Date: 11/05/2018    Platform: Times of India

I wanted to revive the art of short story writing: Sanjeev Sanyal on his latest book

He is a man who wears several hats. From being India's Principal Economic Adviser to urban theorist from environmentalist to writer, Sanjeev Sanyal brings to his body of work experience from a very wide canvas.
The economist has shifted gear from penning non-fiction to writing short stories in his latest book titled Life Over Two Beers published by Penguin Random House India. The book has a series of mostly satirical stories on modern India. According to him, these stories reflect the times that we live in.

"I am a believer that the art form of short stories, which was the main form of writing fiction till the 1960s, is dying. I wanted to revive the art. There was, of course, a great tradition of writing short stories in India, including by (Saadat Hasan) Manto and (Rabindranath) Tagore. But worldwide the art of short story writing is being taken over by the art of novel writing. That is a pity," Sanyal sais in an interview.

He said short story writing has been the key way of recording what was happening. "In some way it is more true to its time. Unlike a full novel, which can create its full universe, a short story can't," he added.

An Oxford Rhodes Scholar, Sanyal has been a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, London; visiting scholar at Oxford University; adjunct fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore; and a senior fellow of the World Wide Fund for Nature. He is widely regarded as one of Asia's leading economists and was Deutsche Bank's Global Strategist and a Managing Director till 2015.

"I wanted to bring back the art of satire. Of course, India has ancient tradition of satire going back to Sanskrit literature. This tradition of satire has been replaced by comedy, which is a different thing. Satire is a second order humour," the author said.

Sanyal first started scribbling short stories in early 2000 when he had just moved to Singapore from Mumbai. "One afternoon I began writing without thinking too much about it. Over time they kept adding up and I ended up with a bunch of short stories by 2005. Then it occurred to me that maybe I should try and publish them," Sanyal said.

But then getting short stories and poetry -- he has three poems in the book -- published was a different cup of tea.

The book being a sort of "reflection of our time", he talks in his short stories about social mobility and intellectual openness. He discusses social media -- Facebook and Twitter -- and the idea of trolling, and has woven a story around contemporary technology. In one story he talks about workplace sexual harassment.

He says he likes to observe things closely when he writes about them. He travels to places that he wants to write about and has lived in cities that he has used as backdrops in his stories.

Asked whether there is a reflection of his own life in any of the stories, Sanyal laughingly said, "Not really. Many of them are derived from my personal experience of living in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. I have also mentioned Singapore and London very briefly, along the way.

"In one or two places I have mocked at myself. Like I have mentioned myself as a Singapore-based economist who pretends to be an author! But none of the characters is me. Throughout the book there are references to my favourite authors."

There is also an underlying idea about life of lonely men throughout the book. "That is a tribute to Ernest Hemingway and his book (of short stories) Men Without Women," says Sanyal.

 The book's cover was inspired by P.G. Wodehouse, the writer who has a legion of fans in every generation.

"All my writings are derived from a philosophical framework. Whether it's my economics, my urban design work or history writings -- they are all derived from a philosophical framework called Complex Adaptive System. It is basically an idea that the world is not functioning in a pre-determined path. It is fundamentally functioning in an unpredictable way. And is full of unintended consequences, like the Butterfly Effect," Sanyal explained.

This is his fifth book. Earlier, he has written The Indian Renaissance, Land of Seven Rivers, and its children version called The Incredible History of India's Geography, and The Ocean of Churn.
He is now putting together a book on the independence movement from the perspective of the revolutionaries. Incidentally, he comes from a family of revolutionaries -- on both his parents' sides -- which was closely involved in the freedom struggle.