Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Why Gajapati? Why Kulapati?

Long, long ago, in 1989 to be precise, as a kid of 25, I aspired to make a living creating comics. The only magazine in Chennai for children, then, that had comics, or rather, one comic page, was Junior Quest, run by Chandamama Publications. The Editor was the best ever Ed a kid's mag can get: Aditi De. Among her numerous virtues was her approachability, so I approached her. I took  with me a single page comic titled 'Ganesh, the Royal Elephant.' The story was about Mahesh, Ganesh's mahout going for a swim in a lake on a hot day. He invites Ganesh to join him, and Ganesh gleefully leaps in, only to cause a big splash that flings Mahesh on to a nearby tree. Sounds familiar, folks?
Aditi liked the comic and showed it to Mr Balasubramanyam, the inhouse art-director, designer and super illustrator, who said nice things about my illustrations. My heart swelled up like a balloon that threatened to escape through my open mouth and soar to the high heavens. Though they loved my comic, Aditi regretfully confessed that they didn't have room for one more comic. My heart sank like an anchor. However, they were in need of more illustrators, so would I please illustrate a story for them? I right-hoed, and my heart returned to its right place. Thus began an illustrator's career but one that ended his comic dreams.
In my spare time, I redrew the comic, in a whole new style, to show to my Amma, who loved elephants.  But I renamed my character. I thought there was no Indian name grander, and better befitting a big bumbling jumbo than Gajapati!  Later, I learnt that Gajapati was the name of a royal dynasty of Kalinga, present day Odisha.
Amma loved my comic and the name, but my mom is my mom, and usually loves whatever I draw, and unconditionally loves elephants, so that was nothing to go by. Gajapati was forgotten for a decade.
I got married, had kids, and went to work for Tulika Publishers as art editor. Tulika had a bookstore, India's only bookstore exclusively for children, called Goodbooks. For use in their regular story-telling sessions, I wrote my elephant story. To better suit a read-aloud session, I deliberately  used repetition, rhyme, alliteration and assonance.  And Radhika Menon, head of Tulika, added more sounds to suit the slapstick action. A book with a  sing-song narration and onomatopoeic  words deserves a sound title, doesn't it? So I named the book and its hero, Gajapati Kulapati!
It was never intended to be published, but it was subsequently published, a decade and a half later, and every kiddy loved Gajapati Kulapati, his name and the story.
Note:  'Gajapati' literally is 'lord of elephants'  in Sanskrit. 'Kulapati' literally means 'lord of a clan.'
Note2:  Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju is a former Union minister for Civil Aviation. And Bondapalli is a village in Andhra Pradesh located 3 km away from the town of Gajapathinagaram! Life’s full of coincidences and magic!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Love, Laughs and Loud Noises - Gajapati Kulapati Gurrburrrrooom!

Gajapati Kulapati Gurrburrrrooom! published by Tulika Publishers, is the third book featuring the gentle elephant. Just like Book 1 and 2, Book 3 is filled with loud noises and laughs, too. I provide the loud noises; you provide the laughter!
But I hope that my discerning readers, after the explosive noises and laughs have died down, can see the elephantine dose of love in the Gajapati Kulapati stories.

Big noses imply big colds, large bodies make large splashes, and jumbo hearts are capable of great love. The postman, the flower seller, the banana seller, the grandmother, the teacher, the tailor, the cow, the children, and all the other denizens of the little village, love the gentle giant, and Gajapati Kulapati loves them all.

The Gajapati Kulapati stories are really about teamwork, love and co-operation. Which is the secret of  social interdependence. The postman may be a trifle upset with the bananas that went PACHAAK! on his head, and the banana seller still remembers the day he was thrown on to the roof of the teacher's house, but everybody joined in to build  Gajapati Kulapati's house together, and they built it with love. If Gajapati ever hurt them, it was unintentional, and they knew that he felt very bad about it later.

The third book is also about teamwork, love and co-operation. It is also about how Mom's Love solves everything. Gajapati Kulapati's best friends are Moms, and Gajapati Kulapati Gurrburrrrooom!  is generally dedicated to mothers everywhere, and to my mother, in particular.  My mother, who is now a great-grandmother, loves elephants,and knows all about them.
The wise grandmother was the problem-solving Supermom in the first two books, but the Supermom in Book 3 is not her, but another mom who has appeared in those books. You will know pretty soon, wait and read to find out!
Check out the details at tulikabooks.com.
Love you all!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Wodehouse's People: The Good, the Bad & the Goofy

It will help a humorous novel if your characters were funny. That is an understatement, gross, even.

