Almost-Famous Five in textile city

Updated on: May 03, 2012




Corporate executive G.B. Prabhat wields his pen to sketch a coming-of-age literary fiction set in his hometown, Coimbatore.

Two people in Indian corporatedom writing books to engage the attention of India's young is a good enough sign that we are not despairing yet about our young moving away from the written word. Along with MindTree Chairman Subroto Bagchi's MBA at 16 , we have G.B. Prabhat's Early Indications (Gyaana Books). Both books are targeted at young readers; Early Indications is about a bunch of five schoolchildren growing up in the 1960s in the southern textile city of Coimbatore.

The die is cast when one of their primary-school teachers calls them the Five Geniuses. Already “daft enough” to believe they were special, this classification bloats their egos. Told in first person by Shiva, who considers himself the most intelligent of the five, the book describes their journey through adolescence to adulthood. The teacher sees Shiva, with his silver tongue, becoming a speaker and writer; Rohit, a basketball player; Kani, a poet; Dorai, an inventor of cars; and Sarita, the lone girl in the group, a great singer.

The five characters are sketched skilfully… their little pains and pleasures, jealousies, flirtations and escapades are captured. But along with a glimpse into the lives of the five protagonists, what the reader gets is also a delightful peek into what was then a small town.

Coimbatoreans were polite to a fault when they spoke, Prabhat tells us. In Tamil they generally used the respectful form of ‘you'; even “babies were addressed with respect”! Also, “where else on earth was every third or fourth shop a bakery”, which made its own bread “fluffy, soft and white”?

What I could relate to immediately was the reference to Japanese cakes, which, in the Madras of yore, my siblings and I've gorged on at the Harrison's bakery in George Town. With caramelised exteriors and rich buttery interiors, nobody knew where they got their name from, says the author. He takes a Japanese visitor who was curious about these cakes to a local bakery. When he bit into the cake, “his face assumed the most unusual expression of rapture. He left for Tokyo with 40 cakes in his hand-baggage!”

These bakeries also offered heavenly “pups”, the local lingo for the multi-layered, soft puffs! A Gujarati Brahmin, who was a staunch vegetarian and new to Coimbatore, once shrank back in horror at the offer of “pups”. “Sorry, I don't eat meat,” he said, adding that he had heard of dog-eating in Korea but not India. “When the bakery owner said no problem, I can give you vegetarian pups, he was even more baffled… and said it didn't matter to him whether the pup was a vegetarian or meat eater!”

As they grow up, Shiva keeps topping the class and Rohit begins to mimic him. He is the only Brahmin and the others call him ‘Iyer'. Says Kani, “Iyer can only get the first rank. He's got brains but can't manage anything using his hands and legs.” Much later, Shiva does realise what a physical wimp he is.

As they progress from school to college, each one's life changes… while Dorai brags about his sexual escapades with women, Kani has mixed success with his poems, Rohit does become a great basketball player, and Sarita evolves into a powerful singer. Everybody else is entranced by her music except Shiva, who rides his high horse about the superiority of literature over music as an art. He tells Rohit, rather pompously: “Music is a lesser art... you respond like a snake does to rhythm. There is no analysis, no contemplation.”

But for all of Shiva's airs of superiority and coaching his other classmates in various subjects, the much quieter and unassuming Sarita stuns him by getting the same marks and topping the school along with him. But his ultimate moment of humility is when he fails to get admission to an American university, especially after advising and helping other classmates go through the rigours of applying to American colleges.

Prabhat, who now works as Principal – Business Transformation, KPIT Cummins Infosystems, has succeeded in making all the five characters come alive; their transformation from children to adolescents, to adults comes through both deft and powerful strokes of the author's pen. There is a clear attempt to get youngsters interested in this narrative about the young. The introduction is gripping enough; in the December 2004 tsunami that attacked the Tamil Nadu coast along with several regions of the world, Shiva, who is holidaying with his wife and two kids in a beach resort off the Chennai coast, escapes death by barely a few seconds.

The sheer shock of this event sends the successful IT professional on a journey of self-discovery. He returns to Coimbatore to trace his childhood friends, and what he encounters is related with a touch of both pathos and irony.

Easy to read, very interesting in some places, gripping in others, with the right dash of humour, sometimes dark humour, Prabhat's book is reminiscent of the Famous Five series. The interesting twists and turns lend the narrative shades of a thriller.

The author answered a few questions from Life .

As the book is all about Coimbatore, and you spent your earlier years there, is there an autobiographical element here?

My familiarity with Coimbatore helped in no small measure with the setting. But the novel itself is entirely fictitious.

Shiva, the protagonist, is both a hero and anti-hero... he is pompous, presumptuous, has a bloated ego and wants to escape from his roots. Is this a common trend?

Early Indications is about confronting the infinite shades of grey we are painted in. Our character is not clear black or white. It is these infinite shades of grey that vest us with the magical capacity to commit new mistakes even as we deeply regret the old ones. Forgetting your roots is one among many human failings.

What's the motive behind the 99 cents pricing of the Amazon Kindle version?

The commercial fiction market has arrived in India, turning us into, as industry pundits claim, the second-largest English book market in the world (after the US). A significant part of the market is indigenous commercial fiction. A principal reason for its success has been the recent attractive pricing at Rs 150-200 a book. The literary fiction market hasn't arrived here, but has great potential. The 99 cents (Rs 50) pricing is an attempt to trigger demand for home-grown literary fiction. The pricing, hopefully, will break the shibboleth that commercial fiction is affordable and literary fiction is expensive. Considering that e-book reading is a growing phenomenon worldwide, I hope the 99 cents pricing can put a copy specifically in the hands of young readers. Paperback readers may buy the book from Flipkart or retail stores.

Why should your book interest the young?

A substantial part of the story is set in a fictitious engineering college that is not IIT, which as a setting has been dealt with extensively in modern Indian fiction. Interestingly, many of our educational institutions seem to be caught in a time warp and have changed little over the times. Though the setting of the story is the early 1980s, and the youth of today are very different from the youth then, I believe young readers will be able to appreciate the college setting. Earlier generation readers can nostalgically relive their college days.

Subroto Bagchi has just written his fourth book. You have written a couple of books yourself, and many short stories . This trend of corporate honchos writing books… does writing provide an opportunity to unwind in the hectic world of corporatedom?

My professional preoccupation with the corporate world acts a great foil to my writing. It gives me the opportunity to connect with people and stay current. The motivation for writing is very individual. Doctors, teachers, lawyers write; writing by corporate denizens is only another manifestation of the individual's motivation to write. I continue to comfortably straddle the corporate and the writing worlds.

What does writing mean to you... what kind of discipline do you maintain as a writer?

Writing is a delectable combination of discipline and indiscipline. In the formative stages of a novel, it is hard to predict when the story would attain complete shape. The only discipline I maintain is noting down the ideas as they strike me. At some time, the mysterious intimation arrives that the story is complete. Thereafter, structuring the novel and completing the act of writing it is a furiously disciplined exercise for me. However, I don't do it with any sense of regimentation; it is a labour of love.

Published on May 03, 2012

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