By Utpal Borpujari
For a writer who says he is more restless than competitive in both his professional and writer’s avatars, Karan Bajaj has been quite a success. His first novel, Keep off the Grass, published in 2008, not only sold 40,000-plus copies but also was picked up by a major Hollywood production house for film adaptation, and his second novel, Johnny Gone Down has recently been released with a first print run of 50,000 copies, claimed to be a record for Indian fiction. But Bajaj, an IIM-Bangalore alumni and a brand management specialist based in New York, sounds modest enough when he sidesteps a question on whether his publishers, Harper Collins, has pitched him as a competitor to Chetan Bhagat, arguably the biggest-selling commercial fiction writer in India today. Bajaj, in fact, is quick to point out that his and Bhagat’s subjects and writing styles are worlds apart, and hence there is no scope for competition.
But like any young writer of this day and age, Bajaj too is image and media savvy, not content with just his small biographical note at the back flap. Along with it, he gives not a mug shot of himself, but a whole front profile shot with what looks like the Mayan ruins of South America forming the backdrop. Add to that his email id for readers to contact him, and a self-formulated author Q&A in which he gives replies to what can be the FAQs about him. His protagonist Nikhil Arya, one might argue, is a bit like him. He too is young, an Ivy League scholar and loves travelling. But that is where the similarities end, as Bajaj stresses that there is no autobiographical streak in Arya, whose fast-changing fortunes forces him to play a dangerous game of survival across geographies and nations.
Writing this novel, for Bajaj, has been as exciting as the adventures of his protagonist, but bigger excitement was in store from him after giving the book to his publishers. Says the intrepid backpacker (something which reflects in the backdrops of his stories), “I was surprised and excited more than nervous when I was told that they would print 50,000 copies. I think it’s a big, bold move from Harper, more so as ‘Johnny Gone Down’ is a completely different story from my first as well as the adolescent urban fiction genre doing very well in India right now.”
Bajaj also finds it exciting that though only a portion of the book is set in India, most of the action taking place in Cambodia, Thailand, Brazil and the Silicon Valley with Arya donning the avatars of a NASA scientist, a genocide survivor, a Buddhist monk, a drug lord, a homeless accountant, a software millionaire, among others, still there has been a huge print run. This, and a pricing as low as Rs 99, led to the conjecture that the publishers were pitching him as a rival to Bhagat, but Bajaj does not concur. He says, “If you look at Chetan and my second novels, they are in completely different genres with completely different stories/themes. I write about things that excite me—travel and the bizarre, surreal underbellies of places I have visited; my own struggles with philosophy and quest for meaning, etc. From what I’ve read of his work, I think he is motivated by different ideas. I’ve never met Chetan, but I respect what he has done for Indian publishing and I sincerely wish him all success in his future endeavors.”
Bajaj describes himself as neither too competitive in the corporate world nor in the literary world. “This is not because I am a great person but because I have an innate restlessness, probably due to the displacement that comes with an Army background, and all my free time and mind space is occupied with planning work sabbaticals so I can travel; exploring various religious and spiritual philosophies to understand myself better; consuming meaningful art, theatre, literature, films, etc. The quest to be in control of my own life leaves very little time to focus on someone else’s journey,” says the 1974-born author who was schooled in places as apart as New Delhi, Shimla, Lucknow, Jabalpur, Bangalore, Assam and Ranchi, thanks to his father’s Army postings.
Ask him if there is an autobiographical streak in Arya’s character, Bajaj gives a philosophical tinge in his reply, “I think emotionally all novels are autobiographical so in that sense, I deeply relate to the displacement, loss and failure that the protagonist experiences as I can to the unconditional love and friendship that he receives. The situations in the novel are less autobiographical, but somewhere or the other, I have experienced somewhat similar things. When I was backpacking through the Philippines, for instance, a sudden violent protestation broke out just in front of me as I was ambling aimlessly down the streets. People were shot and killed and I had to run for cover. Those kinds of events do make you wonder on how fragile life can be and how one, unexpected event can set off a chain of events in motion that can alter your life completely. That’s what happens to Nikhil – a sudden event in a vacation leads to his bizarre, almost surreal twenty-year journey.”
Bajaj, however, does not agree that his novel is a critique of the corporate world of which he is a citizen. “The comparison of the protagonist’s life with that of a corporate cog is a less significant component of the story and I used it only as a readily comprehensible device to emphasize the bigness of the protagonist’s life and his eventual realisation that perhaps, Johnny hasn’t gone down after all,” he explains, adding that he “quite loves” his corporate job, “probably because I work in Brand Management, a very fulfilling, creative line of work which actually infuses my life with energy versus sap it out of me”.
The author says that his next book could be a combination of subjects he is getting interested in – mysticism, the philosophy behind occult sciences and the importance of charity. In that sense, he is always looking forward, a trait that also comes through when he says that he is not keeping track of at what stage the film adaptation of “Keep off the Grass” is in. “I feel my job is done when I finish writing the book and the film adaptation is completely the film-maker’s discretion. Personally, I’m indifferent to adaptation, choice of actors, etc., as I have no desire to be involved in the film-making process. Nor do I find Bollywood particularly fascinating or glamorous. Actors and film-makers do a job as you and I do, and I don’t think that equips them with any special insight into life or elevate them into any higher a pedestal than anyone else,” says Bajaj, whose only interest is in seeing if the filmmaker is able to finally transfer the broader emotional and philosophical thoughts in the novel into film or ends up making it a fast-paced, racy intercontinental adventure that the novel automatically lent itself to.