Sanjeev Sanyal has been writing non-fiction for long but he’s always nurtured a love for allegories and short stories. You would think his work as Principal Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance for Government of India would leave no time for anything, but he’s clearly disciplined in the creative side of life too.
Enter Life Over Two Beers And Other Stories, an amalgam of 16 witty and richly descriptive narratives he’s penned over a course of 15 years, where characters learn — or don’t learn — lessons about themselves in well-crafted little gems of wisdom, served with a side of poignancy.
In spite of a very decorated professional background, he has drawn on a mosaic of personal experiences which in some small way, culminate in the stories in Life Over Two Beers. “Most of the stories are based on cities and places that I know well — Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Singapore and so on,” he avers, “I have lived in these cities and know the specific locations well — Delhi’s Khan Market, Mumbai’s local trains and housing societies, the lakes in Kolkata’s Rabindra Sarovar and so on. Therefore, I have derived a lot of the atmosphere of the stories from personal observation of life as lived in these places. This can be important in other literary forms but is critical for satire because the humour works through a second order caricature of real life. But none of the characters is me, although I have fleetingly mocked myself in a couple of places.”
On society and snobbery
hort stories are having quite the moment and having been Rhodes Scholar in the early 90s at Oxford, Sanjeev is well-versed on the key landmarks in literature history. “The short story was once the dominant form of fiction. Till the 1960s, most well-known writers around the world practised this art form — Tagore, Manto, Narayan, Hemingway, Borges, Doyle and so on,” he ponders, “However, with a few exceptions, it went into decline from the 1970s and was replaced by the novel. The common explanation is that readers of short fiction moved to watching television serials. I totally disagree. I think it had more to do with a stylistic shift among ‘modernist’ writers who came to see the shorter format as fragments rather than as a way to tell a tale. I think the general reader just got put off by the literary gymnastics. After all, when a writer like Jeffrey Archer publishes conventional short story collections, he has little difficulty finding an audience. There has been a bit of revival in interest in the art form globally in the last year or two, and I hope to contribute to bringing it back in this part of the world.”
The Kolkata-born writer, through the humour and thoughtfulness in Life Over Two Beers, pokes fun here and there at intellectuals but is quite subtle about it. He starts, “Let me clarify that I have nothing against intellectual pursuits — after all, I admit to being geeky enough to spend my free time reading everything from ancient philosophers and medieval travelogues to the latest scientific journals and economic reports. However, I think there is a difference between open-minded thinkers seeking knowledge, and self-appointed ‘intellectuals’. The latter are usually closed-minded snobs who use their ‘eminence’ to shut down genuine debate and enquiry. I particularly dislike the penchant for quoting authority and using jargon as a substitute for substance. Evidence matters, not eminence. Variations of this theme pop up in many of the stories in Life Over Two Beers.”
So what does he hope for people to take away from these short stories? “I want people to read the book just for fun in the first instance. Nonetheless, I hope they will also find a reflection of 21st century life in India. This is why the book is full of allusions to current technology, social mobility and cultural attitudes that define today’s India. There are also background allusions to current events, scandals and public debates.”
‘Life Over Two Beers And Other Stories’ (Penguin India) is available across leading bookstores.