as far as I remember, appeared in Today the following day.

  2. Being a Mayo pass-out, Tin Fish held that element of nostalgia (and bias) for me. I had to love it, no matter what. But, that aside, it truly is an enjoyable read. And a quick one too.

    The banality of the language is most definitely the highlight. Probably the story required that.

  3. Big smile and bigger boobs (until she had a reduction job) - Khushwant used to feature her a lot in ILWI
    Definitely not a cat - she had only two nipples!

  4. LOL. As somebody who knew Sudeep for a while, he was a complete paper tiger -- all you had to do was roar louder than him and he'd back off. Anjali

  5. Hehehe... I emceed Sudeep's book launch in Chennai, and we had a perfectly pleasant breakfast. Then he got onto the phone with the Penguin representative here and bellowed down the phone at him for 10 solid minutes. After hanging up, he looks up like a lamb at the PR lady and me and says: "So what's up?" We both burst out laughing!

  6. good review. even better insights into the author's temper.

    tho looks like another FPS clone. Penguin (and many other publishers) have been desparately trying to get the antidote to Rupa's blockbuster.

    meanwhile heard CB-Rupa are coming out with another one. Is that true?


  7. Its always a pleasure reading your posts n this post was no different.After having read your posts relegiously for around 8 odd months donno why but felt like commenting today.Your film related blogs have helped broaden my horizons to a large extent.Keep posting.Cheers!

  8. Jai: Enjoyed the blog, and glad you liked Tin Fish. I enjoyed our conversation. Rumman: You're safe. Send coordinates and I'll buy you a drink when am next in Bangalore. BTW, good luck at Reuters. Anjali: Ouch. Jaideep/Boston: Tin Fish is not a FPS clone, my friend. Conceptualised earlier, and less clannish than FPS. Read Tin Fish and then we'll argue if you still disagree. Yes, Chetan is writing another book, on the BPO industry. He's now Rupa's established 'segment' cash-in, but he's welcome because at least he's getting many people to read. That's excellent. Bye now. Maybe we'll chat over my second book, set in Goa, and due Fall 2006. Stay well, all. Sudeep

  9. Hi,
    Had a question about this author. I knew his wife Sabitha (we used to work together); and was curious about her. Any way I could contact her?

  10. Anonymous: I'm sure you understand that you'd have to send me a private email (from a proper ID, with your name etc mentioned) if you want that sort of information; can't put it here on Comments. Also, his wife's name isn't Sabitha to the best of my knowledge (unless that's a nickname or something).

  11. Kind of liked Tin Fish, we read it in the book shop itself so saved 250 bucks. Sorry chakki, penguin wudnt have paid you anyway. and all our penguins have orange spines.

  12. Hi Sudeep....i stayed up till 2 last night to complete Tin Fish. Simply loved it. As a student i had several friends and cousins in boarding schools across India. So when i read about Paulites calling the locals barbarians it immediately rung a bell! I had a cousin in St. Paul who called all of us "buhbarians"! Anyway loved your book and looking forward to the next one.