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Interview: Sanjay Bahadur

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Sanjay Bahadur)

The Wise Owl interviews Sanjay Bahadur, an author of repute and a senior bureaucrat. His writings span a variety of genres. His debut novel, The Sound of Water, a literary fiction, was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize 2007 and won critical acclaim. His second novel, Hul-Cry Rebel, a historical fiction, was published in 2013 and received rave reviews. His third novel Bite of the Black Dogs, a military action thriller, was published in 2017. The book has been optioned for a feature film by a prominent production house.

Sanjay Bahadur is also a martial arts expert and has received his 4th degree blackbelt certification in Taekwondo in 2021. In March of 2021, he cycled 1000 km-in-10-days, along the Brahmaputra, to promote North-East under the aegis of ‘Incredible India’ and ‘Fit India’ campaigns.

Thank you, Mr Bahadur, for talking to The Wise Owl.

RS: When did you first realise you wanted to write? Was your desire to write a sudden urge or a slow realization that you wanted to be a writer more than anything else? And why a novel?

SB: Wow! That’s a lot of questions fitted into one. Like all creative activities, writing is part of someone’s psyche. I read somewhere that when the itch of writing hits someone, nothing but the scratching of pen on paper can relieve it. Of course, today we can say, nothing but the tapping of a keyboard can soothe it.

When I look back, I always enjoyed creative writing: school essays, stories, poems and articles in school and college magazines and later in my training academy – I enjoyed exploring and expressing thoughts and ideas through writing. In that sense, my desire to write grew over years from a seed to a cotyledon to a sapling and finally a tree that started bearing fruit.

Sometime in 2003, a civil service batchmate informed me of an online competition for digital novellas announced by a prominent bookstore chain. You had to submit 2500 words. The top three were to be published online. Of the 800 plus entries, mine featured in the top 10. My wife, Shampa and friends encouraged me to develop those 2500 words into a novel. I realised that the first fruit of my ‘writing tree’ was going to be a novel. The shape, size, texture, colour and taste identified that fruit as The Sound of Water.

The question-why a novel-has been asked before. As I said, writing for me is a way of exploring, interpreting and expressing thoughts, ideas and reality of the world around me. Much as a painter or photographer expresses. A photographer captures reality through the artistic filter of his/her lens. A painter distils reality through brush strokes. Both are artistic expressions but, in my opinion, painting gives a greater artistic space. In the same manner, I feel that fiction gives greater artistic space than does non-fiction. Hence the initial fruits of creative writing came out in the form of a novel.

RS: The three books that you have authored are from different genres. The Sound of Water is a literary fiction, the Hu-Cry Rebel a historical fiction and The Bite of the Black Dogs a military thriller. What is it that attracted you to such vastly different genres?

SB: Satyajit Ray made films across several genres from coming-of-age Pather Panchali to dystopian fantasy of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, to historical drama of Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Arc, an action thriller; Jurassic Park, a sci-fi; Schindler’s List, a historical; West Side Story, a musical romantic drama. Amongst novelists, authors like Stephen King, Isabel Allende or J.K. Rowling have also written across genres.

I have taken inspiration from such creative minds. Fiction writing is all about the presentation of a story idea. Part of the enjoyment of a reader comes from how well the tale is told. As a reader, I read several genres, therefore, as a writer I felt I should not restrict myself to any one genre. Dramatic events in real life intrigue me and such events are natural ingredients for a good story. I have many more genres to explore yet as a writer. I believe a good writer should be versatile in the art of storytelling, no matter what the subject or genre.


RS: I remember reviewing your book ‘The Sound of Water’ for The Tribune. What had impressed me about the book was the way you drew visual, almost cinematic images, with your words especially in the final scene where the mine was inundated with water. Is this visual imagery the result of conscious thought and is there a particular writer/author that inspires you to make your writings cinematic?

SB: Thank you for the kind words about The Sound of Water. Nothing pleases an author more than an appreciative review by a respected literary critic. Your review observed, ‘It is the portrayal of the epic struggle of life and death that lifts the novel from the moorings of ordinariness. A great debut novel that transcends the limits of storytelling and in doing so transforms into an archetype of life itself.’ I just loved how you captured the essence of my novel in those words.