"The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. " Wodehouse
Wodehouse's characters are sillier, freakier, funnier than life, and their priorities are all skewed up. They gamble like hell, staking their precious possessions at times, said possessions frequently being their butler or cook. They are not above committing minor crimes, and bribing or blackmailing the representatives of the law when caught. These are usually the good guys.

In the world of Blandings, imposters are good guys and the law-abiding victims are the baddies. In 'Leave it to Psmith,' Psmith is the hero who steals Lady Constance's pearl necklace, while Baxter, the loyal and efficient secretary, is the villain. Baxter has a suspicious nature, which is at cross-purposes to whatever the 'good' guys, who, apart from being imposters, plan to do. Pinching paintings, pearl necklaces, pigs or whatever happens to be the treasure of that particular Blandings story.

Rupert Baxter, the Earl of Emsworth's indefatigable private secretary, was one of those men whose chief characteristic is a vague suspicion of their fellow human beings. He did not suspect them of this or that definite crime; he simply suspected them. He prowled through life as we are told the hosts of Midian prowled.
 - Something Fresh

In serious literature, the treasure would be gold, a peace treaty, an emerald, the Holy Grail or the Philosopher's Stone. As any good writer, or reader, knows, it could be anything as long as the main characters attach value to it. In Wodehouse, the treasure could range from normal treasure like necklaces or bonds to eccentricities like pigs, scarabs or cow-creamers. Or objets de blackmail like diaries, letters or photographs.

"Well, see here . . . I collect scarabs. I'm crazy about scarabs. Ever since I quit business, you might say that I have practically lived for scarabs."
"Though it sounds like an unkind thing to say of anyone," said Ashe.
- Something Fresh

My point is that, in a tightly-plotted Wodehouse story, one wouldn't know which came first: the character or the plot. The character dictates the plot, and the plot dictates the choice of characters.  If it's a plot using his favourite 'imposters vs guardians' motif, Wodehouse would pick an efficient imposter from his range of heroes or their minions: Galahad, Ickenham, Psmith ...
For a good guardian, he would turn to his rogues gallery: Baxter, Aunt Constance, Spode,  or any other unpleasant 'authority figure.' Priorities, as I mentioned earlier, being all skewed up.  This 'unpleasantness' is the key to understanding  the morality of a Wodehouse novel. His villains are unpleasantly authoritarian, snobbish, and most are hypocrites. Wodehouse was at heart a public school boy, and he judged virtue and vice on public schoolboy scales. Bertie Wooster's code is just a version of the unwritten code of the schoolboy.
The avuncular masters at school were the good guys while the stiff and starched ones were the baddies. Boys who stick on side are absolutely barred. Though sneaking out after lights out was fine. It was okay for boys to flout the official rules, but only an absolute rotter would snitch. You could pinch food, but not money. Wodehouse's morality for his characters is all about good form and bad form.
Even after having grown to man's estate,  Wooster and other heroes keep the schoolboy code. They pinch policemen's helmets but never cold cash. They may enter a castle under false pretences and pinch a pig or two but will never do the dirty on a pal.

Q. But why did Wodehouse always have a tricky, witty and bold hero to foil the establishment?
A. The literary secret is that, to defeat a villain in power you require a trickster type of hero.
  Wit and audacity are perfect foils to authority and order.  The villain goes by the rule book; the trickster goes by the joke book. Krishna from Indian Mythology and Odysseus from  Greek are famous examples;  Robin Hood who takes on Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham is from English legend.  Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel are trickster heroes in literature.
Wodehouse has three brilliant tricksters up his sleeve: Psmith, Galahad and Ickenham.  They have much in common: they are unorthodox in their methods; they are not above doing something illegal; they are socialists mingling freely with all, and they talk, talk, talk. Now you know why it is impossible to have more than one of these in the same story. One is quite sufficient!

