Shovon Chowdhury Posts

Sami Ahmad Khan, Sci-Fi writer from India

I first came across Sami Ahmad Khan a few years ago when he reached out regarding a manuscript he had written and wanted it evaluated professionally. It was one of the few science fiction novels I had read set in contemporary India. I did read and made a few constructive suggestions. Then I did not hear from him for a while as he was busy finishing his thesis unsurprisingly on contemporary Indian science fiction writers. Now his novel is to be published more or less simulataneously by two publishers — Juggernaut Books ( digital) and Niyogi Books ( print). Meanwhile he has published two articles exploring Indian science fiction.

Daily O article “What if aliens one day land in India? A sci-fi writer asks” ( 8 June 2017)

Huffington Post India article “Aliens In Allahabad, Zombies In Zamrudpur: Discovering Indian Science Fiction” ( 10 June 2017)

Sami and I had a brief and intense exchange over email about his interest in science fiction and the publiction of Aliens in Delhi.  Here is an extract:

  1. Who were the authors you featured in your thesis?

I worked on select (SF) novels/short stories of Anil Menon, Amitav Ghosh, Ruchir Joshi, Shovon Chowdhury, Rimi Chatterjee, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Vandana Singh, Ashok Banker, Mainak Dhar, Suraj Clark Prasad, and Jugal Mody.

  1. Who were your PhD guides?

Prof. GJV Prasad and Prof. Saugata Bhaduri at JNU

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I couldn’t resist! I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…I love doing that. The question of ‘What if?’ really interests me. And SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a massive kick!

  1. How did the deal with two publishers happen?

I got two simultaneous offers, within ten days of each other. The first (contract) wanted paperback rights, and the other digital. I opted for both.

  1. Two Books, Two editors

I sent almost the same MS to both these publishers, and editors from respective houses worked on the MS simultaneously. It’s still the same book, but there are minor differences, such as a different sentence here, a different one there, not to mention different copy-editing. But the essence and general narrative is the same.

  1. Due dates of publication

Paperback, brought out by Niyogi, already out.

Digital version by Juggernaut in July 2017

  1. If you had to translate this novel into any other language which version would you use?

Both would do!

  1. How many years did it take to write this novel?

Almost four and a half years. The first draft was written in October-December 2012. Then I let the novel stew in my brain for some time. Then endless drafts and revisions. I kept reworking it till 2015, when I was finally satisfied with it.

  1. Who are the SF writers you admire?

Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Shovon Chowdhury, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…and SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a kick!

  1. What is that you wish to explore the most in your SF writing?

Space (interplanetary exploration), time (alternate realities/time travel) and ET life (preferably hostile to humans). I love exploring these themes through pulp.

11 June 2017 

 

My interview with Shovon Chowdhury, published in the Hindu Literary Review, 4 Aug 2013

My interview with Shovon Chowdhury, published in the Hindu Literary Review, 4 Aug 2013

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( here is the original url to the story http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/people-need-stories/article4985459.ece )

Shovon Chowdhury talks about identifying the enemy, special places to write in, and his new book that took 11 years to complete.

Shovon Chowdhury is a Delhi-based humorist, well known for his blog, India Update, and the Facebook project, ‘The Trilokpuri Incident’. His work as co-author of the Very Rich Whitebook for the National Council of Applied Economic Research left him deeply prejudiced against the very rich.

His grandfather ran away from Dhaka to escape Japanese bombing in 1945, not realising that the war was about to end, and arrived in Calcutta just in time for the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946. These shared family experiences have left him deeply averse to sudden movement, which is why he has lived in Delhi for the last 20 years. In his spare time, he does advertising work for clients who cannot, he says, find anyone cheaper.

His first novel The Competent Authority (to be released shortly) took him 11 years to complete, because he can type with only one finger. He has also created a fake newspaper (http://nndt.wordpress.com) as a companion to the book. Excerpts from an interview:

Why write fiction?

People need stories. And sometimes facts are communicated better through fiction. Some things are so horrible that you don’t want to look at them or think about them, so they become invisible. Fiction makes you look, may be even think. And if it’s funny, then it’s not such a hardship. Mark Twain figured that one out years ago. I know people keep saying the novel is dying, and I’m sorry if I drove another nail in, but can you imagine a world without stories?

How did The Competent Authority come about?

I started soon after the Gujarat massacre. It set me thinking about the value of human life in India. One thing I’ve learnt from all this is: if you want to write a novel about the near future, it’s a good idea to write faster.

I also noticed that most government documents seem to contain phrases like, ‘by order of the Competent Authority’. I started wondering: supposing he’s a real person? I spent many years watching and reading the news, and studying the actions of the government to get to know him better.

I also discovered that most of the news in India is completely satire-proof; what with all the nephews and the genuflection and elderly youth leaders, not to mention Arindam Chaudhuri’s wardrobe. I tried to work out what kind of country we might to be, around 20 years from now, under the CA’s able guidance. I just extrapolated from today. It’s all completely logical. I hope he’s not reading this.

