Of Paper Thieves and Nuclear Ducks
One of Varun Grover’s cats is called Chhenapoda, which translates to “Roasted Cheese” and is a beloved dessert from Odisha in eastern India. The writer and comic, who likes to name his favourite felines after confectionary, is perhaps best known instead for his biting satire. His standup comedy videos about Indian politics, the chintzier elements of Bollywood, and the rise of the right-wing, amass millions of hits online.
As a screenwriter, Grover’s name has become synonymous with the plaudits of the Netflix series Sacred Games. Likewise, he has more than a muster of lyrical eminence, writing verses for prominent Hindi films, including winning the National Award for Best Lyricist 2015-16.
His clover is not without its patch of thistles, however. Grover’s substantial social media following trolls him for what he says and for what he doesn’t. His baroque turn of phrase has drawn criticism for its complexity and inaccessibility. Yet, in the tradition of the consummate humorist, he assimilates all of this into his highly watchable routines, which include collaborative musical performances with musician Rahul Ram and fellow satirist Sanjay Rajoura, as part of the art trio Aisi Taisi Democracy.
This year Grover’s first extensive collection of short stories for children, called Paper Chor (Newspaper Thief), is published in Hindi by Jugnu Takshila Publications. Paper Chor is fine-spun, handmade razai, magnetic fiction that weaves its thread through tales of magic, crickets, partition, nuclear ducks, radios, the apocalypse and friendship, chronicling the life and times of middle-class India.
I asked Varun some questions about Paper Chore and how this delightful, introspective book was realized.
You are a successful mainstream lyricist, screenwriter and author with a substantial social media following. How does this effect your literary work? Do you envisage a distinct separation between your various roles?
I don’t think there’s any distinct separation between my various roles as a writer; lyricist, screenwriter, short fiction writer for children, and stand-up comedian. All of it starts with some kind of channeling—what Ghalib so aptly described as “nava-e-sarosh” (the whispering of the angels)—of an idea, and then using the particular craft to polish it.
I have been a short fiction writer from much earlier than when I entered the world of lyrics and screenwriting. This also helps in keeping these worlds synergised. When I take time out for literary writing, it feels more like going back to the form that first gave me my identity and confidence as a writer. More often than not, literary writing helps as a much-needed break from the hectic and comparatively more commercial, goal-oriented world of writing screenplays.
I take my own sweet time. For instance, the story ‘Parmanu Batakh’ in Paper Chor took me more than two years to finish. I had a vague idea about doing something related to interpreting dreams, and then after letting that theme marinate for a few months, I decided to combine it with dystopian science fiction. The actual writing still took another 15 months, with me writing in three or four sittings over this period of time. Screenplay or lyric writing will never provide me with that luxury.
How did Paper Chor come together and what does it mean to you?
I am unsure about what this book means to me, mainly because of the way it came together. All the stories, except the last one, have been published before in the children’s magazine Chakmak [published by Eklavya, Bhopal] in the last ten years. Sushil Shukla, who used to edit Chakmak during this period and has now moved to Takshila, put together this book for their new imprint Jugnoo Prakashan. So, in a sense, this is like a second life for these stories. Scattered across time and space, they are now bound together by name and staple pins.
Since I have grown distant from some of the stories, I am still letting it sink in that my first book is out. A couple of stories, ‘Harihar Vichittar’ and ‘Karejawa’ have been with me through the years, and it’s a happy thought that they have now made the transition from the ocean of undiscoverable stories, lost in monthly magazines, to the pool of discoverable stories available for order online.
What are your thoughts on vernacular, regional and non-English language writing – novels, poetry, the whole gamut – in India, ones that don’t attest to conventional boundaries or mass production?
I grew up reading Hindi books—children’s magazines like Baal Hans, Nanhe Samraat, Paraag, Nandan, and Suman Saurabh, as well as translated classics in novella format, like Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, and some of Shakespeare’s works. It was a vast, rich world of discovery in Hindi; from teenage years to my early 20s, when I graduated to reading the works of Mohan Rakesh, Ismat Chugtai, Dharamveer Bharti, Amrita Pritam, Manto, and Harishankar Parsai among others.
This is true for me, and I will try my best not to generalize it: As a new reader at a young age, it helped that there was quality literature available in my daily language of communication. I grew up in Uttar Pradesh, and to be able to read Shrilal Shukla or Sharad Joshi with their caustic, funny, insightful take on the world around me, at that time, helped me appreciate not just my language but my society too.