'Who are you?' snapped Mr Rossiter, turning on him.
'I shall be delighted, Comrade—'
'Rossiter,' said Mike, aside.
'Comrade Rossiter. I shall be delighted to furnish you with particulars of my family history. As follows. Soon after the Norman Conquest, a certain Sieur de Psmith grew tired of work—a family failing, alas!—and settled down in this country to live peacefully for the remainder of his life on what he could extract from the local peasantry. He may be described as the founder of the family which ultimately culminated in Me. Passing on—'
Mr Rossiter refused to pass on.
'What are you doing here? What have you come for?'
'Work,' said Psmith, with simple dignity. 'I am now a member of the staff of this bank. Its interests are my interests. Psmith, the individual, ceases to exist, and there springs into being Psmith, the cog in the wheel of the New Asiatic Bank; Psmith, the link in the bank's chain; Psmith, the Worker. I shall not spare myself,' he proceeded earnestly. 'I shall toil with all the accumulated energy of one who, up till now, has only known what work is like from hearsay. Whose is that form sitting on the steps of the bank in the morning, waiting eagerly for the place to open? It is the form of Psmith, the Worker. Whose is that haggard, drawn face which bends over a ledger long after the other toilers have sped blithely westwards to dine at Lyons' Popular Cafe? It is the face of Psmith, the Worker.'
'I—' began Mr Rossiter.
'I tell you,' continued Psmith, waving aside the interruption and tapping the head of the department rhythmically in the region of the second waistcoat-button with a long finger, 'I tell you, Comrade Rossiter, that you have got hold of a good man. You and I together, not forgetting Comrade Jackson, the pet of the Smart Set, will toil early and late till we boost up this Postage Department into a shining model of what a Postage Department should be. What that is, at present, I do not exactly know. However. Excursion trains will be run from distant shires to see this Postage Department. American visitors to London will do it before going on to the Tower. And now,' he broke off, with a crisp, businesslike intonation, 'I must ask you to excuse me. Much as I have enjoyed this little chat, I fear it must now cease. The time has come to work. Our trade rivals are getting ahead of us. The whisper goes round, "Rossiter and Psmith are talking, not working," and other firms prepare to pinch our business. Let me Work.'
Two minutes later, Mr Rossiter was sitting at his desk with a dazed expression, while Psmith, perched gracefully on a stool, entered figures in a ledger.

 - Psmith in the City

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Wodehouse & the Needlessly Elaborate Scheme.

We lesser mortals can't aspire to write like P. G. Wodehouse, but we can learn from the Master and improve our craft. Especially if we are alleged humorists, like me. I may not be the greatest expert on Wodehouse around, but I am known as his biggest fan in the circles I move in.

A good writer is a great reader. The best fiction-writing lessons are not available in writing workshops or how-to books, but in the very novels  and stories we read. And the authors of these novels are our best teachers, even if they wouldn't want to, or don't have the time to, teach us. I learnt the craft of writing, and specifically how to write humour, from Wodehouse. 'Leave it to Psmith' was my primer.  LITP is a textbook of brilliant plotting, witty dialogue-writing and amazing style.

Wodehouse was, among other things, the master of the complex plot. And in many of his complex plots, especially in the 'Jeeves' stories, he makes his characters involved in an unnecessarily complex plan. Unnecessary and dangerous to the character's wellbeing, but absolutely necessary to the kind of laugh-a-minute farce Wodehouse wrote. While the main character or characters hatch a complicated plot, supporting characters take the already unlikely scheme to new, surreal heights.
 The plan isn't foolproof, just optimistic. And a realist may question the plan, cutting through the elaboration to put his or her finger on the nub. But it is highly unlikely to find a realist in a surreal story. The average Jeeves story is comfortably formulaic. Bertie Wooster, a man of private means and negligible intelligence, would have led a life that is one round of pleasure, if not for dominating aunts or aunt-like girls who rope him into perilous projects and situations, that get worse when Bertie takes matters into his own hands. The Code of the Woosters makes it impossible for Wooster to defy friends and females. If there is a possibility of escape, then they blackmail him into submission, blackmail being the favourite weapon of the fairer sex, who can be notoriously unfair when it suits them, which is most of the time. In a Jeeves novel, I mean. By midnovel, soup would be lapping at our hero's ankles, with him being in danger of being thrown into jail, or worse, engaged to a girl, a consummation devoutly to be missed. Fortunately for Bertie, his supervalet Jeeves, sometimes in one strategic move, rescues Bertie, and everybody else from their respective soups. To prolong the suspense, Wodehouse may create temporary hostilities between valet and master, or Bertie would choose to solve problems without involving Jeeves. Or a goofy friend or aunt may do something extra goofy. For example, in a typical Bertie and Jeeves story, Bertie's Aunt Dahlia may ask him to steal something for her, the stolen article being the means to make her disgruntled husband, Tom Travers, a bit ungruntled enough to fund the magazine she runs. Our realist may ask, "Why doesn't she do something else legal, less dangerous and simple? But that is not how characters in a farce, worthy of its name, behave. And Wodehouse's typical Jeeves plot is an elaborate scheme in itself. But it is legal and only dangerous if you are prone to die of laughter.

