Welcome to Just Books, Rahul.
Would you please begin by telling us a little about yourself and your background.
I grew up in Juhu, a western suburb of Mumbai, India, famous for its sprawling beach and home to Bollywood celebrities. In our loving household, my parents - particularly mom, ran a tight ship with just the right amount of discipline and freedom.
I was always a good student, even scored a 50/50 in English in high-school, which is fairly uncommon, and once, almost started a mini-rebellion when our senior English teacher refused to admit her serious grammatical error. But as is the norm in middle-class families in India, if you aspire to do well in life, you need to focus either on engineering or the medical profession. So I did, and graduated with top honors from VJTI, one of the oldest (founded in 1887) engineering colleges in Asia.
I came to USA as a student pursuing a Masters in Computer Engineering and later an MBA at Iowa State University, New York University, and Santa Clara University. I rode the customary rollercoaster start-up journey in the Silicon Valley technology industry, being eventually acquired by a leading software company. I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my loving wife and two adorable kids.
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
Today as a seasoned executive, I travel for my company’s business and these work trips take me all over the world. They provide me a wonderful immersive experience as I get to partake of different cultures, environs, and the people. Also, on these long flights and the jet-lagged, sleepless nights in hotel rooms, I tend to read a lot of books.
On one of these international flights back to Bay Area, perhaps it was the rarity of air or lack of oxygen, I had a flash. A moment of inspiration! Or moment of insanity, maybe. A thought, an idea, a story germinated. I was excited but apprehensive. And when I got back home, I couldn’t get it out of my head. But it’s one thing to have an idea, and an altogether different ball-game to execute on it. I did not necessary have all the skills and tools of the craft of writing a novel.
So, I began to learn the art and science of fiction writing. I must have immersed myself in at least 15 to 20 how-to books that enlightened me on how to create an unforgettable plot, how to make your settings come alive, and how to create flawed characters that readers can relate to. I learnt about transformation arcs, effective dialogues, much-needed conflict, and the dichotomy of character’s thoughts, words and deeds.
Feeling confident with this new knowledge, I embarked on my writing adventure…
Do you have a specific writing style?
I learnt there are two writing styles: one that is very structured, outlining the plot and characters in excruciating detail before the actual writing begins, and the second style that flows more like a stream of consciousness driven mainly by intense but sporadic inspiration. I’d like to think my writing style is an amalgamation of the two – a structured stream of consciousness that goes back and forth between immaculate planning and letting it go. I try to flexibly adapt/adjust to the immediate need of the story-telling.
Tell us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?
I like to start my day early in the morning, particularly for the creative aspects of the story where new plot twists and character conflicts are being introduced. My mind is most fresh and fertile in those pre-dawn hours when everything and everyone around you is quiet; only your ideas are clamoring to get distilled and transcribed.
Then as the day progresses, I focus more on the reviewing, editing and fine-tuning of what has already been written. Towards dusk and evening, a nice glass of wine can occasionally provide second wind to continue the writing/editing process.
What is the thing you struggle with the most while writing?
When I read my work, if I don’t feel like I am in the midst of the scene personally experiencing all the happenings, I get very frustrated as an author. I need all the senses of a reader to be fully engaged - seeing, hearing, and breathing the unfolding of the story around him. So, I make every attempt to revise and inject any missing dynamism and liveliness into every aspect, willing those tiny black and white words to bring alive the scene, the settings and character interactions in vibrant hues.
However, many a time, I struggle to know where to draw the line and when to stop making these adjustments. Every re-read of a chapter, a scene, a sentence, points out something to fix, and improve, and enliven. I have to force myself to stop making the edits once it gets to a certain state, pull myself away and work on something else.
What is the name of your book and what inspired it?
My latest (also my debut) book is Quest for Kriya, a moving saga of love, friendship and sacrifice. Life’s wisdom gained through years of stumbling, reaching within, and picking oneself up, made me realize that the great epics and scriptures (Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Bible, Koran, Bhagawad Gita) have embedded at their core certain esoteric but absolute truths. Our exalted ancestors rightly understood that if these truths are to endure the tribulations of time, they have to be relayed as stories the common man could understand, re-tell, and pass on from generation to generation. And lo behold. These stories have indeed outlived cataclysms and human wars, and are still so very much a part of our world history and culture.
The challenge though is that these stories were told with characters of long-gone eras amidst settings and scenarios far removed from the current, modern world. I asked myself: why can’t a story be told in today’s times with today’s characters that embody these truths; wouldn’t the readers be able to relate and resonate better to something that is their way of life?
This was the humble inspiration driving Quest for Kriya.