Does being an advertising professional help?

Yes because you develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s not foolproof, but it helps. It also cures you of delusions about the immortality of your prose; round about the third time the client’s maternal nephew changes your headline, pausing only to spit a mouthful of paan into a nearby plastic bucket.

Who are the writers that have influenced you?

Philip K. Dick, Bertolt Brecht, Sukumar Roy, Mark Twain, Manoj Mitra, Anthony Burgess.

What are the genres that have impressed you?

History, SF, Theatre, anything funny.

There are instances in the novel that rely considerably on the reader’s knowledge. Do you think it can be translated into other Indian languages?

I wasn’t thinking of foreigners when I wrote it, though I’d be thrilled if they read it. I was thinking of our friends, and our kids. It was for them. I didn’t want to slow down the story to explain things everyone knows, like ‘before Mulayam Singh Yadav, there was also one other gentleman who was known as Netaji’. Besides, a little bit of research never hurt anyone. Readers are much too lazy these days. Some work will be good for them.

Regarding other Indian languages, definitely. There’s very little wordplay, and much of the dialogue is actually in Hindi and Bengali. I’m very keen to have language versions, and willing to help. Those people who cared enough to spare the time to go to India Gate, or Ram Lila Maidan — I’d love for all of them to read it in whatever language they prefer. I like to think it would encourage them, maybe raise a laugh or two. We all like to fantasise. This might cheer them up. It’s nice to imagine a world where people commonly tell a bullshit artist ‘You’re full of sibal.’ As a common noun, of course. Nothing improper here.

What is the Trilokpuri Research Project about?

It’s a mass murder mystery. Facebook seemed the ideal medium for it, because it keeps reminding you. 1984 is something we need to be reminded about. Because if we forget about the victims, then they’ve won, haven’t they? Can’t let that happen.

Which is your favourite place to write?

I did this one on the run; in clients’ receptions, and the back of the car. Sometimes I pretended to be doing campaigns. I don’t much believe in special nooks and crannies. You have to switch it on when it’s needed. Some cheerful music helps, though.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

Several. To give his readers their money’s worth. To ensure his publisher doesn’t get arrested. To raise a smile. To provoke some thought. To entertain and inform, and help us identify who the enemy is, so we can all go together and sock him in the face.

Shovon Chowdhury, “The Competent Authority” ( A review)

Shovon Chowdhury, “The Competent Authority” ( A review)

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( My review of The Competent Authority has been published in the Hindu Literary Review. 4 Aug 2013. Here is the url. http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/a-satire-like-no-other/article4985460.ece )

The Competent Authority is the head of the Civil Services of India and operates from New New Delhi. He is ‘temporarily’ in charge of all systems while the country is being “reconstructed” after the last war that occurred a decade ago and wiped out large chunks of the nation and made Bengal a protectorate of the Chinese. “As a humble servant of the people, he was anonymous” and does not wish to be recognised by anyone, save for a handful of people with whom it is imperative he interact. It is a bizarre society that he is at the pinnacle of.

The haves (inevitably filthy rich, with oodles of political clout, and shamelessly corrupt) live in the Dead Circle. The less fortunate human beings were relegated to a ghetto called Shanti Nagar. It was rumoured that they were diseased and unhappy mutants. Ever so often the Bank of Bodies (‘we don’t just repair bodies, we enhance them’) emissaries — the Medical Military Commandos — would swoop down upon Shanti Nagar inhabitants (‘donors’) to harvest body parts; usually ‘when some rich bastard wanted an urgent replacement’. In the next step of evolution for the firm, the board of directors wanted to progress from imparting Medical Joy to Religious Joy, by co-opting their ‘logical ally… Dharti Pakar of the Art of Breathing’.

In this charming mix of despots and maniacs also exist Hemonto Chatterjee, a telepath tester; Pintoo who donated a hand to Pappu Verma, the sweet but spoilt brat of Sameer Verma; Ali of the Al Qaeda; and Pande, the policeman. The chorus consists of a potpourri of characters, ranging from the eunuch Shanti Bai (who founded Shanti Nagar); Banani Chatterjee, the English school teacher who accidentally becomes Pintoo’s local guardian; Taru da the true-blue politician; and Mehta, the Competent Authority’s aide; No. 2 at Bank of Bodies, and so on.

The Competent Authority is a satire like none other by contemporary Indian authors writing in English (except perhaps for Ruchir Joshi’s The Last Jet-Engine Laugh). It is packed with detail and the reader is expected to engage with the script to appreciate the full import of what is being described or alluded to. Having a fair knowledge of geo-politics of the Indian sub-continent certainly helps enhance the pleasure of reading this novel. For instance, the completely colourless CA could belong to any party or ideology. The fact that he exists is frightening. Some of the grim issues that the novel deals with are political puppetry, organ harvesting, communalism, the impact of conflicts, privatisation, eternal debates on capitalism vs communism, and an investigation into the notion of a Nation State. But the humorous manner in which the author weaves the tale ensures that it is not a tedious read.

Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man who has a way with words. He is able to tell a story competently, with a detached sense of cynicism and despair about the crumbling of a secular democracy. It is an enjoyable novel as long as details like the disappearance of Sameer Verma do not annoy one.

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man. His debut novel The Competent Authority is being published by Aleph in August 2013. I have reviewed the book and interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Supplement, to be published on 4 Aug 2013. Meanwhile we got chatting about Bengali literature. I do not speak or read Bengali, but in response to my question, I received a lovely email from Shovon last night. I am reproducing it as is, with permission.

30 July 2013
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Hi Jaya,

Sorry I didn’t respond yesterday. I was working from morning till midnight, and then I passed out, shortly after my wife whispered in my ear, “You’re getting old now.”

To answer your question, I was hauled back from the UK at the age of 10, in 1973, to Calcutta. Once I got over the shock of learning that there was no TV, I was told that I had to pass Bengali in my annual exams, around a year from that point, or I would be kicked out of school. They weren’t as impressed with my English origins as we had thought they would be. You can’t really learn a language until you read stories, and in this respect, Satyajit Ray was a godsend for me. The first Bengali book I ever read was Felu-da’s Baksho Rohoshyo (The Box Mystery), purchased at A.H. Wheeler and read on the train, through the night, under a tiny bulb. I traced my finger along the words as I read it.

Further investigation of Satyajit Ray led me to Sandesh, a kid’s magazine he and his family ran from their house. Most of us young subscribers met him at one point or the other, and he would hand over our copies with the utmost gravity. In the very first issue I met Professor Shanku, an eccentric, but intrepid scientist, in ‘Eksringo Obhijan’ (The Unicorn Expedition) which was published serially in the magazine. I thought it was the best thing since Twenty Thousand Leagues. It would make a great movie. I was lucky that the first two Bengali books I read where so very up my street. I scraped through the annual exam, eventually, and remained part of the education system, to my lasting regret.

In the next few years, I spent most weekends in my grandfather’s two rooms in a narrow lane in Bagbazar. I had six aunties and one uncle, and usually they and most of their kids were in situ. Having been brought up as an only child, this was a thing of great horror to me, second only to the absence of Scooby Doo. Luckily, like all good Bengali households, they had complete sets of Rabindranath, Bankim Chandra, and Sharat Chandra, which nobody ever read except my grandmother. So I would park myself in a corner every weekend and pick myself a volume.

I ended up reading most of it. Bankim Chandra was rather tough, his Bengali very classical, his whole aspect very Old Testament. I knew all about the Old Testament because of bible classes back in Yorkshire, although as a matter of principle I never sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Rule Britannia’. Rabindranath should have won the Nobel prize just for his short stories, which are brilliant. His plays were great fun, too. I found his poems a little old-fashioned. Sharat Chandra was a flat out genius, and easily one of the ten best novelists who ever lived. No one had a clearer eye.

By the time I reached college, I was reading a lot of Bengali poetry, in the hope of impressing girls, but ended up being impressed myself, particularly by Shubhash Mukhopadhyaya. He was a disillusioned man. Much like the rest of us, he started out admiring Che Guevara, and ended up with Jyoti Basu. Some of us fled, while the rest gave up. I was one of the runaways, to Delhi, in my case. Many years later, shortly before he died, I saw Jyoti Basu on TV, and was consumed with horror. I had no idea he was still alive. It was like The Return Of The Mummy. But that was much later.

Back then, even though the Party was consuming us all wholesale, like a crimson anaconda, we managed to have some fun. During my time in Cal, I did around two decades of movies, from the point where Uttam Kumar was doing the cha cha, to when Aparna Sen was doing the twist. In fact, all the members of the Very New Young Men’s Bodybuilding Society – Bhanu, Johor, Robi, Chinmoy and Tapen — are named after Bengali comedians I remember with great affection.

And then there was theatre. I spent many evenings at the Academy, watching productions by Nandikar and Theatre Workshop and Bahurupee. I can sing you every song from Manoj Mitra’s Narak Gulzar, or the incredible Theatre Workshop production of Schweyk Goes To War. I also read a few contemporary Bengali novelists, like Moti Nandi, and Shirshendu, and whatever ‘Desh’ was serving up that season. But I have to admit that most of them were a bit too social realist for me. The flights of fancy were all happening in the theatre, with Utpal Dutta, and Badal Sircar, and Ajitesh of the booming laughter, and more Brecht than you can imagine, from Galileo to The Good Woman. I wish he could have seen it.

Been out of touch the last ten years, sadly, except for the theatre part. I often re-read Sukumar Roy, though, and discover new things every time. He died young, like Alexander, and did things like this — http://shovonc.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/pome-of-the-day-5/, which everyone says is funny, but do we not live here today? The last four lines always terrify me.

Just to clarify, I am not a UK citizen. I wish I could say it was some kind of stand I took, but the fact is, it never occurred to me.

Cheers!

Shovon