 In 'Right Ho, Jeeves,' one of the storylines, just one of many storylines in the complex plot, has Bertie helping his fish-faced, shy friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle woo the whimsical idealist, Madeline Basset. Aunt Dahlia, who usually starts the crazy ball rolling in a Jeeves story, starts this one by inviting Bertie to distribute the prizes at the local school. Defying his aunt would mean foregoing the pleasures of the palate, dished out by her masterchef Anatole. Bertie, in a clever attempt to eliminate two avian targets with one projectile, sends poor Gussie to his aunt, pitching it strongly to that shy wooer that this was an admirable opportunity to impress the object of his affections. To add fuel to a sure fire, Wodehouse makes Bertie think it a good idea to lace Gussie's orange juice with some species of alcohol. Bertie brags about his plan to Jeeves, just before things go wrong:

 "It must have been rather an eye-opener for you, watching me handle this case."
"Yes, sir."
"The simple, direct method never fails."
"No, sir."
"Whereas the elaborate does."
"Yes, sir."
"Right ho, Jeeves."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Painting en plein air

Mom & Dad
Have been a  painter for the past two weeks, not writer. And had always wanted to paint en plein air, like the great Impressionists. En plein air just means painting outdoors, but it sounds sophisticated when you use the French expression.

When one does contemporary art, one's critics, generally speaking, one's near and dear, assume one can't draw realistically, which is why one resorts to abstract or impressionist art. So I proved I could, by painting a portrait or twin portrait of my parents, which took me a week to get to three-fourths completion. My father's teeth alone took me about half-an-hour!

Today I wanted to do some quick work, for a change, and asked my son, who was busy painting a surrealist self-portrait, to complete it outside on the terrace. And I painted him painting his painting. Mine is just an impression of the emotions of the moment, a breezy, timeless evening with my son. The French Impressionists were concerned with the light and its effects, but I wasn't. I just painted, with no such agenda. Only wanted to finish before dark. Here it is.
Painting the Breeze

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Rewriting to make it louder and funnier

Oft when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, funny lines come to me just as beautiful lines came to Mr. Wordsworth. But sometimes I have to slave like a ... slave. Perspiration when there's no inspiration.

There are many kinds of humour. Ideal if one can use as many in a short story or a novel that's supposed to be funny. There's slapstick, situation comedy, puns, silly dialogue, funny speech styles, the oxymoron, exaggeration, peculiar narrative style, misquoted quotes, altered clichés, howlers, paraprosdokians and many more that I don't recollect offhand.

Take a look at this:

That was an unexpected but powerful punch. Somasundaram’s boss fell to the ground, unconscious. After a minute, Somasundaram regretted his act. He turned to his fiancée for sympathy.
“You fool! How could you?” That was what he got instead of sympathy.

Somasundaram had just punched his boss in the face 'cause the boss kissed his fiancée, and now is at a loss. Kissed Somasundaram's fiancée, not the boss's, said boss being older, balder and married.

That was an unexpected but powerful punch. This can become, with a natural cliche and an unnatural quote from Shakepeare's Julius Caesar :

Coming as it were, quite out of the blue, one might say, that was the most unkindest uppercut of them all.

Great Shakes himself, come to think of it, wasn't above employing double superlatives. Should have pointed that out to my English Miss, back in my ninth standard, when she marked my 'all the more better' with a 'double comparative,' in red ink.
By the way, we put in phrases like one might say to add strength to the narrative style, and hear the narrator's voice better. This will not elicit smiles of approval from the intelligentsia, but who cares? We don't write for them; we write to make ordinary people like us laugh.

Somasundaram’s boss fell to the ground, unconscious.
This line can benefit by some imagery. And some people find it funny when you compare a middle-aged, bald man to a cherub. And please note the unsaid simile, 'sleep like a baby.'
 The Red Man fell with a thud that rattled the glasses on the table. His eyes were closed, as if in sleep, and strangely, there was a cherubic smile on his rosy face, as though he was having sweet dreams. 

Sweet dreams is a trite expression, but seems to work here, so let's use it.  It strengthens cherubic and rosy, too.