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The experiences are a combination of events from my own life and from the lives of folks I know. Take Shiva’s startup rollercoaster ride; I obviously base it on my own startup experience and that of my friends in the Bay Area. But to create the part about Shakti’s loss of her brother Sanju and her family in the Latur earthquake; I had to dig into the deep recesses of the emotional loss of my dear uncle Sanju who grew up with me in the same house, but passed away at a very young age in a car accident in the US.
As I often say, 50% is based on real experiences (both mine and of folks I know) and the other 50% is pure fiction. It’s just not obvious which 50% is which, and I’d like to keep it that way. I mentioned this recently at a panel discussion, and another panelist quoted his standard riposte when asked how much of his book was based on real life: “all the hot, incredible sex scenes are completely real!”
Which, if any, of your personality traits did you write into your characters?
I have sprinkled my personality traits generously across the board into multiple characters in the story. However no single character embodies all the traits - some are in the good guys, some in the bad guys, some in the male characters and some others in the female ones. For instance, Shiva is a workaholic like me, Harry shares my fascination with spirituality and occult, while Shakti goes through a brooding, despondent phase before her resurgence. Actually, every character is a concoction of several traits – mine and other folks whom I have observed.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
The character names are very important to me. And the meanings certainly matter more than the sound of it. If you are a reader of mythology, you will realize that some of the character names in my books, in fact, tell entire stories by themselves.
What is your favourite part or scene in the novel?
It’s really hard to pick the most favorite scene, almost like choosing who your favorite kid is. But there’s one scene that keeps playing in my mind again and again, where Shiva is running in desperation alongside a drowning Shakti who’s been swept away by threatening tsunami waves. Tumultuous thoughts undulate around in his head and intense emotions gush across his heart as he makes every attempt to save her. His sheer vulnerability and frantic denial of the possibility of losing her forever gets me every time.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I realized that though the actual task of writing is a very secluded process, it takes an entire village to publish and promote a book. No man and no author can be an island. I was exceedingly fortunate and will remain forever indebted to some amazing friends and family who encouraged me and helped spread the word with conviction. The belief and unconditional backing of these well-wishers has brought Quest for Kriya to where it is today. Without them it would be nowhere.
Can you tell us anything about any of your current work(s)-in-progress? And what can we expect from you in the future?
In fact, when I wrote Quest for Kriya, I had envisioned it as the first of a Trilogy. But I wasn’t sure how the readers would respond to my debut attempt, whether the book would just sink down unceremoniously without a blip. Naturally, you see your own baby as cute, precious, and one-of-a-kind, but expert critics and unforgiving readers don't don the same rose-tinted glasses as you. I was apprehensive, but when they scrutinized and said "the baby ain't all that bad”, now I feel somewhat confident to start the second one.
I have recently begun to craft a storyline and plot for the sequel. I am furiously making notes about the characters (the previous beloved ones and some interesting additions), the new settings, and the central conflicts that drive everything into motion.
Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors.
As a teenager, I had a voracious reading appetite, and the summers would be an amazing journey to distant places in curious, learning-shoes of the multi-faceted characters. My reading ranged from suspense/mystery thrillers to epic tales and philosophies from Ayn Rand, Kahlil Gibran, Fedor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus, to spirituality from the East and West. That phase of my reading life, I know for sure, had the biggest influence on my thinking and intellect. Later on, I was fortunate to read and relish books from some of my new-favorite authors: Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts), Sacred Games (Vikram Chandra), and Game of Thrones series (George R. R. Martin). Currently, I am reading this amazing book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I love to spend time with my wife and kids, go on hikes in the nature, outings at the movies or rock-climbing gyms, and vacations to various parts of the world. At home, my wife – the top chef that she is, churns out some delectable delicacies. She also loves to eat out and sample all kinds of cuisines, and I am a willing partner-in-crime. My son loves tennis and I push my old legs to exchange rallies with him to challenge his status of “king of the court”. As for my teenage daughter, I am currently exercising my fatherly patience to rekindle the unique bond we once shared while I wait for her core, loving self to emerge on the other side of this phase of rebellious angst. Meanwhile, I just adore her spunk and get exasperated in turns.
If you were ever stranded on a deserted island what would you miss and which three books would you take along?
Unfortunately, most of us have become slaves to the smartphone, and it’s tough to imagine life without it on a deserted island or anywhere else for that matter. This would definitely cause some withdrawal symptoms.
The list of three books I would take along include:
- The Fountainhead
- The Upanishads
Thank you for joining us today, Rahul. I hope you enjoyed your visit.