My ‘visual’ or ‘cinematic’ style is a conscious artistic decision for me. It is largely guided by the preference to ‘show-don’t-tell’ principle of storytelling that is adopted internationally by contemporary authors. It took me some time to fully internalise this narrative form, but I believe in it. I believe this empowers the reader, who gets more freedom to visualise than where the presence of the author is more intrusive. I can’t think of any one author who inspires me in this aspect but all acclaimed writers – be it Hemingway or Vikram Seth employ elements of cinematic narration.


RS: The Sound of Water is based on the flooding of Bagdighi colliery, and the plot revolves around miners and their lives in a colliery, a subject vastly removed from urban living. So, tell me how a person who has been educated and brought up in an urban environment, can sketch such a realistic and empathetic portrayal of miners and their milieu?

SB: I must give credit to the exposure I got to the world of coal mining in India due to my stint as a Director in Ministry of Coal. I got to know the sector, its problems, culture and about lives of those who work in that tough environment. Across the globe, the world of coal mining has drawn attention of writers-probably because it is so removed from the ordinary world, we all live in. ‘Germinal’ by Emile Zola and ‘How Green Was My Valley’ by Richard Llewellyn are examples. When the Bagdighi tragedy happened, I had the occasion to deal with many aspects of its aftermath. The dozens of stories I learned and miners I met distilled into the story of 'The Sound of Water.'


RS: Your book ‘Hul-Cry Rebel’ is about the Santal rebellion of 1855. What made you spin a story around the Santal tribe? What was the research that you had to do for this book?

SB: Santal Hul of 1855 is one of the lesser-known peasant revolts in India. A schoolteacher from Ranchi gave me a book about Santal’s struggle for self-determination, published by his local parish. I vaguely remembered the Birsa Munda rebellion of 1899, popularly known as ‘Ulgulaan’ but had little knowledge of Satal Hul. Out of curiosity, I started reading up about Santals, the Hul and factors that led to it. Hul-Cry Rebel is dramatization of scores of actual historical events, and its characters are based on many real men and women of that era and region. The story of Hul is revealed through combination of many unconnected stories that have been cohesively woven into a single story. In a sense, the personal history and lives of the characters depicted in the book are a metaphor for the lives and times of that period.

The book required extensive research on Santals, Indian society, colonial administration, Bengal Native Infantry and East India Company. The research took me about four years. I believe that it is important for any ethical writer to do extensive research, especially for a historical novel, even if majority of readers may not be familiar with the facts depicted. I am happy to know today that the book has been used as a reference by many academic scholars in India and abroad – Narratives of Inequality: Postcolonial Literary Economics by Melissa Kennedy and Historical Fictionalisation of Tribal Resistance by Nirmalendu Maiti are a couple of examples.


RS: In an interview you have said that ‘The Bite of the Black Dogs’ is based on a real-life Army encounter with the terrorists in Kashmir. You have given a very realistic account of the encounter and the training that such operations require. Does this come from detailed research or are you connected to the Army through relatives or friends?

SB: The book is dedicated to my college friend, Brig. Ajay Pasbola, who was awarded Shaurya Chakra for an operation he had carried out in Kashmir Valley in 1996. Apart from extensive interviews with him and several of his colleagues, I had also spent time in Gorkha Training Centre in Shillong to get a second hand feel of war games and battle drills. Of course, for the general backdrop of insurgency I had referred to many articles and books relating to Kashmir of 1990s. The validation of my research came when a senior from my own service-IRS-told me he felt transported to Kashmir Valley and the army establishment there. This meant something because my senior’s father had been General Officer Commanding of Northern Command, which is based in Udhampur and the novel has a character portraying GoC, Northern Command. My senior felt the depiction of terrain and combat practices in the book were very authentic.


RS: Please tell our readers the creative processes that go into writing a novel. How do you decide on a plot, what is the research involved and what goes on when you are penning your novel?