After a minute, Somasundaram regretted his act. He turned to his fiancée for sympathy.

The trite time for more expressions. And time to stress Somasundaram's stupidity. Let's use his stupid nickname, 'Soda,' and make him look more stupid. Regret is best shown in some action, so we make him wring his hands. Sweet reminds me of sweet nothings, so let's have him mutter feeble words.

Reason returned to Soda’s thick head. He wrung his hands and muttered regretful nothings.

There! Neat! Next line please:
He turned to his fiancée for sympathy.

This is a good line and needs no improvement. And having fiancée and sympathy, it's lyrical! You can sing it! But we are in tampering mood, so let's tamper. Making sure we retain the sounds, though. Assonance, I think they call it.

He turned to his better-half-to-be for sympathy but did not get any.

He, be, sympathy and any. Good going!  Now we come to the grand finish of the scene.

“You fool! How could you?” That was what he got instead of sympathy.

Not grand at all. Not powerful enough. The funniest yeller I have ever seen in a book is Captain Haddock of Tintin fame. Do let's borrow from that feller. Get inspired, not actually copy. And let's also give him credit. That's also clever, because, with some readers, Captain Haddock means 'funny.'

This is our grand total:

Coming as it were, quite out of the blue, one might say, that was the most unkindest uppercut of them all. The Red Man fell with a thud that rattled the glasses on the table. His eyes were closed, as if in sleep, and strangely, there was a cherubic smile on his rosy face, as though he was having sweet dreams. Reason returned to Soda’s thick head. He wrung his hands and muttered regretful nothings. He turned to his better-half-to-be for sympathy but did not get any.

“You brutal barbarian! Psychotic somnambulist! Senseless sauropod!” That was what he got instead. Shakes seemed to have taken lessons from Captain Haddock.

“Rabid Punchinello! Dunderheaded Dipsomaniac!” 

Now you know much work goes into a small part of a scene.  This is from Chapter 8 of my Lemon Salt Soda. Do read when you have the time. The language may not be perfect, but it will make you laugh. The story, I mean, not the language. Click here to buy book 1.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

To plot or not to plot

That is not a question asked by conductors of fiction-writing workshops. They prefer a proper system.

But not having an outline or plot is also a system. There are two basic approaches to shooting a movie: the Hitchcock and the Chaplin.  The Hitchcock method is to plan everything, including the colour and position of a matchbox on a table, before the actual shooting takes place. The Chaplin method is the spirit of impromptu.

In writing, we have the Wodehouse method, and the Asimov method. Being a fan of both writers, I tried both methods. P. G. Wodehouse first obtained an idea, then wrote the plot. After that he wrote a  scenario. He believed in the story working if the scenes worked, and he detailed those scenes in lengthy scenarios. Only after that did he write the first draft. This he wrote at top speed, not going back to make corrections.

Isaac Asimov had a rough idea of where the story had to go, and he took it there, the story forming as he wrote it, without preliminary outlining or plotting.

Gajapati Kulapati, and three short stories, I wrote a la Asimov. To read Confessions of a Ghost Writer click on title. That short story was written on a Saturday afternoon at Tulika after the rest of the Tulikans had gone home. The atmosphere at Tulika was a muse in itself. It was written in one intense hour, the experience illustrating what spiritualists call 'being completely in an activity.'

Dhavani I wrote on the back of envelopes while I sat on the bus-stop pavement waiting for my 41D. I let two buses go, since I didn't want to let my burst of inspiration go. Please click on title or here to read that one.

The flowchart for Witchsnare
Read them and you will see that they have simple storylines. That is the drawback I have following this method but the narrative flows naturally. Outlines may act like straitjackets sometimes. Anyway, it worked for Asimov.

Witchsnare, published by Puffin, is a gamebook. A choose-your-own-adventure type, with ten different possible endings. This had to be plotted carefully, for obvious reasons, and I even drew a flowchart before writing.

Ajit the Archer was plotted with care, and the plot was strictly adhered to. It's available on Kindle; you may buy it here.

Now I'm older and wiser, and I have created a personal system that suits my style. It's a mix of both methods.
1. I create a rough plot.
2. I write the first draft.
3. After 3 chapters or so, I rewrite the plot, because now I know my characters better.
4. I write the scenario, and continue writing the first draft.
5. Finally, I polish the whole thing till it shines.

This is how I did my latest, Lemon Salt Soda.

Moral of the story: Better to design a writing system that suits you than follow other people's.