After delighting history buffs with extensively researched books on India's geography, Sanjeev Sanyal comes up with a light read – Life over Two Beers. It took 47-year-old Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser to the Government of India, 15 years to pen these stories, as he admits to being waylaid into writing other books, and by different jobs. The book mocks social media addicts, art frat snobbery, wannabes, bunkum government schemes and glorify the more authentic source of information than the media – the good ol' cab driver. While his brand of fiction seldom reflects his views as an economist, it does show him being economical with words, much in the way of his idols, Ernest Hemingway and Jorge Luis Borges.
What made you write short stories?
I like the idea of a short story because in many ways, it is a better reflection of the times. Look at Ernest Hemingway whose short stories give you the feel of bullfighting in Spain. Roald Dahl describes a certain kind of middle-class England. In India, Rabindranath Tagore talks about 1910s Bengal; Manto, a certain 1940s world, RK Narayan, 1940-50s India; and Anita Desai, the 1970s-80s. All these great writers described their times. Today, not many Indian short story writers do that and I felt we were letting down our times. For example, my book is full of modern technology as a reflection of our times.
Most of your protagonists are male, loners and lost...
These refer to Hemingway, especially his book Men Without Women. They are also social climbers for whom I have a great deal of sympathy. They tell lies, but not more than societal snobs, and don't hurt anyone.
And do some of the characters reflect you?
Mostly no, but these are largely my experiences. I have lived in all the places mentioned in the book. That's why I can describe the absurdity of Mumbai's streets – from a line of shops named Sai Krupa, and landmarks like Gokul Haircutting saloon or Crystal on Chowpatty. I was a mid-level runner and trained at Rabindra Sarobar Stadium in Kolkata. So the scene I describe in The Bench by the Lake, of people sitting around a bench and intellectualising, still happens. All my fiction and writings on urban theory, economics, and history are based on complex adaptive systems. Rather than being well-arranged, the world is changing and unpredictable. That is why I like organic cities and fluid economic models. My stories too have social mobility and intellectual openness. Even my life is pretty much free flowing – whether it was leaving India for Singapore and coming back, or chucking a job because it didn't make sense.
In your author's note you write, "I'm a firm believer that no society can thrive unless it can mock itself..." Do we do that enough?
Sadly, we don't, though we have a long tradition of it. The art of vyang, or satire, is present in Sanskrit and Bengali literature, and in Hindi – Hasya kavya (humorous poetry) – too. Manto's Toba Tek Singh, about the absurdity of the Partition, is completely satirical.
In 'Books', the protagonist is very fussy about how he arranges his books. Do you treat your books the same way?
I don't, but I know people who do and I've exaggerated this (trait) in the character who is obsessed with books. But I do write marginalia and underline words in most of my books.
Is Gayatri Di from the 'Intellectuals' actually a pseudonym for the scholar Gayatri Spivak? And Daabvala for artist Jehangir Sabavala?
You decide... all my characters are fictitious. Several conversations (in the book) are based on the conversations I've heard. For example, in the Intellectuals, the discussion on cricket will remind everyone of that one old uncle who gives gyaan (knowledge) on how Virat Kohli must run the cricket team. Probe a little and you'd discover he has never played cricket.
Do you have something against people who intellectualise?
I just find it funny. Like the protagonists in Intellectuals, who can't break out from gyaan-giving mode. I've gone ahead and mocked them.
Do you have a fake social media profile like the housewife who posts under the fake but popular Twitter handle, going by the same name?
I wish I could, but I have no time. In fact, 'Bubbly Bento' is a joke that any speaker at Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) will get. JLF speakers are put up at The Lalit, and would've found a note on their breakfast table saying, 'Please try our Bubbly Bento box.' Everyone wonders, 'What on earth is this?' The book is full of such inside jokes. In some parts, I even mock myself – 'a Singapore-based economist who tries to be an author'. In fact, Jeet Choudhary, who has illustrated my previous books, has also inserted himself in the Wodehouse-y cover as the caricature of an artist with a ponytail.