Monday, November 29, 1999

Johny goes around

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Drugs, money, sex, murder, organised crime, religion, investment banking, cyber space, exotic locations, from Brazil to Cambodia. Karan Bajaj's latest novel, Johnny Gone Down, his second, has all the elements requisite for a potboiler. And it's making news for being the pulp fiction novel of this summer with an initial print run of 50,000 copies! The author explains to Suman Tarafdar where this novel of a man fighting against himself germinates from. Excerpts:This is quite a pacy read! However, this is quite a distance from your previous novel. Where did the inspiration for this one come from?Yes, I think Johnny Gone Down is a fundamentally different novel from the recent slew of novels by young writers or even my own Keep off the Grass or as it doesn't deal with clich├ęd urban angst or the love-life complexities of the 'boyz n grlz jst hangin' out der in McDonaldz'! The fundamental conflict is more man against his very bizarre destiny vs man against himself in this novel.As for the inspiration, I usually start with a big theme in mind and allow the story to work itself in my head for a while before I put pen to paper. The theme I was playing around with for Johnny Gone Down was around success and whether a stable, even-keeled life is better than a rich, interesting life with towering ups and abysmal lows. During this time, I was also backpacking for a year between jobs and traveled to some pretty interesting places and ended up meeting quite an odd assortment of people on the road and in youth hostels. Somewhere, I began to realise that no matter where I went, whether Cambodia or Brazil or Mongolia or India, there seemed to be more similarities than dissimilarities in people, feelings and ideas. Hence this incredible intercontinental journey of the protagonist began to fuse with the original theme.Was it easy to conceive Nick/Nikhil? Any autobiographical parts?There aren't too many autobiographical parts since, unlike the protagonist, I've never been a drug lord, a Buddhist monk, a genocide survivor, a homeless accountant, a deadly game fighter or even a software engineer! But I did relate to Nikhil, the protagonist, since I was going through a similar phase of displacement and loss in my life due to various reasons.The displacement that the character feels so deeply was very fundamental to the story since the broader thought in the book is about an ordinary man slowly embracing his extraordinary destiny and realising that he is actually richer for all his loss and failure. In that sense, it's almost like a Greek mythos—a myth, an exaggeration to make a point, but one that is very believable.What research was involved in setting the tale in such diverse locales?The story was playing around in my head for almost a year while I was traveling, but the actual act of writing took four to five months. I began when I was back in a job and had an apartment and a computer to myself once again. I traveled extensively in all the places the protagonist ends up in, though at that point, I didn't know I would base the story in these locales.I actually don't think too many exotic locales add to the charm of a thriller. They usually take away from the manic pace which makes a strong thriller gripping. In my case, the locales were important to the protagonist's constant sense of displacement and loss, but I was very careful to just follow the protagonist's journey versus make any comment on the historical or political context of his environment. Hence, the size of the novel didn't increase with its span.In Thailand, for instance, the story remains within the four walls of the monastery where the protagonist becomes a Buddhist monk.This tale is quite an indictment of the corporate system, which you are also part of. Where do you think the charm in the corporate work structure wears off?Actually, I didn't intend it to be an indictment of the corporate system at all. I actually quite love my job probably because I work in brand management, a fulfilling, creative line of work. The comparison of the protagonist's life with that of a corporate cog is a very small part of the story and I used it only as a readily comprehensible device to emphasise the bigness of the protagonist's life and his eventual realisation that perhaps, Johnny hasn't gone down after all.Which writers in the thriller/ popular fiction genre, do you admire?I greatly admire The Bangkok Series (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts) by John Burdett. I dig these novels because of their gritty take on Thailand's underbelly—snuff films, drug cartels, tantric practices—which I find very fascinating and inspirational for my own writing.I also found myself relating closely to the Buddhist detective protagonist of the novels, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who is unsuccessful in his quest for nirvana or enlightenment, but remarkably successful in solving some of Thailand's most surreal, morbid crimes. At various points in my life, I've been an armchair spiritual seeker myself and have dabbled unsuccessfully with many religious philosophies, meditation practices and spiritual discourses, none of which have provided the answers I seek. Instead, they've added more questions to the list! Hence, I really gravitate to the spiritually confused protagonist, my favorite detective in fictional history, by far.Was the pre publicity on the record number of copies for the first print a planned affair?Not really. I think it became something which the media gravitated to among the other pieces of information.Personally, I would have liked the publicity to be more around the taut pace and Forrest Gump-ish scope and canvas of the novel since I think that's the more interesting aspect of the book.

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