SB: My creative process is constant. An image, an event, a person, a place – all trigger story ideas in my head. They are like bubbles on a stream: they pop up and vanish. But a few of the bubbles are recurring and grow in size till they become too big to be ignored. That’s when I know I have a solid idea that merits the story to be told. As an example, I have been intrigued by the phenomenon of riots. We read about these occurrences in newspapers and watch them on TV/social media but never reflect on the inner dynamics of victims and perpetrators. So, I started reading up theories of social scientists and psychologists on riots. A spontaneous riot took place in Jaipur in 2017 for which no one could explain what exactly the trigger was. From these readings and the real incident was born the plot of my next novel which takes the reader inside a spontaneous riot and explores its anatomy from within. The book refers to over 50 books and articles on the subject of riots. For me, research is what an author owes to her or his reader – even if it is a romance. You can’t have a lover serenade his beloved on cell phone in 1994 when first mobile services came to India in 1996.


RS: You are a senior bureaucrat, a job profile which involves a lot of work and responsibility. How do you manage to find time to write?

SB: A senior bureaucrat is no busier than a film maker, a journalist, a lawyer, an entrepreneur or a doctor. A home maker has one of the most arduous of jobs, with no holidays and leaves. Yet, we have countless books written by such people. They are versatile and manage to find time to write. In my opinion, a bureaucrat is no more and no less resourceful, creative and versatile. If one is not addicted to TV, cricket matches or partying, one can find the time for writing or pursuing any interest in life. I for one, also pursue martial arts and received my 4th degree blackbelt certification in Taekwondo in 2021. In March of the same year, I also did a solo cycling 1000 km-in-10-days along Bramhaputra, to promote North-East under the aegis of ‘Incredible India and ‘Fit India campaigns’. I also completed my next novel. So, yes- I believe one can find time to do things apart from one’s day job. 


RS: I notice that your novels are published after a gap of 4-6 years. Is that on account of your professional preoccupation or is it because any good novel needs an incubation period of 4-6 years?

SB: Mostly, it is the lack of time due to my day job. Sometimes, it is weeks, maybe months, when I don’t find the time and creative mental space for writing. Some periods are so exhausting that even if I have some spare time, my creative juices don’t flow. That isn’t the case with full-time authors or even part-time writers who are in creative environment like ads or journalism. Besides, after finishing a manuscript, it takes nothing less than a year for the editing, proofing, cover design etc before the publisher can make a release.


RS: Is there any literary figure or bestseller you revere or admire? If so, why?

SB: There are too many literary icons I admire to list here. From Devaki Nandan Khatri to Amitav Ghosh and Alexander Dumas to Haruki Murakami, the pantheon of literary greats is just too large to single out any. But few things are common in all the authors I admire, they can all make me feel, imagine and think.


RS: Going by the past pattern, you love to dabble in different genres. Our readers would like to know what genre of book you are working on currently. When do we expect to see your new offering in the bookstores?

SB: As I mentioned earlier, I have just finished a contemporary novel looking at a spontaneous riot somewhere in India from the inside. My literary representative, Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary, located in New Jersey is ready to take it to publishers soon. From past experience, I would conjecture it should be ready for release in the next 12-18 months.


RS: Also, I’m sure our readers would like to know when we will see the cinematic version of ‘The Black Dog Bites’ in the theatres. Please throw some light on that.

SB: The first film option for the book was taken by a prominent international production house. Due to corporate restructuring the project was getting delayed. So, my representatives withdrew the rights, and they now reside with another production house. Unfortunately, this coincided with the onset of Covid-19 in 2020 and pre-production processes were set back till mid-2021.  We are hopeful of faster progress now. From what I understand, production of a film goes through several stages, including adaptation, screenplay, selection of directorial and acting talents, identification of locations etc. This takes couple of years, if all goes well.

Thank you Sanjay, for speaking to The Wise Owl. We wish you lots of success in your creative journey. In a world where people have become 'Lotus Eaters', we hope you continue with your participation in the ‘Incredible India’ and ‘Fit India’ campaigns, and encourage people to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.