These books told me that a language need not be the language of the elite (which was English at that time, by default), to be seen as the language of the intellectual. I think that is an idea which needs to be protected. All languages have their own magical writers that can catch the local idiom, the local unsaid and untranslatable, and legitimize it while also documenting it for posterity. A goya in Urdu and an athi in Bihari/Bhojpuri/Chhota Nagpuri, and a shaala in Punjabi—the words that make sense only when you know not just the language but the entire cultural context.
I don’t know to what extent these languages will survive in a couple of decades—the onslaught of mass production is always biased to the side of the one-size-fits-all, and I have seen writing in Hindi language to be constantly chasing the Chetan Bhagat model of ‘success’.
However, my recent visit to the World Book Fair in Delhi (January 2019) gave a more hopeful picture. The number of readers is going up, the buzz at some of the indie publisher stalls was very reassuring. They say, language is an alive thing and if it is alive, it will find a way.
You mentioned how folks end up chasing a model of ‘mass success’ that is often built on easy-to-digest writing. Do you think writers are encouraged to abandon their ideas for a tried and tested formula? How have you avoided it?
I don’t think any writer is capable of abandoning their calling. The writers who are chasing a certain model of market-based success are only cut out for that kind of thing, and I can’t imagine them ever creating something timeless or of sustained literary value. Though I don’t believe timelessness carries any more value than being of-its-time alone, as most successful books are. I am just making the distinction on the basis of how they are consumed and their cultural impact.
I don’t think I avoided it consciously. I write what I know, and it just happens to be of a certain kind. It’s a coincidence that my ‘kind’ is not the market-trend currently.
Your book is a collage of identity, empathy and belonging. Given the state of India today, where fragmentation and bigotry are so rampant, how does writing help unify communities, if at all?
Writing, like all art, helps the creator first. Then, if it has enough emotional charge, it sometimes helps the viewer, audience or reader of that art. So yes, for me, creating a world of empathy in my stories is a personal need. I want to tell stories that help me make sense of our complicated times, bring a ladleful of nuance into this steaming soup of mess almost every public discourse has turned into nowadays.
The rise of right-wing [politics] around the world is a domino event, and my depressing belief is that we have a two- or three-decades worth of cycles of this madness to brave. Of course, the ongoing climate crisis can cut our misery short by finishing humanity before that! So I feel all kinds of narrative arts are going to get rich, diverse, and intense content. People would want to tell stories and readers would find healing through hum-dardi, the knowledge that others are also going through the same pains in another part of the world.
Your writing delves into the minutiae of everyday life, but your language doesn’t shy away from complexity. What does your writing process look like?
I prefer writing the language I speak instead of creating a parallel literary self (like I have created right now for this interaction). For me, fiction writing should replicate the flow of narrating an incident in a gathering of friends, so it mirrors the same mix of simplicity and complexity. While talking or orally narrating a story, we don’t think before making a detour into a memory triggered by a word or event, or a name even, and there are no jerks in coming back to the main story, no matter how abruptly we do that. I feel that’s a good template to have for fiction writing—though it needs to be practiced a lot, else it may look clumsy or too complex.
My writing process involves breaking down the story in my head – the major landmarks and characters. And after that, it’s a purely intuitive mix of stream of consciousness writing (follow the character) and craft (knowing how to balance plot, language, surprise, wit, sentence-length etc.).
A particular sentence struck me in your book: “Magic is not a thing to understand, it is a thing to see.” How might writers create this sort of magic?
I believe that writers are accidental, sloppy, but fantastic magicians. They have a sense of the trick in their heads when they sit down to write, but the trick reveals itself long after they have finished performing it. A lot of times it happens that people point out a certain line (like you have here), which I have written, and I wonder why or how I wrote this. In this case, I who created this magic, am privy to it the last! I believe it happens with every writer.
How writers create it? I have no answers except what Mirza Ghalib wrote.
Aate hain ghaib se ye mazamin khayaal mein
Ghalib sarir-e-khama nava-e-sarosh hai
From where do these mysterious thoughts appear in Ghalib’s head?
As if the sound of pen on paper is the whispering of angels in my ears.
Finally, as a cat connoisseur, name three similarities between cats and writers.
Haha, I love this question!
a) Curiosity. A deep interest in things, observing them, checking them, smelling them, playing with them, sitting on them – purely out of habit and not with any ulterior motive.
b) Complexes. Research says the entire psychology of cats can be derived from their place in the food chain. They are not too big, not too small. So they always have to be alert for both the hunter and the prey and that has given them a lot of neurotic tics and life-skills. I think writers also have a similar standing in society – not too big, not too small. And that has given them this strange mix of superiority complex and persecution complex.
c) A love for solitude. Self-explanatory, I guess.
Paper Chore by Varun Grover is out now through Jugnu Takshila Publications and available to buy here.
Interview by Scherezade Siobhan.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.