A life in parenthesis

Nandini Nair | Updated on August 27, 2014

Dipankar Bhattacharya   -  DIPANKAR BHATTACHARYA

Lead Tin Yellow. Doug Gunnery. Amazon E-book. Fiction.

One of the country’s leading academics and sociologists dons the cloak of a crime writer and writes a gripping thriller under a pen name

We meet at one of Delhi’s exclusive clubs. He asks for discretion, when I say I wish to record the interview. Maybe we should go out (into the sun), he suggests even though it is May in Delhi. When he realises that my recorder resembles a harmless phone rather than one of those “large contraptions of the old days”, he is relieved, and we slump back into the darkness of the bar. But his friends (a greying group that meet and greet every Saturday afternoon) gather that something is afoot. “Is this an interview?” they ask him as they shuffle towards the door. “Don’t ask too many questions,” he replies.

When you meet someone using a nom de plume, a certain degree of subterfuge is mandatory. This is a first for me, I tell him, the first time I am meeting an author who uses a pen name and does not wish to be revealed. “It is a first time for me too,” he replies. Having established an even keel, we both relax, and sip our drinks — plain soda for him.

Author and editor of more than a dozen academic and sociological books, a well-known professor, He (who cannot be named) is now out with his first crime thriller, the self-published Lead Tin Yellow, available on Amazon, under the name of Doug Gunnery. We have all indulged in bits of idle fantasy, conjuring up the names we would bandy, if we ran a rock band, or a boudoir for that matter. Websites helpfully suggest: colour of your pants plus last thing you ate equals to your band name. But ‘Doug Gunnery’ has far more personal roots. His constant companion as a child was a beloved Alsatian dog called Douglas and Gunnery was the charismatic principal of his high school in Bombay. Put together, they create a most apt name. He (to be called Gunnery now onwards) has especially fond memories of Doug, a great friend and perfect cricket teammate. When the brambles of Lodhi garden of the ’60s would swallow a ball, Douglas could always be counted upon to nose it out. A pen name paying tribute to such a fine fellow seems a perfectly valid choice.

Lead Tin Yellow is a book any author of fiction should be proud to lay claim to. Starting out in Jericho Heights — “a big vault, nothing ever happened inside it” — it pivots around the murder of Jason Miller and the attempts of his son Robin (a journalist and former boxer) to track down the killers. The book needs commendation not only for its tight plot but for its recreation of American small townisms and its layered characters. Its momentum builds not from bizarre twists in the tale, but rather from a sociologist’s keen observations of the world; an ability to decipher people through their words and actions. It reveals its author’s wide-ranging interests and passions; from boxing (his high school boxing coach told him to never hit a man where he was weakest) to fashion (he has worked at Chanel) to art (he collects when he can) to poetry (seems partial to Emily Dickinson).

Unlike his creator who could pass of as a Renaissance man, Jason Miller at first appears to be one of those numerous Nowhere Men, an engineer “sleepin’ a gray flannel life”. Robin will unpeel his father’s many layers, for himself and the reader, only after his murder. The son will come to realise, there is “much more to dad than the bumper sticker idea (we had) of him.”

In some ways, Lead Tin Yellow is also its author’s attempt to move beyond bumper sticker characterisations. Gunnery started writing this book around five years ago when he was recovering from a medical complication that nearly took his life. He says, “During that period I did feel I was someone else. I came this close (pinching two fingers together) to death... I always wanted to write something like this. Felt it was one last chance. It was a very close call.” These characters and this story came to him at a time when he was unable to walk properly (close to three months) and was dependent on an array of drugs to keep him alive. Two years ago he felt he was at peace with how the story had unfolded, but every time he opened his computer, he would see “all these characters that were desperate to come out”.

Gunnery did pass on the manuscript to the owner of a publishing house who loved it, however, it was rejected at the next stage. Unwilling to pursue and convince publishers he decided to self-publish and share it on Amazon. “At least now, it is out of my system and in the open,” he says. And in this way, most importantly, he gets to keep his academic and fictional worlds separate.

As a reader, one often tries to find autobiographical threads in works of fiction, hoping to trace the author in his work. Did a youthful desire to be an IPS officer drive him to write a crime novel? He dismisses the connection saying that while he admired his favourite mamu who was an IPS officer in Patna who rode jeeps and shot guns, this book doesn’t come from that place.

Instead, he says it emerges from other incidents. A person who once stayed with him and his wife left a suitcase at their place, saying he would return for it. More than a year later they learnt that he had passed away in Chennai. When they opened the suitcase, they found it packed with useless old newspapers. This incident winds its way into the book as the father drops a bag into a river just before he is assassinated. When the bag is dredged out of the tide it is found bursting with old magazines.

The other incident that spurred him to write the book was a conversation with a friend who said, “Life is fleeting... the only stab we have at immortality is the memories we leave.” In Jason Miller, Gunnery sees a father “trying to right wrong memories.” Just as in Lead Tin Yellow, Gunnery creates for himself a window through which he can tumble out and appear a different man.

Published on May 09, 2014

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