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Book Preview : Braham Singh chats his novel Bombay Swastika

As Chief Product Officer of a global telecommunication company, Braham Singh writes extensively on IT and telecommunications. Shifting gears, he now gives us Bombay Swastika, his first novel. He also wrote the screenplay for Emperor, a political thriller set in Malaysia and based around their May 1969 race riots. Emperor, the novel, is near completion. He recently began research on his third novel, The Little Eunuch, set in China. He divides his time between Virginia and Hong Kong.

Braham, so nice to speak to you. It's a wonderful opportunity. [The pleasure is all mine my friend, thank you.]

Q1) We were reading about your writing career, you wrote a lot about IT and tech. How come then, your first book is a historical thriller?

Braham Singh [Good Question]: Stories from the IT world bounce around in my head all the time and shall be dealt with in due course! However, this story [Bombay Swastika] has been marinating in me for decades.

I came across the events that make up Bombay Swastika while growing up and I’ve been building on this. The story firmed up some years ago when I took a sabbatical—this story about a German, Jewish refugee, who comes to Bombay to escape Nazi Germany. Then goes falls in love with a Sindhi refugee from Pakistan. So, I sat down to write, and Bombay Swastika came about. But, yes IT figures prominently in at least one other story that is festering away inside me.

Q2.) Rasa Aur Drama really likes the cover of the book. The "Swastika" symbol. Could you say something about the cover of the book? How did you come to choose that?

BS: Actually it was the easiest thing in the world. Like I mentioned, the story is about this German refugee, who flees Nazi Germany and comes to majority Hindu India. Now the girl he meets over here, wears a good luck Swastik around her neck. That the Swastik symbol was taken by the Nazis and perverted into their Swastika in no way diminishes the original good luck motif. Anyway, so we have this fellow who escapes from the Swastika only to fall in love with someone wearing the Swastik. The Swastik remains a talisman throughout the book. Hence, Bombay Swastika.

Q3.) Can you tell us something about the characters in the book ? So we have not read the book, so something like a preview for the readers?

BS: The story is essentially about a loser. Ernst, the German guy who ends up here, is not your typical, successful, expat. He is a loser, he can't get anything right. His life is a failure, his wife has left him, and he is fired from his job. He is trying to run a business and not doing too great a job. Then he meets this young woman and falls in love with her; someone who wants nothing to do with him in the beginning [or that's what he thinks.] Things just don't go right for him until something happens in his life that turns it all around and he has nothing left to lose. You see, when you have nothing left to loose is when you start making tough decisions. After that he becomes the hero but until then, he is a loser. Bombay Swastika is about him. The other characters around him are people like his engineer, Salim Ali, who is a Marxist—just a little guy from Kerala but with such a giant personality. Many people who read the book say he is actually the protagonist.

Q4.) Is there a hero in your book?

BS: Yes. Ernst, the loser. Another character who plays a strong role is Bhairavi the refugee girl, a victim of India's Partition. Or is she Bhairavi, the avenging Goddess from the Hindu pantheon? The story is as much about her as it is about Ernst.

Q5.) Would you have anyway partition in your mind?

BS: The partition is an integral part of the story and also of so many of our lives—my parents suffered badly. So, it's always there in the minds of my generation. We may not acknowledge it as fully and as openly as say, the Jews—just see how they deal with their Holocaust. For example when I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, they could identify Ernst's father [who was shot by the Nazis in Riga] within two hours. The museum could give me a complete history on that one man out of six million Jews killed. We on the other hand in India, are terrible at preserving our history and especially something we wish to forget. The Partition is something we don't want to deal with, and that’s the difference between the Jews and us. They faced their holocaust head on. We don’t want anything to do with ours.

Q6.) Theres a playwright Alan Akburn. He builds his plot backward, probably can you tell us something about your plot?

BS: Many writers do that. In any case, it’s important to first get the structure right. I always advise my students, learn how to write a movie script. That way your novel will be more concise and structured. As a part of the structure,sure you device what happens after the twist to the tale, and at the end. Then you work backward from there. Many of us do that.

Q7.) Can you tell us about some powerful pieces of writing which has interested you?

BS: Of course. You can't expect to write a book if you don't read like crazy. Only after you have read the first five hundred books should you even attempt to write. The authors who have influenced me are for example: Kiran Nagarkar. If you ever read his Cuckold you will see him for the genius he is—it's a masterpiece. I would read a chapter from Cuckold and then channel him and write my chapter. There’s a saying, Good writers steal, they don’t plagiarize. I would do the same with Graham Greene and Paul Theroux.

[He's written a biography of V.S. Naipaul—In Sir Vidhya's Shadow]

Paul Theroux's fame may stem from his travel writing, but his novels are equally fascinating. While I haven’t read much of his travel related work, I have devoured all his novels: Kowloon Tong, Hotel Honolulu, The Elephanta Suite—this novel is about India. He has a big fascination with India, by the way. Paul Theroux's mentor was V.S. Naipaul, you read him. Then we also have Indian authors I devour, like Khushwant Singh (read his Delhi—it's a masterpiece—and Train to Pakistan). Then you have another Indian writer, I can never remember his last name, the genius who wrote White Tiger: yes, Arvind Adiga. I would also urge readers to read Adam Johnson. He is a Professor of literature at Stanford University and he wrote The Orphan Master's Son—it got a Pulitzer.

[We have read Manu Jospeh's Bengal Tiger at The Baghdad Zoo] which got nominated for the Pulitzer. ]

Q8.) In two lines, what is life to author Braham Singh?

Its just stories bouncing around in my head, that's what it is; gotta get them out, put them to paper. Life is as simple as that, get those stories out of your head, put them on paper and get them out there.

Q9). We have noticed crossover influence and travel in theatre and writing. Can you comment?

BS: Travel helps in opening your mind. You see the difference between children whose parents are expatriates—who travel—and the children who stay in one place; you can see the difference. It's not that the well-travelled child is more intelligent. Just that he or she tends to be more open minded. Having lived in say, Zimbabwe and Singapore, the child learns how to deal with different cultures. Travel is easily the most important thing in the shaping of your mind.

We will read the book now. Thanks for chatting with Rasa Aur Drama.

[Braham Singh adds, that he has seen the play Ghasiram Kotwal 8 times in Berlin.]

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